By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
For a self-professed happy-go-lucky guy, Paul Greengrass makes intensely serious movies, including Jason Bourne's hairiest adventures and recreating 9/11 terror in United 93. Nail biters all, unless your teeth get ground down to nubs first.
Greengrass, 58, brings his acute sense of shaky-cam urgency to Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks as commander of a U.S. cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009. Like United 93 and Green Zone, it's based on a true story, prompting the first question for Greengrass in a recent telephone interview:
How hard is making movies like Captain Phillips when everyone knows how it ends?
People know how the story ends … but only a film can put you there. Only a film can put you on that ship, can put you in that lifeboat… . And if you're lucky enough to have Tom Hanks in it, you've just got to get out of the way and let it happen. Half of directing is getting out of the way.
Hanks is wonderful, but the last five minutes of your movie may be the best acting I've ever seen from him.
I really believe in my heart that this is a great, if not the greatest, Tom Hanks performance. Just the colors that he shows, and the way he carries you through the movie. When he gets to the end, you've got to give people a sense of emotional fulfillment and resolution and catharsis. This man is finally safe, but what does that really feel like?
When we shot that scene the second-in-command of the Navy destroyer was next to me, so I said: "Come and have a little watch on the (playback) monitor." ... There were tears running down his cheeks. He took off the headphones and said: "Damn, that's powerful. That is exactly what trauma looks like, and I've seen it a lot." There's no higher praise than that, really.
Casting Hanks as a hero is easy, but how did you find Barkhad Abdi for the lead hijacker?
We all felt we had to find Somali actors to play these young men, and that's a tall order because there is no Somali acting community in Los Angeles or New York. So, the casting director and her team went to Minneapolis … (where) there's a large Somali community. Who knew? Something like 700 people turned up the first day.
Barkhad just had this charisma, a sense of danger and menace. He was able to portray the reality of what these young gangsters are like. … They're desperate because of the poverty they come from. There is nothing more dangerous than a young man in front of you with a gun, who's got nothing to lose.
You make such serious movies. What makes you laugh?
I have rich experiences in funny movies because my kids are teenagers, and because a big part of me has never grown up. I loved Step Brothers, absolutely loved it. I loved The Internship because I'm literally the person who knows the least about computers in our family. I love Will Ferrell.
Think you'll ever make a comedy?
Funny enough, just this week I've been thinking: 'I need to do something different.' But that's classic, and then I end up finding some story somewhere that exciting, in some far-flung place with a great character in it, and I'll go make that instead. Now I'm sitting around thinking: 'What about a romantic comedy?'
With tense, handheld cameras?
Well, if you're going to do a comedy it has to be funny, doesn't it?
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.