Aaron Schneider is a cinematographer and a director. He talks with us about his second feature film, Greyhound, and his collaboration with Tom Hanks.

You can watch Greyhound on Apple TV+ now!

How did you get involved in this film?

The script came to me through CAA, my agency with who also represents Tom. The first thing I got excited about was more than just the fact that it was a Tom Hanks World War II movie, but that he’d written it, which indicated to me that this was some kind of a special passion project, that this could be one of those things in Tom’s career that was experimental and a bit of a different adventure for him, which made it even more exciting because that kind of signaled that there was an opportunity to have a really unique, creative relationship with Tom. Someone whose films and performances I’d admired for so long.

I read the script and really found it really engaging and unique, a very experiential kind of film, something different, a different kind of a way telling a war story that shows you the sacrifice rather than dramatizing it in the classical way. Knowing Tom’s history and the history with this kind of material, I just went through the roof and I sent my agent an email, a really effusive e-mail about what an amazing opportunity this could be. And without realizing it, my agent sent it up the chain of command to an agent who apparently, as the story goes, read it to Tom on the phone. So my raw reaction found its way to Tom’s ears, and that facilitated a meeting and a sit down.

Tom and I spent a few hours getting to know each other and talking about films and filmmaking and after a while, it became obvious that we liked a lot of the same things and our tastes were unique and the communication was good and it felt right. I left the room feeling as though we teamed up. Then I met Gary Goetzman, the Producer, and without any real ceremony, we just started bringing it to life and Film Nation came on board soon after to finance it. And not long after that, Sony and some other partners picked up those distribution rights. And we were off to the races.

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Can you tell us more about your collaboration with Tom Hanks?

Well, it was a unique dynamic because on the one side of the coin, Tom was my boss. He’s the one who hired me. He’s the producer and co-producer with Gary. On the other side of the coin when it’s time to make a film, the directors, the boss, the whole thing breaks down if a director doesn’t have the ability to convey a message. But to Tom’s credit, he understood this implicitly and he was very supportive as a producer. He was very collaborative as a writer and when it came time to shoot the movie, he laid a lot of experience in surrendering to directors and becoming a lump of clay. He says he likes to bring a hundred ideas to the set and he’s looking for someone to help him focus on the ones that are working the best.

Tom is the kind of guy who’d do a take standing on one leg if you ask him to. Come to the writers side of it, however, he’s not experimental at all. He has very clear ideas on what he wants to do and the way he likes to do them. So, we went back and forth on the screenplay, the way directors and writers do. Tom brought a confidence to the process and had a very sturdy vision for what he wanted to do. So it was fun, but neither of us were pushovers either. He wanted to make that I was making the movie that I wanted to make. And that’s the movie we made.

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What was the process of choosing the other actors?

For one reason or another, the casting process got accelerated and we didn’t have a lot of time. So we had a couple of days of really intense, like eight hour days in a room at Playtone with everybody’s tapes and readings on computer and then headshots on the wall. We made categories, if you’ve seen the film breaks down into various shifts and watch sequences where different bridge crews siphon in and out of the bridge in four hour time chunks. And though the natural rhythm of the way that crew replaced itself or refreshed itself was part of the heartbeat of the film. It was the backdrop to a captain who refused to eat or sleep so that these men filing in and out of the scenes and then reoccurring and showing back up again, 12, 24 hours later was part of the film’s temporal heartbeat.

We broke down the casting process into these shifts, into these watches and tried to not just cast really great actors and great faces and expressive faces because the whole movie kind of lives above the shoulders, these guys fearful, sweaty faces, but also putting headshots together to try and get a sense of what the dynamic of each of the groups would look like and feel like so that they each had their own personality, so that when they syphoned in and out of the story, they were recognizable not just as faces, but as a group as well, and complemented each other and all that kind of stuff. It was a day of craft, a cram session, trying to come up with the structure of the casting and pick the best guys we could and we found a lot of fine, fine actors who did a terrific job.

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Did you organize specific training for the cast?

Once they were cast, along with some of the extras, we cast some real military men from different branches of the service. Not all Navy can’t be certain of that, but we had to open casting call. And a lot of servicemen did respond or people that had been in the service and mixed in with, of course, just young men that were in good physical shape to play the role and they all had different backgrounds. We then combined with the actors we cast and then needed to make sure they that they look like they belong on this ship. For the men that had to move to the guns and get in the seat and run up ladders, these are things you take for granted when you watch them in a movie. But take a trip down to the USS Kidd Museum and try to climb up a ladder at high speed and see how you do. It’s one of those things where the real boys in the real world war footage make it look easy. It’s not that they had to be physically acquainted with the ship, what it felt like to run on the ship, move, turn a corner and climb a ladder. The men in the bridge had to really understand the dynamics and the protocols and the positions and the way commands are conveyed and then responded to.

You can’t contain the entire vocal protocol of some of the ways these men communicate with each other between compartments and with each other in the same space. If you did, the screenplay might be 200 pages long and a lot of that dialog is overlapping and thrown away over their shoulder as background. So the men were trained in how communication works and how the chain of command was, how it proceeds so that when we got into a situation where a particular line of communication had been fully scripted, these guys knew how to fill in the blanks. They saw the captain’s line in the script and knew instinctively that this is the way they would respond to that kind of order, even though that wasn’t in the script. The preparation was both physical and procedural, so that when we got to the set, these guys not only looked like they belong there, but they knew how to fill out the procedural world. Dale Dye is famous in Platoon and Saving Private Ryan for creating these sort of three day, four day, five day boot camps where he forces the men to live in certain conditions and in our case, sleeping in these metal bunks down in the belly of a ship just to kind of try and let some of that experience and environment rub off on everyone enough for each actor or extra to have something they could draw on when they tried to tried to bring their little part to life.

