Shooting at Sea
75 % of Captain Phillips was shot over 60 days on the open water. "Shooting this film
out on the ocean, on a working ship, was tremendously important to me," says
Greengrass. "I started the film with the conviction that we had to re-enact the
event in conditions as close as possible to those in which it occurred. Everybody said, 'You're
insane -- shooting at sea is one of the things you don't do as a director.' But it gives the film a
veracity that cannot be quantified."
The decision to shoot on the open sea, using the same kinds of vessels on which the real-life
drama had unfolded, meant a production fraught with logistical, physical, and psychological
challenges unlike any Greengrass and his crew had encountered before. "Striving for veracity
involves taking risks yourself in making the film -- as a director, as a cast, and as a crew,"
Greengrass explains. "As a piece of filmmaking, this was the most arduous experience I've ever
had. Being on the ocean all day, every day, shooting in confined spaces or on the open water, in
the swell, being knocked around, was torturous. But we did it and we kept our days. In the best
of ways, the cast and crew on the film came to feel very much like we were the crew of a ship, all
working together," Greengrass says. "At the same time, each individual job done was incredible.
The acting was incredible, the lighting was incredible, the design was incredible, the editing was
incredible. And it all builds to a final moment in which I believe Tom Hanks gives a performance
of stunning humanity. My abiding memory of the film will always be Tom at that final moment. It
is simply so human."
The first challenge the production faced was sourcing the numerous ships that the story called
for -- a working container ship, two US Navy destroyers, and an aircraft carrier. Finding vessels
that were as close as possible to the ships used in the actual incident -- a Greengrass mandate
-- posed a huge problem, despite the eagerness of Maersk Line and the United States Navy to
collaborate with the production. "These ships are made to work -- and a working ship is either
hauling goods 24/7 or, in the case of the Navy, on standby for military action, and you can't
just take them offline," producer Dana Brunetti says. When Maersk Line identified a relatively
underused container ship in the Mediterranean, the production picked up and moved half a world
away to Malta in order to take advantage of its availability. "Fortunately, this ship, the Maersk
Alexander, was a direct match to the ship that was hijacked, the Alabama -- that was a very
lucky break for us," says Brunetti.
In addition, the production was able to arrange for the Alexander's crew of 22 merchant mariners
to continue operating the ship during the two and a half months of filming. The captain of the
Alexander became a vital resource for Greengrass and Hanks, illuminating both the mechanics
and the human issues surrounding the day-to-day operations of the ship. "Being on the real ship
and having access to the real crew was essential to the process," says Greengrass. "You could
ask them questions -- what would they do, what would they say, where would they go, with
what piece of equipment, in X, Y, or Z scenario."
Greengrass's commitment to verisimilitude created challenges for the cast and crew. The
weather was often uncooperative, which turned what would have been a merely difficult shoot
at sea into a nearly impossible one. Of shooting on the Alexander, De Luca recalls, "There are
massive swells that come over the side of the ship. The sea changes minute by minute from
calm to incredibly choppy and back, so you never know what you are going to get; how do you
plan to shoot scenes and match shots with a landscape like that?" Each morning the production
crew had to be nimble enough to decide on a moment's notice if they could shoot a scene on the
water, or if they'd have to stay in port and shoot a scene inside the ship.
Maneuvering the five hundred foot container ship placed extreme constraints on the production,
Daniel Franey Malone, the film's marine coordinator, notes: "It's not like using a recreational
vessel. This ship can only go to certain places, and we needed a harbor pilot and a tugboat to
move it around every day. And, of course, the ship is made for containers, so it was extremely
difficult to put a film crew on there," Malone says. "It's incredibly claustrophobic. It has narrow
passageways and very narrow stairs. We're used to having a lot more space. We really had to
scale things down and the teams had to be very conservative in what they brought on board. The
constant back-and-forth from the bottom floor to the bridge -- believe me, it was no small feat
making it all the way up and down those stairs with equipment."
On top of the claustrophobia and the other constraints of working on the ship, the production had
to take on the challenges of coordinating and shooting multiple vessels on open water. "A crew
is some hundreds of people and equipment -- actors, and costume, and makeup, and cameras,
and set," says Greengrass. "To put that on the water is a monumental logistical endeavor. You've
got dozens and dozens of boats, and then you have to have safety boats. The production was like
a flotilla, and I felt like the admiral of a fleet."
