Inside the Intense 'Captain Phillips' Shoot: Tom Hanks' 'Mental Stress,' His Co-Star's Horrific Backstory and a 'Scary' First Day on Set
Sep 27, 2013 12:13
On April 8, 2009, four armed Somali pirates traveling on simple
skiffs boarded the 17,000-ton Maersk Alabama, a Danish cargo ship owned
by the largest container-ship operator in the world, that was sailing
several hundred miles off the coast of Somalia toward Mombasa, Kenya.
The men who attacked it were desperate; they came from a country
ravaged by civil war with one of the lowest per-capita incomes in the
world and almost no prospect of betterment. They had seen fellow
countrymen grow rich through piracy (indeed, at the time, about 200
foreigners were being held for ransom) and hoped to become rich, too --
even if it meant scaling a vessel as large as a fortress.
Before multinational endeavors limited piracy there, some 3,000 to
5,000 pirates were based in Somalia; they had seized 26 ships in both
2009 and 2010, ransoming them for an average of $4.9 million each.
When these particular pirates were spotted, the Alabama immediately
took protective measures, swinging its rudder back and forth to create a
giant wave that scuttled one of their boats. But the pirates still
In an attempt to save his small crew, Capt. Richard Phillips
ordered his men to hide in a secure room; but when the pirates found
them, a fight broke out and one of the invaders was overpowered. Shaken
by the scuffle, and with the U.S. Navy fast approaching, the pirates
seized a windowless lifeboat, taking Phillips hostage when he
volunteered to become a prisoner in the place of his men, who remained
aboard the ship.
The five-day drama that ensued, as the Somalis held Phillips while a
warship stood by, riveted the U.S. when it was shown around the clock on
cable news. The brief and violent conclusion, during which three
American snipers shot the pirates, drew public praise from PresidentObama. As for Phillips, he widely was considered a hero and went on to write a book about his experiences, A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea.
Four-and-a-half years after the incident, Sony is bringing his story to the screen with Captain Phillips, a $50 million drama that revolves around two skippers: the Alabama's Phillips (played by TomHanks, 57) and Muse, the Somali leader (played by newcomer BarkhadAbdi, 28).
With a glut of excellent films heading into awards season, the studio
is betting on audiences' continued interest in real-life dramas. Made
on budgets of $50 million or less, these movies have generated
substantial profits in recent years: Sony's own The Social Network ($225 million globally) and Zero Dark Thirty ($109 million); Warner Bros.' Argo ($232 million); and DreamWorks' Lincoln
($275 million). But neither the genre nor the price-point offers any
certainty, as DreamWorks may have sensed at Toronto, where it unveiled The Fifth Estate to lukewarm notices.
So far, response to this film has been positive. Reviewing the movie before its Sept. 27 debut at the New York Film Festival, THR's chief film critic ToddMcCarthy wrote, "Something of a companion piece for director Paul Greengrass to his superb United 93,
which was based on the real-life takeover of one of the 9/11 aircraft,
this immaculately made reconstruction of a chaotic incident will have a
much better time of it commercially."
The movie (produced by ScottRudin, MichaelDe Luca and Dana Brunetti, the trio who made Social Network)
arrives at a time of convulsion within the film business and added
pressure on Sony, which has failed to deliver a blockbuster this year
and has had to deal with such disappointments as After Earth and White House Down. Those releases led to the exit of Sony marketing chief MarcWeinstock on Sept. 23, a move that came against the backdrop of a so-far-unsuccessful bid by investor DanielLoeb to lead the studio's parent, Sony Corp., to sell off the entertainment division.
Despite these pressures, "I didn't see this as a difficult film to greenlight," says Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chairman AmyPascal. "I thought it was a magnificent story about decency, heroism and an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation."
It's late-morning on Sept. 17 when Hanks and Abdi meet inside a
cavernous Hollywood photo studio, the first time they have seen each
other since Phillips wrapped.
They are a study in contrasts, one tall and well-toned, exuding ease
and confidence; the other rail-thin and nervous as he takes part in his
first-ever photo shoot. They chat about Abdi's love for music and about
the band he has formed with a Somali-American rapper, YungYubi.
"He is in the creative arts," says Hanks admiringly. "He records
music, and he does all sorts of stuff like installations. He never
really explained it to me [during the shoot] because he was so focused
on the job at hand."
Aware of the change this movie might bring to his co-stars' lives,
Hanks says he told the Somalis: "Are you guys prepared to be the most
famous Somalis in America for a while?" He adds, "It's going to be
interesting, what happens."
Watching him with Abdi, one doesn't get the sense they have become
close -- hardly a surprise, given that they deliberately were kept apart
by Greengrass until well into the shoot, when the pirates take over the
"I was so excited about meeting Tom," says Abdi, a movie buff who had seen many of Hanks' films and adored Forrest Gump.
"Then when we got [to the set], Paul took us on the side and was like,
'OK, you guys are not going to see Tom until we do the first scene where
you meet in the movie.' " He says he and the other Somalis (all friends
of his from way before the shoot) were disappointed but recognized the
authenticity this added.
"It was a very unique experience to be shooting that first take,"
notes Hanks. "It was loud and scary and intimidating. I mean, we all
looked like fat, middle-aged, lazy white guys. And in came the
skinniest, scariest-looking human beings on the planet."
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