Greengrass wanted to portray the pirates as victims of economic pressures. An early scene where too many men vie for too few spots on a pirate skiff is deliberately reminiscent of the longshoremen crowding the docks in "On the Waterfront."
When Hanks and Greengrass embarked on the project, they discussed the point of the movie over a series of phone calls and meetings.
"We decided it was about, 'Are we going to be OK?'" Greengrass said. "And we wrote it down on a little piece of paper, which I've still got."
Anyone who followed the news reports of Captain Phillips' story knows the answer to that question — the captain lives and has even attended some early promotional screenings of the film.
But for Hanks, who will appear this year in the rather different role of Walt Disney in the movie "Saving Mr. Banks," the drama was in the man himself. "Everybody knows how 'Rigoletto' ends, but they still go to see the interpretation of the character," he said.
"You have to make a film without knowledge of where it ended up," Greengrass said. "If you can create your story in an unfolding present tense … that's where character exists."
The film begins with Captain Phillips' wife, Andrea (Catherine Keener), dropping him off at the airport and worrying about their children but moves quickly to the decks of the cargo ship, with a cast including Michael Chernus ("The Bourne Legacy") as Phillips' second in command and David Warshofsky ("There Will be Blood") as his engineer. Max Martini ("Pacific Rim") is the Navy SEAL commander on the scene, and the men under him are played by former SEALs.
To create a feeling of immediacy on set, Greengrass took the unusual step of casting four Somali Americans who had never acted before to play the pirates — Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahamn, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali. The roles, particularly Abdi's, would require a sense of menace and vulnerability.
Casting directors Francine Maisler and Debbie DeLisi found their lanky young pirate crew in the Somali immigrant community of Minneapolis, where Abdi responded to an ad for an open casting call that appeared on a local TV channel.
Within months, Abdi, whose family won a green card lottery to come to the U.S. when he was 14, was training to film on the unstable pirate skiffs. "We learned swimming, fights, stunts, climbing," said Abdi, 28. "I have a thing for danger."
Greengrass deliberately kept Abdi and the pirate actors from meeting Hanks and the men portraying the Alabama's crew to capture a moment of excitement on camera and to prevent Hanks' stardom from intimidating the new actors.
It worked. When they shot the scene of the pirates storming the bridge of the Alabama, Hanks said, "For the first take it was incredibly harrowing. And the second take it was incredibly harrowing. And the third take we remembered how harrowing it was. And then by the fourth take, we were saying, 'Hey, nice to meet you.'"
Greengrass' unrehearsed, hand-held method of filmmaking, learned through his documentary background, is particularly conducive to newcomers, Hanks said.
"There were no marks to hit," Hanks said. "There wasn't any technical thing that they had to learn how to do. Usually it's, 'Hey, can you not overlap? You yelled at him over his line.' There was never any of that stuff. So they were in the environment and they were ready to go."
Getting sea legs
Shooting on real ships added to the production's authenticity and its inconveniences. The crew carried the cameras and lights up six flights on the cargo ship, "and there are a lot of places to bonk your head and stub your toe," Hanks said. Others filming from small Zodiac boats alongside the large ships got seasick.
"I always thought the fun of it would be to shoot on real ships," said Greengrass, whose father was a seaman. "It made you shoot in a way that had a sort of atmosphere about it, because you couldn't float walls out and put the camera where you want."
Producer Greg Goodman negotiated for the container ship used in the film and worked with the Navy, which was eager to cooperate on a movie that showed one of the service's finer recent moments.
"There was this one tiny red button … that when Richard Phillips pushed it, signals went out all over the world," Hanks said. "Navy SEALs started packing their gear not knowing what was going to happen. Thousands of people became involved, and that's even before the ships showed up."
The film, which relies on urgent camera work by Greengrass' longtime cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, and rhythmic cutting by his editor Christopher Rouse, got a warm reception from critics upon its premiere at the New York Film Festival last week.
Many singled out Hanks' moment with the Navy medic: The Hollywood Reporter called it "an extraordinary scene, one for which there is little precedent," and Variety said it was "an eruption of emotional fireworks of exactly the sort Oscar dreams are made of."
"We're in an era cinematically dominated by superheroes," Greengrass said. "He's made this wonderful career based on playing ordinary men.... You don't have special powers, or extraordinary physical strength or mental agility.... You've got to operate within what's believable or authentic … but if you do that, as Tom does, what you find is this rich reservoir of humanity."