Tom Cutler: Greyhound is based on the C. S. Forester novel The Good Shepherd. And a lot of time in that novel is spent inside Commander Krause’s head, where he’s doing mental calculations involving the relative motions of the convoy ships. Were you able to convey what’s going on in his mind and how he’s dealing with these challenges?
Aaron Schneider: That’s a really interesting question, because one of the biggest challenges in adapting the book, for Tom Hanks, who plays Krause, and eventually for me as the director, was there is a lot of tactical drama, a lot of planning and sifting through options and ideas and scenarios, in Krause’s head, and, of course, the novel gives a peek into that pretty easily. After I came on board, Tom Hanks and I would have discussions about that to make sure we found a way to let the audience know what those scenarios were so we could create drama. We worked pretty hard on that, and we used people like the officer of the deck and his buddy Charlie down in the CIC [combat information center] as kind of a sounding board when it’s time for certain options and decision-making.
Craig Symonds: What in terms of the technology did you find most challenging in depicting ships at sea in 1942 engaged in combat? What were the most difficult technical problems for you?
Schneider: It’s not feasible to go out on the water and shoot everything that was required of this screenplay in a realistic way. We couldn’t take a World War II destroyer that’s in dry dock out on the ocean, although, between you and me, I actually looked into it, the idea of towing it and so forth. Things like that get cost prohibitive and logistically really tough. And shooting on the water creates a lot of hardships for crew and whatnot.
So, CGI, computer-generated imagery, is the way out of that. It’s still a challenge, especially with simulated water, to create the kind of reality you need to make the kind of movie we wanted. From the start I wanted to make sure we weren’t using kind of the standard Hollywood approach with the camera. My theory was, if we designed our computer-generated imagery to look as if we were out in the ocean, confined by the same constraints and up against the same elements that you would be if you were shooting from one ship to another to try and create any given shot, that we would end up with a higher sense of reality.
There were several sets of rules that I created for myself and for the team. In general, a camera can’t be placed randomly. It has to appear as if we had a skiff or a ship tagging alongside with a handheld camera on the deck. And that cameraman would have a very difficult time keeping a level horizon. And so, we quite literally, inside the computer, rather than thinking of it in terms of what we wanted the shot to be, we first set up a realistic environment for a shot.
If we wanted to see the Keeling, whose talk-between-ships radio call sign is Greyhound, cut through waves moving forward at standard speed, then we would animate a ship moving forward at standard speed through the waves and we’d animate another ship, a smaller one, tagging alongside of it, and we’d put a digital camera on the deck. Then we told that camera to behave like a human being and have trouble keeping the frame properly aligned and balanced. So, the idea is, even though each element is part of a computer-generated image, we’re trying to apply the same limitations and imperfections that you would get if you were out there shooting it. And that was the mantra, to try and create a much more realistic movie at sea.
If you remember the landing craft in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan—where cameras are shooting across the landing craft as all the men are throwing up and approaching the beach—there’s sort of a sense of handheld mayhem, like you can barely hang on and barely keep the image in the frame, let alone make anything look slick or fancy. There are times in the movie when that sort of mantra gets broken a little bit. There were times when we needed a bird’s-eye shot of what was going on tactically. But in that kind of war would there be a helicopter flying up above ships? No, right? That’s not realistic. So, we grounded it as well as we could.
Symonds: Now, you did film some of this on board the USS Kidd?
Schneider: Yes, we did. One of the ways you can help take the curse off of modern-looking CGI is by mixing it in with real steel. Whenever we could, based on what the shot was, we would set up the camera on the Kidd and mix it in with our CGI. You’re kind of mixing and matching different levels of realism.
Cutler: The Kidd is a museum ship, but it’s an actual World War II destroyer. I imagine you met some challenges making that look realistic.
Schneider: The good news is that the museum, the USS Kidd Veterans Museum, has a really dedicated museum crew. And very early on I became friendly with the supervisor of the ship, Tim NesSmith, who is really passionate about the ship, its history, and the museum.
Months before we even started the movie, I was flying out to Baton Rouge, taking photographs of the Kidd and scanning it for ideas—kind of taking it all in. And they’ve done such a marvelous job authenticating the ship based on historical photographs that the Kidd literally is in its World War II 1945 configuration. Some of the destroyers from that era are still on display, but they were retrotfitted during the Vietnam War, and they have modern additions to them. But the Kidd is sort of virgin World War II. I think the only thing they were missing, which they just got a donation to put on board, was a blast shield for the torpedo gunner.
Because we followed Krause so intimately through the whole story, and because a captain spends most of his time in a pilothouse, we built the pilothouse—a replica of the Kidd’s with the same number of windows and the same sort of match to all of its interior workings. We had a brilliant production designer who bought, found, or borrowed from other museum ships various things like radar equipment. He even found a helm and all the sort of voice pipes to match, and we re-created the Kidd’s pilothouse. We made it about 30 percent larger than the real pilothouse. Not so much bigger that it betrayed what it’s like to be in a cramped pilothouse but just big enough to allow for the cameras. Because the cameras are always one step out of the scene, right? In other words, if you want to see the whole room, the camera’s got to be outside the room.
