'Captain Phillips' Editor Chris Rouse on Creating Chaos

"Once Phillips jumps out of his seat, chaos follows -- everything changes and becomes more urgent," says Rouse in the second part of his interview with THR.
Sony Pictures
"Captain Phillips"

This story is the second part of an interview with Chris Rouse, the Oscar-winning editor of Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips. The first part of this interview can be found here.

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Captain Phillips.]

So how do you keep the suspense when you are cutting a movie for which the audience knows the ending? That's a question The Hollywood Reporter asked Captain Phillips editor Chris Rouse about cutting Paul Greengrass' account of the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates.

The editor has some experience in this area, having co-edited United 93, Greengrass’ film about the hijacking of United Airlines flight 93 on Sept. 11 (which earned Oscar nominations for directing and editing). “During United 93, the audience knew it was going to end tragically, yet people suspended what they knew and were hoping somehow the passengers were going to make it into the cockpit and save the plane,” Rouse told THR. “I think if you’ve immersed people thoroughly in the drama, they’re caught up in it and temporarily forget what they know. So [for Captain Phillips] I didn’t have any agenda other than keeping the audience constantly engaged in the story.

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“It was important that the build at the end to Phillips’ rescue didn’t let the audience off the hook for a moment, so the setup, development, and payoff of that sequence had to be well considered,” he added. “That sequence begins very procedurally, very deliberately, as the SEAL Commander sets his plan in motion. As the plan unfolds and the lifeboat is drawn closer to the snipers, the tension builds in a fairly methodical way. But once Phillips jumps out of his seat, chaos follows -- everything changes and becomes more urgent -- the actions of the characters, the nature of the cuts, the intensity of the music. ... It’s only afterward that the audience has a chance to reflect on what’s occurred.”

At the very end of the film, there’s a powerful scene during which Hanks is receiving care after his rescue, and the audience sees in his performance that he is beginning to process the ordeal. Said Rouse, “I was blessed to be working with incredible performances from our actors. In this scene between Tom [Hanks] and the real life corpsman, the footage was stunning -- and I simply tried to pick the best pieces. That scene was created by Paul and Tom as it was shot.”

Another great scene takes place after the Somali pirates boarded the ship and found Captain Phillips, but while the majority of the crew was hiding below deck. Rouse describes cutting the sequence during which these pirates try to find the crew members – making sure that the audience had a sense of  where they were on the ship, while also creating tension.

“It was important to define the goals for the characters up front -- that Muse [the ringleader in the group of pirates] was going to force Phillips to guide him through the entire ship until he found the crew, and that Phillips was going to try to prevent them from being found… and then try to keep their paths and obstacles clearly understood," Rouse said.

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“During prep, Paul and I talked a lot about the geography of this sequence,” he continued. “At one point in the script, it had involved the characters also moving laterally into the cargo hold towards the front of the ship, but it became clear that apart from making the sequence too long, it also made the geography more difficult to understand, and subsequently diminished the drama. In the end, it made more sense that the crew had gone straight down to the bottom of the engine room to hide -- and that Muse deduced early on that they were probably there."

Takes of Muse, Phillips, and another pirate named Bilal going to down the stairs to this room were intercut with a crew member's race upstairs to turn off the emergency generator. Explained Rouse: “It effectively did two things: It made the geography reasonably simple to follow, and put a dramatic clock on the sequence, creating more tension.

"As they passed through each area of the ship, I tried to choose shots and moments that told the story and acclimated the audience as best as possible to each environment. I also used some unexpected rhythms to make things seem more uncertain. As Muse, Phillips, and Bilal got closer to the bottom of the engine room, sound became an important dramatic device as the crew heard them approaching. Our sound team did a fantastic job with that sequence especially at its end -- with the sounds of footsteps, breathing and the creaking ship making it tremendously tense and suspenseful when Muse hunted for the crew alone.”

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