How do you make a great film based on a true story that everyone knows the ending to? You have two options: one is to unearth an angle to the story that the general public doesn't already know about. The other is to make the retelling of your story so compelling that knowing the ending doesn't matter in the first place.
With "Captain Phillips," director Paul Greengrass took both routes.
"Phillips," which premiered last week at the New York Film Festival, is based on the true story of Richard Phillips, the captain of a container ship who was held hostage by Somali pirates. Though Greengrass used Phillips's book ("A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea") as source material, it was the filmmaker's months of research that helped give the movie a more three-dimensional feel. Yes, the hostage crisis, and its ensuing rescue, made headlines across the globe. But the journey Greengrass goes through on screen -- anchored by a brilliant performance from Tom Hanks -- ends up turning "Captain Phillips" into a heart-stopping ride (knowledge of the ending notwithstanding).
Greengrass spoke to Moviefone ahead of the film's Friday release date about the tricky balance of telling a true story, why Hanks's performance in the film may be one of the actor's best, and why it was so important to provide a background to Phillips's captors.
(WARNING: There are spoilers ahead, so if you're not familiar with the story, feel free to turn back now.)
This interview has been edited and condensed
Well first off, congrats on the movie; it's gotten a terrific response.
Oh, well, thank you very much.
And it got the highest praise of all: Captain Phillips himself said it was good.
He did, yep. That was very nice. It meant a lot. And his wife and his family [said good things], so that was good.
So everyone seems to be talking about Tom Hanks's performance.
In particular, what he does in the last twenty minutes of this film, with those final few scenes. But you had something different there, initially, right?
The initial scene that we had there was actually one that was in Richard's book. It was a scene set after he had a shower and cleaned up, several hours after he was set free. So he was all dressed and he had been given a clean uniform to put on, and he was accompanied up by a duty officer and shown into the captain's quarters and given a beer and given the phone to phone home. And we shot that. Tom did it really well. But I think we both felt that, sometimes you find this in filmmaking, you're sort of in the zone of the place where the scene is. You're in the ballpark but you haven't quite hit the bullseye. Because you want a scene that sums up what the experience really means. And we were guided by this thing Richard Phillips said, that he kept, actually for a few days [after the hijacking], suddenly finding himself in tears for no apparent reason, just out of nowhere.
Well we were trying to find that moment, but where it would feel most truthful and most powerful. It's what a great actor can do for you because they know where it is. And he just played it beautifully, I thought. It was an incredibly powerful moment. I know I am biased. I really think it is one of the great Tom Hanks performances.
I also wanted to discuss the film's other half: it was interesting to see you explore the pirates' background and their living conditions. Why was that important to you?
Well, I think it comes from this: I wanted the film to be authentic -- as authentic as a film could be. A movie is not journalism and it's not history. But a movie can tell truths. One of the things that it can do is make you feel what it must have been like then show you a little bit of what the characters were sort of like. The job was to present these men for what they are and were, which are desperate young men, armed to the teeth, who -- and this is the crucial bit -- have got very little to lose. You want your bad guys to have dimension. You don't want them just to be cardboard cutout bad guys. They are more dangerous and more scary if you understand how desperate they are.
When you're dealing with a true story, how do you balance what happened in real life with the liberties you have to take in order to move the film forward?
Well, that's the biggest challenge in making this film. Because it was such a complex story with so many twists and turns and so many people that occurred over five or six days. The challenge was, how do you boil it down and stay faithful? Well the answer is ... we spent three or four months on extensive research. We interviewed every single member of the Alabama crew, every single important person engaged in the rescue effort in DC and the Navy and elsewhere, people who knew the pirates and had dealings with this case... You have to start by knowing the facts -- exhaustively, in every detail. So, in other words, yes, we started with Richard's book, but Richard's book is really only his first-person account of what happened to him. But we needed to widen the lens out... Then you're engaged in the process of relentless compression, asking yourself always: "Is this compression fair to the facts?" "Are we leaving anything out?" "Are we conveying the essence of this experience?"
Does it help having done a true story before, with "United 93"?
Yeah, and I did it with "Bloody Sunday," so I've got experience handling this kind of material. I mean, I think there's a spectrum in moviemaking. On the one side it's being very faithful to the lone events, and on the other side you're taking some very broad liberties -- and by the way, there are some superb films where more liberties are taken. I am just not comfortable with that, because of my background [as a journalist], I am much more comfortable being on those [projects that are] closer to the known events. But inevitably, it's a movie -- you've got to make impressions, you've got to change certain things. But we didn't create characters that didn't exist. And we didn't wholesale create things that didn't exist. So, you know, you're trying to create an authentic picture out of a two-hour version of the story.
In the end it's of course, my account -- it's got my point of view. And what's been nice is showing it to Rich Phillips. The first thing he said to me after he [watched it] was "Man, that's a good movie. You really nailed those pirates. That's what they were like." And we showed it to Frank Castellano and a bunch of navy people who were very, very gracious and complimentary. And that means a lot when you make these films. When you show them to the people that were there, they know, of course, that it didn't exactly [happen that way]. But you can convey the essence of it.
I assume it's always nerve wracking showing a true film to the source, no matter how many true-story movies you've done in the past.
Extremely. Because you have to have the freedom to make the film that you see... It's the moment of truth when you show it to people who really played a part in the events. And you can see in the way they react whether they have that look on their face: that really was what it was like. Of course it's what you dream of, that reaction. It's a very very important moment for me, because it validates the entire [process]. You spent two years of your life doing something; you don't know want to imagine the other way around, if they hated it.
Are you thinking about those outside influences while you're working on a film based on a true story, or does that not even enter the equation until after you're finished?
I think it's alway in your mind, yeah. Because there is the overall sense of it that you've got yourself, and it's the individual perspectives of all those involved, and they're not all always necessarily the same. So you're always engaged in a conversation in your head: is this fair, is this truthful, is this real, does this feel right?
Alex Suskind is the features editor of Moviefone.