Director's Chair: Paul Greengrass - 'Captain Phillips'
Issue: December 1, 2013

Director's Chair: Paul Greengrass - 'Captain Phillips'

HOLLYWOOD — After a long, distinguished career in documentaries that culminated in the award-winning documentary-style feature Bloody Sunday about the 1972 civil rights march in Northern Ireland, British director Paul Greengrass brought his considerable gifts to Hollywood — and much like Jason Bourne, he hasn’t stopped running since. 

First, he directed the international hit The Bourne Supremacy, which both critically and commercially out-gunned its successful predecessor, and then he won an Oscar nomination for his acclaimed and harrowing real-life 9/11 drama United 93. Now Greengrass, whose credits include the Oscar-winning The Bourne Ultimatum and Green Zone, has made Captain Phillips, a ripped-from-the-headlines emotional thriller — that also examines wider issues — about four Somali pirates who hijacked a US container ship in 2009 and then held the captain (played by Tom Hanks) hostage as they tried to negotiate a huge ransom.

Here, in an exclusive interview, Greengrass, whose credits include Omagh, The Fix and The Theory of Flight, talks about making the new film and his love of post and visual effects. 

POST: What sort of film did you set out to make? 
PAUL GREENGRASS: “I go to the movies a lot and you come out every so often and go, ‘That was great!’ And it can be any sort of movie — a comedy, a big tent-pole, a small thriller, and while it’s hard to define, we all know it when we see it, and when everything comes together and delivers you a great cinematic experience that’s both a great ride and also rewarding. So when you start any film, that’s what you hope for and dream of. And I’m very aware that nowadays you’re also competing with not just all the other movies out there, but all the other leisure choices people have. So as soon as I read this script, I felt it fit all those criteria. It’s this amazing story, a staggeringly dramatic series of events, which is both a very intense hostage movie and also an outlandish crime story. And I immediately responded to it.”

POST: It’s amazing that piracy is still alive and well.
GREENGRASS: “Yeah, it’s both an ancient story and a very modern one, as it’s about international organized crime in its modern form. In the ‘20s, it was all about knocking off the trucks coming out of the docks, and in the 19th Century it was all about robbing the railroads, and in the 18th Century it was the rutted highways and stagecoaches connecting the new cities, because that’s where the wealth was being carried. Today, it’s the sea lanes that carry the world’s goods and wealth, and these young Somali pirates with guns are just at the very end of a long chain of international organized crime. The godfathers are well away from Somalia. They’re based in Kenya and Nigeria, and ultimately the real big bosses are in Europe and even the US. And it’s a multi-billion dollar business, very brutal and very violent. It’s as far away from Pirates of the Caribbean as you can get, and that’s what I loved about it.”

POST: Do you feel an extra responsibility in making a film about real-life people? 
GREENGRASS: “Absolutely, especially as I also felt a strong connection with the story. I’m the son of a merchant mariner, and my dad was at sea all his life, a hard-working guy, so I knew this character — Captain Phillips, and what he’s up against. You can’t call the cops when you’re in the middle of the ocean, so the navy becomes the first responder, and it takes them days to get there, and so the tension begins to build. I just felt all that really lent itself to my kind of approach and storytelling.”

POST: What were the biggest challenges of making the film and how tough was the shoot?
GREENGRASS: “The first big challenge was, how do you boil down an incredibly complicated series of events, as well as developing all the characters, that take place over several days, into a two-hour narrative? And do that while staying as close as possible to the facts and truth? Obviously in a movie you have to make concessions and compromises, but I wanted to keep it as accurate as we could to the truth and the spirit of the real events. All that was the most difficult aspect of the project by far. Second, I felt that this film wouldn’t be authentic unless we found young Somalis to play the pirates, and once we’d cast them, I decided not to let them meet Tom and the rest of the crew until they stormed the ship, to make it more realistic. The third big challenge was shooting at sea with real ships, which is harder than you ever imagine.”

POST: Didn’t you get the Jim Cameron memo: Never, ever shoot at sea? 
GREENGRASS: (Laughs) “Yes, I got it the day I took this on, but I knew we had to do it or it’d look hopelessly inauthentic. And although the film looks quite big in scale, it wasn’t a very big budget. But we ended up shooting for over 60 days at sea and got great help from the US Navy. It was incredibly hard work but it was the real deal. You know you’re at sea when you watch this.”

