Directors Round Table: Paul Greengrass on embracing 'blind panic'

Paul Greengrass: 'A lot of it is the luck of the moment ...'

What's a filmmaker to do when his climactic final scene just isn't working? For Paul Greengrass, director of the hijacking thriller "Captain Phillips," the answer was to pull a 180 -- to head to the other side of the ship and improvise an entirely new scene.

At the Envelope Directors Round Table, Greengrass and fellow filmmakers Nicole Holofcener ("Enough Said"), John Lee Hancock ("Saving Mr. Banks"), J.C. Chandor ("All Is Lost"), Steve McQueen ("12 Years a Slave") and Spike Jonze ("Her") talked about making the most of the unexpected. [Spoiler warning: Minor plot details ahead.]

"The last scene of my movie came because we were shooting a different scene on the ship that didn't work," Greengrass recalled. "We actually spent most of the day shooting it, which was some hours after [Tom Hanks as Capt. Richard Phillps] had been rescued and he was all showered. The scene that we had on the page was four or five hours later, and he's shown into the captain's cabin to relax, and he's given a beer and a phone to call home."


Greengrass continued: "We spent most of the day shooting that and it was fine, but you know when you know it's just not it. And the clock ticks on, and we had a hard out -- we had to be off that ship at 7, I think. So it was about half past 5, we were talking to the captain [of the rescue ship, who consulted on the film], and we said, 'Well, where else?' And he said, 'Well, when [the captain] first came on, he would have gone to the infirmary,' which is down the other side of the ship. And I said, 'Well, can we go down there and just try something there?' It's kind of like a last throw of the dice, really. And he said, 'Yeah, sure. There'll be a medic on duty, you can use her.'"

At that moment, the director said, "Blind panic sets in, which actually is a very good place from which to make films, in my experience, because nobody knows what they're doing, least of all me -- but what happens is you stop thinking about it and you start being entirely instinctive.'"

Although the first take was "just a disaster," Greengrass said, "you could tell just in that moment there was something in that room that was real -- and we'd been looking for it upstairs in a different room, six hours later in screen time, and it wasn't real. But it was real here."

He added, "It was just a lucky, lucky moment. But so much of filmmaking -- you can try and stack the odds for you, but a lot of it is luck. The luck of the moment."

For more from the Directors Round Table, watch the full video above and check back for daily highlights.