'Captain Phillips' Editor Chris Rouse on Keeping the Characters 'Detailed and Alive'

Rouse explained how the Somali pirate did "some really bad things, but given his situation, we can perhaps understand his motivations without condoning his actions.”
Sony Pictures
"Captain Phillips"

Paul Greengrass' story of Captain Phillips, which opens Friday, unfolds brilliantly thanks to editing by Chris Rouse, Greengrass' longtime collaborator, who won an Oscar for the director's The Bourne Ultimatum and earned a nomination for United 93.

Captain Phillips is based on the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, during which its captain, Richard Phillips, was taken hostage by Somali pirates.

In addition to cutting a thriller -- The Hollywood Reporter chief film critic Todd McCarthy said it "rips right along and never relinquishes its grip" -- the strength of this film lies in the complexity of its two captains: Phillips, played by Tom Hanks, and a Somali pirate named Muse played by untrained actor Barkhad Abdi.

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"Paul wanted to tell a story about captains from two worlds brought into conflict, and so it was important to define both characters and their evolving relationship as specifically as possible," Rouse told THR.

"Paul is brilliant working with untrained actors, and he got a tremendous performance from Barkhad Abdi. Muse's character is complex -- he's a young man doing some really bad things, but given his situation, we can perhaps understand his motivations without condoning his actions. Barkhad's got a wonderfully expressive face, and [in the editing] I tried to show the different facets of his character -- his aggressiveness, his feigned arrogance, his fear and uncertainty, his contemplative side.

"When you married all of that against Tom's superbly nuanced performance as Phillips, some really interesting things occurred. I tried to keep both of the characters detailed and alive in every scene -- each clocking the situation, clocking each other -- and let the story be told through them," said the film editor.

Rouse related that he had plenty to work with in the cutting room since Greengrass shot a fair amount of material during principal photography. "It's a key part of his process as he and the actors relentlessly pursue dramatic truth in situations. The end result is a wealth of material that sometimes comes in as expected, and sometimes doesn't."

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The majority of the film was shot in 35mm, though director of photography Barry Ackroyd (an Oscar nominee for The Hurt Locker) also used Super 16 for shots in the skiffs and RHIB sequences, as well as the Arri Alexa and even tiny GoPros.

"Paul brings me aboard months before shooting; I'm able to root myself in the piece long before I ever make a cut," Rouse said. "Once I start editing, my process is similar to Paul's: I make choices carefully -- trying to be attentive to story, character and theme -- but I also work very openly and intuitively, trying to get the most out of the material no matter where that takes me."

If you are planning to see Captain Phillips this weekend, check back to this blog on Monday for part 2 of this interview, during which Rouse talks about cutting specific scenes in the film.

E-mail: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com
Twitter: @CGinLA