Paul Greengrass, director of the new ocean-set thriller "Captain Phillips," has a long history with men who sail into peril on the seas.
Greengrass' father Phillip, now 87, was a lifelong sailor, a member of Britain's Merchant Navy in the 1940s and 1950s. It was all he did from the time he first went to sea at the age of 14 until he retired.
"I grew up with a father who was at sea," says Greengrass. "I know what those men were like. They were hardworking men. They're the truckers of the sea, and it's a hard life and a dangerous one. You're in the middle of nowhere. It's not like you can just ring 911 to get the police or call an ambulance."
So, when the 58-year-old Greengrass was offered the chance to direct "Captain Phillips," he jumped at the opportunity. "I always wanted to make a movie about that world, and it spoke to me powerfully on a personal level," he says.
Hijacked at sea
"Captain Phillips" is based on the true story of Richard Phillips, the captain of the American freighter Maersk Alabama, which was hijacked by young Somali pirates in 2009. Phillips was kidnapped but was rescued by U.S. Navy forces in a tense high-seas showdown.
While Greengrass is perhaps best known for his two films in the Jason Bourne franchise -- "The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum" -- he is considered one of the few film directors with a sure touch for nuanced movies about actual events. His first major movie, 2002's "Bloody Sunday," involved the 1972 shooting of Northern Irish activists by British soldiers. His "United 93" was perhaps the best film about the events of Sept. 11, a gripping re-creation of what happened onboard the United flight that crashed when passengers tried to take the plane from hijackers.
'Being a reporter'
"You can't just start with the events whether it's 'Bloody Sunday' or the Maersk Alabama hijacking," says Greengrass about his approach to fact-based filmmaking. "They can be very dramatic, but they must have something about them that's wider than just the events themselves.
"You have to find out what the facts are, that's what really makes it different from, say, a 'Bourne' film. Essentially, you're being a reporter."
In the case of "Captain Phillips," a script based on Phillips' memoir, "A Captain's Duty," had already been written by screenwriter Billy Ray. But Greengrass felt that it needed to focus much more closely on the actual hijacking and Phillips' game of cat and mouse with the pirates.
Ship's crew quizzed
"I felt that our film was on the ocean," he says. "We need to stay on the ocean."
The filmmakers interviewed all of the Alabama's crew, many of the men who helped to rescue them and experts on the geopolitics of the region. "Then Billy and I were able to sit down and boil that down into a new draft, a new screenplay that takes a complicated event and distillit with authenticity into a two-hour movie," Greengrass says.
And, he notes that "all along, you're making judgments on: Is this true to the spirit of what happened? Is this compression fair, or are we leaving out something important? You have thousands of those discussions."
One of the other things that drew Greengrass to the film was the man who would play Phillips: Tom Hanks. "I just thought he was perfect," he says. "He has the incredible ability to make an ordinary man a compelling individual."
Which is how Greengrass views Phillips. "That's what I liked about this story: This ordinary guy, this Merchant Marine guy, going about his business, hauling things we all depend on, and then suddenly, four desperate young men with AK-47s attack and take his ship.
"How is he going to deal with that? It's a modern story of peril on the sea."
That's the way it has always been with sailors, including Greengrass' father.
"They're a certain breed," he says. "They go to sea, that's where their life is, and it's not something you can put down easily. It's a calling, really. ... It's something that is very much part of their identities."
And, he adds, "you can't go to sea and not expect to meet danger. That's what makes them special people."
Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences and some
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Max Martini and
Director: Paul Greengrass
Running time: 2 hours,
Review: Find a review of "Captain Phillips" at
entertainment. The review will appear in Friday's paper.