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Person of Vermont: Captain Richard Phillips

interview // Lesley Snyder

photo //  Ben Sarle

Four years ago, we gripped our couches in anxious uncertainty, glued to the television screen – and now we’ll be clinging to our movie theater seats this October. Since the 2009 hijacking of his cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates and the dramatic rescue four days later by U.S. troops, Captain Richard Phillips has been honored by a nod from President Obama, the media, and literary critics; and this fall, he’ll be receiving a tip-of-the-hat from Hollywood. Director Paul Greengrass has adapted Capt. Phillips’ memoir, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea, for the big screen in the upcoming film Captain Phillips. Only this time, Tom Hanks will be facing the pirates, and Capt. Phillips has left the steering of this ship in Greengrass’ able hands.

Do you believe there are any parts of your memoir that are impossible to convey on screen?

“Life at sea is not what most people think it is; most people have no idea. It has its own rhythms, pace – even its own language and nomenclature. So I think that is hard to show to the average person. Certainly it cannot show how scared I was; people do not want to see that!”

How do you feel about the Underhill, VT scenes having been filmed in Sudbury, Mass?

“You cannot get Vermont into Massachusetts by any angle of the lens – all Vermonters know that, and I grew up in Winchester, Mass. I wished they had filmed in Vermont, for the benefit of the workers and people of Vermont. But as I understand… the tax breaks or incentives and encouragements by the state and local side are not there to attract these businesses. This is unfortunate.”

Were you satisfied with your amount of control in the creative process?

“I had very little control, and I knew that going in. That is really the decision that has to be made from the outset.  As was explained to me, in the book, you have some control but very little in the movie.”

Do you have any concerns about the cinematic interpretation being sensationalized or politicalized in order to sell?

“All movies have to sell, so there is always that concern. I think Mr. Greengrass did a good job in not politicizing and portraying things as close as possible to the real thing. He did not portray everyone in white or black hats, just like life is not black and white. I do not like the movie named after me, as it make it out to be just me out there. There was a ship with 19 crew members that this story is about, not just me… They acted bravely and acted properly… It would be a different story without their actions.”

In retrospect, are there any life events not in your memoir that you feel should have been included?

“Like most seaman, there are plenty of stories: from iceberg damage to my hull, medical evacuations by boat, drunken pilots almost damaging my ship, sober pilots intentionally trying to damage my ship, fire axe fights, fires in the engine room and on deck, explosions in the engine room, hurricanes, typhoons… many seaman-being-seaman stories. Nothing that rates a movie or a book though.”

Does your family treat you as a hero?

“Most assuredly not. I still empty the trash, mow the lawn and take care of their pets like any other parent.  I am their dad; and to me, that is better.”