Following the cancellation of its theatrical distribution and its release on Apple TV+, Aaron Schneider’s naval war drama Greyhound made waves as yet another streaming release in the midst of the ongoing pandemic. An ambitiously intimate yet grand story, Greyhound stands out from many other streaming exclusives released so far this year in style and craft. Written by, produced, and starring Tom Hanks, Schneider’s film sets itself apart from the common war epic.
Impressively, the film is Schneider’s return from a decade-long hiatus from the director’s chair. Before this, Schneider was a successful cinematographer and short film director. He was nominated for an Emmy in 1996 for his cinematography work on ABC’s Murder One and won Best Live-Action Short Film at the 2004 Academy Awards with his directorial debut Two Soldiers. His first feature, 2009’s Get Low starring Robert Duvall and Bill Murray, was praised as one of the most earnest and charming films of that year.
We were able to sit down with Aaron Schneider for an exclusive interview. We discuss his experience directing Greyhound and collaborating with writer-actor Tom Hanks to bring this unique perspective of the Battle of the Atlantic to life. He also gives us a tease for his next film, Bum’s Rush – a drama starring Anne Hathaway that will also reunite him with Bill Murray as a narrating dog. Don’t worry, we won’t have to wait another decade for this one.
2009’s Get Low was the last film you directed. So we’ve got to ask — how has the last decade or so treated you? Why was Greyhound the movie to make a comeback?
AS: I started as a cinematographer, so I had like a director/ cameraman career in commercials, but that sort of lived in the background of my career. It enabled me to be more selective about what I wanted to do with a narrative film. And I spent a lot of time trying to find something that inspired me and just really couldn’t find anything. I sort of pledged to wait until something came along, something I felt that I could contribute to and Greyhound was that thing.
Tom Hanks was a huge part of the movie. He wrote the screenplay, produced, and also starred, can you talk about your collaboration process with him throughout the film’s production?
AS: I got the script and my first instinct when I saw that he had written it was that it was somehow personal. It was something personal or experimental. It had some uniqueness to it that drew him in as a screenwriter, which excited me because Tom Hanks has made some amazing films as an actor and has had some amazing collaborations, but those moments in his career where he decides to do something a little outside the box or try something new – if you look at his career, he’s very selective about the adventures he takes when he veers off and tries something new. And to be a part of that, right? To be part of one of Tom Hanks’ little adventures for himself as a filmmaker and a writer was really appealing because it meant you were going to have a unique creative relationship with him, that maybe some of the other people that have worked with him didn’t get to have.
You’re not just going to be directing Tom Hanks, you’re going to be sitting down watching films, talking about what the movie could be, and developing the script further. Engaging in a much different creative process than just the actors showing up on set with a classic director/ actor relationship. Having admired his work, not just as a director, producer, and even a writer, he’s engaged as a writer before with Band of Brothers, that was appealing and exciting. We just sat down and got to know each other. Our first meeting was just him and his dog Cleo in a room. We hung out and talked about filmmakers and filmmaking. Just kind of got to know each other’s tastes, talked about the films we loved.
I started as a cinematographer, so I asked him about some of the amazing cameramen he had worked with in his career. He told me stories about them. By the end of the meeting, we just both kind of felt like, “Hey feels like we could make a movie together right”? It just organically happened. He said, “Okay, why don’t you come in and meet Gary”? I came back to meet producer Gary Goetzman and before you know it, we were a team. Then, of course, FilmNation came on board as a financier. Soon after that, Sony picked up the worldwide rights and we were on our way.
Greyhound takes place over the course of five days, but it manages to make this stretch of time feel like a nonstop onslaught of action. As a director, how did you approach this to get the most out of the timeframe?
AS: Well, any film’s structure is architected into the screenplay, right? So first and foremost, that was a choice Tom made when he adapted the book. I think from the get-go, Tom’s goal was to literally drop you into the pilothouse of a World War II destroyer. Put you in a time machine, pull the lever, then you suddenly materialize over the shoulder of a captain in the middle of the Atlantic – who is about to move through this experience and you now have to follow him around. You have to now make your way through his life. Us and the screenplay are not going to do a lot of the work for you. You’re going to have to engage in this. You’re going to have to make a leap of faith. You’re going to have to look around, you’re going to have to absorb. You’re going to have to make sense of it because these men don’t have time to tell you a story.
You’re here as a visitor to witness what goes into this kind of work – what the sacrifices are made of. What’s the life these men went through to achieve what they achieved? In that sense, Tom was striving for a very experiential kind of movie. It wasn’t going to be the kind of movie where someone sits in their bunks talking about their girl back home or lies wounded on the battlefield, pontificating about the life they should have lived. No one stops to make a war soliloquy, to lend poeticism to the goings-on. This was about dropping you into the experience and giving you the absolute, authentic drama of what it takes to achieve what Krause and his crew achieved by the end of the film.
