Paul Greengrass was drawn to Captain Phillips not only to work with Tom Hanks, but also to pay tribute to his merchant marine father.

Paul Greengrass was not overly familiar with the story of the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking that would inspire Captain Phillips, but he wanted to be a part of Sony’s movie as soon as he read Billy Ray’s first draft.

“I loved the two characters, [Captain Richard] Phillips and [Somali pirate leader] Muse,” says the UK director. “I loved the idea of working with Tom [Hanks].

“Also the world spoke to me because my dad was at sea all his life. He was a merchant mariner for a good chunk of his career and I always wanted to make a film of that world.”

However, before he could move forward the story of Phillips’ ordeal at the hands of four Somali pirates and his astonishing rescue by Navy SEALs, there had to be some changes.

“There were a number of really important decisions in the evolution of the film… one of which was in the evolution of the screenplay, because Richard Phillips’ book is basically his first-person account interwoven with his wife’s first-person account of her experiences.

“Billy’s first draft really followed that paradigm… In the end we [decided to] keep the story on the ocean and that was [Hanks’] call and it was a very important one.”

The shipping forecast

After the producers spent months negotiating with Maersk and the US Navy to use real ships on the ocean, production took place over spring and summer 2012 in Boston and Virginia Beach on the US east coast, Malta, London and Morocco doubling for Somalia.

It was often cramped on the boats, but it seems little fazes Greengrass.

“I like to rehearse, because what you are trying to do is figure out a way of joining all these [screenplay] pieces. Then there’s this process of speaking to the real crew [on board the ships they used during filming] and asking what they would do in situations, which I call accommodating to reality.”

Greengrass is famously a fan of reality. As a former director on the ITV current affairs show World In Action, he is renowned for research. Piracy and global shipping gave him plenty to sink his teeth into.

“The thing you have to understand about [merchant shipping] is the shipping lines underpin the global economy… Every single thing in this room, large amounts of what you are wearing, what you eat, everything, it all comes in container ships; it doesn’t go by air.

“So these pirates attacking that - it’s just fascinating because it goes to the heart of tomorrow’s global economy.

“These ships that come out of the Middle East and are coming into Europe are going past the Horn of Africa. Of course young men are going to come out.”

Over the past decade or so, hundreds of millions of dollars have been dropped by helicopter onto hijacked ships.

“The money’s not going to the kids who climb up the side of the ship. They’re making a score and they go and buy a flash car and you can be a big man around town for a few weeks.”

The bulk of proceeds goes to tribal warlords, often based outside Somalia, whom Greengrass likens to the Mob of the 1920s.

“They have whole operations along the coast now and literally finance entire communities. If you think about it, if you’re going to take a ship, you’ve got to be able to feed these hostages for years, sometimes. You have to house them, you have to cook, you need engineers to keep the [pirate] ships in working order. It’s an entire operation.”

The captain’s integrity

Late last year, nine crew members of Maersk Alabama brought law suits alleging negligence against the ship owners, Maersk Line Limited, and the crew’s employers, Waterman Steamship Corporation (the suits are not being brought against Phillips personally though it is pointed out he captained the ship into pirate-infested waters).

While Greengrass cannot comment on specifics, the director is not short of an opinion. “I was entirely convinced of Phillips’ integrity,” he says. “He had conspicuous courage and saved his ship, his cargo and his crew’s lives.”

Greengrass’s admiration for Phillips is the film’s gain. “The central character has got to be compelling and has got to sustain you for a couple of years. There’s got to be something about the events that you cannot articulate; they seem to speak to larger themes.

“The key is not to try to articulate that and the film does become an expression of this theme and the underlying complexity… That is true of Captain Phillips, United 93 and Bloody Sunday.

“You feel those films have power and meaning. The process of making the film is to try to find a way of explaining what these themes are.”