Director Aaron Schneider talks about what it's like to work with famous actor who doubles as screenwriter.
Tom Hanks is one of the most versatile actors today, with roles ranging from the slow-witted but influential Forrest Gump to a quick-thinking hero airline pilot in Sully.
In his latest role, in Greyhound, he is a pilot of different kind — not one who must land his plane on water but one who must navigate the treacherous Nazi U-Boot-infested depths of the North Atlantic. As U.S. Navy Commander Ernest Krause, he is also a man of spiritual depth who is confronted with war’s moral realities.
Hanks also brings his creative side to the project, having written the screenplay for Greyhound, based on the 1955 C.S. Forester novel The Good Shepherd.
Aleteia spoke with Director Aaron Schneider on Friday about how the film came to be and about Hanks’ contributions to it. Schneider won an Academy Award for his 2003 short film Two Soldiers, which also is based in the World War II era.
What did you find so interesting about this story to take it on?
What struck me first and probably the hardest was seeing Tom Hanks’ name as the screenwriter. I came up through the industry as a cinematographer and made the decision into my cinematography career that I wanted to direct. So I adopted a William Faulkner short story called “Two Soldiers” and decided I was going to just go make my film. It was a real big turning point, a big seminal point in my life and career — scary — and it stayed with me.
So this screenplay comes across my desk with Tom Hanks’ name as the screenwriter, and my first thought was about my own project, and I thought to myself, “I wonder if this is something near and dear to Tom’s heart.” Tom has done more than everything in Hollywood, as an actor. So it made me wonder, “Is this Tom Hanks doing something for himself and doing something that maybe he’s never done before and maybe add variety to his own life?” We don’t immediately think of Tom Hanks as needing variety in life, right? But every artist is always looking to feed their ambition. And I thought, “How cool it would be if this was a passion piece, and instead of just working with Tom Hanks the actor, I’d be working with Tom Hanks the filmmaker and his company that produces so much great stuff, Play-Tone. And that turned out to be the case.
My first thought was the kind of working relationship and the opportunities that would create to work with someone I admired. And of course I had seen Saving Private Ryan, and it had such a big influence on the story I chose to adapt, when I made my film. Here it was coming full circle with a Tom Hanks World War II movie, and so I jumped.
And of course I read the script, and it was such a unique way into a war story. You’re always looking for a new way into a story or a new way into a war that had a lot of different stories set within it. And this one certainly was: it focused on a huge part — maybe even the biggest part — of World War II, that hadn’t really been explored that much, because there have been plenty of combat World War II stories made on land, but very few have taken a dive into the workings and unique challenges of fighting a war at sea.
What was it like working with Tom Hanks as both the screenwriter and the lead?
Movies are very structured things. They’re creative endeavors, but also there’s a process. And the first process you engage in is the screenplay, which you develop and hone. Once that becomes the blueprint, you analyze it budgetarily and break it down, make schedules. So making a movie has its own kind of architecture, and the first step was working with Tom as the guy who was going to try to visualize this screenplay. It doesn’t matter what movie you’re working on: when the filmmaker meets the screenwriter, there’s a meeting of minds that takes place, because it’s a visual medium, and the director’s first responsibility is to make sure that everything the screenplay’s trying to do can be realized. In fact, I think the French word for director is réalisateur. It’s about realizing what’s on the page. And sometimes things can jump off the page organically and sometimes they have to be more designed, to be more massaged, because it’s a visual medium.
So the first step with Tom was to engage in that process: do we have what we need visually? Do we have the raw materials, just to make sure that the story you’re trying to tell is going to translate to the screen vividly?
So you go through that process and lock it, and then you start casting it. And so I got to share casting ideas with Tom as producer and Gary [Goetzman], his partner [at Play-Tone]. It’s an interesting thing to work with an actor through the casting process. They have a completely different perspective on it.
So every step of the way there’s a different kind of creative partnership that works in a different way. And then of course when you get to the set, it’s a director’s set. To get a movie made, it’s not unlike a ship’s captain. It’s not a democracy. If someone isn’t in charge, who doesn’t have an idea on how to get you through it, there’s no direction. And a director is a leader in that regard, and an actor needs to trust and look to a director to get them through their process too, because their craft is on a shot-by-shot, dramatic moment-by-dramatic moment basis that takes all the concentration in the world to do what they do in that moment, so someone has to be on the outside making sure it fits into the big picture and is servicing the whole, which in this case was Tom’s screenplay.
So each step of the way was a different dynamic. But Tom is a pro: he’s produced, he’s acted, he’s written. So he knows how to embody whatever role he’s in, and then shed that skin and move on to the next.
How would you characterize the character of Ernest Krause, whom Hanks plays?
