Interview by Roger Durling with Director Paul Greengrass
Durling: I hope you all got a chance to catch your breath. Please welcome Academy Award-nominated director Paul Greengrass.
Greengrass: Thank you so much for coming out on a Sunday.
Durling: Please and thank you so much. It’s an honor to have you here.
Greengrass: It is such an honor to be here. I was a student when I first came to Santa Barbara. I was driving with friends up the coast to Seattle in 1974. We had never been to Santa Barbara, so we pulled off the road. We wanted something historic to happen to us to associate with the town, but it’s actually not a good story. Ah, anyway I am excited to be back in Santa Barbara.
Durling: Well, Paul, in terms of storytelling and directing in this film, you keep an incredible balance between the global issues and a human story, of both Captain Phillips and Musa. Would you talk about that balance between this big global scope and the economical feature, and this very human face that you’ve given the two characters?
Greengrass: Well, I think it probably had to do with my training, my background. I had been in the military. I was a young man; I was with a wonderful Turkish company where you were basically kicked out and told to go make a film wherever it was happening in the world. It was a wonderful education. And it taught me that the world out there is full of incredible stories. These days, if you can find a story that’s incredibly dramatic with wonderful characters and with clear themes . . . if you get that, and honestly and truthfully, if you are lucky enough have the magnificent Tom Hanks in your movie . . . I would say young folks need to get it out of way. That’s the way to do it, that’s the secret of filmmaking, to get a lot of people and get it out of the way. It’s a lot of work, but you’ve always got to be led by the human story. That’s the essence of it, if you get the human story right. You get to walk in the shoes of the central character and wherever possible try to understand what it felt like to be that character, what his options were in that moment–trying to see how hard it was, framing up their options and trying to achieve them. On the other hand, you make the world that they live in realistic, you know? I think that I’ve done my job with many different films. And I love comedies, I love romantic films, I love fantasy films, but I think cinema can also take on the world to show you a little bit of what’s going on. That’s part of the wonderful diversity of cinema. And this is one of those films. You’ve got to try and make it feel real. If it feels real, if the bad guys aren’t just mustache-twirling villains, then you actually understand how dangerous they are. You know, there’s nothing more dangerous than a group of young men with guns with nothing to lose. Those are the most dangerous people in the world. So that’s the answer, keep as close as you can to the story and try to remake their world as realistically as you can, and then the other pieces sort of look out for themselves.
Durling: You keep referring to the term “realistic.” You do have a documentary background, and this film is shot in documentary style–handheld camera, natural lighting, the camera chasing the action as opposed to anticipating the action. When did you decide that this was the right approach, and why did you make that decision to tell the story?
Greengrass: When I was starting in Oxford, I was trying to keep in the British documentary tradition, which is a very distinctive tradition. We were taught to observe. That was drilled into us at a very young age, and it’s a different tradition of filmmaking verses classical storytelling traditions. But I always had this desire to make movies. That was my dream when I was a teenager. So when I was around thirty, I had sort of moved out of documentary and started doing dramas. I had to relearn in reverse, because you have to pay your dues. I would say to a young filmmaker you have to pay your dues. It’s the same in any walk of life–you have to learn your craft. But when I got to my early forties, I started to become frustrated because I felt like I was wearing somebody else’s clothes, that I was not being authentic to me. I was using a visual method that was correct, and it wasn’t authentic to me. It took me some years. Now that I look back on it, I went through a sort of a little bit of a crisis really. Struggle would be another way to say it. It felt like what was at stake was what was I going to do. I had to find it in my own way to make films using the images that I originally grew up with. I started shooting from those images but married them to movies. I felt released in that way, because I knew I was able to find my voice. You know, when I talk to younger people in film school I say the most important thing, the hardest thing, is to find your own voice. Some are geniuses and just have it, but most of us find our voices through grief, by trial and error, and by making films that work a bit, but maybe not so much. Slowly you have to find out what song you are going to sing. What are the stories that only you can tell—but that aren’t truly yours. And then the style naturally emerges from most choices, and when people say, “I don’t understand it,” you pay the price for a distinctive point of view. You pay a price and that price is that some people may not go with you. If you make highly abstract pieces, people may not necessarily go with you. If you make very kinetic pieces, people may not come all the way with you. To me, if you’re in a skiff on a high ocean swell, the images are going to be disruptive. They have to be, unless you’re going to do it in a studio and not be authentic to the experience. And so since I decided I was going to try to be authentic to the experience, I tried to make the story as accessible as I possibly could on a human level. Because accessibility makes it storytelling, and then you convey anything else with an authenticity that suits yourself. That’s an absolute.
