Paul Greengrass interview: Captain Phillips & crime stories

We talk to director Paul Greengrass about filming at sea and why Captain Phillips is a modern crime story...

Having popularised his immediate, handheld style of filmmaking in such films as United 93 and his pair of Bourne sequels, Paul Greengrass brings us Captain Phillips – a thriller based on the true story of a cargo ship hijacking in April 2009.

Greengrass directs with fleet-footed aggression, bringing a sense tension and claustrophobia to what will, for some, be a familiar story – as events spin out of control, the tension ratchets up to such a degree that, when the final credits roll, it’s like coming up for air.

Yet among the thriller elements, there’s a human drama at work here, too. Ultimately, Captain Phillips isn’t a simple siege movie, or a good-versus-evil movie, but about people desperately doing what they think is right to survive. We root for Tom Hanks’ title character from beginning to end, but crucially, we’re given an insight into his captors’ motivations, too.

We were quite excited, then, to sit with Mr Greengrass to talk not only about the perils of making a film shot on open water, but also about the hidden complexities of its story. During the screening of Captain Phillips, I absent-mindedly scribbled a note that the film reminded me of Sidney Lumet’s classic true-crime drama Dog Day Afternoon, without quite getting to the bottom of why I drew that parallel.

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But as the director explains himself, Captain Phillips is very much a story about crime and punishment for a modern age – and it’s this aspect, perhaps, that makes the film so thought-provoking as well as nail-biting.

A fantastic film – congratulations, first of all. I was just reading about your experiences of shooting at sea. It sounds nightmarish!

Actually – was it a nightmare? It was bloody hard work. You’re on the ocean, and you have all sorts of problems. The two key problems with filming on water are, it takes ages to move anything around, so if you’ve got to reset a scene with ten people in a room, that takes you X [snaps fingers] minutes to reset.

Resetting any kind of sea-borne ship or boat just takes forever. That’s the first problem: logistics. The second problem is resupplying everything. A lens – shifting it from A to B takes forever. So your unit is very isolated and difficult to supply. And it’s difficult to manipulate the physical landscape in front of you.

The third thing is, you’re at the mercy of the weather. The sea – how high the sea is, how choppy it is. The wind. Sun. You know? So those are all prodigious problems, but that said, you do get fantastic opportunities as well. It’s very atmospheric. If you can plan properly, you get a real sense of all of you pulling together. We became a real crew – that’s really true.

So I was never in doubt that this film should be shot on the ocean, and I really wanted it to be. My dad was at sea all of his life, so I wanted to spend a period of time at sea. I don’t regret it for a moment. 

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It feels as though you had a very nimble crew, just in the way the camera moves around.

Well, we didn’t have a lot of money. That’s the honest truth of it. I mean, it was a commercial film, so obviously there were resources, but it wasn’t a big budget film. We didn’t have a lot of money – we were a modestly budgeted film. And in a way, that also worked to our advantage, because we had to make bold choices, and we also had to be nimble and fleet-footed, and clear in our choices, and make them work.

I think that does reflect itself. We didn’t have much time, either. I think it looks like a big film, but we achieved that by, really, a lot of planning and resourcing some really big moments but for very little time. So in other words, if we hadn’t have got it in the short time we had, we’d have been up the creek without a paddle. But it sort of meant that it encouraged the film to be made with a ‘it’s now or never’ type of feeling.

Your style of filmmaking is well known for feeling spontaneous and of the moment, but if there was that much planning required, was it less spontaneous and more storyboarded than it looks?

I don’t storyboard like some. I mean, all directors are different. I plan meticulously – really meticulously. Sometimes I’ll board – and I did board considerable sections of this – but it’s a multi-faceted preparation, really. It’s about planning exactly what movements you’re going to make on the set, planning exactly where your crew’s going to be, and exactly how things are choreographed. And ultimately, to meticulously plan the sequence as you want to assemble it, you know?

Chris Rouse cuts all my films, and I spent a lot of time upfront thinking about what we were going to do in the cutting room – and this was before we shot it. I do believe a lot in sort of holistic filmmaking, where I’m working simultaneously with the editor and Chris Carreras, my first assistant director, so we’re looking together at the whole film. Then, the film we shoot is going to resemble the film we cut, which is important. 