What struck me most about him was how absolutely 100% human he was. So many times as storytellers we always endeavor to create a hero for the screen, but the hard part is making a hero that everyone can identify with who has strengths and weaknesses and talents and demons. So I love the concept of taking a man of faith and throwing him into a leadership position where he has been commanded to both protect and when necessary to kill and to engage in the horrors of war. So right from the starting gate, you’re taking a man of faith who’s lived his life inside a certain set of moral and religious principles and forcing him into a role of leadership that’s going to test those, whether it’s his attitudes toward killing or whether it’s his faith in God or faith in himself — all of it inevitably is tested in a life or death situation. It’s an undercurrent; it’s an aspect of his personality and life that is there to give meaning to the conflict and the dilemmas he runs into as a hero. And that’s what makes him a hero.
He seems to be deeply reflective, such as when he watches the remains of the U-Boot rise to the surface, and he retorts to the sailor who says gleefully, “Fifty less Krauts.” And Krause’s quiet comment is, “Fifty souls.”
That’s a big thing. He’s a first time commander, which means it’s the first time he’s taken life. That’s not to say the sailor’s celebratory reaction isn’t legitimate. Those men are trying to rid the world of evil; those men are trying to protect lives around them, and there’s absolutely reason to celebrate when they’ve been successful at that. But that’s the terrifying thing about war: how can you be both thrilled to kill and mournful at the same time? Both are legitimate reactions. And that scene is designed to contrast the two sides of that coin.
One thing I found to be interesting was the gradual removal of the viewer from the midst of battle to an overview from high above, with the aurora in the distance.
Yeah, it’s funny, a screenplay usually doesn’t contain shots. You read a screenplay: t’s a way of communicating the story visually. But it’s a unique craft, screenwriting; it’s unlike any other kind of writing. It’s meant to evoke imagery without actually describing what you’re seeing. But every now and then, when a particular visual beat is important to the writer or the story, they’ll make sure it’s written into the screenplay.
The shot you’re talking about was written by Tom, and it was on purpose. As a storyteller, he needed a way to propel you through the night with a time jump. It was a way of moving through the battle without creating battle scenes. So the camera rises up above the clouds, and you get the sense that this is going to go on all night.
But then the irony of the shot, once you get up there, there’s the glory of the universe kind of hovering above it all, and it gives you kind of a perspective. A lot of the astronauts talk about how when you look at the earth from that far away you really get a sense of how we’re all in it together. So when you move up high and look down at the event removed from it it’s a unique perspective on what’s going on that’s kind of a poetic comment. It gives you a chance to catch a breath too. So it was a very skillfully crafted shot that Tom wrote, because that’s the way he wanted to feel at that point in the story.
From your experience working with Hanks, whose credits also include Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, why do you think he has such a great interest in World Ware II?
If I had to guess, it’s probably related to the same reason I am: because the whole concept of the hero is about sacrifice. There’s no such thing as a hero without sacrifice. When we talk about the Greatest Story Ever Told, we talk about sacrifice for everyone in the world, not just for your family or the sailors on a ship but for the entire world. So the volume of a hero is directly proportional to the amount of sacrifice they’re willing to make.
So when you go back to World War II, when the whole world was united in what was right and what was wrong, and you take men who are willing to put their lives on the line, sacrifice their own safety and their own future for a higher purpose, then just before you even craft a story inside of that world, you’re dealing with some of the greatest heroes in modern history. And as filmmakers, that’s a framework that’s very powerful. But then of course it’s your responsibility to find a way into it that’s illuminating, that’s unique and meaningful, because that’s kind of the price you pay. If you’re going to go in and explore this important period of history dramatically, then you owe it to audiences and history to be illuminating and show an audience something new. And I think that appeals to Tom, because there haven’t been a lot of modern naval warfare stories told, and this was a chance to take a deep dive into a section of our military who fought the war in a very different way, under very different circumstances, and let it be the backdrop for an exciting movie.
What would you hope this film says to people, particularly Americans, at this time in our history, with a pandemic and lots of other things going on?
We call ourselves Americans and we do so because we share something in common, and we often refer to that as patriotism. It’s the American bond that binds us. But talking about patriotism doesn’t really cut it, does it? It’s like talking about love. Love needs expression and action. Patriotism is the same way. The reason we see patriotism during world conflicts is because that’s where the rubber hits the road, something important that threatens us all is happening. So now what are you going to do about it? How are you going to exhibit patriotism, rather than just talk about it?
In World War II, it was the way people rationed and came together and worked and sacrificed their own comforts. They did their part.
So today, I would just pose the question: What are you going to do for your fellow Americans, to be patriotic? And these days it’s about protecting yourself and protecting each other. It’s about being careful, being polite, wearing masks, and thinking about what I can do to keep my fellow Americans safe.
It’s an unintended parallel. We made the film long before the pandemic. But it resonates. Our duty really is each other. Actions speak louder than words.