Paul Greengrass brings real-life action to the screen with ‘Captain Phillips’


Special To The Japan Times

Paul Greengrass once seemed like the least likely candidate to be a director of Hollywood blockbusters: the Cambridge graduate started his career by putting in 10 years as a documentary filmmaker/journalist for the hard-hitting British current affairs program “World In Action.” When he moved into feature films, it was always with topics that had political content, like his debut, “Resurrected,” in 1989, about a Falklands War deserter, or “Bloody Sunday” (2002), about the 1972 massacre of civil rights protesters in Northern Ireland.

Serious stuff, for sure, yet Matt Damon had seen “Bloody Sunday,” and was impressed by the director’s ability to graft documentary-style realism onto a fiction film, and helped to get Greengrass on board to direct “The Bourne Supremacy.” The result was an action film with a whole new level of intensity — and presto, Greengrass had an American career.

He may not be a household name, but if you’ve ever seen one of his films — “United 93,” “Green Zone,” “The Bourne Ultimatum” — you’d immediately recognize his style: handheld cameras, up close and personal, constant motion within each shot, and edited to a brisk, staccato rhythm. Since then, he has been much imitated, but Greengrass has an ability to make this choppy, improvised style coherent, where so many others wind up with just a jerky, blurry mess.

In town to promote his latest, and perhaps best, film, “Captain Phillips” — which tells the tale of an American skipper trying to fend off a group of Somali pirates who hijack his cargo ship — Greengrass spoke with The Japan Times at length about his distinctive style, and making reality-based thrillers.

“What I’m about is trying to create images and sequences that feel authentic,” says the bespectacled, silver-maned director, who was just warming up to the topic. “I can’t speak for other people, but sometimes on TV I’ll see things and there’s a sort of generalized waving of the camera that’s meant to imply urgency, just a sort of sensory assault without any mooring. And I’m not very keen on that because it has no specificity.

“The way the images are shot should be authentic to the experience you’ve had. In other words, if you’re sitting in a car, I’d rather shoot within the car than, for example, set up car-mounts, which is the classical way to do it. I mean, I have from time to time, but I’m speaking as a general proposition.”

As a specific example, Greengrass cited the film’s climactic scenes, set inside a tiny roofed lifeboat where the pirates are making their getaway with Phillips as hostage.

“When I shot inside the lifeboat, I didn’t want to have a dummy lifeboat where you could pull pieces out and get back and shoot,” notes Greengrass. “I wanted to accept the physical confines of the space. Now you pay the price for that, but you get tremendous atmospheric authenticity to it, because you’re bound by the space, and the images you get arise out of that space.”

In the case of the lifeboat, it was a very cramped environment to be working in, but on film, “that sense of claustrophobia is palpable,” says Greengrass. It was so tight that the director would rehearse with the cast, then get out of the way, retreating to a boat nearby and communicating via walkie-talkie. “One of the things I wanted was to be able to shoot that space all the way round, because you’ve got to try and describe that space, define it. So the less of you who are in there, the better.”

The constant battering by waves also took its toll, and while much of the film was shot on open water, a lot of the lifeboat scenes were also done on a gimbal (a pivoted support used at sea to keep an object upright). Tom Hanks, at a Tokyo press conference for the film, described the set-up as being “as small and unpleasant as the actual lifeboat is. But it’s on this hydraulic system that rides it up and rocks it, but it doesn’t do what the sea does, which is suddenly drop out. So you have all the motion but your stomach stays in one place.”

The bulk of the film was shot on sea though, 12-14 hours a day, for several weeks. Greengrass mentions that “even on the big ships you feel the swells. It’s more insidious really, you’re never quite stable. Almost everybody did get seasick, but I think we all really enjoyed it because it was a craic, an adventure.

“If you’re at sea, obviously, the image is going to be bouncing around, unless you were to shoot the thing in a tank with stable water. Then you could get nice, locked-off images. But that would feel inauthentic to me. So most of my time is spent trying to struggle for clarity of image in an environment where clear images are incredibly physically hard to get.

“There’s an innate sort of drama to capturing the image. I mean, I’d be saying ‘we have to keep it steady!’, and (the crew) would be saying, ‘for f-ck’s sake, what do you think we’re trying to do?’ (Laughs.) The boat’s rocking around and you’re lucky if you get anything in the frame at all.”

The film’s final scene, in a medical infirmary on board a U.S. Navy ship, has brought Hanks much acclaim, but it turns out to have been an afterthought. The actual ending they shot, says Greengrass, “was OK, but it wasn’t great. Then by chance the real Capt. Castellano (who commanded the ship that rescued Phillips) mentioned that he had met Phillips in the infirmary. So we asked if we could go down and shoot there. I think it was an hour before we were due to finish. At that point, blind panic sets in, and that’s often a very good place to make a film, because everybody stops over-thinking about things, you just go down there and try it.”

Hanks played his scene across from a real Navy medical team and just sort of went with the flow. They had four bloody shirts prepared that could be cut off him, so that meant a maximum of four takes.

“We just plunged in, operating on pure instinct,” Hanks explains. “I think it’s a testament to Paul’s process, as well as all of us being there on the spot, that we couldn’t do anything wrong … and that’s quite a liberating place. We weren’t trying to hit anything specific, just an actual instinctive moment, to capture true behavior.” The result is a truly cathartic scene, and one that hits home with audiences.

Greengrass’ films are all marked by their engagement with real-world, contemporary events, and opening people’s eyes to the world around them — the goal of any good documentary filmmaker — is certainly part of it; Hanks speaks of the film being “a more complex experience, a motion picture that can provide enlightenment and understanding,” while Greengrass describes it as “a very contemporary crime story. You always know who the criminal is and who the innocent man is, but somewhere the relationship between the crime and the society that gives rise to it is rather ambiguous.”

Yet for all the high-minded ideas, the director never loses sight of the butts-in-seats aspect of making movies, either. His primary goal is, he emphasizes, “ensuring first and foremost that your film is a rewarding experience at the cinema. Everything else is subsidiary to that. Because if you’re going to ask someone at the end of a week where they’ve worked hard to make a choice as to what they’re going to do with their time off, you want that choice to reward them for the privilege of getting two hours of their time.”

“Captain Phillips” is now playing in cinemas nationwide. Be sure to read Giovanni Fazio’s review of the film on today’s Film Page. For more information, visit