As the story about the hijacking of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama unfolded on television in 2009, producers Michael De Luca and Dana Brunetti were transfixed. It was the first time a U.S. vessel had been seized by pirates since the 19th century, and it seemed to have the makings of a great movie. “We weren’t sure because it looked like it was going to be a very grim outcome,” Brunetti explains. “As Mike says, it (could have been) more of a Sundance movie.” But the story did end well. Captain Phillips (Sony) earned $25.7 million domestically in its October opening weekend, and Tom Hanks’ lead performance is drawing awards buzz.
AwardsLine: How did you first become involved with Captain Phillips?
Michael De Luca: We watched the news story, and after the situation was resolved, we thought there was a really good movie in there — stuff you couldn’t get from the news, like what was being said within the lifeboat, what the Navy was dealing with, getting all the assets into the region. So after we decided it would be a good movie, we took the next step, which was to see if the real Captain Phillips would engage with us. That’s where Dana and (production company) Trigger Street picked up the ball.
Dana Brunetti: About a week or so (after the rescue), I got the OK to go and meet with (Richard Phillips) in Vermont. He had just gotten back. I sat down at dinner with him, and he still had bruises on his wrist from being bound. You would never believe that he’d just gone through what he’d gone through because he’s just an everyman — dry sense of humor and just a regular good guy. Actually, I thought I’d have something in common with him because I was in the Coast Guard. So I threw that out and I found out that he’s not a big fan of the Coast Guard. (Laughs.) It was like, “Let’s change the topic.” About a week later, he said he wanted to go with us, but he wanted to wait for the book (A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS And Dangerous Days At Sea, on which the film was based) to be done. He came back to us when it was done, and we went to Sony and set it up there.
AwardsLine: About how long was it between the 2009 rescue and when the book was done?
De Luca: It was pretty quick. It was probably like nine months or so. And also, it came together easily and quickly just by its own energy.
AwardsLine: Director Paul Greengrass is known for his documentary-style filmmaking — was that style always what you wanted for Captain Phillips?
Brunetti: When you go in for any life rights, you always ask, “Who would you have play this person, or who would you have direct?” And Mike and I threw out Paul’s name and Tom Hanks’ name, never thinking we would end up with them.
AwardsLine: And I’m sure Phillips was like, “Tom Hanks? OK!”
De Luca: They must think, “This is easy, moviemaking. You always get your first choices.” (Laughs.) (But) I think this is the only time this has ever happened, and will happen, for me. I think they (saw) what (producer Scott) Rudin always liked: The suggestion of complexity. Yes, there was the news story and even Richard’s book, but the circumstances that throw these two worlds together (are) something of substance, and that’s what turned everybody on.
AwardsLine: Barkhad Abdi has been getting a lot of attention for his role as Muse, the lead Somali pirate. Was it tough to cast this role?
De Luca: When we first started we were like, “Where are we going to find four Somali actors?” (Casting director) Francine Maisler found this community in Minneapolis that had a big Somali population. We had an open casting call, and the four that we ended up with were friends prior. That really resonated with Paul. They already had a pecking order in place.
AwardsLine: You’ve worked together on several films based on real-life events. What’s different about producing that type of movie?
Brunetti: There’s not as much license, obviously, as what you have with a fictional story. Sometimes you legally owe that to people, to stay true to what someone has gone through. But that’s fine because, presumably, you picked the story because you think it will be compelling to audiences based on its own merits.
De Luca: As long as (you) aren’t being defamatory, you have enough license to bring narrative peaks and valleys. Truman Capote (called) his novel In Cold Blood a “nonfiction novel.” And these (films) are kind of nonfiction narrative features.
AwardsLine: How involved are you with the marketing of your films?
De Luca: As much as they’ll let us! (Laughs.) But we try to be at least in a consulting position—shown stuff early, giving feedback. This is another advantage of (working with) Scott Rudin because he’s the maestro. He’s run a studio; he’s done so many prestige (awards) campaigns and campaigns in general. We leaned a lot on him for getting the movie developed and packaged the right way.