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Interview: Director Aaron Schneider Brings WWII to Life in ‘Greyhound’

After making his feature directorial debut with Get Low, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 2009, Aaron Schneider is back with his second full-length effort behind the camera. Awards Radar already had the chance to speak with many of the below-the-line talent from Greyhound, and now the man in charge offers insight into his enthusiasm for World War II on screen, what he learned from James Cameron, and what the future might hold for cinema.

Q: A number of the artisans who worked on Greyhound praised your interest in the different technical aspects of the film. What guidance did you give to make sure your vision was realized?

A: For me, it all started with a very intense period of research. You know how it goes when you’re surfing the web. It’s a rabbit hole in any direction. But there’s really no other way, so I just dove down that rabbit hole and gathered some great websites and great historical photographs. That snowballs – it mentions a Mark 6 gun director, and you’re like, what’s a Mark 6 gun director? There was plenty of time on this movie before we started for me to do this. As soon as I started, I realized that I was wasting all this on myself. I thought, is there a way that I can preserve what I’m doing for someone else? I came up with idea of creating a website. I used a place called Zenfolio.com that caters to photographers that want to sell their portraits online. It’s got a way of actually subdividing and categorizing photos, and it’s got a way of putting comments, a download function, and all that stuff. I was able as I researched, instead of compiling it in my own notes, I put it on this website. YouTube links, Wikipedia cut-and-paste information, so that by the time I started bringing crew on board, I had this nice categorized rabbit hole for someone else to go down. I shared that with them. I had to learn everything there was to learn, but certain crew members didn’t, so they would dive down whatever category they were interested in and of course did their own research. We all had to become experts in their own way. As you know from seeing the film, the narrative does involve a lot around the intricacies and the analog processes that make hunting down U-boats in the North Atlantic a dramatic thing, not just for the characters, but for the audience.

Q: I’ve read that Saving Private Ryan was a big influence on your interest in World War II. Can you elaborate on that, and how that you got you to want to adapt The Good Shepherd?

A: Well, Tom Hanks was the screenwriter. He adapted the book. It’s true that Saving Private Ryan was an odd little lynchpin in my life and career history. I was a cinematographer for many years, and about the time I was thinking about directing, I had thoughts of wanting to direct and tell my own stories. I thought I’d make a short film as a way of beginning that journey. I was looking for a story to adapt. I wanted to find a short story that moved me. I was confident enough in my writing skills at the time that if I could see the story in the short story I could get it out. I had just seen Saving Private Ryan with my dad on a Northern California father-son vacation so it was in the back of my head when I went into the library for the first time to look for a short story to adapt to begin this journey towards directing in my life. This is a true story – I was walking down the big aisle, the anthology section of the library. Books everywhere, where the hell do you start? I looked up, and I remember, it was about over here on my right and one shelf up from my shoulder. I saw a green olive spine that said The Greatest World War II American Short Stories. Having just seen Saving Private Ryan, that book caught my attention. Well, that would be interesting. I wonder what kind of a World War II short film that could make. So I pulled the book off my shelf, and as you do, you thumb through, looking for a title page, and the one I landed on was called Two Soldiers. And I read the opening line of the short story and never stopped reading. I ended up sitting down at a nearby desk and I was in a puddle of tears reading it. and I thought to myself, oh my gosh, is it possible that the first book I pull down and the first short story I read is what I’m going to make? This isn’t the way it’s supposed to work. It’s supposed to be a never-ending search for inspiration. I ended up making Two Soldiers as a short film. It did the trick, it eventually ended up winning the live action short Oscar for myself and my producer, and that was the beginning of my director career. So Saving Private Ryan, as you can see, was a big part of the chemistry that led to that moment.

Q: Your first feature film, Get Low, is very different in terms of pacing and scope. Do you see any similarities between these two?

A: Well, all movies are related to each other in some way or another. The strongest relation is that they’re both stories that moved me enough to want to tell them. That’s really all it comes down to, probably for any filmmaker. Sure, you want to experiment and play and try new things, but at the end of the day, it’s about, are you moved enough to want to invest your whole body and soul into this thing? Many times, over two years, or in this case, a lot longer. I would say that they were both stories about interesting characters that moved me.

Q: This film was made without a drop of water, which is quite impressive given that it takes place almost entirely at sea. Did you consider making the film in a different way, or were intensive visual effects always the approach you wanted to take?

A: When it comes to making a water movie, there’s only really two or three categories you can talk about making the film inside of. One is, take the ships out to sea and do it for real. These ships are so old that there aren’t any that we could take out and sail, so that was out of the question. So the next decision you have is, okay, so we can’t take the ships out, we’re going to have to create these images with digital technology. Is our water going to be computer-simulated or live-action plates that are somehow organically combined? In fact, our visual effects producer had worked on Master and Commander, which at the time was the state-of-the-art in waterwork, and was using wonderful water plates in a kind of a collage-y way, a very clever hand-sewn way to recreate photorealistic water. We looked into that, and even tried shooting some plates to see what that would look like, and it taught us immediately that, for the stages of the ocean, the different ocean states we were going to need, it was just not feasible to afford going out on the water and timing it with Mother Nature never being predictable, finding a way to get all the different sea states that we would need to make that approach successful. It logically landed on the back of digital technology. That’s when DNEG came aboard and knocked it out of the park in terms of waterwork, and certainly waterwork on a budget. This was a relatively low-budget film, netting out below $40 million, and we shot this movie in 35 days. There’s probably Focus Features drama that have spent more than 35 days, and we were an action film.

