NY Film Festival: Tom Hanks Talks Captain Phillips

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Less a roaring riptide thriller than ripped from the Hollywood rulebook of the one side to every story selling of history to movie audiences, director Paul Greengrass’ high seas piracy biopic Captain Phillips succeeds in fleshing out the ordeal of the real life commander in question when his shipping vessel is hijacked by Somali pirates, but little else.

For instance, the present day origins of hijacking linked to European and Asian nations illegally stripping the waters off off the coast of a destabilized Somalia of fish in the 1990s, depleting the impoverished nation of a major source of income and indeed, source of human survival there. In addition to the more recent dumping of waste in those waters by these nations, in particular toxic radioactive waste tossed there and further polluting the coast and endangering lives.

But no matter which side of the debate you’re on, a far more through and balanced view of high seas piracy is to be found instead in the Thymaya Payne documentary released earlier this year, Stolen Seas. And in which Payne burrows into all sides of the issues surrounding high seas piracy, as he embeds with Somali pirates in this documentary. And with his much more than meets the eye pursuit of raw unfiltered truth, Payne navigates not just those turbulent waters, but how piracy has been impacted by the legacy of colonialism, imperialism and rebellion, along with the military hardware industry profiteering that kicks in.

Tom Hanks met to talk about his turn as the terrified captain in question, and the challenges of filling the shoes of a real person. Especially under perpetually claustrophobic circumstances, exacerbated by the dual confining circumstances of a seized ship and surrounding ocean waters.

TOM HANKS: Go ahead. And you don’t have to shout, I can hear you!

Okay. I’d like to begin by thanking the makers of Xanax! Whew, what a terrifying film. Now about that final five minutes, tell all.

TH: Who me? I was loading for bear. You know, I ready to go. I have a lot of background in that, you know! But just to give it a shot, was for me so liberating.

Tom, when did it actually click, where you felt you had the real essence of this man, Rich Phillips?

TH: You have to load up with an awful lot of facts, quite frankly. You’ve got to read, and you’ve got to look at videos.

And you’ve got to listen to stuff. But there’s always like some sort of detail that makes the final tumbler lock into place.

And I saw Rich on a couple of occasions. But you don’t want to be an idiot. You know, you don’t want to ask him, what were you feeling.

And, what was it like. Are you a hero? You don’t ask questions like most journalists do, when the time comes!

Huh?

TH: You think that’s a cheap shot? Well listen, be on my end one of these days! And you’ll see how it goes.

People will say to me, you keep giving the same answers. Well you know, they all have the same questions!

But his wife Andrea said something to me that was quite interesting. I asked her, do you ever visit Richard on the ships.

And she said, I used to. But it’s no fun. Because Rich is a completely different human being when he’s on board, when he’s on the job.

Rich is very easy going. I would even describe him as always happy-go-lucky and funny. But on board the ship, it is just always serious.

You know, there’s always serious work, that he is the captain. And that was the tumbler for me. So I don’t know what it was.

But like all the 52 cards just became a bit of a shuffle. And I felt as though I knew what to do every time Paul presented something.

What about not getting freaked out shooting those scenes in the middle of the ocean?

TH: I’ve played three real people this year, I’ve gotta get out of this racket! It’s killing me, it’s just killing me

But there was one day where we were actually getting shots, in the lifeboat. And on the actual water, in Malta.

Like on a speedboat. So I’d have to say, well they put us on a speedboat in the middle of an ocean!

And everybody who was not an actor in the lifeboat…ended up vomiting! Uh, first one guy disappeared, and then the sound mixer disappeared.

He was just in the back. You know, holding his stuff, and he made a rush to it!

But we sorta just got to sit down. And close our eyes! And it was terrible. But it’s really like an amusement park ride.

You know, it looks much worse than it is. But when you’re on the open seas and you drop ten or twelve feet, your stomach goes up around your neck! That’s when you have problems!

So how did you handle all that stuff?

TH: I’ll tell you this story. It’s really, it was a moment for me like I’ve never had in any other film. And it’s not on the page at all.

We actually shot the screenplay out towards Phillips’ perspective. And that was not meant to be the last scene in the film.

But we had a scene that was sort of like what happened there. And it was okay, it worked fine. And we were on schedule.

But we had the actual captain of the Bainbridge with us when we were shooting. And we said, well what did you do with Phillips when you first got him on board.

And the captain said, well he was a mess. So first thing we did, we took him to the infirmary. You know, to get him cleaned up.

And Paul was like, how come we don’t have an infirmary! So that was not part of it, that was not part of the schedule.

But we went down there, and we had the actual crew of the ship that we were shooting on. And Paul was like, well what would you do with someone like that.

And they said, well we’d lay him down here, and we’d do this, and this, and this. And Paul said, should we give it a try.

And they were like, well give us a couple of minutes to put up some lights. And we shot it, I don’t know, four or five times, I guess.

And really to me, what was extraordinary about it, is Paul’s willingness to see that as a possibility. You know, let’s shoot it. You were here. Let’s give it a shot.

And there’s a lot of motion pictures, where you don’t room in the schedule to do that. Nor do you have the sensibility to try and see what’s cooking.

But the other side of it too, is that we literally had the people, the crew of the infirmary. You know, they didn’t know they were going to be in a movie that day!

And they thought they might be just extras, walking around in the background. But here they are, boom.

And the cameras are going to be on them. And this goes back to that behavior and procedure aspect.

You know, there is a procedure that you can be very confident in. And there is behavior that if you’re lucky, you can recreate.

And we did the first take, I remember, completely falling apart. Because these people had never been in a movie before.

So they could not get past the horrible self-consciousness, of everything that was going on around them. But we just stopped.

And Paul said, don’t worry about it. You know, you can’t do anything wrong. It’s not a test! And if it doesn’t work, we won’t use it.

So let’s just try it again, and see what happens. And at that point, those people were really quite amazing. Particularly the woman.

I don’t know what rank she was. Lieutenant, commander, admiral of a fleet, I don’t know what she was! But they just ran through what it is.

And we did it five or six times. And all I can say, is that it worked.

And it took about an hour. And their ability, everybody was up for it. So it really made it work.

What is it like to be responsible in a movie, to a real life character?

TH: I read his book, actually prior to reading the screenplay. And I did get together with him on two occasions.

And I explained to him, you know, I will say things that you never said. And I will be places you never were.

But if we do this right thematically, we will be spot on. You know, with the nature of what happened to him, and how.

This is a very environmental movie. And shooting it on board to an identical ship, more or less to the Alabama. And in very small confines.

So I think the task in folding ourselves into Paul’s good hands, is always to be true to the motivations. You know, of everybody who is involved.

And for the sake of storytelling, if you start playing, you start manufacturing moments that were truly not part of those five or six days.

Well, then I think you can get into trouble. And I could have probably walked through this and said, okay.

You know, that’s a moment that didn’t happen exactly this way. But thematically, it is what happened.

And that’s tricky. And it can get away from you. But we were always searching for a combination of procedure and behavior.

And you know, that was going to be not just reminiscent, but very reflective of what really happened. And that’s tough, if you’re telling nonfiction entertainment.

Captain Phillips is a feature of the NY Film Festival 2013. More information is online at: Filmlinc.com.

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.