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CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

Editing
Paul Greengrass's work with his editor, co-producer, and longtime collaborator Christopher Rouse, A.C.E. started well before a single frame was shot, while the director was working with screenwriter Billy Ray in shaping the screenplay. An Academy Award-winner for his work on The Bourne Ultimatum, Rouse says, "Paul and I spent more time together during the script development and preproduction processes on Captain Phillips than we ever had before. We had regular story sessions as the screenplay evolved; we spent months talking about every aspect of every scene in the film. For the action scenes we create storyboards and animatics, so that Paul has pre-visualized sequences heading into production. But otherwise our process is the same, whether a particular scene is an action sequence, or a dialogue-driven sequence," Rouse says. "It's not just about the kinetics of an action sequence -- we analyze how action supports story and character as well. We get into the integral details: who the characters are, what the characters are about, what their agendas are, what their obstacles are. Once he went out to shoot, Paul had vetted the piece very thoroughly over the course of several months. He was able to probe the piece on every level -- examine and reexamine it -- and a lot of problems that might have arisen during shooting were solved before the cameras even rolled."

As an example, Rouse cites the structure of the first act of the film, which balances the perspectives of Phillips and Muse. It was important to Greengrass to intertwine Phillips' and Muse's stories, Rouse says: "The film portrays each man as a casualty of circumstance. It was key to achieve appropriate balance between the perspectives of the two characters, and it took a lot of back and forth between Paul, Billy, and me to get it just right." Screenwriter Billy Ray adds, "It was important to all of us not to let Muse devolve into a caricature of a villain; despite Muse's aggression and potential for violence, Paul never stopped pushing to give him moments of real vulnerability."

Greengrass had this to add about his process -- from the script, to the set, to the editing room: "Billy envisioned the fundamental markers of the film: the characters, the narrative, the sense of the set pieces -- he conveyed the essence of it. But at a certain point we had to go off to sea to shoot, and get the actors involved. Shooting at sea, on real ships, re-enacting the event as closely as we could, lent the film a sense of immediacy that we couldn't have prepared. I like to shoot material at length, because then you get the unplanned moments, and you get people to inhabit the story as a reality," Greengrass adds. "It's not just a movie, it's something really happening in front of them -- and that's when you get that sense of urgency, that sense of excitement. And then Chris can take the material I shoot and create the right tempo, balance the points of view, make sure that Phillips stays at the center of the story . . . he creates the template that pulls it all together. The relationship between a screenplay and a shoot and a cut is the magic of film."

Having worked with Greengrass on United 93, Green Zone, and the Bourne films, Rouse has become accustomed to intuiting the constant movements of Greengrass's camera, and creating from those movements an engrossing editorial rhythm; that played a big role in the architecture of Captain Phillips.

"Paul and Barry's style of moving the camera instantly provides a scene with emotion and rawness," Rouse says. "The moving camera creates tension, gives great dynamics to action sequences, and also supports the way Paul works with actors, infusing his sometimes improvised scenes with visual immediacy. Editorially, I embrace the camera movement as another rhythmic element in the scene, attempting to feel and shape it from cut to cut as I would the rhythms of dialogue. In terms of pacing, Paul and I don't talk about specifics much. If I've anchored myself properly in story, character, and theme, it all flows naturally."

In the editing room, Rouse and Greengrass were able to continually ramp up the film's tension, despite the fact that the action keeps getting compressed into tighter and tighter spaces. "It's inherently tense -- the power of the U.S. Navy is bearing down on this tiny lifeboat in the middle of the ocean," Rouse says. "We spent a lot of time with these scenes, both on the page and in the editing room. In particular, the climactic sequence at the end of the film, that culminates in the SEAL snipers taking their shots, took months to work out."

Rouse explains in more detail: "In the final reel, the action is reaching a peak: the lifeboat has just been hammered by waves from the enormous warships, putting Phillips and the pirates on a razor's edge, while at the same time, the SEAL Commander is trying to assess line of sight for his shooters, and to manipulate Najee into letting the Bainbridge pull the lifeboat into closer range. In the midst of all this, the scene hits an emotional pitch, as Phillips comes to believe the standoff is reaching its crisis point and that he's going to die -- and decides to write a letter to his family as a result.

"This was a tricky construct, because several threads had to be knitted together. We'd built to this point over the entire movie, and so the question became, how do we bring all of the converging elements together to create a powerful, exciting climax, but still retain the deeper, more nuanced, characterful, and thematic aspects of the piece?

"Paul wanted Phillips desperate and active through this sequence, to build the emotion in the strongest way possible to Phillips' writing of the letter. My goal was to keep Phillips at the center of events, milking each moment of Tom's performance (realizing the lifeboat was coming in range of the snipers, seeing the pen, deciding to write the letter, clocking Najee, grabbing the pen, then searching for paper). At the same time, I balanced those moments against everything else that was occurring -- keeping all the characters present for the audience through the sequence: the SEAL Commander surveying the snipers' shifting lines of sight from the Bainbridge fantail, Najee arguing with Elmi and the SEAL Commander, Bilal starting to realize that Phillips' letter-writing portended something significant.

"During all of this, it was crucial to show the enormous scale and scope of the warship maneuvers, and, just as importantly, their effect on the characters -- in particular Phillips, who realizes that the Navy is bringing the situation to a head, and decides to write the letter as a result. We also had to convey that the SEAL Commander has sold Najee a bill of goods [i.e., allowing the Navy to reel him within sniper range] -- a bill of goods which, once accepted, sends the sequence into its endgame. Finally, I tried to build a small crescendo culminating in several back to back actions: Najee acceding to the SEAL Commander, Phillips successfully getting pen and paper, and the tow rope starting to be reeled in.

"We were trying to get the balance right. It wasn't an easy proposition but I think we were able to do that -- to ratchet up the tension while staying honest to the deeper dramatic elements that underpin the sequence."

As the film intensified, layer by layer, to its ultimate catharsis, Greengrass felt he and Rouse were in perfect synchrony. "Chris did an incredible job," Greengrass says. "The sense of excitement he cultivated and the way he has brought out the characters make it a beautiful piece of editorial work."

For Rouse, as for all of Greengrass's collaborators, it's the director's ability to juggle disparate elements -- moments of private emotion, grand-scale global realities, and cinematic suspense -- that creates a unique, powerful, humanist brand of filmmaking all Greengrass's own. "Paul is an absolute master of capturing deeply intimate aspects of characters who are journeying through richly thematic territory," the editor and co-producer observes. "I think that ability is a product of Paul's worldview, his exceptionally literate background, fused with a powerful journalistic sensibility, his great dramatic instincts, and his enormous heart. All of those aspects are front and center in this material. Our job is to help them be felt and understood."

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