Q: You were the second unit director of photography on another major movie at sea: Titanic. Obviously that’s a very different film, but is there anything that you wanted to capture that you knew you also had there in this other “ship” movie?

A: The two productions were very different. Budgetarily, obviously. Our ship is much more nimble and small, and gets tossed about the sea in a different way than the Titanic. In that regard, from a directorial standpoint, there’s really not a lot of crossover. I will say, about having met and worked with Jim Cameron and taken in his approach to things, Titanic was a historical drama. Greyhound is fictional, but the events portrayed are not. I can remember eavesdropping on conversations between Jim and his crew when they were getting ready to set up, and Jim would at times take them to task for not remembering that lifeboats three, four, and five were supposed to already be in the water by this point. Back then, before I was directing, it seemed kind of extraordinary, that level of detail and understanding and knowledge. Over time, you begin to realize, especially when you’re handed the Playtone mantle from Gary Goetzman and Tom Hanks, they say, we’ve established the state-of-the-art World War II production with Band of Brothers and The Pacific, and old Tom over there worked with a guy named Spielberg to make one of the greatest World War II movies in the world. Here are the keys to the car to go off and make a World War II movie. That’s a lot of responsibility, and I certainly wasn’t going to drop the ball. Looking back at Jim Cameron’s attention to detail in the rearview mirror makes you appreciate and realize that, when you’re making historical fiction, a really deep understanding of where those lifeboats should be, so that you can properly portray the history and the tragedy of the Titanic, let alone for the continuity that you’re balancing from scene to scene in terms of a sequence where a ship sinks over a period of time. I drew from the energy of Jim Cameron’s approach many years ago. I found a new appreciation for it.

Q: Tom Hanks is a big star and it makes sense that he’s at the helm of this film. I appreciated the casting of other actors like Rob Morgan, Stephen Graham, and Elisabeth Shue in supporting parts. Did you have any of those actors in mind, and is there anyone else who stood out to you from the ensemble?

A: Oh, yeah. They were all so fantastic, and also so generous because, if you’ve seen the film, you know that it’s an incredibly captain-centric point of view. The film lives and breathes inside the point of view of Tom’s character, Captain Krause. The characters around him are there to support him, but because of the nature of the film, the dialogue is very technical and very authentic, the supporting characters are not classic in the sense of their contribution to the drama so much as recreating the experience itself, which is dramatic. Each of these actors came in with a very small piece of real estate to contribute, and they had to bring these characters to life with their presence. For example, all the young men who played parts as crew members, they were like a collective. Even if one or two of them didn’t have a line of dialogue, their presence in the scene and the ability to help me bring the world to life and help me make it feel real was just as critical as any large supporting role. I really admired them for that. People like Rob Morgan, they took that little footprint they had to make an impression and really did. I was really proud of that. It’s also a testament to Tom’s writing. He’s a minimalist, and he knows that if you give an actor enough of a footprint in the right place, you can get a lot out of a little. I was very proud of the actors who embraced that head-on, coming into the film and knowing that they were just going to be physically engaged rather than classically engaged.

Q: This was one of the first films to pivot its release strategy to Apple TV Plus. I’m sure it would have been nice to have it premiere in theaters. Composer Blake Neely said that having its prominent showcase on Apple TV Plus means that every time you turn on your TV, it seems like it’s a new movie premiering, and he really liked that. How do you see this unforeseen change in circumstances that made your not-so-big-budget but definitely large-scale film seen on much smaller screens?

A: There’s a tendency for people to want to take the theater versus streaming conversation and turn it into polarized opposites, where one is better than the other and one is trying to kill the other. There was a lot of talk, even from Tom, that he was disappointed he wasn’t going to see his big-screen movie on the big screen, and some people made a big deal about that as if it was some sort of slight on Apple, which couldn’t be further from the truth. We make these for audiences, and at the time, the audience was online, it wasn’t in the theater. If you want to share your film with an audience, if that’s what you’re doing this for, to entertain, you need an audience, and the audience is online. In that sense, it makes perfect sense. It’s also legitimate to let filmmakers be disappointed that their movies didn’t get to go to the theater. It’s just tradition, it’s part of the culture. It doesn’t mean that anyone isn’t grateful for the audience they might find on Apple TV, or anywhere else if a movie moves to a streamer. It just means that you had to let go of one of the fun parts of making a movie for people.

Q: Production designer David Crank, who also worked on News of the World, said that he hasn’t seen either of these movies on a big screen, so he doesn’t know what he’s missing. He’s seen it this way, just like everyone else. I like that attitude.

A: A rising tide lifts all ships, right? There are enough theaters and streamers out there for everybody to enjoy. At the end of the day, after the pandemic, does the balance change? Yeah, maybe, we’ll see. People are using Amazon.com to shop instead of going into stores. When the pandemic’s over, will those habits be permanent, or will people say, I always enjoyed going to the store, I like being out in the world and looking at the things I buy, so I’m going to give up on Amazon and go back to the brick-and-mortar stores so I can touch the food. Same with theaters: everyone’s moving towards streaming because it’s safer, but when it’s over with, people will return to what they loved about it. On the other hand, some behavior might be changed permanently. We just don’t know yet, but I think there’s plenty of room for everybody.

Greyhound is now streaming on Apple TV Plus.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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