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I suspect that there’s at least three ways you could have told this story off the top of my head. It could have been a hero-versus-villains type film. It could have been Under Siege, you know?

Yes. Yes, definitely. But they didn’t want that. The studio didn’t want that. They were very aware of the dangers of that upfront. And I know that’s why they asked me to do it, because they were worried it could go that way. That was a big part of why I wanted to do it.

Often, when you make a film, you look at the material itself, but then you look at the people you’ll be making it with and the people you’re making it for. You’ve got to take a look at whether we’re all going to be making the same thing here.

That was what was great about this. And I’m not just saying this – they were a really lovely studio. There are really nice people at the top there. And you get a real sense, too, that they all like each other, do you know what I mean? It’s a really strong group of executives, with a lot of trust between them.

That means that when you’re making a film there, you’re in a very safe environment, which is good. They support their filmmakers, and this is a classic case in point, where I was in no doubt from day one that they wanted this version of the story. They didn’t want the Under Siege version – they wanted the layered, more complex version. Which is riskier and more difficult to get.

But Scott Rudin and Dana Brunetti and Michael Da Luca were a big part of that too, because they were producing it. So everyone’s lined up the same way, including Tom [Hanks], so you just have to go and hunt it out. That doesn’t mean to say you get there, but it means you’re all facing down this road.

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Well, this interesting road, because there’s a third version of this film. I mean, you’ve got the Under Siege-type ‘rah-rah’ film, which I wouldn’t have wanted to make. But equally disappointing would have been the one full of liberal posturing, do you know what I mean? A film that makes excuses.

Your film doesn’t tell you what to think, does it?

Exactly, exactly. That’s what I like about the film. It’s interesting… I’ve had a wonderful reaction, but the few that haven’t liked it tend to be evenly weighted in one of those two directions. I had one guy the other day saying that it’s just a propaganda for the US navy. Then I’ve had others saying you’re way too sympathetic to the Somalis.

So it’s interesting. It’s something where you go, “no, no, we’re neither – we’re right down the middle of this.” It’s layered and complex, I think. 

I think the interesting thing about it is, if there’s a real villain in the film, it’s the situation. It’s a gift to your story, really, that the real events became more claustrophobic as the situation went on. So that naturally gives you a way of heightening the tension.

Yes. And also, what I loved about it from day one is that it’s a crime story. It’s not a story about terrorism. It’s not a post-9/11 story. I feel that I’ve done four of those in a row, that were really about the post 9/11 world. Even the two Bourne movies, they’re both popcorn movies, but that’s what they are. And United 93 and Green Zone.

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What I loved about this was that it’s a crime story. The best crime stories are always about the crime and its consequences – you know, Crime And Punishment is the classic. Where you have the crime and its consequences are the story, but considering the crime and the consequences makes you think about the society in which the crime takes place, if you see what I mean.

So you get clarity, and you get ambiguity, and you get a sort of rub between the two. I loved that in this. It’s basically about four guys who steal a ship. But it’s a contemporary crime story out in the ocean.

In the 1920s, this would have been a story of organised crime in the docks of Chicago or New York or Boston – or London for that matter. If it was in the 19th century it would have been about stealing on the railroads, because that was where the wealth moved. In the 18th century it would have been about highway men robbing stage coaches, because that was what was connecting things up – the muddy roads that linked the cities where the wealth was moving.

Today it’s the sea routes, that basically connect the world we’ve got, really. Everything in this room – and your room and my room – comes by container ship. It all comes by container ship. It’s the food we eat, the stuff we import – assembled in places where labour is cheap.

This new global economy, it’s all based on the sea routes. And so when these four kids come out and attack the ship, that’s what’s in play. And of course, they’re locked out of the global economy, so the crime illuminates that landscape.

I love that about the story, because it gives the two captains their clarity. It gives the piece its mixture of absolute moral clarity – so in other words, you always know that he’s the pirate and he’s the captain, that Hanks is the innocent guy and the young kid is the punk criminal – but somewhere the landscape of it slowly but surely becomes more ambiguous, I think, and as it becomes more ambiguous, it becomes more humane.

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Paul Greengrass, thank you very much.

Captain Phillips is out in UK cinemas on the 18th October.

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