It’s hard to imagine that Tom Hanks still has lessons to learn on a movie set. But that’s just what the two-time Oscar winner found in his first experience with director Paul Greengrass, on the ripped-from-the-headlines “Captain Phillips.”
“In some ways, it’s the antithesis of how most movies are made because movies are like storyboards of very specific shots and very specific cinematography,” Hanks says of Greengrass’ way of working. “Paul is a documentarian at heart — he has a name for it, something like ‘the subjective camera’; I just call it ‘environmental filmmaking.’ ”
On a Greengrass set, there are no marks to hit, no trying to find a light. Scenes are often shot from start to finish in long takes, rather than breaking them up into pieces, with multiple handheld cameras providing simultaneous coverage.
Deep research and extensive rehearsal provide the basis for improvisations the director hones and hones, always with an eye for authenticity.
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“I actually asked Matt Damon (who has worked with Greengrass on three films), ‘What’s the scoop?’ and he explained it to me, and I couldn’t quite understand it,” says the Bay Area native, as hale and engaging as one would expect in this Four Seasons suite. “But it came out exactly as he described it.”
Hanks calls it “environmental filmmaking” in part because of the technique’s immersive effect, and in part because Greengrass shoots in locations as authentic as possible.
In the case of “Captain Phillips” (which opens in theaters Friday), that often meant being on the open sea, aboard a massive cargo ship exactly like the Maersk Alabama, whose famous hijacking is the story’s subject, and aboard a Navy destroyer of the same class as the one that answered the Alabama’s distress call.
It also meant shooting in the ultra-cramped — and smelly — quarters of the enclosed lifeboat on which pirates held the Alabama’s captain, Richard Phillips, during a desperate run for the Somali coastline in April 2009.
Says Hanks of the real Phillips, “His sense of responsibility was, look, he’s the captain. This is what he has to do. No one else is going to be able to do it. And he had a world of knowledge about the (Alabama) that gave him a definitive advantage over these really scary guys. Once it was determined they weren’t going to execute anybody off the bat, which was a real possibility, then it became a bit of a battle of wits and wills.”
Much of the film is the cat-and-mouse game Phillips and his crew played with the four armed young men who had boarded the Alabama. The captive captain tried to lead the pirates anywhere but where he knew his crew was hiding.
“He wouldn’t say he did anything brave,” says Hanks. “I don’t think he was quote-unquote ‘afraid,’ because he had been afraid other times. He said he had been in a hurricane in the middle of the Pacific, and that was sheer, stark terror because he had no control over what nature might do to the ship. Here, he was dealing with people and he has pretty good people skills.
“That being said, he thought one guy was going to shoot him for no reason at some point, on the lifeboat.”
Hanks met with Phillips, but inquired little about the incident itself.
“I know that sometimes that can lead you down the wrong path. You sort of ask questions to bolster your own preconceived notions of what it must have been like for him,” says the actor, whose portrayals of real people include astronaut Jim Lovell in “Apollo 13” and Walt Disney in “Saving Mr. Banks,” scheduled for a December release.
He says what really struck him about Phillips was “how accomplished the captain of a thing like the Maersk Alabama has to be. That utilization of all of his expertise is fascinating, because it becomes the superstructure, the texture of the guy even before he has to deal with anybody with a machine gun.
“I asked, ‘What would you do if you have two or three real knuckleheads on your crew?’ He said, ‘I’d thank my lucky stars there’s only two or three.’ ”
Greengrass has stated the film’s themes include the effects of globalization on individuals — in this case, former fishermen driven to piracy by industrial overfishing of their coastline. But rather than lecturing, “Captain Phillips” hurls the viewer into scenes of escalating tension.
“I think the biggest responsibility we have is to not alter the motivations just for an editorial purpose,” says Hanks.
“A lot of times you hear, ‘This movie is based on a true story,’ and what you’re getting is some sort of declaration or lesson or message a filmmaker is trying to communicate. The bad guys become generic, or the actions the people undertake end up having different motivations behind them that really did not exist.
“You’ve gotta try to find out what really happened and hew as close to that truth as you can, knowing you will have to condense, parse out some things, move them around. But even that puts the chaos of an indifferent universe into the order of a three-act story structure.”
Thus, where dramatic license drifted too far afield of, say, Navy procedure, scenes were reconceived on the fly. This included perhaps the film’s most powerful moment, in which a key written scene was dumped in favor of a more accurate, improvised exchange with actual corpsmen.