Written by on Oct 14, 2013. Posted in Production News

Tom Hanks films piracy drama Captain Phillips in Malta and Virginia

Tom Hanks and director Paul Greengrass filmed Malta and the military facilities of Virginia in the US for modern piracy drama Captain Phillips. The movie tells the true story of Captain Richard Phillips, whose merchant ship the Maersk Alabama was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009.

Greengrass has a preference for documentary-style realism – his CV includes true-life Northern Ireland drama Bloody Sunday and the harrowing 9/11 film United 93 – and so the production was driven by the filmmaker’s determination to film on the open ocean.

“Shooting this film out on the ocean, on a working ship, was tremendously important to me,” comments Greengrass: “I started the film with the conviction that we had to re-enact the event in conditions as close as possible to those in which it occurred. Everybody said, ‘You’re insane - shooting at sea is one of the things you don’t do as a director.’ But it gives the film a veracity that cannot be quantified.”

The waters around Malta became the main filming location and doubled for the region around the African coast in the hijacking scenes. It was a decision driven by the local availability of a suitable ship - the Maersk Alexander - which was a match for the Alabama.

Malta offers extensive stage and water tank facilities at the Mediterranean Film Studios near the capital city Valletta. Greengrass based the production at the studio for the 41-day regional shoot, but he made only limited use of the actual stages and water tanks, with the bulk of filming taking place on the Alexander.

Everybody said, ‘You’re insane - shooting at sea is one of the things you don’t do as a director.’

Paul Greengrass, Director

The trade-off to the unique sense of realism was that the production team had to have an understanding of the ship's logistical requirements, which included berthing fees, fuel and waste disposal. Then there was the huge challenge that the Alexander presented as an environment of narrow passageways and stairs that wasn’t designed to be used as a filming location.

“We’re used to having a lot more space,” observes Daniel Franey Malone, the film’s marine co-ordinator: “We really had to scale things down and the teams had to be very conservative in what they brought on board.”

Daily weather conditions drove decisions about whether the Alexander would stay in the harbour for scenes set inside the ship, or whether it would be taken out to sea for the day. Taking the ship out required a harbour pilot and tugboat, and the challenges didn't end with the confined spaces.

"Communication between the ship and with the support and picture boats was sometimes difficult, especially when filming far out at sea," explains the film's Malta Unit Production Manager, Katryna Samut Tagliaferro: "Catering could also sometimes be a bit tricky - not so much for those on the ship, but for those on the smaller support boats."

“A crew is some hundreds of people and equipment - actors and costume, and makeup, and cameras, and set,” says Greengrass. “To put that on the water is a monumental logistical endeavour. You’ve got dozens and dozens of boats and then you have to have safety boats. The production was like a flotilla and I felt like the admiral of a fleet.”

Filming shifted to Virginia in the eastern US for the climatic scenes where the pirates take Captain Phillips hostage on a Maersk Alabama lifeboat and a tense stand-off follows with US Navy SEALs. The production team hadn’t considered Virginia an option as a filming location until the Navy offered them the military resources they needed at Norfolk Naval Base. As producer Dana Brunetti comments, the Navy considered that the real Alabama incident saw them portrayed as “sober-minded professionals” and they wanted to sustain this “robust” image.

Filming nearly ten miles out to sea, Greengrass and his team worked aboard guided-missile destroyer the USS Truxtun – which remained on active duty while it was being used as a filming location – plus an amphibious assault ship, a helicopter and the USS Halyburton, which was in fact involved with the real incident in 2009.

The Captain Phillips crew had to travel out to this flotilla each day with all their filming equipment and gear, at which point they faced the challenge of co-ordinating multiple cameras and ships on the open ocean.

“There were a lot of moving parts - two destroyers, an aircraft carrier and a helicopter shining a light on the lifeboat,” Brunetti adds: “We had to get the ships in position, we had to get our cameras in position, the helicopter had to hit the lifeboat at the right moment and the actors in the lifeboat had to deal with the fact that the ships were creating an intentional wake to rock the boat. They were in there for hours while we did to them what the Navy did to the actual hijackers.”

Over the course of the Virginia shoot, the production team spent USD2.6 million on location and got a USD300,000 grant from the Governor’s Motion Picture Opportunity Fund.

“Major feature films such as this one require a great deal of teamwork and Captain Phillips shows what this kind of collaboration can achieve,” concludes Virginia Film Office director Andy Edmunds.

(Photos: Jason Boland/Columbia Pictures)


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