Durling: In the first act of the film, you go to extremes to balance both sides–the world of Captain Phillips and also the world of Musa. Can you talk about making the choice of showing us both of their worlds at equal times?
Greengrass: Well, it always felt to me that at its heart this story was always a collision of two captains from two very different worlds. I wanted the young man from Somalia to be authentic but never to be sentimentalized or simplified for the masses. This kind of activity isn’t actually organized crime. The young men who go out and take the ships are only the end of a long chain that reaches back into Europe and in some places the United States. In the Gulf this type of activity is hugely looped into international crime. In the 20s it would be on the docks of the major cities. In the 19th century it was the railroads. In the 18th century it was in Europe with the stagecoaches. Wherever you have wealth, you will have criminal bandits trying to attack it. This is what was interesting to me about this story. Today these ship routes carry the world’s trade, and all of our markets depend on it. It’s something very close to me. My father was a merchant. He was in the navy and then the merchant navy. He was at sea all his life. I know what these people are like. It’s a hard-working world and these are honest men–and some women now, but not in the old days. It’s a calling and a hard life, and all of our lives depend on it through the great dangers they face–weather, fire, and today it is pirates. That was to me what made it a personal story.
Durling: The movie opens in a very expansive world, and as the movie progresses we go into this claustrophobic descent. The last shot is just the eyes of Tom Hanks. There’s a gradual journey from this expansion to claustrophobia. Can you tell us about this storytelling journey?
Greengrass: I remember when Tom and I started, he said, “What is this film about?” What it is about is are we going to be OK. Because I think most families have discussions like this these days. The world is consuming and it’s swiftly changing in front of us. The changes are very frightening. There are great dangers and complexities in our world. Sometimes it is very hard to keep your balance when you are facing all that. I figure sometimes I feel a slight sense of desperation that the world is sort of heating up in a bad way. Even politicians–it must be so hard for them, from whatever party, to try to keep their minds on hope for the people. That question, is it going to be OK, is really the heart of the story. Tom manages to take you on that journey through this intense and dramatic and violent journey. But he gets out of it, he gets home, he is safe. You find this tremendous feeling of resolution and humanity as he processes the experience when he hears that he is OK. That is very inspiring in a way and hopefully it was a very edge-of-your-seat experience.
Durling: 75% of this film was shot in open seas. That must have been quite a harrowing experience. Why did you choose to shoot in open seas?
Greengrass: First of all I always thought it would be a failure because no director of sane mind decides to shoot on open water. But I felt it was the only way to be authentic to this story. The second point is that I wanted to explore what Captain Phillips’s world was. That was an important part of it for me. Next week he is going to see the film and I’m sure he’ll tell me everything that is wrong with it. It was incredibly hard work. It was the most intense and arduous film I have ever shot from a physical point of view. I think we all loved it because you did have that sense of the wind on your back and the sun on your face and you were working on the ocean. I remember the first day we shot in the lifeboat out on the ocean. It was truly, truly brutal. It was a very, very small space and the seats are literally on the floor so you are sort of sitting on your haunches. The windows are sort of this high and there are very few of them. The motion is intense and pitching you in every direction. So we had Tom in there, four pirates, the focus puller, and Chris my AD. There wasn’t room for me so we had this small camera right on the floor. This actually is a true story. We started shooting and it wasn’t going very well. When it’s not going well you get antsy. I whispered, “What’s going on?” Chris says something is wrong. I say “I don’t care. Just keep shooting.” Chris then says “I think the focus puller just threw up all over Tom.” Tom is just sitting there saying to just keep going. So we kept shooting more. It was hard work.
