The truth made ‘Captain Phillips’ screenplay an easy sail

Billy Ray wrote the screenplay for "Captain Phillips."
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

I love true stories.

I think it’s because I’m constantly amazed, intrigued, inspired (and sometimes appalled) by genuine human behavior. Inventing characters is a lot of fun but I don’t think I’m capable of creating a fictional character that could possibly be as dimensional, idiosyncratic or fully realized as the actual people I read about in the newspaper every day — which is another way of saying that when you’re telling a true story, life itself has done most of the work for you. That makes things easier.

I also like the feeling I get when I’m working on a true story — a sense of authenticity, that I’m really reporting and not just writing.

But without a great true story, a screenwriter is lost at sea.

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“Captain Phillips” was just such a story. Everyone watching as it unfolded on CNN could see that.

It had all the elements a writer could ask for: great characters, a compelling hero and an equally fascinating bad guy, brilliant set-pieces, unbearable tension — and truly interesting global politics that were just baked into its DNA. It also had an ending that was simultaneously thrilling, cathartic, satisfying ... and oddly sad.

Movies like that can actually be about something. It’s hard to adequately express how rare that’s become lately. No superheroes, no CGI worlds blowing up — just human beings placed under brutal pressure, revealing (as people always do when placed under brutal pressure) who they actually are.

And it was a true story! My cup runneth over.

Needless to say, it was a job I wanted very badly. I was lucky to get it.

My belief from the beginning was that this ought to be a movie about two captains. They both get up in the morning and get dressed for work; then both go out and do their jobs.

But one is a merchant mariner from Vermont and the other is a Somali pirate. One is very much a part of the global economy, the other lives in a hut in a lawless land, a world governed by AK-47s and despair.

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Yet both are responsible for the lives of their men.

That was the lure for me — telling a story about leadership: how these two captains lead, the kinds of decisions they make when the safety of their respective crews are on the line.

Ultimately, our choices define us. We are what we do. When Captain Phillips was faced with the toughest choice he’d ever have to make in his life, he chose to sacrifice himself for the good of his crew. He chose to get in that lifeboat.

Muse, the lead pirate, was also faced with choices during the seizure of the Maersk Alabama and the hostage-struggle that followed, hundreds of choices in fact. At each juncture, he made calculated decisions that put his crew — and himself — in deeper and deeper jeopardy.

I had a lot to say about that.

I also wanted to explore the dynamics between these two captains. One’s got the gun, the other’s a hostage, but the power struggle between them was so complex, so rich. In some ways, it was a metaphor for America’s place in the world today. I loved drilling into that.

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There was also the chance to sketch the captain himself. Richard Phillips is as genuine as they come — demonstrated by the fact that there were times during the writing of the script when I’d call to ask him a question and would learn that he was on another ship somewhere. Think about that: He survives this horrible ordeal, comes home a celebrity — then goes back out and does his job again.

I had a lot to say about that too.

He, like the movie itself, is real and unvarnished, imperfect but thoroughly human. I always felt there was a real nobility in that; my job was simply to capture it. In that sense, it’s really Captain Phillips who wrote this movie — I just wrote it down.

That, I guess, is my true story.