Inside the Intense 'Captain Phillips' Shoot: Tom Hanks' 'Mental Stress,' His Co-Star's Horrific Backstory and a 'Scary' First Day on Set
Sony's true story about pirates wasn't without its own drama as nine weeks on an actual container ship amid fighting, hostility and seasickness took its toll; says Hanks of playing the real-life hero, "[There's] the anger that goes along with it and the desperation. … You've got to start at 60 miles an hour." Plus: Why did director Paul Greengrass keep his Somalian actors away from his star?
Captain Phillips (one of two Hanks releases this fall, along with Disney's Saving Mr. Banks) sprang to life when Rudin, De Luca and Brunetti watched the actual events unfold on television. After Phillips was freed, they contacted him through an agent, who was arranging a book deal. The trio beat others including Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher (Erin Brockovich) in a race to obtain the rights to Phillips' life, then turned to the difficult task of adapting it, hiring Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) to write.
Ray's research led him to some mind-boggling facts: The average Somali lives on $600 a year, he says (the Central Bank of Somalia in fact estimates per capita income at half that), and spends a good chunk of it on the homegrown narcotic khat. He adds that about 64 percent of the population is armed (compared with America's 39 percent, according to a 2010 Gallup poll).
Given this backdrop, Ray says he wished to humanize the pirates, all four of whom were 19 or younger, without necessarily justifying their actions: "Phillips is part of the global economy, and Muse is not, and they are about to meet head-on."
That theme appealed to Hanks. "I was certainly intrigued by the concept of a guy with a very complicated but extremely unglamorous job," he says. "These guys, as even Phillips describes it, [are] 'the truckers of the sea.' They're essentially hauling stuff in big cargo containers, and it's a pain in the ass, and you've got to deal with a bunch of people, not the least of whom are your crew, who are a very fascinating hodgepodge. That's a tough gig."
Hanks was equally fascinated by the life-and-death situation Phillips found himself in, when "lo and behold, he looks through his binoculars and sees these really scary-looking guys who almost resemble spiders with AK-47s. And for a short time, he's living by his absolute wits."
Director Ron Howard also was drawn to the film and circled it for a while before opting for Universal's Formula One racing drama Rush. Ironically, Greengrass, who replaced him, had at one point considered making Rush.
"I loved Rush; I thought it was a great screenplay," says Greengrass. "But there was something about Captain Phillips that really suited me" -- not least its connection to his father, a retired merchant seaman.
Hanks had met with Greengrass a few times while working on another project that never got made. Before the two started shooting, he discussed the filmmaker's style with Matt Damon, the star of Greengrass' Bourne films. "I said, 'So what's the deal?' " he recalls. "He said, 'OK, your first rehearsal will be a disaster, and the first time you shoot it will be like everybody's talking over each other and no one can figure out what's going on. But then you end up getting at stuff better than you ever would imagine.' "
As Hanks began to research the story, twice flying to Vermont to meet with the real-life Phillips, Greengrass had to confront two challenges: first, finding a ship that could stand in for the Alabama; then casting an actor who would convey absolute authenticity as a pirate.
Greengrass got lucky when Maersk -- which owns about 600 container ships -- told the production it had an identical ship that it could use at cost (even though this meant paying some $800,000 for fuel alone). But finding a co-star for Hanks was more complicated.
Months before shooting began in Malta (with subsequent filming in the U.K., Morocco and Norfolk, Va.), casting director Francine Maisler began to scour the country for Somalis, particularly in and around Minneapolis, a hub for East African immigrants. More than 700 locals were interviewed at a community center -- among them, Abdi, who had heard about the audition while watching the news.
The Somali immigrant was 6 years old and living in Mogadishu when war broke out. He still remembers the guavas, mangos and lemons in the garden of the suburban house where he lived and the sense of joy they brought him, as did his early life before everything changed for him and his teacher parents.
"It was so peaceful," he recalls of the time before civil war, when the nation's military government was ousted by competing clan-based factions. "Then the war happened. I was in the street, playing around, and we heard shots. And the next day, we woke up and we see people moving toward us and everybody had [guns]."
With Abdi's father temporarily away teaching in Yemen, "We were stuck there in Mogadishu [as gunfire broke out all around]. There were no lights. We would try to go to sleep, guessing what kind of gun it was. And on top of that, there was a very, very loud woman getting raped." To this day, he does not know if it was one woman or many. "I just remember her screaming so loud."
It took a year before Abdi's father could squirrel the family out to the relative safety of Yemen (whose population, like Somalia's, largely is Muslim). There, however, he went from being something of a "spoiled kid" to an outsider. "In Yemen, nobody knows me. I'm a stranger. So I had to cope with that. [People were] confused about seeing a black guy going to school with them because mostly when they see the black guy [there], he doesn't go to school. He's out and asking for dollars. [But] they got used to me in time."