Aaron Schneider made his first major industry mark as a cinematographer, lensing assorted music videos and commercials. He gained high profile recognition as an Emmy-nominated and two-time ASC Award-winning DP, all for his work on the TV series Murder One. The ASC Awards came in consecutive years for the “Chapter Four” episode in 1996 and the “Chapter Nine” episode in ‘97. Schneider’s feature shooting exploits spanned such titles as Simon Burch and Kiss The Girls.
In 1998 Schneider and his dad, a Korean War veteran, went to a screening of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. That film moved Schneider and proved to be a partial catalyst for his directorial career. When he started the search for a short story from which he could develop a project to helm. Schneider recalled going to the library and the first book he opened was “Greatest American World War II Short Stories.” “The reason I grabbed the book first was I had seen Saving Private Ryan,” Schneider explained. And the first story he thumbed to was “Two Soldiers.”
Eventually director Schneider brought his short film, Two Soldiers, to fruition. It went on to win the Best Live-Action Short Film Oscar in 2004.
Schneider later made his initial foray into feature directing with a dramedy, Get Low, starring Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray. In 2011, Get Low earned Schneider a Film Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature. Murray’s performance in the film garnered a Spirit nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Schneider stayed selective relative to a second feature, translating into an inordinately long wait. Explaining that he held out until he found something that truly lit his creative fire, Schneider finally clicked with Greyhound, a film written by Tom Hanks, which debuted on Apple TV+ last summer. The pandemic caused the World War II naval drama, starring Hanks, to detour from a planned theatrical release by Sony Pictures to a streaming service where it enjoyed a strong performance. Greyhound’s opening weekend in terms of number of viewers reportedly rivaled that of a conventional summer box office hit. And notably some 30 percent of that Greyhound audience consisted of first-time Apple TV+ subscribers.
Schneider was elated over the opportunity to work with Hanks who starred in the film, Saving Private Ryan, that played a role in setting him on a successful directorial path.
Greyhound was a pet project for Hanks whose screenplay was based on the novel, “The Good Shepherd,” by C.S. Forester. In Greyhound Hanks portrays a first-time, reticent, selfless captain who shepherds an Allied freight convoy across the “Black Pit” of the North Atlantic Ocean, guarding the vessels against a possible German U-boat offensive. The captain is cut from The Greatest Generation cloth, deeply committed to self-sacrifice to defeat the enemy and defend democracy.
An emotional yet taut procedural that’s anchored in and informed by Navy verbiage and ritual, Greyhound is also a technical tour de force, shot mostly on stage and in part on a preserved WW II destroyer, the USS Kidd, docked in a museum. And then there was the “second movie” that took place in postproduction for which Schneider had to create and direct the ships and U-boats to which the captain and his crew are reacting--all on an indie budget and schedule.
A VFX enthusiast, Schneider created an extensive online bible of everything one might need to know about ships like the Greyhound, and deployed gaming technology to create a 3D model of the USS Kidd before cameras ever rolled. Authenticity was key, even for the crew--the elaborate set of the ship’s bridge, suspended on a gimbal, rocked like the ocean so that the cast and the camera crew had to find their sea legs. Also Schneider had to serve as the attacking U-boats and ships in distress (which were really just lights against green screen) during principal photography so Hanks and the ensemble of actors could act in response accordingly.
SHOOT: What drew you to Greyhound?
Schneider: The script came to me from my agent at CAA--a World War II story written by Tom Hanks. Immediately you’re on pins and needles. It was a unique read. The drama takes place underneath and between the dialogue in Tom’s screenplay. There are tactical, naval and internal conflicts going on with a first-time commander, the situations he found himself in. Much of the story was going to be told visually and in-between words. There’s no better actor in the world to tell the story in-between words. The opportunity to work with him excited me to no end.
