The Smuggler

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Paul Greengrass on the romance of New York, and how it inspired the gripping Captain Phillips.

Presenting his intense pirate movie Captain Phillips around its world premiere at the 51st New York Film Festival, Paul Greengrass is a relaxed, witty force. “I didn’t even wear a suit when I got married. My son said, ‘You wearing a suit, dad, is funnier than Step Brothers,’” the blue jeans attired 58-year-old jokes. Greengrass tells press the city’s a fitting forum for this riveting movie’s world premiere. New York was profoundly inspirational for him after he left his London high school. “It was the days of low cost airlines. It had a very big impact on people of my generation because it was the first time the Brits had been able to come to America, because it was cheap. You could fly to New York for £59. Occasionally it felt like the engines might fall off. But it opened up America for people of my generation. Every summer I used to come here from college, entering a world of unimaginable excitement.”

Greengrass loved sitting in Elaine’s (which Woody Allen rhapsodised in Manhattan) with writers and directors discussing great American plays, novels, and films. The Americans instructed Greengrass if you’ve got the dream, go for it, he recalls with palpable passion. “It seemed unimaginably romantic, and I’ve never forgotten those days.” The bookstores like the Strand were exciting. “Reading poetry and old novels. And the record stores in the East Village. Every single Hendrix album you could possibly imagine, every single Hendrix performance would be there. You walked everywhere. I was also obsessed with photography at the time. I’d take photographs all over the city. I loved New York, it had a very, very powerful effect on me.”

He says he’s been thinking a lot recently about how he wouldn’t have become a director if it wasn’t for New York, and his father’s encouragement when he was young. “Nobody in the entire history of directing has ever had someone come up to them and go ‘you look like a really good director.’ It’s a self-selecting job. You either have to be unutterably vain or intolerably mad and probably both.”

Greengrass grew up in Gravesend, a windy empty estuary town about an hour from London. “It’s quite grotty, not horrifically grotty. It’s where [Charles Dickens’s] Oliver Twist is set. Great Expectations starts on the marshes—that’s where I spent my childhood. But I do remember being taken to movies, Saturday matinees. In particular I remember going with my dad, who was at sea one way or another all his working life. He was quite remote, he was away a lot, but he had one thing that was very important, I think. He was self-educated, he left school when he was 14.”

He vividly evokes seeing Peter Hall’s Hamlet play aged eight. “It was a really raw blood-soaked Hamlet, a story of revenge, and I remember it as one of the most compelling experiences of my life. Dramatic, utterly moving, utterly enthralling, utterly violent.” Seeing Doctor Zhivago is another formative memory. “We didn’t watch it in our home town cinema, which was a bit of a flea pit. We went up to the Empire on Leicester Square in the centre of London. We sat on the left hand side of this huge screen, right down near the front. I remember so vividly when the Cossacks break up the charge, and Zhivago’s up on the balcony, with the Cossacks in the snow lining up with the march coming round the corner, and this collision, and the flashing swords and the thunder of the hooves and the blood. And the sense of outrage that you felt as the audience, and the shock and the horror. It was one of those cinematic experiences that mainlines in your cortex.”

Indeed Greengrass, schooled in the British realist tradition, later got his passport to Hollywood with Bloody Sunday, a docudrama about the British committing an atrocity at an Irish march. “I wanted to enjoy the popcorn and the fairground ride, and enjoy actually getting paid some money. I had a particular view about what an image was cinematically, it was very fluid, very kinetic, very raw, very rough,” he says of the Bourne movies. “In the vernacular of car chases and whatever it was, it suddenly looked quite risqué in a commercial context, and fresh.” (“I had complete freedom to do what I wanted as long as I made them for about four dollars and thirty five cents,” he says on directing films in England).

Smuggling his shaky cam style in on Bourne took negotiation. “I remember the first hour of rushes hearing people behind me, people of authority whose names I won’t mention, going ‘What the fuck? What the fuck? Why does he have to do that?!’, ‘Look at that, Jesus!’. But you know they were very good to me as well, because the odd thing about Hollywood in my experience is that they want you to love what you’re doing. The idea that they sit around trying to find ways of interfering with director’s work is—in my experience, and I’m not exactly the new kid on the block anymore—so wide off the mark. On the contrary they want you to come in with a strong point, they want you to say here’s how I do it, I do it like this. And you’re accountable for that of course, but they want you to know what you want to do. Would a wide mainstream, movie-going, younger audience, accept it? And it was when that film started to ‘work’ they realised that their movie audiences were much more conversant with those images then they knew.”

It’s always been important for Greengrass to shoot in real places. Captain Phillips has a strong environmental sense. “So often with filmmaking it’s about making strong choices, strong committed choices. I felt that if we could get the right ships, which principally meant a container ship and a U.S. navy ship, and the skiffs and the lifeboat, we’d have enough to make our film. We’d have the freedoms to explore authenticity of the experience, because even though some of those ships were big, they were incredibly claustrophobic and that created the compression and the drama that really drives the story.”

This wasn’t without incident. “My father worked at sea, I don’t really get seasick. On the first day that we really were shooting out on the lifeboat, out on the ocean, the sea thumps down and it’s wild. The windows are up, you’re sitting down on the seat, you’re cramped, it stinks of diesel, it’s a brutal craft. So we started the scene, they were all in there. I was on the camera boat next door; we couldn’t work two cameras on one boat because there was nowhere for me to sit in there. The scene wasn’t going very well. ‘The focus puller’s a bit sea sick,’ ‘Just keep fuckin’ shooting,’ ‘Umm the focus puller’s just been sick all over Tom,’ ‘Just keep shooting,’ ‘Barry’s now been sick too,’ ‘Just keep shooting,’ ‘B camera’s down too.’ Until eventually, everybody got seasick and there was poor old Tom Hanks, who never got seasick, just sitting there with people puking around him. And I thought, well the good news is we’ve only got about 56 days of this to go.”

Things worked out. In one of his best performances in years, Hanks is vital to the film’s success. “If you can create a desperate urgency on a film set that’s real, everyone inhabits a frenzy of chaos, it can be a good thing because what happens is everyone starts to inhabit the world of sheer terror, in a good way. And something happens.”

“You need emotional catharsis,” Greengrass says, firmly moving his right hand. There are moving scenes at the end, involving Hanks. “With great actors, which Tom obviously is one, where you see a door, there’s just a tiny gap, and it takes courage to walk through as an actor and find the truth. It’s the truth of bullets for confusion, there’s a shocking sense of humanity.”

NYFF ‘Forward Pack’:

  1. Blue is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche, France)
  2. The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan)
  3. Her (Spike Jonze, USA)
  4. Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, USA)
  5. The Square (Jehane Noujaim, Egypt)
  6. Bastards (Claire Denis, France)
  7. The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, France/Cambodia)
  8. Nebraska (Alexander Payne, USA)

Bomb: About Time

‘Captain Phillips’ opens in New Zealand cinemas on October 24.
Alexander Bisley is covering the 51th New York Film Festival for The Lumière Reader. Thanks to Lumière interns for transcription assistance on this article.