Heroes on the High Seas: Director Aaron Schneider on GREYHOUND

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Films about heroes in World War II have continued to be a staple of American filmmaking since the historical events took place, eventually expanding into their own genre of storytelling. While director Aaron Schneider recognized this, his love for telling stories about what it means to be human is what drew him to his latest project, Greyhound.

After a prolific career as a cinematographer, Schneider caught audience’s attention as a director with Get Low, starring Bill Murray and Robert Duvall – a film that has become a cult classic in many circles. He has since helmed a number of projects, now bringing screen legend Tom Hanks’s adapted script for Greyhound to the screen.

LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher talked to Schneider about how he approached the project and why audiences continue to crave these types of stories.  

John Bucher: You have a deep background as a cinematographer. What do you think directors who have that background in cinematography bring to telling a story like Greyhound?

Aaron Schneider: Making movies is really telling stories with images, and of all the people that work with the director on a film, the person closest to that language, besides the director, is the cinematographer. Composition, lighting, and the way the camera moves become a variation on that language. A cinematographer is already a storyteller with images, even before someone like myself decides to actually become a director. So, you bring that. You bring your passion and your love of using image and light and mood and movement. You bring that into the world of directing where suddenly now you’re shepherding the whole story.

Sometimes it can make the job easier and more fulfilling, and sometimes it can make it harder, because knowing what you know about all the possibilities of what you can do with a camera, you’re out there trying to do. I think cinematographers are born with a “beg, borrow, and steal” mentality — anything they can do to make the shot as great as it can possibly be.

They’re the defenders of the image. And sometimes that comes in conflict with a director who might be just trying to get the damn schedule shot, because they need a certain amount of material before someone pulls the plug on them. So that’s a common battle of wits between cinematographers and directors, and a cinematographer/director is having that battle inside his own head or her own head. And it can be challenging.

John Bucher: I noticed, in the film, how much of the dialogue is actually just directions of where to turn the ship and where to fire things, and so much of the dialogue is the language of a ship captain. How did you take Tom Hanks’s script, that’s based so much on the logistics of operating a ship, and turn it into such a compelling visual story?

Aaron Schneider: Well, the touchstone that I used as a way in to answering that very question was the opening scenes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where we see an air traffic controller using procedural dialogue to communicate with a pilot who uses very procedural dialogue to convey a UFO sighting. The scene has a sense of authenticity and veracity, and the dialogue and the computer screens and the protocol gives the audience a feeling of everything feels real. The procedural nature of that traffic control room is what makes it feel truthful. The scene is about the audience, realizing that they’re witnessing something very incredible through the lens of this procedural event. And it’s terrifying, because it feels so real.

I realized that’s where Greyhound lives. The procedural dialogue is the window dressing. It’s the tone-setting for the sense that you’re on a real destroyer in a real world that you don’t fully understand. But rather than being pushed away by that, the hope is that you lean into the film. You engage actively. You try to acquaint yourself. You try to answer questions. What is that? What does that dialogue mean? And what is that piece of equipment over there?

One of Tom’s lines of description in the script, in the opening act, describes the radar screen. He wrote a line of description that went something like “we have no idea what this screen is doing or what it means, but we will later.” I remember thinking to myself, that’s fantastic. He’s trying to explain to the reader and the filmmaker who uses this as a blueprint, that this is going to be a movie where we’re two steps ahead of you, and that’s what’s going to be engaging about it. You’re going to have to do a little work to penetrate this world.

The challenge is to create enough of a puzzle and enough intrigue in this world that people lose themselves in it and engage with it. But then, dole out enough information, dole out enough understanding of the awareness and the dilemmas and what’s going on out that window and the choices the captain has to make, so that the audience understands what the drama really is. So the dialogue becomes window dressing, authentic window dressing, to the difficult decisions and the harrowing decisions that the captain has to make.

John Bucher: American cinema has a long history of films about World War II, as well as films out on the sea. What is it that keeps bringing audiences back? Is it the mythology of war? Is it the adventure out on the sea?

Aaron Schneider: I think what keeps bringing audiences and filmmakers back to World War II, specifically, are the heroes. The very definition of a hero is in direct proportion to the level of sacrifice. There’s no such thing as a hero without sacrifice. They just don’t exist without sacrifice in a classic sense. And a hero in the mythology of storytelling, a hero is pushed, is picked up, is plucked from obscurity, and thrown into something much bigger than himself. And the bigger it is, the more challenging it is for the hero, and the bigger the sacrifice. And what is World War II, but that, taking young men who leave their families to go rid the world of tyranny, and lay their life down on the line to do it. That’s about as heroic as it gets.

Then you add to that the whole concept of good guys and bad guys. In Star Wars, no one questions who the good guys or the bad guys are, right? The story is not about the gray tones of who’s right or who’s wrong in Star Wars, and the same thing would apply in World War II. You got a very, very clearly defined antagonist. You got a country that wants to take over the world. I mean, I still believe that’s one of the reasons Star Wars has such an enduring mythology, because it’s basically World War I and World War II, put together.

John Bucher: It’s Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey combined with World War II that comes into play in Star Wars, for sure. One of the things that really struck me about the film was the way that you handled some of the deeper aspects of Tom’s character in showing his faith as being his North Star or guiding light. The story is bookended with his character performing a ritual of prayer. Could you talk about why?

Aaron Schneider: Well, the bookend with the prayer, what I always loved about it was the beauty of the ritual. Getting up in the morning, putting your clothes on, and going to work. And then when you’re done with work, you come home, you wash your face, you take your clothes off, and you go to bed. Right? Simple as that. I thought that was very powerful and very moving, the fact that he wanted to get into bed so bad, but he doesn’t sacrifice his routine, his own personal, spiritual routine. He gets the job done before he goes to bed. And it’s also no coincidence that his religion, the expression of his religion, is a very procedural and habitual thing, which also mirrors the same way a captain goes through the procedural processes of steering a ship. The similarities between those two moved me, as well.

People describe this as an action film, and I’m glad they do. But the real heartbeat of the film is a human being behind the binoculars. We made sure that the camera was always there, up close and personal, where a brilliant actor like Tom could paint a picture and tell a story just entirely with his face. Tom really had a job to do by communicating with the audience the way he did to connect. Think about it. He’s connecting with, as a human being, an audience in the middle of all this. So the camera was there to make sure we caught it.

Greyhound is available now on Apple TV+.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches in the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School LA and at The LA Film Studies Center. John has also conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

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