Tom Hanks plays Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama when it's boarded by Somali pirates. The four pirates take Phillips and his bridge crew hostage and search for the remainder of the 20-man crew. Ultimately, the pirates escape onto a lifeboat with Phillips as hostage and end up facing the might of the U.S. Navy.
According to Greengrass, the film's producers put together a wish list of people to make the film, and he and Hanks were at the top of that list.
"It almost never happens that you get the people that you want," Greengrass said, but this time they did.
Greengrass is known for gritty realism in his films, either in spy movies (such as "The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum") or the acclaimed 9/11 drama "United 93."
Greengrass, who is British, said Phillips' survival story didn't make the news as loudly there as it did in the United States. "We had our own hostages [in Europe]," he said. "Most of us have encountered [stories about] Somali pirates."
When he got hold of Billy Ray's screenplay, Greengrass said, "I read it with a freshness of discovery. … I could see the sort of stark simplicity of the story, with these two captains in these very different worlds."
The movie doesn't just focus on Phillips, but on the leader of the Somali group, Muse (played by Barkhad Abdi, a Somali refugee living in Minnesota). The Somalis are depicted as desperate men, ordered to hit the seas in their tiny boats by warlords demanding results or else.
"It's about these two captains, in these very different worlds," Greengrass said.
And while the film explains the Somalis' perspective, Greengrass said he was determined not to soft-pedal or glamorize piracy.
"There's nothing good about piracy," Greengrass said, with considerable understatement. "It's brutal, it's hard, it's kidnapping and a willingness to use violence. It's international organized crime. … What I wanted was to convey that in the starkest of moral terms."
Greengrass also wanted to work with Hanks, who "has given me so many wonderful moments in the cinema," the director said.
"In a cinematic era dominated by superheroes, he has fashioned a wonderful career playing ordinary men with the limitations that ordinary men have," he said.
Working with Hanks, Greengrass said he was impressed with the actor's dedication to the craft and his ability "to be calm and incredibly focused on the character and on the world."
In portraying Phillips, Greengrass said, "He steadily, piece by piece, fashions overall this story of endurance.
"If you look at the moments he does it in, they're all moments of doubt and fear. But somewhere when you put those moments together, they're played with such incredible empathy and accuracy. … He so inhabits that part, that all those pieces create something so incredibly inspiring."
It's traditional on a movie set, when an actor finishes his last scene of the shoot, for the crew to give him a round of applause. When that happened for Hanks on the set of "Captain Phillips," Greengrass said, "you could tell it wasn't just the normal respect you give an actor. It was heartfelt."