Captain Phillips opened up the BFI London Film Festival on Wednesday night is a film that sees director Paul Greengrass team up with Oscar winner Tom Hanks.
Greengrass and Hanks were in London to promote the film and spoke about the movie at a press conference at the May Fair Hotel.
- Paul congratulations on a remarkable film. Films such as Bloody Sunday, United 93 and Captain Phillips are a series of films that turn extraordinarily tense and potentially divisive real life stories into drama and serious entertainment. What is the attraction for you for this type of tale? In addition, what drew you to this specific story?
Well, I tried doing romantic comedies but I wasn’t very good at them. I like films about what is going on out there. If you can find those stories and they are dramatic and have great characters and twists an turns, they can take you out into the world and show you some of the complexities of it. That is what it really amounts to.
- Tom, this movie sees you take on a real life tale so do you feel that there is extra pressure with a role like this? You do not only have to do justice to the story of the filmmaker but also to the truth of someone else’s life.
I think the responsibility goes hand in hand with any time you want to stand up in public and say, “Hey, I’ve got a story to tell.” There’s an advantage and a pressure that comes along with something that isn’t fiction(ish), the advantage being that if you’re smart about it, you have very little which you need to make up.
You have things you must condense and translate for the screen: you have to figure out how to take reality and turn it into something for dramatic effect. But that actually helps because you don’t have to spend a lot of time making up plot devices.
The responsibility aspect is that as long as you’re making the same film as the filmmaker and you’re going for the same empirical sense of truth, you have to eschew as closely to the truth as possible. It’s not a documentary of course.
In some of the first meetings that I had with Richard Phillips, I said ‘I am going to say things that you did not say, and I am going to do things that you did not do. But based on that let’s get as close to the DNA of the authenticity as possible.’ That is a trade off just for any other pressures and responsibilities that you have making a movie that is completely made up.
- Most films based on real events to omit certain things of take liberties with the story. What were the omissions that you made - if there were any?
Paul Greengrass: Making films based on true stories, there is a spectrum of where movies from, on the one hand, being faithful to the historical record to taking wide liberties: I don’t make judgements it is about where you are most comfortable. With this film, you have the job of boiling down a very complicated story into two hours - you are having to make a thousand decisions about where to condense and how to turn the corners.
We haven’t created characters that didn’t exist and we haven’t created great sways of story that didn’t exist. When the four pirates got on the ship that was about 7 or 8am, when Captain Phillips was put into the lifeboat that was around five or six o’clock in the afternoon: so you have got an eight or nine hour period that is, in the film, about fifteen minutes.
During that time, all of the members of the crew are acting together and several different individuals - in particular Mike Perry the engineer and Shane Murphy are moving around the ship in quite complicated ways. There are also various movements from the bridge: Fergus and the guys on the bridge are held hostage, but the pirates are making various moves with them. You have to distil that in a way that is fair.
I wanted to show that the crew were as much a part of that story as Captain Phillips - that felt like am important point to make for me. I wanted to acknowledge the particular contribution of Mike Perry and Shane Murphy. Although their movements around the ship were quite complicated, when you boil them down what was their goal? And what did they achieve?
Mike Perry did this very important thing of switching the generator off. I wanted to show that Shane Murphy was acting in command and was responsible of the welfare of his crew. He wanted to get water and supplies because he thought that they were going to be locked down there for several days. In that compression, we were very fair.
We also compressed the circumstances in which Phillips got into the lifeboat. Initially, there was a lot of discussion with the pirates about whether they should go in the open boat: there is a small open boat as well as a lifeboat. When they realised that the mechanical arm didn’t work they moved onto the lifeboat. That is a piece of information that I omitted, as it is irrelevant really.
What is important is that Phillips got into the lifeboat in order to ensure the pirates left the ship: at the point, he was double-crossed. Does it materially affect the story telling and the veracity of if? No, I don’t believe that it did. Those are two examples of the sorts of corners and compressions that you have to make - I could give you a list of others.
We spent a lot of time researching this and talking to all members of the crew and first responders and I am very comfortable about this as a fair and accurate account of this event. I would stand by the methodology that I used - same as United 93 and Bloody Sunday, and any other film of that matter from my point of view.
- Paul, what did you choose Tom Hanks for this role? And Tom how did you manage to achieve the emotional power of that final scene?
Tom Hanks: That is a secret; I am not going to give that up. I like to consider myself some brand of creative artist and professional and my job is to be able to get there when the moment comes on the day.
I will answer for Paul. I was attached to this screenplay by way of the studio route before…
Paul Greengrass: He chose me.
Tom Hanks: I said ‘I am in’, and then they said ‘we are looking for the director’. When they came to mention Paul Greengrass, I said ‘well that will be just fine and dandy’.
- This is the 57th BFI London Film Festival so I just wanted to know what you both think it is about this festival that makes it so special? And how does it feel to have your film open this festival?
Paul Greengrass: From my point of view, it is a great honour and a privilege. I love the festival. I think it is an important festival, and it is growing in importance. I think we tend to underestimate its importance.
What I think is so great about this festival - unlike other festivals - it takes place in a city where a lot of movies are made: that distinguishes it in a very powerful way. I don’t think that is said often enough. It is a major international festival in a major international film making centre, and a major domestic filmmaking centre and that gives it a great deal of vibrancy.
Tom Hanks: It will put other film festivals out of business. Venice might crumble, Deauville might go away and Toronto will become an asterisk. They are really throwing down the gauntlet at this London Film Festival.