(MCT) LOS ANGELES — Aboard the USS Truxtun last spring, Tom Hanks and director Paul Greengrass were about to shoot what they hoped would be a powerful scene in their new movie, “Captain Phillips,” when a Navy captain intervened.
“He said, ‘You know that would never happen,’” Greengrass said.
It was a delicate moment in the production. Working in the claustrophobic spaces of a U.S. Navy destroyer sailing off the coast of Virginia, the cast and crew had prepared for a shot where two key characters converge. Instead, after conferring with the captain, they quickly changed their dramatic course, and Greengrass enlisted a Navy medic to improvise with Hanks.
“It was hairy,” Hanks said of shooting the emotional sequence.
The resulting depiction of shock and disorientation is one of the most memorable scenes in Hanks’ three-decade film career.
“Captain Phillips” is based on the true story of Richard Phillips, a merchant mariner who was captaining the Maersk Alabama, an American cargo ship, when Somali pirates hijacked it in 2009 and the U.S. Navy undertook a dramatic rescue. From a screenplay by Billy Ray inspired by Phillips’ memoir, Greengrass shot the logistically complex thriller on the open ocean off ports in Malta, Morocco and Virginia, with a cast of young Somali-American men appearing in their first acting roles and a flotilla of sets that included a working container ship, two Navy destroyers and an aircraft carrier.
The movie, which opens Friday, pits two captains, Hanks’ Phillips and a desperate Somali pirate named Muse (newcomer Barkhad Abdi), against each other in the unforgiving waters of the global economy. Captain Phillips is trying to deliver 17,000 metric tons of cargo to Mombasa, Kenya, including electronics, textiles, cars and food aid ultimately bound for Somalia; Muse is trying to deliver a fat ransom payment to a Somali warlord.
In the commissary on the Sony Pictures lot, Greengrass and Hanks described what the director called the “three-legged race” of making “Captain Phillips” together with their crew of 200. Greengrass, his shaggy gray hair flopping into his wire-rim glasses, was intense and weary from travel. Hanks, smartly groomed for two public screenings happening that night, was avuncular and upbeat. (“People are usually smart and nice. Are you smart and nice?” he asked a reporter.)
They’re an unlikely pair. Hanks, 57, became Hollywood’s A-list everyman by playing affable heroes — an HIV-positive attorney in “Philadelphia” (for which he won his first Oscar), a slow-witted Alabamian in “Forrest Gump” (for which he won his second), a gruff World War II Army captain in “Saving Private Ryan.” The British-born Greengrass, 58, built his career as a documentarian before turning to propulsive real-life thrillers such as the Northern Ireland-set drama “Bloody Sunday,” the 9/11 hijacking story “United 93” and the commercial spy movies of the Jason Bourne franchise.
“He’s the boss, I’m the guy,” Hanks said. “But boy, we better be making the same movie here, otherwise it’s gonna be really difficult.”
Hanks, attracted by a contemporary hero’s story, came aboard the project first, and met with Phillips early on to learn about his experiences.
“The burden of being a captain is the thing that was a surprise to me,” Hanks said. “It’s a pressure-filled job that never stops. How much fuel and how fast you’re burning it and when you’re supposed to be in Mombasa and who you’re going to have to bribe once you get into a port.”
Even four years after the hijacking, that responsibility is still weighing on Phillips; nine members of his 20-man crew are suing the shipping company for endangering them, saying Phillips ignored warnings about pirates in the area.
Greengrass joined the production later, after producers Scott Rudin, Michael De Luca and Dana Brunetti persuaded him that they wanted more than an adventure tale, he said. “Lots of films could have been made about this material,” Greengrass said. “What they wanted was raw, authentic, complex. They didn’t want it simple.”
Somalia’s combination of extreme poverty and political instability has made it fertile ground for the criminal enterprise of piracy. In 2009, when the film takes place, Somali hijackings were on the rise, with 45 other vessels attacked that year. Since then, as shipping companies have employed armed security guards and international naval forces have arrested more than 1,000 pirates, the practice has diminished.
Greengrass wanted to portray the pirates as victims of economic pressures. An early scene where too many men vie for too few spots on a pirate skiff is deliberately reminiscent of the longshoremen crowding the docks in “On the Waterfront.”
When Hanks and Greengrass embarked on the project, they discussed the point of the movie over a series of phone calls and meetings.
“We decided it was about, ‘Are we going to be OK?’” Greengrass said. “And we wrote it down on a little piece of paper, which I’ve still got.”
Anyone who followed the news reports of Captain Phillips’ story knows the answer to that question — the captain lives and has even attended some early promotional screenings of the film.
But for Hanks, who will appear this year in the rather different role of Walt Disney in the movie “Saving Mr. Banks,” the drama was in the man himself. “Everybody knows how ‘Rigoletto’ ends, but they still go to see the interpretation of the character,” he said.
“You have to make a film without knowledge of where it ended up,” Greengrass said. “If you can create your story in an unfolding present tense … that’s where character exists.”