Everything about the story in Paul Greengrass' "Captain Phillips" is tragic. It's tragic that Capt. Richard Phillips was taken as a hostage from his cargo ship by Somali pirates. It's tragic that Somalia is in such a state that this kind of thing happens on a semi-regular basis. The only thing that's not tragic is that Phillips survived his ordeal. Greengrass said that was his challenge: To present a story where there are no true villains, just villainous circumstances that result in villainous actions.
"Captain Phillips" stars Tom Hanks in the title role of this true story as the cargo ship captain who gets kidnapped by Somali pirates. What follows is a prolonged hostage situation and an eventual showdown with the United States Navy -- one the pirates were destined to lose.
When talking to Greengrass about the film, he is delightfully polite -- so much so that it's really hard to imagine the higher-pitched tone of his English accent barking orders to Jason Bourne (Greengrass directed Matt Damon in the second and third Bourne films). It's obvious, though, that Greengrass has really thought through what he has achieved with "Captain Phillips." But, what's interesting, is that if you take him by his word here, he had no idea how "Phillips" would turn out, nor what kind of message it was intended to deliver. Here, Greengrass explains his process for telling such a dramatic true story without veering into predictable tropes about U.S. foreign policy. Greengrass also reveals why he dropped out of Aaron Sorkin's "Chicago 7" movie about Abbie Hoffman and the riots surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention.
When Greengrass and I spoke recently, he was in great spirits (as well he should be after the success of the "Captain Phillips" premiere at New York Film Festival) that his playful mood led to a discussion of the 2012 box office bomb "Battleship," of all things.
I keep seeing something that I wrote quoted when the commercials for "Captain Phillips" are on television.
Oh, really? Aw, well, I'm sorry if you didn't want to be used, but it has nothing to do with me [laughs].
Oh, I really like "Captain Phillips." Though it is weird when a nice word is used in a commercial for a movie I don't like.
Like when you see yourself in the middle of a "Battleship" promo saying "Extraordinary!" And you know you wrote "Extraordinarily bad." Is that what you mean?
I have to admit that I'm one of the weirdos who liked "Battleship."
It had a fantastic concept, didn't it?
It's very over the top.
It's kind of like a '50s monster movie.
For the record, I would not have said "Extraordinary" when describing "Battleship."
[Laughs] Oh, dear.
I have friends who ask about "Captain Phillips" who think they know the story, but I feel people just know some of this story. A lot of things happen in this movie that I didn't know about.
I think that is exactly what happened with me. When they said, "We have this project, are you interested?" I kind of went, "I sort of vaguely know. Is that when the guy got taken and rescued?" But, funnily enough, when I read Billy Ray's screenplay, all of the twists and turns -- it's the details. The point is that you don't -- I don't think -- read books and watch movies -- it's not about what happens at the end. That's not the point, it's the journey. It's the detail. It's the humanity ... and it's incredibly enthralling, I hope.
I would say it is.
Put it the other way: if we only went to movies for what happened at the end, it suggests a flatter movie landscape. That said, of course people know what happens at the end.
We knew by the end of "Battleship" a battleship would be sunk.
[Laughs] I'm not sure I want to pursue the "Battleship" theme.
I promise that's the last time it will be mentioned.
[Laughs] I'm joking. Though, I don't think Sony will like it.
Exactly! Exactly. Both of which studios I have excellent relations.
There have been a few movies about Somali pirates of late like "A Hijacking." Are filmmakers realizing there's a story to be told about why this is happening?
I haven't seen Tobias Lindholm's movie, but I really, really want to. And the only reason I haven't seen it is because, obviously, I've been in the middle of my own and I wanted to be done with mine before I watched his. Listen, I'm not surprised. I think, particularly with Tobias, he's got similar sensibilities to me.
Is it a sense that the pirates aren't just "evil" and there are reasons it's happening?
I think it's that, but I don't think it's just that. I think it's something about the collision between sort of armed, desperate, organized piracy and commercial ship-born trade -- and what happens, the interplay. What you've got in play, there [are] all of the elements of our world. And all of them, in a sense, bear on the world that's fast emerging -- which is the world of globalized economy ... But one more thing that was interesting to me about this is that there's a sort of limit to their reach. it's not like the Second World War where they're accompanying every convoy, do you know what I mean? It makes you realize the limits of power.
One of the things I was quite pleased about in the film and I hope it comes through: Of course modern piracy in that part of the world began as a response to overfishing and toxic dumping. But, very, very quickly, that got superseded by essentially organized crime.
You did a great job of humanizing the pirates. How difficult was it to present the "green, green, green" scene where they meet their fate and it's not seen as glorification? The one we all know is coming?
Well, what I wanted -- what I went for -- it's always the thing with films: There are two things that are happening almost simultaneously. One is that you don't know what you're going to get -- that the territory of making the film will reveal colors and meanings that you can't entirely predict. And that makes the film an interesting journey. In other words: For me, this stark, simple story of four armed desperate young men from Somalia attacking an unarmed container ship ... felt to me so stark, so violent, that in the end I thought, If I can render this with as much authenticity and simplicity as I can, it will tell us something about our larger landscape. And what it tells us is going to be complex and somewhat contradictory. Do you know what I mean?
Because if you start off by saying in a heavy-handed way, "I want this story to tell us X," you're sort of in the wrong frame of mind. I felt that with "United 93," you've got to select a story in a way that you instinctively feel when you've looked at it that it contains complex layers of meaning. Then you've got to journey with an open mind and an open heart to try and find them -- and they will reveal themselves. So what I think you'll find down the back of this film is that your sympathies shift in the film -- and shift ever more quickly as your understanding of the characters deepens.
Tom Hanks as Phillips is never unsympathetic, though.
Although you're always clear that Phillips is an innocent man -- I mean, he's Tom Hanks -- but in terms of the structure of the film, it's rightly going to give you front and center "an innocent man and will he survive." But your "bad guys" are not, hopefully, rendered in some sort of stereotypical way. You understand that they're all sort of trapped in larger forces. Including, incidentally, I hope you feel that way toward the Navy guys. And, incidentally, nobody wants anybody to die. That's the point. The pirates don't want anybody to die; they just want the money.
You recently pulled out of "Chicago 7." A few people have been attached but it hasn't worked out. Why does this keep happening?
I'll tell you why. Well, Dreamworks asked me in the summer and I really would love to work with Steven Spielberg ... and Aaron Sorkin had written a great screenplay. But, I felt that there have been other versions of that serial done. It's from "Chicago 10," what it's based on, which is part animation. And I felt when I watched the animation -- that was really the true reason, to be honest. And I thought it was a really good film. I felt that it was left sort of challenged, for me, to kind of redo something that had already been animated.
Then there was the whole issue of -- which is sort of another related problem -- that film essentially tells the story with animation, then a huge and beautifully compiled series of archived material that sort of takes you through the four days of the Chicago demonstrations that lead into the riot and that final night. That archive material is magnificent and when I looked into how in today's cinema economics, for a film that's not going to find a wide audience -- it's essentially a niche film; a very interesting niche film -- how are you going to render the scale of that event? You find that you can get yourself into a place where you really want to do a film, but you can't really be confident that you can do it comfortably within a budget. You know, that you're all comfortable with -- it's not like you're on an opposite side; you're actually on the same side. But you kind of look at it and you go, actually, given the sort of filmmaker I am, I don't think this is going to work.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.