Inside the Intense 'Captain Phillips' Shoot: Tom Hanks' 'Mental Stress,' His Co-Star's Horrific Backstory and a 'Scary' First Day on Set
This story first appeared in the Oct. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
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 boarded.
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 President Obama. 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 Tom Hanks, 57) and Muse, the Somali leader (played by newcomer Barkhad Abdi, 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 Todd McCarthy 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 Scott Rudin, Michael De 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 Marc Weinstock on Sept. 23, a move that came against the backdrop of a so-far-unsuccessful bid by investor Daniel Loeb 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 Amy Pascal. "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, Yung Yubi.
"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 ship.
"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."