Durling: The way you shoot things and the way you stage things, the camera seems to be trailing, looking for the action. How was that? Do the actors just roam around and you just follow them?
Greengrass: I think it goes back to what I was describing in the beginning. The tradition of documentary realism is a camera that does not know what is about to happen. That’s the essence of it. Reality unfolds in front of you and your job is to observe. Classical movie making is a very knowing camera. Here comes the actor, he’s going to come through that door, and we are going to track him. Now he is going to sit in that seat, and then he’s going to pick up that cup. And that was the struggle I had. I began by being very comfortable because that was where I was schooled and what felt most natural to me. You should not have time to put lights out. You have to shoot and capture images. You try to marry those two traditions in a way that gives the audience a clarity so that each shot is capturing a moment that will help you move on to the next part and the next. That’s where it sort of falls with the instinct and experience. You are capturing each piece knowing that each one of those pieces fits together into something that feels like hope in an unfolding present tense. Of course it’s a conceit of moviemaking, but you try to view your actors and your crew and yourself with the sensation that life is a series of encounters that occur in the urgent present tense. You may have goals that you want to achieve but you don’t know at the present. The process of making a film is to capture that.
Durling: I am curious to find out about how the actors feel about this technique. Is it liberating to them, is it scary?
Greengrass: I hope so. I think it is a bit scary for them but I think it’s also liberating. It’s funny. When I started this film, I was a bit tense in the first day or two. We were shooting something before Tom leaves the house in the morning, and after a couple days I spoke to Chris Reynolds, a wonderful editor, and I said, “I am feeling terrible. What do you think Chris? I just feel like we are approaching this in a very boring way.” There was a pause and he said, “I just thought it was a choice.” OK, so now I know it’s boring. So I came in the next day and said can we get that out of there. After we began shooting again, Tom came up to me and said, “That’s much better. I thought I wasn’t going to get the Greengrass experience.” I hope they do because that is the idea. It allows them the maximum possible freedom to create the most intensity and the most truth about their characters so you are not breaking the film up into the tiny pieces that you would otherwise. You are trying to create scenes that run together but you can play one prolonged way. Very often I’ll have two cameras and stagger hot loads on them so the actor can run for long periods of time, camera by camera. You will have to speak to them but I think actors do find it liberating because it’s unlike what they are used to. It gives them an experience that is a little bit like theater but not. It enables them to be hyperactive really.
Durling: The casting of Musa and the Somali pirates–how did you find them, and are these trained actors?
Greengrass: I felt from the onset that it was important to get young Somali to play these parts because it wouldn’t be authentic without that. There isn’t really a Somali acting community in Los Angeles or New York. Francine Maisler was a wonderful casting director who really found them. She said, “Don’t worry. We’ll find them.” She and her team went off to Minneapolis which has a large Somali community and they had open casting sessions. I think 800 people turned up on the first day. I thought it was going to be incredibly hard to find four good Somali actors but the truth is when you go to that community, it’s an incredibly fertile and creative place filled with musicians, young actors, writers, and filmmakers. There were 800 people who showed up, and there more good actors than you could shake a stick at. It was really incredible. The other thing is that we were really trying to find 30 good candidates but those four came in as foursome and they were just incredible. Abdi had real charisma and real menace and yet he had the humanity about it. I met them and got to know them. You could tell they were really humble too to work hard. Much much later when Barkhad Abdi had done his work, I asked, “What was the one thing that got you there?” Abdi is a young man who grew up in Somalia during the middle of the civil war. His family saw tremendous violence. He was lucky enough to get out at 14, to come to the United States. He had problems adjusting. It was difficult for him, but his inner creativity came through because he realized he had been given this most precious gift to come to the United States and have a new life. He straightened himself out and began to make films and then he got this opportunity. He said, “I used to go to sleep at night and think to myself what would my life been like if I had not been lucky enough to get out of Somalia at 14? What if I had lost my family and had been all alone and living on the streets and had joined up with one of the gangs? What would have happened to me?” He said that’s the emotional place that he built this performance on–a real sense of how dark and violent places in the world are. And I think of what he’s done. He’s come all that way and given us this wonderful performance. To me it’s a wonderful story about Somalia and it’s also a wonderful story about this actor.