POST: Where did you do post?
GREENGRASS: “Mostly in London. Double Negative and VFX supervisor Charlie Noble did most of the visual effects, along with some shots by Nvizible and Proof. We started in LA and [editor] Chris Rouse cut while I shot. He didn’t come on the set, but we spent a lot of time together before the shoot, going over the script and what I was going to do. Then after we wrapped, he came to London and we cut the rest there. And the first cut was very encouraging. Sometimes you get that first cut and you go, ‘Oh God!’ You know you’re going to have to re-engineer it a lot in the edit suite. But this came together very smoothly, I think because of all the prep work we’d done. Then we finished up post back in LA on the Sony lot.”

POST: Do you like the post process? 
GREENGRASS: “I love it. It’s always been my favorite part and it was really enjoyable on this film. We had a very clear picture of how we’d tell the story and pull together all the different threads. I didn’t want a linear process. We had to keep the big picture alive while also focusing on all the little details.”

POST: Your longtime editor Chris Rouse also cut the Bourne films (and won the Oscar for The Bourne Ultimatum) as well as Green Zone, Paycheck, United 93, Eight Below and the IMAX film Olympic Glory. How does that relationship work?
GREENGRASS: “We’ve worked together for so long now we understand each other really well. I’ve always felt that tempo is a key part of filmmaking, and it’s a rhythm you have inside and Chris and I share the same tempo. He’s such a laid-back guy, and so am I, but we have the same approach to film tempo. We also share a total obsession with clarity and economic storytelling. Anyone can wave a camera around and cut fast. The question is, can you do it and have prefect clarity, and vary your pace and stay in control? And I believe there’s a magical creative place where structure meets freedom, where anarchy meets order in filmmaking, and that’s where I like to put my films, because they feel most real there. The truth is, reality is messy and unformed anarchy — it just happens. Yet a story has to unfold with clarity, characters have to be delineated. And Chris is my closest collaborator as he understands all that, and he can execute that clarity with the pace I love. He’s also an artist of post. He’s not just an editor — he’s a brilliant sound designer.”

POST: There are obviously a fair number of visual effects shots in the film. How many total and how did you go about dealing with them?
GREENGRASS: “There are a few hundred, but a lot of them are small tweaks, like tidying up shots where you could see land off to one side, and cleaning up horizon shots, sorting out boat wakes, matching sky colors, wire removal and so on, mostly done by Double Negative in London. And as we shot on the sister ship of the original, we had to change all the names. But it wasn’t a huge VFX show.”

POST: What was the most difficult VFX sequence to do and why?
GREENGRASS: “Ironically in the planning stages, the big one was the actual boarding of the container ship, which everyone thought we should do with VFX and in a tank in Malta. We even built sets — the side of the ship, so we could do it in safe water. But in the end we shot it for real, and the biggest problem was how to do it while the ships were moving, and do it safely with the actors. There were immense logistical problems, but there’s no substitute for reality, so that’s what we did, and it worked.”

POST: Do you like working with visual effects?
GREENGRASS: “I do, a lot. I’ve worked with D Neg a lot on my films and I think they’re one of the best around. And I’d say that just in general, London has amazing VFX houses. There’s so much talent there and the post scene in Soho is great as it’s all so close together — a real community.”

POST: Did you do a digital intermediate on this film?
GREENGRASS: “At Company 3 in London, with colorist Rob Pizzey. We scanned all the film at 4K on ArriScan and Rob used the DaVinci Resolve. [Cinematographer] Barry Ackroyd worked very closely with Rob, and the final look is amazing, considering that this film had over 2,000 edits and they all had to be graded very carefully.”

POST: How important is music and audio for you?
GREENGRASS: “Probably half the film. We did all the post sound at De Lane Lea in London and Oliver Tarney, who did United 93 and Green Zone with me, was the supervising sound editor. Then the mixers — Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor and Mike Prestwood Smith — have all worked with me before. The soundscapes in this are very detailed and very beautiful, and it’s not till later in the film that you get much music. The first film I did where I really worked at sound was Bloody Sunday, because I wanted a bigger scale, and that’s where I started down that road of layering up reality and making it feel like you’re in this unfolding 360-degree sound universe.”

POST: Did you make the film you first envisioned?
GREENGRASS: “I did. It succeeded in doing what I wanted to do with the story, and I think the performances by Tom and the Somali kids are just exceptional.”

POST: What’s next? 
GREENGRASS: “I honestly don’t know, for the first time in a long time. I’ll try and find something very different.”