Yesterday, we took my father-in-law to see the film Captain Phillips as a birthday present.* He’s a Navy man, so of course, that appealed to him, and as a creative nonfiction writer, I was eager to see how they conveyed the tension in a story whose ending is already known. I don’t think either of us was disappointed and neither were P and his mom, given the way they exhaled when the movie ended.
As a writer, here are 5 lessons I took from that film.
1. Clear depiction of the setting is crucial. One of the most compelling parts of this story is that it takes place on the sea, in a place where the crew is utterly isolated. The filmmakers did a great job of emphasizing this with wide shots of the ship in the ocean and with close ups of the crew – in both the ship and the lifeboat – when things were tense and hot and dark. Beautiful use of setting to convey energy and tension.
2. If you can use the reader’s expectations, do it. In other words, make the most of foreshadowing. Everyone in the theater knew – at least to some extent – the basic gist of this story. We knew about the kidnapping and the SEALS at least. So the film makers played to that. They kept us anticipating the conclusion by delaying it while also foreshadowing it. For example, when Captain Phillips first boards the ship, he sees that the “pirate cages” are unlocked. Just a small thing, but it sets us up to understand not only the threat but how the captain will respond to it.
3. Use dialogue only when it forwards the action. This is a pretty standard writing lesson, but it’s played out really well in this film. Surely, on this ship, the crew was chit chatting a lot of the time. But the filmmakers don’t show us that small talk. Instead, we get only the casual conversations that reveal something about character or that drives the action on. This keeps the viewers focused on the plot and the captain, the two most compelling parts of this story.
4. Create complexity and humanity in every character. The part of the film that most impressed me was the way I felt sympathy for Muse, the pirate captain. I understood his choices; I knew why he was trying to take over the ship and why he was holding the captain hostage. I didn’t condone it, but I understood it. And because there was depth in his character that matched the depth in Captain Phillips, the story was much more compelling. I could root for Muse – to survive and to do the right thing – while all the time wanting Captain Phillips to escape and be safe. Beautiful writing there.
5. Don’t feel the need to make it all warm at the end. The final scene of this film – which I will not give away – is powerful because it shows both more complexity in Captain Phillip’s character but also because it’s not safe and cheery. It’s real, and because of that, it’s powerful. The fact that we fade to black in that most emotional intensity helps the film linger with us.
What about you? What did you think of the film as a piece of writing? Any other lessons you took away?
* I’m kind of curious to read the book that the film was drawn from, mostly to see if the sympathy and depth of understanding for Muse comes through in the book. Have any of you read it? A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips.
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