Durling: You had full support of the Maersk cargo ship company, the navy. You did cast Navy SEALs. And the nurse at the end of the film–the doctor is actually a real doctor? Why did you decide to go with the real thing?
Greengrass: Well it was in interesting story. It really goes to the heart of what the filmmaking process is about, which is all about teamwork and going the extra mile for the most important piece. That is also the heart of what a great actor is. Let me tell you a story. On that day which I think was one of the last days we were due to be on the US Truxtun which is the sister ship of the Bainbridge. Billy Ray who wrote the screenplay–and did a wonderful job–had written a scene which was drawn from Richard Phillips’s book. It actually was set some hours later but essentially it was the same type of scene. It was a scene with Richard Phillips–showered, changed, bandaged and in uniform. He shows up to the captain’s quarters, and he’s given a beer and a phone to call home. It was a quiet moment of reflection where the enormity of what he has been through hits him. And it was the right scene. We shot it all day and in the end, Tom did a beautiful job, but he and I knew it wasn’t quite right. For some indefinable way we couldn’t find the most truthful place. And we tried it every which way, what if you stand up, what if you sit down. If you try it every which way you begin to enter high anxiety because you know it’s there but you can’t find it. Then you hit the moment in filmmaking which is the most precious moment which occurs by happenstance. By chance on the ship that day was Captain Castellano, the captain of Bainbridge in the film. He had to visit for a few hours as his ship was in the port. He happened to be chatting away and he said, “You know I first saw him when he was in the infirmary.” He was talking about what state he had been in. So Tom and I said “Look, could we go down to the infirmary?” We had an hour before he had to get off the ship. I said “Could we go down and see it? Are you up for that Tom? Let’s give it a try.” All that is easier said than done. I said, “Well will there be any medical team there?” He said they would introduce us to the medical team. So we entered the third stage of the beauty of filmmaking which is when blind panic sets in where no one knows what they are doing. In a way it can be the best possible place to find the truth because you are acting on blind instinct for the pursuit of something that may not be there. So we race down there and Tom gets ready because you know he has to get changed. I meet the younger woman working there whom I had never met before. I went up to her and said, “Listen, do you mind if we shoot a scene? It will be just like a training exercise except that it will be Tom Hanks.” She looked at me as if I was entirely mad which at that point I was. She said, “Well I suppose so.” So I say let’s roll. We have about 30 minutes and Tom walks in and we play the scene. It was a tiny room. Barry and I got so cramped up to the left side of the table that we couldn’t even see and there was no chance to rehearse it. She became very self-conscious almost as soon as the scene began and was sitting there in front of Tom Hanks. So the first take fell apart. Tom was actually delightfully fine. We said, “Fine, let’s just go again.” But there was something different about it. When he went out to go again, I said, “Tom there is something different, it just feels entirely different.” He said, “It’s because it has to do with the smallness of the place. It’s clinical, and she’s a woman and she is being so procedural.” It’s entirely overwhelming emotionally in a way that the captain’s cabin wasn’t. And that’s the next point. When you make a film, your truest guide is the instinct of your actors. What he was sensing there in that room was the truth of this situation laid in there. And then if you are lucky enough to have an actor the caliber of Tom Hanks, you have to have the courage of an actor to walk straight through that door and with complete emotional nakedness to go to that place. I think we did four takes in all and the first one fell apart but most of it is the second take. I remember Captain Biene from the Truxtun had come down and was right inside the door by the monitor. I looked up and I could see tears coming down his face. The captain said, “I have seen a lot of trauma in my life and that is exactly what it looks like.” So what I am saying in that story is that’s the way the film that we write speaks to the film that we shoot and speaks to the film in the edit. They are all in search of the same thing. And in the end it’s all about providing the platform for a great great actor, as Tom is, but in the end he or she has to find that on their own, and when they do, it’s a great privilege. And the beauty of making films is when they take you to a place of great humanity.
Durling: Well I can say for us it was a great privilege to have you here. It’s one of the best films of the year.