One of the most dramatic scenes in the film is the taking of the Alabama, which was done without
the use of CG effects. "One of the most difficult feats of the entire shoot was the technical safety
aspect of bringing a skiff with four actors alongside a moving cargo ship with a tremendous
undertow," says Greengrass. "Getting close enough so that they could put the ladder up and
execute the boarding maneuver -- that was a very time consuming process. Safety was of
paramount importance. But the film gives you the sensation that you really are there, and they
are right alongside that ship and going up, because they are."
In preparing to film the sequence, the four men playing the Somali pirates -- Barkhad Abdi,
Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali -- began a rigorous training regimen.
"Paul told us that he wasn't looking for just actors -- he wanted us to become pirates," Abdi
says. "So with weeks of intense practice and rigorous training, we became pirates. I didn't know
how to swim. I had to learn how to climb. Being scared wasn't an option. When I was on the
ladder, 100 feet above the water, I just thought, I have to get to the top."
Abdi, Abdirahman, Ahmed, and Ali also had to learn how to handle the pirate skiffs as if they had
grown up on them. "We spent weeks taking the guys out so they could drive those skiffs, which
was a challenge; they are not easy boats," says Greengrass. "Then we moved to the open ocean to teach them how to stand up while the boats were moving -- and you can imagine how those
boats throw you around in that swell. The challenge was to do all of this safely. And then we had
to work out how to shoot it."
That task fell to the director of photography, Barry Ackroyd, BSC. "For the scenes on the skiffs
with the Somalis," he explains, "we built a small scaffold rig where we could bungee the camera,
because when those skiffs hit a wave, they really hit it -- and we had to find a way not to lose
the camera overboard."
The most intensely challenging sequence of the film by far, however, was the climactic scene
as the Navy orchestrates Phillips' rescue. Greengrass calls it "the most complex and difficult
sequence" of his career: "There were multiple Navy ships hurtling around, multiple helicopters --
immense safety concerns. How do you choreograph, set, and convey on film action that involves
a small carrier, several destroyers, and multiple helicopters bombarding a small lifeboat in
darkness -- all at high speed -- on water? Any director will tell you that you get one helicopter
in the air and your stress level rises. And the clock was ticking for us to get these shots, because
we could only have the Navy hardware for a limited amount of time."
The U.S. Navy was as eager as Maersk to be involved in the film. But, just as with Maersk's
merchant carriers, finding the Navy ships required a long and delicate negotiation. Notes
Brunetti: "The Navy wanted to be involved from the get-go because this film reflects them as
sober-minded professionals -- I think they feel it's a very accurate representation of the way
they operate. But, like Maersk, their commissioned ships all have to be on duty. The Navy ships
have to be on standby to react to situations that arise around the world, and that was a higher
priority than supporting a movie. They absolutely did not want us to make the movie without
them, on our own, without their support; our depiction of them would have been less robust. The
question was whether we could work around their very understandable limitations in a way that
would allow them to get us what we needed."
A solution was reached, again, thanks to the production team's flexibility and adaptability. "A
high ranking admiral met with us in Los Angeles and made a promise to me: if we brought
the movie to Norfolk, Virginia, he would get me -- in his words -- everything I needed," says
Executive Producer Gregory Goodman, who handled many of the challenging logistics of the
shoot. "We hadn't considered going to Norfolk because it is not a film production center. . . .
Everything needed to shoot would have to be brought in from outside the area, and because
of the distance, you can't rely on nearby vendors for support. But after looking at our limited
options, it was clear: we were going to Norfolk. I called them up and said, 'I'm going to hold you
to your promise!' And they lived up to it. And I will say that once we were set up in Norfolk -- a
massive undertaking -- it was a great place to shoot."
To portray the USS Bainbridge, the filmmakers were granted access to the USS Truxtun, a
510-foot-long Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer commissioned in 2009. "The Truxtun
had just been rehabilitated and needed to go on a two-month shakedown cruise, and part of
that consists of doing minor maneuvers," says Brunetti. "We were attached to that mission."
Throughout the shoot, the destroyer remained an active, mission-ready ship loaded to respond 7 [ ]
to emergency calls. The two additional ships that assisted the Bainbridge during the real-life
rescue mission -- the USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship that is part of the Navy's anti-
piracy task force, and the USS Halyburton -- were portrayed, respectively, by the USS Wasp, a
multipurpose amphibious assault ship, and the actual Halyburton, both of which were stationed
at Naval Station Norfolk.
