Interview: Captain Phillips' Paul Greengrass


Oscar-nominated director Paul Greengrass tells David Fear why he needed to make Captain Phillips, a thriller based on the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking

You could give the true story of Captain Phillips, of a 2009 hijacking on the open waters, to virtually any filmmaker, and he or she could deliver a fast-paced story filled with suspense, heroism and examples of the resilience of the human spirit. Put British director Paul Greengrass at the helm of a screen adaptation of this torn-from-the-headlines tale, however, and what you get is Captain Phillips – a you-are-there docudrama that has the relentless pacing of a thriller, the attention to detail of a procedural, and the ability to pull back and look at the big picture of what caused the incident in the first place. (You can throw in an emotionally resonant, effectively restrained performance from Tom Hanks for good measure.) As with his breakthrough movie, Bloody Sunday (2002), and the award-winning United 93 (2006), the director uses the re-creation of a real-life incident as a starting point for something much deeper than a disaster movie. 

I’m guessing you were approached to do this project because of how you’ve approached real-life events before? There’s an immediacy to your films that suits these kinds of subjects, wouldn’t you say?Sure, I’ve often wondered if I’m thought of in the industry as the guy who does nothing but true-life tales of tragedy. I try to choose projects very carefully, and obviously, the Bourne films aren’t based on real stories; even Green Zone, which comes from a nonfiction book, is a fictional story. But that said, am I drawn to these types of stories? Am I comfortable making movies in a very immediate, urgent way? Yeah, I am. I’m sure they had that in mind when I was offered the project.

There seems to be a real sense of trying to combine journalism with a notion of exploration in your real-event films. 
That’s the hope, at least. There was definitely a sense of discovery behind me signing on to do this movie. It’s a fairly simple event, when you look at it from a certain angle: four young men attack a ship with 25 men on it, and end up on a lifeboat with a hostage, being trailed by the US Navy. It’s outlandish, it’s dramatic and it’s intense, but ultimately, it’s a very basic story. But when I thought about it, I kept asking myself, ‘does this situation have a bigger meaning to it? Is this really about more than just four men and a container ship?’ I wanted to know the answer to that.

[Laughs] Yes, it is about more than that! To me, it’s still the story of a man trying to survive against incredible odds. But it’s also about the effects of globalisation. Both Richard Phillips and [the pirate] Muse are at the mercy of powers much greater than them, and are forced into this situation. I’m not saying that what the Somali pirates did was right, but it’s part of a much larger picture. I could see there was something larger in Phillips’s tale, and that if I explored it fragment by fragment, I might be able to see a bigger landscape while still making a mainstream thriller. It was a leap of faith.

Where did you find the Somali actors?
We looked throughout Europe and the UK; in the US, we went to Columbus, Ohio, and Minneapolis – there are vibrant Somali communities, the latter in particular. There were open casting calls, and 800 people showed up to the first one. The quartet we ended up casting actually showed up as a foursome; they all knew each other and were friends. If you look at what they’ve been through… Barkhad Abdi, who plays Muse, his life was torn apart by the civil war and he finds himself living in Minneapolis as a 14-year-old. He not only adjusts to living in a diaspora, he becomes immersed in art and music and life in America. He talks about how he could have gone a very wrong way, but made a conscious decision not to go down a bad path. All of those actors had stories like that.

No one ever sentimentalises the pirates, though.
It was never about ‘those poor pirates, they had to resort to this to make ends meet’. They made a choice. They’re still caught up in machinations that are beyond their control, but they picked up guns and boarded that ship. At the same time, you can’t ignore the environment they exist in. But Muse chooses to keep going. Those four men have to live with their decision. Again, that was something we wanted to explore here. We did not want sketches of people. We wanted real people up there on that screen.

Captain Phillips opens Thu Oct 10.


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