In witnessing that, you come to appreciate what Krause went through as a human being, as a captain, and the sacrifices and contributions all these men made. Tom and I had a lot of conversations on how that translated to what the camera would look at and what it wouldn’t look at. What its point of view would be, what the rules would be in terms of maintaining this sort of “time machine” visit. How we were going to move our visitor through the story and each scene. Part of that you’ve mentioned, the pace of the film. Part of that was being relentless with the structure. Movies often have peaks and valleys to comfort an audience. Audiences are used to the rhythms of a film, the first act turn, the midpoint, and etc. While we did have an architecture to the story, we also weren’t that interested in the conventional rhythms of a film. Mainly because the lives these guys lived, and the way danger was presented on a minute by minute or day by day basis, was not predictable in of itself. So why should the structure be, right? The relentless nature and sort of arhythmic feeling of the structure is absolutely on purpose.
So your film was initially planning for a theatrical release through Sony, but things were obviously shaken up and it’s now been released on Apple TV+. What are your thoughts on the film’s move from theatrical to streaming?
AS: We’re living in a world where every weekend, we’re shaving off a piece of our future and kicking it down the road. Every weekend is a lost weekend where a film can’t come out. A little bit like Gross national product [GNP], right? If it goes down, you can never get it back. When we do start finding our way back into the theaters, people are going to be distancing. We’re going to be safe about it, so people feel comfortable. Which means we’re not going to fill up the theaters the same way we used to. That mathematically translates to, you know, we got the same number of theaters, but their capacity is now diminished when we do come back. Which means they can’t put as many eyeballs in front of as many films.
So that in itself becomes almost like a bottleneck, until the day everyone can sit down next to each other with their popcorn. And then finally, the funnel opens up and everything starts flowing the way it used to. What that means is that every freaking weekend, everybody in line is bumping up against each other as people try to get through the door. When the door finally opens, it’s going to take some time for everyone to find a seat. And so what this all means: as filmmakers, we need audiences. We don’t make these films for ourselves. We make them for audiences. So my feelings about Apple TV, this is the world telling us that this is our audience right now. It’s not about what you want or one being better than the other. It’s about the world telling you that if you’ve got a film right now and you want an audience, this is where it’s at. And I’m grateful to have an audience.
These different streaming services have curated different kinds of subscribers, different kinds of catalogs. What edge do you think Greyhound has on Apple TV+ versus something like Netflix or any other streaming service?
AS: I don’t know that there’s any particular edge, so to speak, about being on Apple versus Netflix. I have been an Apple TV user for many years and recently bought myself a big screen that I’ve fallen in love with. All the new advances in home movies, in terms of HDR and high brightness monitors. All the opportunities opening up for literally displaying movies in a way nobody’s ever seen before – in the world of HDR, this is just beginning. Five years from now, we could have televisions that could come close to emulating a window into brightness. Looking into our TV might be the same kind of visual experience as looking out a window, and at the same kind of light levels. We’re getting closer to being able to put images on the screen at home the way we actually see them through our eyeballs outside.
That’s the best way I can put it without getting into the technical aspects of it. That’s really exciting and streamers like Apple and Netflix, they’re engaged in this future and trying to push the envelope. I was just reading a rumor, I can’t confirm this, but that Apple’s show See, shot on a 65 mm Alexa camera, is experimenting with delivering the picture at a sort of record-breaking bandwidth, meaning you’re getting a much less compressed image on your television. I was looking at the show and was really amazed at how beautiful the original photography was making it to my television. So in that respect, it’s nice to be on a platform that’s being innovative – looking to the future in that regard, because not all of these streamers are. Watching a filmmaker’s work on one streamer isn’t always the same as watching someone’s work on another streamer.
Oh, definitely. To bring it home, your next project, Bum’s Rush, was just recently announced and the synopsis shows that it will clearly be a very different movie from Greyhound. What’s the thought process of moving from a war movie to a more personal story between a woman played by Anne Hathaway and a talking stray dog voiced by Bill Murray?
AS: Well, Bill Murray isn’t so much a talking stray dog. He’s lending his voice to the narrative. He’s kind of like a Greek chorus. He’s a narrator. So it’s not necessarily a talking dog movie. It’s a very unique film, hard to encapsulate in one sentence. It’s a drama seen through the mind’s eye of a dog, who is narrating what we’re seeing.
AS: It’s part of a Greek chorus kind of thing, but to answer your question about moving into a drama. My first film was a depression-era period film that had the tenor, tone, and pace of a folk tale, right? In Get Low, the old hermit living in the woods who decides to have his own funeral party before he dies. Then my next film was a Tom Hanks-actioner out on the high seas with guns, explosions, and Naval warfare – which ended up being a transition itself. But for me, going back to a drama is not so much of a head-snapping turn as it is just me turning my attention to yet another story that I really feel something for. I don’t make decisions on the films I want to do based on genre or how many explosions it has. It’s really about finding a way into a story that you really feel something for. The guns, hermits, log cabins, or the period piece streets – that’s just the setting. That’s just where the story takes place and what happens inside. So obviously, I won’t be walking around on a big steel destroyer. It will be a different experience on set, but it’s just me taking on another story that really moves and excites me.