"You've got to be inside the action:" Paul Greengrass discusses filmmaking and 'Captain Phillips'

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Paul Greengrass directs actors playing pirates on the set of 'Captain Phillips.'
Photo by Jasin Boland

Paul Greengrass' latest action film, Captain Phillips, stars Tom Hanks as an American cargo-ship captain taken hostage by Somali pirates. This based-on-true-events tale also stars newcomer Barkhad Abdi as pirate leader Muse. It opens tomorrow — but today, read on for more intel from my recent interview with Greengrass when he stopped by San Francisco to promote the film.

(Note: this interview was conducted as part of a "roundtable" that featured other journalists.)

Paul Greengrass, who is known for his use of handheld camera (or "shaky cam") in films like 2004's The Bourne Supremacy, 2007's The Bourne Ultimatum, and 2006's Flight 93, discusses handheld cameras, which leads into an overview of his own philosophy of filmmaking — and praise for Hanks' towering lead performance.

"If you try and make films in an authentic way — if you're on a ship, ships rock around. And they're small spaces. If you've ever been on a lifeboat, Jesus Christ. I mean, it's like the worst Disney ride you could possibly imagine. So how do you shoot on a lifeboat, and keep it steady? It's impossible. It's not like I'm sitting there, going like that [mimes shaking a camera]. In fact, all of the time, I'm saying, 'Keep it steady!'

If you want to be in a real space, and you want the images that you're capturing to authentically arise out of the environment you're shooting in — so, if you're running it's going to feel like what it feels to run. If you're in a lifeboat, it's gonna feel like you're [at sea]. It's a fundamental tenant of cinematic simplicity. I think shaky-cam is ineffective when [filmmakers use it] when they don't need to do it, and it's just some kind of stylistic tic that in a general sense is meant to mean immediacy when it actually doesn't. It's like a fashion accessory. But actually you're not developing moments. You're not capturing detail. It's just a jarring mess.

The faster-moving your sequence, the more intensely complicated and simultaneous your action is, the more imperative it is upon you as a director to render detail. Detail is what gives you acceleration. It's when you are able to show an audience detail — it's like hop scotching, when you're moving from step to step to step, but sure-footedly, with each footfall landing on significant detail that each leads to the next, to the next, so you get a sense of acceleration and focus. Whereas that [mimes shaking a camera] gives you lack of focus, because it's generalized. What is that motion? Who's doing what? You've got to be inside the action and your filmmaking must unlock the inner dynamics in a way that's clear.

That takes a number of things: an intense amount of planning, absolute attention to detail while you're shooting, moment by moment, that you've got this moment and you've got this particular piece. It requires a supremely rigorous process of editing. And last, but most importantly, you've always got to [know that] what all this action, whatever it's conveying is, it's got to convey character. And the character's got to involve your point of view.

That's abstract, but what I mean is, when you're a young filmmaker — unless you're a genius, and there are some filmmakers who are just geniuses, though they're few and far between — you want to be a craftsman. You want to learn your craft and develop a point of view, because point of view has to do with your experiences in life, and your sense of maturity, and the inner confidence that comes slowly. It's hard-won. You've gotta say, 'What is the song that only I can sing? What is the film that only I can make? Why is that? What is it that I want to say?' Crucially, you have to find what it is that you don't know, that the film is going to be an exploration of.

So if you take [Captain Phillips], for instance, you've got a very simple, unbelievably dramatic but stark, simple story. It takes place on the high seas on the far-flung edge of the global economy, which is what the shipping lanes are. Four desperate young men, armed to the teeth, attacking a US-flagged container ship, taking the captain and a bunch of his guys hostage on the bridge while the rest of the crew hide. They manage to take one of the kidnappers hostage themselves and they do an exchange, but the pirates double-cross them and take the captain. They make for Somalia, but before they get to Somalia, the US Navy intercepts them. That's the story! It's almost old-fashioned in its simplicity. Staggeringly stark.

What does it mean? I don't know. But that's why we made the film. If we render this with as much authenticity as we can, we'll find out what it means. That's your point of view. And all of that maelstrom of action in the film gets you to that final scene in the infirmary, because only then do you see the fragility of humanity. I think that's the brilliance of Tom Hanks in this film, because he takes you on that journey every step of the way. And you end up in that little tiny room, and what you see is, and what you feel — I think you feel it with him, because it's quite an emotional moment.

That's what you couldn't have found out [about Phillips' story] from the news, because you're looking at it from the outside. You could only find it by being in it. It's what gives you a deep engagement with the character, and I think — and I'm being biased — it’s one of those great, great performances. Because this man of few words, working man — my father was a merchant marine, which is one of the reasons I made this film; I know what those guys are like — goes through this extraordinary experience, and the audience goes along with him." 

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS opens Fri/11 in Bay Area theaters.

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