I read the script, sent an effusive email to my agent detailing all that excited me about the project. He was either with or had forwarded the email to Tom’s agent. And just by luck, the agent was on the phone with Tom at the time. Somehow my email got read to Tom. It was agents doing their thing, in this case connecting Tom with someone who really enjoyed the script.
This led to a meeting. We hung out for about three hours at his offices at Playtone with all the Band of Brothers Emmys in the room. We talked about cinematographers I admired like Conrad Hall who Tom worked with on Road To Perdition. I was a fan boy, talking about all these greats. I had worked with Robert Duvall and Bill Murray. Tom had questions about them. We had a filmmakers’ chat. When the meeting was over, he said “why don’t we do this? Come meet my partner (producer) Gary Goetzman.”
SHOOT; What was (were) the biggest creative challenge(s) that Greyhound posed to you as a filmmaker?
Schneider: Shooting 35 days of Tom on a set on a gimbal that rocks back and forth, representing the bridge (of the ship). Most of the film takes place in this command capsule. At the end of 35 days we would have all this film of Tom looking at, reacting to and engaging with every single element of the environment around him. We had LED lights--one representing a submarine at point A, another a submarine at point B, for example.
Tom created a performance of reactions. He was the only way in for the audience, to make them empathize with him and understand the stakes of any given battle. He used his imagination of something that wasn’t even out there. In post months later we would replace what he’s looking at with visual effects. It was putting the cart before the horse, creating the reaction on set months before creating what is being reacted to. It showed his brilliance as an actor.
SHOOT: I’d like to delve into some of your other collaborators--like cinematographer Shelly Johnson and editors Sidney Wolinsky and Mark Czyzewski. Why did you gravitate towards them and what did they bring to the film?
Schneider: I wound up working with a lot of new crew members. Shelly and I had been acquaintances or friends for awhile. Both of us were members of the ASC. I’ve been a fan of his work for a long time, ever since he broke out with Jurassic Park. I remember being jealous of him. Greyhound gave me the chance to team with someone whose work I admired for quite awhile.
I had edited Get Low, my own film. Now with a budget (on Greyhound), I got a chance to interview and hire somebody to cut the movie with me. I hired Sidney because he has this impeccable resume of classic legendary television, including The Sopranos finale (as well as an Oscar nomination for his work on The Shape of Water). I had experience in visual effects, I could help shepherd the film through the technical side. I wanted to hire an editor to keep his eye on our telling the story. That’s how I came to choose Sidney. He’s a character-based, narrative-based, actor-centric editor. Mark (Czyzewski) was brought in toward the end of the first postproduction phase to help out on some of the visual effects work.
SHOOT: What was your biggest takeaway or lessons learned from your experience on Greyhound?
Schneider: More an affirmation of sorts. It’s the actor, stupid. If you are trying to put on a beautiful concert, make sure you are playing with the best instruments in the world. I’m not sure Greyhound would have worked without Tom as a linchpin. He was an entry point to a very technical and procedural-based film, and was able to humanize it. Tom proved to me once again that the actor is at the center of things, even more so with Greyhound. He created this burden (as a writer) for himself (as an actor). He put the responsibility on his own shoulders when he wrote the screenplay. He didn’t write any death scene for himself or soliloquies. He’s an active participant in a survival film. There’s a character study element obviously. But he had to express who that character was through living inside of and in between words.
SHOOT: How do you view the streaming option in that the pandemic caused Greyhound to shift to Apple TV+ from the big screen?
Schneider: I never looked at it as you’ve got to pick a side. It’s not that you’re pro-film and are betraying cinema if you root for the streamers. I think it’s a great thing that we have both the cinema and the streamers. Greyhound matured and was ready for an audience. There was no theater to put it in. We make these movies for audiences, not ourselves. I feel a little disappointed that I didn’t get to see the film on the big screen with an audience. Who wouldn’t be? But it’s possible to be grateful for finding an audience online while also being a little disappointed you didn’t get to eat popcorn in a theater with an audience.