Tension on the high seas, smooth operation on set | Captain Phillips

With the Malta-filmed, Tom Hanks-starring thriller Captain Phillips out in local cinemas, we speak to Maltese-born production manager Katryna Samut-Tagliaferro, who claims that the film’s efficient and relatively stress-free shoot may very well boost Malta’s reputation as a film-servicing location.

Tom Hanks stars in Captain Phillips, partly shot in Maltese waters last year.
Tom Hanks stars in Captain Phillips, partly shot in Maltese waters last year.

Red carpet glamour and celebrity reality programmes may lead you to think that a life in Hollywood is all about drama, all the time. But a chat with anyone involved in film production 'on the ground' - or sea-bound, as is the case for the Tom Hanks-starring, Paul Greengrass-directed Captain Phillips, now showing in local cinemas - will probably reveal that the priorities lie very much elsewhere.

"The shoot went incredibly well when you consider the challenging dynamics involved," Maltese-born production manager Katryna Samut-Tagliaferro tells me, actually sighing in relief even though it's been months since the film - "60 per cent" of which was filmed in Malta, according to Samut-Tagliaferro - waved goodbye to Malta's famous water tanks after a relatively smooth shoot, which was wrapped in around six to eight weeks.

Samut-Tagliaferro, a veteran production manager and coordinator for films like Saving Private Ryan, Spy Game and 28 Days Later to her name, recounts how she managed to convince the Captain Phillips production team to relocate to Malta after the production ran into logistical problems in their originally intended location, Morocco.

"When they finally landed in Malta on an eight-hour trip to see what we have to offer, it was a case of 'why didn't we think of this before'? From then on, the production appears to have fallen relatively easily into place.

"The fact is that it's not very easy to film at sea, and the production had been struggling for a couple of months while preparing to shoot the film in Morocco. It's tough when you have such a huge operation, and when you don't speak the language and so on. So Malta was a nice relief to them - everyone spoke the language, and everyone and everything is just one phone call, or a 15-minute drive, away..."

At the end of the day though, Captain Phillips stars Tom Hanks, and this celebrity cachet automatically motivated relevant authorities to pool in and help ensure that the studio had an easy time of it.

"Everything went remarkably well: the maritime authorities in particular were very helpful, and very hands-on, as was the financial support from the Malta Film Commission and the Ministry of Finance. Of course, Malta's generous tax incentives were an added bonus for the studio."

Samut-Tagliaferro adds that apart from this, the local infrastructure of the available marine crew, combined with the filming crew and local service company (Mediterranean Film Studios) were also integral to the process.

Though the nitty-gritty of the film - especially a boat-bound shoot like Captain Phillips - is down to the day-to-day sweat and toil of the production crew (a process the general public only ever gets to see in carefully edited behind-the-scenes footage), Samut-Tagliaferro said that the presence of Tom Hanks actually served to ensure that the set remained a pleasant and positive experience.

"When you have someone who's as relaxed as he is, it automatically puts everyone else at ease," she says. And Hanks certainly didn't betray this perception. Paparazzi shots of Tom Hanks in Malta showed him casually strolling on the Sliema front with his daughter in tow; and he even took it upon himself to tweet videos of his morning commute to the Captain Phillips set. (He was particularly amused by the sight of a saint's statue being transported in a truck.)

The subject of the film is, however, a weighty one. Based on the real-life hijack by Somali pirates of the US-flagged cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama, the film pits Hanks as the titular Captain Richard Phillips, who finds himself suddenly cornered into fighting for his life and that of his crew. The first-time actor Barkhad Abdi (who worked as a taxi driver in Minnesota before he landed the role) plays the chief antagonist of the piece - the spiky, edgy Muse - and the role is certainly getting him noticed (the film in general has been getting good reviews, but the raw intensity of Abdi's performance seems to be a commonly agreed-upon plus in Greengrass's thriller).

But Samut-Tagliaferro, with something of a poignant nod towards topical events we would be all too familiar with, recounts the difficulties in securing all the correct clearances to get the Somali actors who portray the film's pirates to Malta, with visas and other necessary documents often ending up being processed just in the nick of time.

"And then you put these guys in a posh hotel, and you can tell they're not entirely comfortable with it... I've even heard some of them went to visit the open centre in Marsa, because they felt so much more at ease there."

Read our review of Captain Phillips in next Sunday's edition of MaltaToday.

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Joseph MELI
I read a number of reviews of this film in the UK press (all very positive and complimentary ) however,not one of them mentioned the fact that this film was largely made in Malta(no references whatsoever) with one of them even highlighting how the "beautiful Indian Ocean " was captured (the pun went unadvised)by the film's chief photographer when clearly this was the MEDDY just south of Birzebbuga!