Going Deeper with the Captain: Behind the Scenes of CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

By Evy Baehr, Executive Managing Editor

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, the new Tom Hanks movie, is based on the true story of the kidnapping of Captain Richard Phillips and his crew by Somali pirates in 2009.

It’s a very well made movie that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. Hanks does a wonderful job playing Phillips and evoking the captain’s attitude of self-sacrifice. Recently, Movieguide® had the chance to hear about the making of the film, the crew’s craft, and the real Captain Phillips from Hanks, his co-star Barkhad Abdi, and Director Paul Greengrass.

Q:  Tell us some things about the real Captain Phillips.

Tom Hanks:  He is an accomplished merchant mariner. . . . He’s a very pleasant guy, happy-go-lucky. He’s funny, and when he’s not at work I don’t think you could find a better [person] to go hang out with. When he’s at work, he’s truly no nonsense because it is a very serious, unglamorous business. The background of what is going on in the guy’s head and all the pressures he’s under, that was a door opening hunk of knowledge.

Q:  Did you learn anything from working with each other? 

Barkhad Abdi:  I learned a lot from Tom. He’s a very hard working man. 

Hanks (about Barkhad):  There’s a very small percentage people who get to do this for a living – able to keep a story in their head, fight all the battles against self conscience, and the surreal unnaturalness of acting in a movie. The technical aspects are a racket that you can learn relatively quickly, but, that other aspect of it, of having a character and staying on story and on point while maintaining that character, is something that not everybody can do. These guys were evident from the get go. Even though there was a true terror in the eyes of all the white guys on board the ship, what then transpired after that has to go beyond any sort of artificial trickery. They then have to get up and deliver the goods and the fact that they did, through the course of the entire movie, through the get go, I think is a testament, to the power of creative artists. 

Q:  How is it documenting a crisis and bringing out the humanity in people?

Paul Greengrass:  I think that’s absolutely the goal, what moments of crisis or situations of crisis do is create a kind of ballet, tension building up of move and counter move. It tells you something about the world when you see it build in that way. You have to capture that ratcheting up as accurately as you can. If you do it, you can get at something that’s underneath that, which is common humanity and compassion. . . without ever sentimentalizing the brutal truths of what’s accruing, which in this case is kidnap and piracy. You see something underneath it that is about humanity. 

Q:  How close are you to the real story?

Greengrass:  There’s a wide spectrum on movies made on true stories. Filmmakers tend to be on all points of that spectrum, from the very loose adaptation to the more faithful one. Given my background, I’m much more comfortable being on the faithful side of the street. I think this is a very faithful account. The problem of course is that you gotta compress an event that takes four or five days into less then two hours. That was the biggest creative challenge in terms of my point of view. How do you get that compression and stay truthful to the fundamentals of what happened? I’m definitely confident that it was on the good and faithful side.

Hanks:  We haven’t altered the motivations of any one involved. Everything is empirically accurate. 

Q:  What’s your idea of heroism?

Hanks:  I’m just a guy, who has a pretty good gig pretending to be other people. Heroes are the people that voluntarily walk into the unknown and try to do the right thing. Sometimes it’s death defying, and sometimes it’s just living up to one’s responsibilities. The work that I have done has not been more impactful in my concept of trying to do the right thing as the examples that are evident every day throughout the news media and the things people do that I end up admiring. We all have times in our lives where we can either be a hero, a villain, or a coward. I just hope that I’m a coward as little as possible, and hopefully never a villain, and on the occasions where I would have to be, I would hope to be able to do the heroic thing.

Q:  What went through your mind while doing this movie, your own family or the situation?

Hanks:  I think there are times in your work were you do do that, but after awhile, it has to be more then an empathetic reaction to the people. I love my family. I love my kids. But, you have to go to some other place that is bigger then your own life and has more impact than that. I don’t know how to explain the process. It requires being open to a bigger type of holistic vision of what the story is, as well as the truly tactical experience of everything we had been through the course of making the movie. You have to see it in a broader picture then just your own personal world. You have to see a bigger world, and you have to be apart of that.

Q:  Tom, did you give advice to Barkhad? 

Hanks:  Just try to tell the truth, and you’re home free.


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