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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.
PHOTOS: Exclusive Portraits of Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi
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.
STORY: With ‘Captain Phillips,’ Tom Hanks Is Back In The Oscar Hunt (Analysis)
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.”
VIDEO: ‘Captain Phillips’ Trailer: Tom Hanks Negotiates With Pirates
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.”
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.”
STORY: Why Tom Hanks’ ‘Captain Phillips’ Is Opening the New York Film Fest (Analysis)
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.
STORY: Tom Hanks’ ‘Captain Phillips’ to Open Tokyo Film Fest
“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.”
At age 14, seven years after arriving in Yemen and learning to speak Arabic, Abdi moved again when his family got lucky on its third attempt and won the annual U.S. lottery for a green card, relocating to Minnesota.
He remembers arriving in New York and then taking a plane to Minneapolis, where his family accidentally ended up in a limousine because they had asked for a “car” instead of a taxi. “The highway was amazing,” he says. “I would see little girls driving cars. It was so different.”
Still, the years after his arrival were difficult. Abdi went to an inner-city school and experienced a troubled adolescence, during which he once was jumped by several youths. His mother spoke some English but no one else in the family did, and he would find himself watching TV without understanding a word. (Even now, his English is heavily accented and sometimes stumbling.) Later, he drifted from one job to another — as a taxi driver, as a Target employee or working in his brother’s audio and phone store. Finally, he heard that Hollywood was looking for Somalis.
STORY: ‘Captain Phillips’ Producer Michael De Luca to Be Honored at Hollywood Film Awards (Exclusive)
“People around me would say, ‘Oh, they’re going to embarrass Somali people, don’t go,’ ” he remembers. “I was like, ‘It’s Tom Hanks. I’m going to check it out.’ So I went [to one casting call]. There’s a lot of people there. I said, ‘My name’s Barkhad Abdi. I was born in Mogadishu, and I am the part.’ “
At the audition, Abdi formed a tight group with three friends; it was their real-life bond that made them especially appealing to Greengrass, who met them when they moved on to the next audition stage and were flown to Los Angeles. But there also was something in Abdi himself.
“He had this instinct for expression; he is a very interesting man,” says Greengrass. “His ability as an actor is rooted in personal experience and a sense of drama.”
The action forced the Somalis to be as real as they could, given that Greengrass had opted not to have them take acting lessons. By contrast, he did have them learn to swim and gave them a crash course in boating: “There’s no stunt doubles [piloting the skiffs] — that’s them.”
With much of the shoot taking place onboard the cargo ship, or on skiffs out at sea that Greengrass’ crew followed on ever-moving boats, the intensity of the shoot was constant. There were guns, hostility, fighting; there were days when Hanks and Abdi were trapped in a lifeboat on a gimbal inside a tank, unable to look through a window; there was the seasickness that overcame many crewmembers (though neither Hanks nor Abdi).
“There’s a lot of mental stress,” says Hanks of playing his role. “[There’s] the anger that goes along with it and the desperation and stuff like that. You’ve got to start at 60 miles an hour. It takes its toll.”
Looking back, Hanks says the film led him to see the Somali pirates in a different light.
“[At first] you think, ‘They’re bad guys and they have machine guns and they’re thugs,’ ” he says. “But Paul, as soon as we started talking about it, says, ‘It’s true, but the place has been fished out by the global fishing industry, and Somali fishermen with their little lines and little nets can’t compete with these trawlers that have literally swept the place clean of marine life.’ Well, that alters life in Somalia a little bit.”
He adds: “All the riches of global commerce [are] literally floating by a country that has completely fallen apart, where corruption and violence rule the day, in which famine is truly a part of life. Some of these pirates have no fear, because what’s their option? To quietly live in this country that [has] fallen deeply into chaos?”
As for Abdi, he is aware that he might have gotten caught up in that chaos had he not been lucky enough to leave. Now, standing at a precarious point between anonymity and fame — and wavering between pursuing an acting career and going back to his dream of becoming a recording engineer — he ponders what his life could have been if he had remained in the country he hasn’t seen for more than two decades.
“Somalia was a lawless country for 20 years,” he says. “There’s no government. There’s no job. There’s no hope. If I was in Somalia till now, I wouldn’t be the same person.”
Abdi still dreams of returning to the war-torn land; but his mind firmly is in America now — in his home, Minneapolis, and perhaps in Hollywood, too.
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