Moving these Navy vessels was complicated, dangerous, and difficult -- and Navy destroyers
are an even less hospitable home for a film crew than a cargo ship is. Brunetti explains: "The
Navy ships have to operate seven miles out of port, and it's very difficult to get the ships in and
out of port -- it takes hours. So instead, our crew piled into small boats -- fifteen to twenty
people in each of seven or eight boats -- and embarked from a dock in Norfolk to meet the Navy
ships, waiting for us miles out at sea. Then each of us had to transfer over to the ship, an arduous
process of stepping one by one over the side and climbing a ladder, in ocean swells, with all of
our gear for the day. We made the trip back and forth daily, each night transferring to our small
boats and heading back to Norfolk in the dark."
Greengrass says the Navy "threw themselves enthusiastically into the film. From the Halyburton's
captain and his number-two down, they put the ship and their resources at our disposal. They
could see what we were trying to do, so we'd always have somebody in the crew saying, 'You
need to know this' or 'In X situation we would do Y' -- those thousand decisions that make a
film feel like it's working and that keep it true to reality. Those environments are real: the CIC,
the interior sections -- they were all on the real destroyer."
Getting the Navy onboard was just the first step in filming the rescue sequence. "In that scene,
there were a lot of moving parts -- two destroyers, an aircraft carrier, and a helicopter shining a
light on the lifeboat," adds producer Dana Brunetti. "We had to get the ships in position, we had to
get our cameras in position, the helicopter had to hit the lifeboat at the right moment, and the actors
in the lifeboat had to deal with the fact that the ships were creating an intentional wake to rock the
boat. They were in there for hours while we did to them what the Navy did to the actual hijackers."
Goodman expands on the logistical challenges involved in that climactic scene: "The lifeboat
moves very slowly -- about two or three knots. That actually happens to be just below the safe
operating speed for Navy ships. They are liable to stall if they're going that slow. So we had a
cat-and-mouse game in terms of timing the ships and their relationship to the lifeboats. That
was very tricky -- it was a math problem." What the filmmakers didn't know at the time was
that this was a case of art imitating life. The USS Bainbridge had experienced the same problem
during the real-life rescue of Captain Phillips; the destroyer kept outrunning the lifeboat.
The climax of the film -- set at sea, in total darkness -- also presented tremendous challenges for
cinematographer Ackroyd. Pulling off the shooting of these sequences required an extraordinary
amount of advance planning, coordination, timing, professionalism -- and a little luck. "We
shot them day-for-night, dusk-for-night, and night-for-night," Ackroyd says. "Each scene is a
combination of all three techniques, all rolled into one." He adds, "We had one camera inside
the lifeboat, I was in a RHIB [rubber-hulled inflatable boat] with another, a third camera was on
the destroyer, and a fourth camera was in a second helicopter, positioned to shoot the picture helicopter. The Navy destroyer is coming up on the lifeboat and doing a handbrake turn in front
of the lifeboat, and we have to get that shot simultaneously from my RHIB, from the destroyer,
from the air, as well as from inside the lifeboat, looking out from a two-foot-by-three-foot port.
All of that was done dusk-for-night -- and dusk is twenty minutes. You have twenty minutes
to capture a maximum amount of material. And you can't stop, or dusk will change, and all of a
sudden you are shooting night-for-night. We haven't CG'd those shots -- all of those happened
live. People would always ask, 'How are we going to do it?' Well, we're going to shoot it. That's
what I live for."
Though the production was daunting and technically difficult, everyone got through it, because
the entire crew shared an esprit de corps inspired by Paul Greengrass and Tom Hanks. Producer
De Luca notes, "Tom was very game. He never paused no matter what we asked of him. For
example, being in the lifeboat on the open water all day, for days on end, was exhausting and took
tremendous stamina for everyone involved; and Tom never complained, despite the inevitable
and constant sea-sickness that set in for him and the other cast aboard that very unwieldy
vessel. I think that attitude and spirit from him carried through to everybody and carried us
through the production."
"This was pure filmmaking -- I'm very, very lucky to have done this. I'll always carry the memory
with me," says Goodman. "Everybody was focused on the same goal." Ackroyd agrees: "As a
cinematographer, when you see a script and it says 'Night -- total darkness -- at sea,' you have
to think twice about doing that project -- unless it's Paul Greengrass who is asking you to do it.
When you sign up to do a Paul Greengrass film, it's because you realize that the struggle will be
worthwhile, the story will be powerful, and the effort will be recognized -- by which I mean that
the audience will take from it something that they don't get from every other film. And I hope that
will be the case with Captain Phillips."
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