The film is almost entirely set on a boat. What was the main challenge with that?

The first challenge was to make it visually interesting. Whenever you’re saddled with one key location, the challenge is to make it visually appealing enough and have enough visual variety so that the audience isn’t indulged to death by repetition. That goes not just for what you’re shooting, but the way you shoot it and whether it’s camera movement and or light or the location itself or the angle or the point of view. You’re trying to constantly give the audience a new experience, a new view into that world, because that’s the only world they’re trapped in. That was the challenge visually and then the other challenge shooting on a ship is that because these ships are so old and you can’t take them out on the water and shoot them the way you would normally shoot it, the way they did back in the 50s and 60s when they were making some of these older naval movies.

These ships were still in enough of a running order that they could go shoot this stuff practically. But that meant that our haul, that the sea as a character in our movie was going to be digital and not unlike digital human beings, everyone has a feeling. When you’re not entirely successful with a digital human being in a movie, there’s something that feels off about it is actually a word for it called the uncanny valley. The closer you get to realism with the digital character, the spookier it gets until you finally achieve 100 percent realism. In the world of visual effects, water has a very similar threshold that you have to get to or cross before the audience will take it for granted and just ignore it as water. That becomes a challenge too because the last thing you want to do is, take the audience out of the movie by betraying that sense of realism. Of course, the tragic part is that if you succeed, no one even notices.

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Can you tell us more about filming in a small space?

It’s cramped. It’s a double edged sword. Before Tom and I landed on the USS Kidd for our pilothouse, the world was our oyster in terms of what we were going to do and what kind of ship we were going to do it on. There was a conversation about windows. There’s historical footage of certain kinds of ships that have unimpeded views out the windows so that if you’re shooting inside, you’ve got the expanse of the ocean to fill the frame and be an interesting element throughout the film as you shoot the pilothouse. And on the other hand, there’s pilot houses that feel like a fish tank and you’ve just got these little round portals that you have to press your face against if you want a glimpse of the outside world. Tom made a really interesting observation.

Early on, he said, you know what? If this whole thing was about the contrast between what if it was like you’re in a fish tank and you walk through the door. And now the horizon is infinite. And the movie becomes about the contrast. So when we’re on the inside of the pilot house, we’re in a submarine movie and when we step out into the open air, you’ve got the infinite horizon there and the expanse. Now the film is contrasting and you can stage the film based on the scene. So when you ask the question, what’s it like shooting in a small space? Well, there’s the usual difficulties of moving around in the limitations that the ceiling or the space might put on camera. But if you’re going to use that dramatically, if that’s actually been woven into your visual approach, then that’s a plus instead of an inconvenience.

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The film is full of visual effects. How was your collaboration with VFX supervisor Nathan McGuinness?

Nathan came on the film somewhat late after visual effects approach had been established early on in preproduction. He worked very hard and very quickly to adapt our philosophy, which was to make sure that the visual effects were done in such a way that they emulated actual ship to ship photography on the open ocean, meaning the goal was never to do anything with a digital effects camera that couldn’t correlate to the way you’d shoot it in the real world. The way you’d shoot it in the real world would be to take a ship out and sail alongside the destroyer and shoot from one ship to the other with all the chaos and the energy of those moving ships moving in opposition to each other and the energy that would create the goal in the visual effects realm which was to emulate that, literally recreate those limitations and those dynamics in the digital environment so that the audience never felt like we were doing something that couldn’t be physically done in the real world in the hopes of lending, even the visual effects shots, a sense of authenticity and reality.

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What were your main references and influences for the film?

Well, everyone talks about influences, right? I think it comes out of the business itself, because when a movie’s getting made in the early stages, part of the way you birthed that movie into being is to relate to people, compare it and bring it to life in people’s imaginations by comparing it to other films. That’s where you get the phrase Top Gun meets Pulp Fiction. We use these comparisons to try and describe what we’re seeing in our heads. Influence is something that builds up over time. You might hear someone say, I watched a bunch of war movies before I made this and I did. But I wasn’t doing it because I wanted to find a movie that felt close enough to my vision that I could use its ideas. You’re really just kind of stimulating your own imagination you see more of the things you don’t want to do than the things that you do want to do. And it’s sometimes it’s a process of elimination. So I didn’t have influences because I’ve been studying and watching and enjoying movies my whole life. And they’re part of me every time I put a viewfinder to my eye. But I wouldn’t say that I looked to any particular film to influence the way I made Greyhound.

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What’s your best memory from Greyhound?

That’s a great question. My best memory is probably flying out to Baton Rouge with Tom and Gary and some of the Playtone gang to go visit the USS Kidd. The museum does a remarkable job of keeping that ship alive and healthy. But like any business, it’s hard work finding the money and keeping the spirit of that exhibit alive and thriving. I had gotten to know the superintendent of the ship, a man named Tim Nesmith, who basically committed his life to that ship. It’s like a member of his family and he had helped me with some research I did. I was probably the first person he got to know in Greyhound. But now here comes playtone into town and everyone’s excited about the possibilities.

You see Tom Hanks walk onto that ship and all of these dedicated people. Tom Hanks walks into their life and says, I want to honor your ship and put it in the spotlight, make a movie. It was just very happy for those people. Everybody would love to meet Tom Hanks. It’s fun to meet Tom Hanks, but in this case, of course, it was fun for them to get to know Tom, but you could see in their faces that this was going to be a boost for them and that this was going to be a really good thing. The movie was going to have a contribution beyond just being a movie. It was going to bring some attention to a ship and a bunch of people who were working really hard to honor our history. And I remember just kind of smiling and feeling really good about how what we were doing was going to help them a little bit.

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