So that was our primary set, and we had it on a hydraulic so we could basically simulate the unsteadiness of any particular sea state. Out the windows, surrounding the whole set, were big white silks and lights to simulate various lighting scenarios. When we looked out a window and saw a white silk standing in for the sky and pushing light into our scene with visual effects, we could simply turn that white into a bright sky with the semblance of clouds in it.
Tom’s character, Krause, would exit the pilothouse and go onto the bridge wing, which we also built. So, the set was built to be able to shoot inside the pilothouse, kind of like a room, and then it was built to be shot at. We could get a distance away from the bridge, as if we were on another ship; shoot back at our own set; and see the railing and plating of the bridge wing. If we needed him to come out and lift his glasses and react to something at the edge of the bridge wing looking out over the ocean, we had a big chunk of art-directed set and didn’t have to be on the Kidd for that.
Now, let’s say we want to see Krause looking through his glasses, but we want to be wider than our gimbled set. We want to drop back and put a 5-inch gun shooting in the foreground and see Krause up there with his glasses. Well, now we’re on the Kidd. And we can intercut our set with the Kidd, and because we’ve gone to such great lengths to match the two, sort of architecturally and texturally, we can seamlessly intercut the Kidd with the set. So, when you drop back and see all that vintage and authentic steel and the crew manning the guns, and you come up and cut to a close-up of Krause on our matched gimbled set with artificial lighting, the audience doesn’t know. The audience is being tricked into thinking our set is as authentic as the Kidd.
The third category is when you drop back and see the Kidd sailing. You have to be in the world of CGI. I had originally played around with the idea of shooting the Kidd, which sits in sort of a drydock when the water level of the Mississippi River is low. It sits on a rig for its keel. I had thought of a method where we could take one of those cameras you see at the Super Bowl that flies around on wires and program it to kind of hop up and down. Up, down, up, down with the rhythm of the sea. So, when you look through the eyepiece shooting a destroyer that’s sitting still, if you concentrate on the destroyer itself, it looks like it’s sailing.
The only thing that would give it away is that the horizon isn’t behaving right. So, then you’d erase everything but the ship and you could put the sea in. And that would mix digital water with a real ship, so half the shot would be authentic. That turned out to be sort of budgetarily prohibitive. So, when we dropped back far enough that we saw ships, it was entirely CGI.
However, I told you that months ahead of time I went and shot photographs. There’s a piece of software that uses a system called photogrammetry. If you take ten pictures in a 360 of an object in your room, put these ten photographs into a piece of photogrammetry software, hit a button, and wait, it matches the photographs. The photographs are lined up in 3-D space exactly where they were taken, and the program knows what the object looks like.
And so, my friend and I (we’re both kind of visual-effects geeks), with nothing to do until the movie started, we went down to the USS Kidd and spent two days taking about, I don’t know, 20,000 photographs of the ship, and I stuck them in the computer program. It took the computer about two weeks to compute, but it spit out an exact, to the centimeter-accurate, model of the Kidd.
All through production, we were able to use that model in the computer to look around and place my camera where I could check out different ideas. I gave that stuff to our visual-effects company. I think the second shot of the trailer is a big sunny sailing shot of the Kidd, and you’ll see in the hull where the sea over time has kind of dented the plating. That program I used actually resolved the dent detail in the hull, and the visual-effects company was able to use that detail. And so, when you look at that shot, I’m pretty sure that that’s a result of all that photography and that model we created so long ago.
Cutler: Earlier I mentioned getting inside Commander Krause’s head and the mental calculations he has to do. But one of the major themes in the novel is Krause’s self-doubt as to his fitness for protecting the convoy. And I assume you were able to draw on that. It’s a good dramatic theme.
Schneider: That was, I think, Tom’s mantra in adapting the screenplay. It’s an intense two-and-a-half-day sequence of hellish events for a destroyer captain. And that’s what’s going on on the surface. Underneath it all, the human aspect of it is that the guy got his first shot at command in the September of his career, caught a break because of the demand for commanders after World War II began, and finds himself in kind of a first-time experience in a trial by fire. So, yes, that was very much on Tom’s mind when he adapted the story.
Bill Hamblet: Did the actors spend any time at sea in the shooting of the movie?
Schneider: They didn’t go sailing, and we really didn’t go out on the ocean to shoot much. We did kind of bum a ride on a Canadian destroyer very early on, to shoot some reference video of sea states—shots that we had hoped would become background replacements. But it only served so much of our purposes, and we regrouped and steered ourselves back to other options.
But as far as the sailors, the actors and extras, in preparing them we had Captain Dale Dye [U.S. Marine Corps, Retired], who has been a war consultant for movies for a long time—from Platoon all the way through Saving Private Ryan. And in combination with kind of a World War II consultant, we created a naval boot camp. You may have heard stories of Dale Dye putting Tom Hanks and the cast of Saving Private Ryan through a hell week where they lived the life of an infantry soldier. And we did something similar with our actors and our extras. They stayed overnight on the ship, got up at six in the morning, and ran drills.
There’s a military funeral at the center-piece of the film, where men are buried at sea. And a lot of time during the boot camp was spent rehearsing this scene because it was kind of an all-hands-on-deck scenario. And we wanted to rigorously portray the burial at sea in an authentic way.
In fact, Dale and I got into an argument about how many men could be stretcher bearers for the burial. He had six on each man to be buried, and I needed to put a camera between the men. There’s another shot in the trailer where the camera is shooting through an American flag that’s draped over one of the dead sailors. And with six men on each stretcher, you couldn’t shoot through the middle. You needed one man on each corner. Dale said, “You can’t do that, you can’t do that.”
I had so prepared ahead of time. I’d spent two months creating a website of imagery under categories: depth charges, winter uniforms, burials at sea. I must have collected 5,000 photographs and put them up on a website call Zenfolio, so that as the crew came aboard later in the game I could send them a link, and they could literally kind of pick their category and go in and research and see imagery. One of the images I had was a burial at sea with one guy at each corner. So, I pulled that out and said, “Here Dale, here’s my proof.” He said, “All right, fair enough.” We were pretty vigorous about making sure we were authentic with everything we did.
Cutler: That’s refreshing to hear. We’ve seen some examples of other films not living up to those standards.
Schneider: One of the things you guys might find interesting about the book adaptation is that Forester is a really knowledgeable writer. In fact, I think he might have been in the navy or at least a sailor.
Symonds: Everybody assumes that, but in fact he was not.
Schneider: Well, it’s interesting because one of the things we had to do was turn a book into an actual battle, right? He’s describing a battle, and there are bearings being called out as they chase a sub or make a tactical maneuver. And the first thing we did was take his bearings in the book, in combination with the dialogue and our understanding of what was going on, and map them out. And it turns out he must have done his homework. It gave us a battle to work with.
And from there we took 3-D models and did simple animations of those sequences. That became sort of the guiding principle. Because, when you think about a movie like this, none of it exists, right? When you shoot a regular movie and it’s two people in a lawyer’s office, they come in, they sit down, they talk, they leave.
Or if it’s a football game, you’ve got a football field and a set of rules that everyone understands. There’s a certain understanding of a football game that the audience brings to the table when they come to a football movie. But then if you want your football movie to have drama, you have to build drama into the play. The handoff, covering the receiver, and jumping up and catching the ball. All those little beats inside a football play that make a football movie dramatic have to be realized. And that’s hard enough for a football game.
But in a naval battle, right, no one understands anything. You don’t know what the rules are. People don’t know how long it takes a ship to turn left. If you need to turn around and chase something in the other direction, you know it’s not like Fast & Furious. You can’t hit the brakes, see the car skid, hit the accelerator, and start. So, the script was an extension of the battles in the novel, but they had to be realized.
And then, you get on set with Tom Hanks, and he says: “Okay, where am I looking, and what am I looking at? Where is the ship, how far away is it, and how fast am I going by it?” And so, the whole movie lives in your head, and with either maps or animations, you have to extrapolate it out of the book into a three-dimensional world and then figure out how to shoot it in a way that, like the football game, there’s drama in the play. And that was not easy to do.
Cutler: And, of course, you have to explain to an audience that in many cases doesn’t have a lot of understanding about how naval orders and naval circumstances work. You had to explain enough of it to them in language that might not ordinarily be used on the bridge so they understand what’s happening, which is a very delicate maneuver as well.
Schneider: Exactly. So, then you get into questions like if you want to hold onto authenticity, because everyone on this ship already understands what’s going on—they understand the world they’re a part of; the audience doesn’t. So, how far does the writer now go with movie dialog to externalize some of these things the audience won’t understand before you break the veil of an authentic experience. That was a huge part of my conversations with Tom.
My impression was Tom wanted to drop the audience into the pilothouse at the beginning of the movie with absolutely no idea what any of these orders or pieces of equipment were or how they worked and force the audience, through the sheer experience of engaging in the story, to the point where by midway they’ve built the tools they need to experience the film on an extremely authentic level.
We wanted a sense of “Where the hell am I, and how does this work?” And the first impression is “This is cool. This is a really interesting environment, but I have no idea what that thing does and what that guy’s supposed to be doing.” But then, as the movie progresses, the trick is to feed the audience enough information that they go: “Oh, I get it. He’s the guy listening for sounds of the sub.”
Mr. Schneider, a filmmaker and cinematographer, earned an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film for Two Soldiers (2003). He also has directed Get Low (2009) and Into the Storm (2014) and worked with a long list of accomplished actors, including Tom Hanks, Ron Perlman, Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, and Gerald McRaney.
LCDR Cutler, (U.S. Navy, Ret.), holds the Gordon England Chair of Professional Naval Literature at the U.S. Naval Institute.
CAPT Hamblet, (U.S. Navy, Ret.), is Director of Periodicals and Editor-in-Chief of Proceedings at the U.S. Naval Institute.
Craig Symonds is the Distinguished Visiting Ernest J. King Professor of Maritime History at the Naval War College.