NEW YORK » Tom Hanks didn’t know where the cameras were.
"Captain Phillips," a based-on-a-true-story tale about a cargo ship taken by Somali pirates, was Hanks’ first time working with Paul Greengrass, the "United 93" and "Bourne Supremacy" director known for his visceral, documentarylike filmmaking. Hanks, who plays the titular captain in a performance sure to be hailed as one of his best, had been warned by Matt Damon about the chaos of Greengrass’ unblocked, naturalistic approach.
But Hanks, after one particularly chaotic take, asked his director: "Are you going to get that little session over by the maps?"
"They’d say: ‘No, we got that,’" recalls a still-perplexed Hanks. "When? When did you get that?"
"Captain Phillips" (out Oct. 11) is only one way moviegoers this fall will be fully, often staggeringly immersed in worlds as varied as slavery-era Louisiana ("12 Years a Slave"), 1970s Massachusetts con men ("American Hustle") and outer space, among the detritus of a space station torn apart by a storm of debris ("Gravity").
The movies, perhaps more than any other art form, have the ability to transport — a capacity to carry away — that’s on full display this fall.
"We shot this in the real world: the real engine rooms, the real decks," Hanks says. "They’ll say: How did you make that movie where that ship was out in the middle of the ocean? Well, we got on a ship and we went out to the middle of the ocean and we shot it there. Extraordinary how that happens."
Soon, the fall movie season will unofficially commence, the superheroes (mostly) falling from theaters like autumn leaves. After a summer of blockbuster gluttony, Hollywood will, as if penance for its bingeing, trot out its more serious and ambitious fare. George Clooney — this fall directing ("The Monuments Men"), producing ("August: Osage County") and acting ("Gravity") — will put down stakes.
There’s some hope that after a knockabout summer heavy with city-destroying tumult and some spectacular flops, that a degree of levity will return to the multiplexes. (That is, until the ever-expanding Oscar horse race commences in earnest.)
Last fall, after all, showed that good, adult-oriented movies could still draw crowds. A varied best-picture field, from "Lincoln" to "Life of Pi," made more than $2 billion at the box office worldwide even before the Academy Awards.
This autumn promises no less a mix of both aspirational filmmaking and mainstream attractions. As if her fans needed notice, Jennifer Lawrence will return not just with "Silver Linings Playbook" director David O. Russell in "American Hustle," but also as Katniss Everdeen in "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" (Nov. 22).
A quite different fervor will greet Will Ferrell’s “Anchorman: The Legend Continues” (Dec. 20), the long-in-coming sequel. There will be other sequels, too, including Chris Hemsworth in “Thor: the Dark World” (Nov. 8) and Peter Jackson’s high-frame rate “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” (Dec. 13). As the CIA analyst of the best-selling Tom Clancy books, Chris Pine will try to jump-start a new franchise in "Jack Ryan" (Dec. 25).
But other types of powerhouses will compete with action spectacle. John Wells’ adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "August: Osage County," features an ensemble cast topped by the tantalizing duo of Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts as mother and daughter.
"As a moviegoer, I would much prefer that films were spread more evenly over the year," Wells says. "But realistically, we’ve now programmed everyone to expect this when these kind of films are going to be there. Not unlike a certain fruit or vegetable that’s in season at certain times of the year, you kind of anticipate it and look forward to it."
It’s picking time.
For "12 Years a Slave" (Oct. 18), director Steve McQueen drew from Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography about his horrifying odyssey as a free black man with a family in upstate New York kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. With undiminished dignity, Chiwetel Ejiofor ("Dirty Pretty Things," "Kinky Boots") plays Northup as he’s led from plantation to plantation.
McQueen tells the story straightforwardly, often in long takes, submerging the audience in the world of slavery. Ejiofor says McQueen aimed to tell Northup’s story literally, without embellishment. "In doing that, it creates its own intensity," says the actor.
"I remember having conversations about if one can capture — even for a moment for an audience — what any of these things might have felt like, might have tasted like, might have really been like, then I think it’s a really powerful piece of filmmaking," says Ejiofor.
Even for a season known for prestigious biopics, there’s a plethora of films based on true stories: Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly ("Grace of Monaco," Nov. 27); Benedict Cumberbatch plays WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange ("The Fifth Estate," Oct. 18); Idris Elba plays Nelson Mandela ("Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," Nov. 29); and Matthew McConaughey plays an industrious HIV-infected man ("Dallas Buyers Club," Nov. 1).
There’s also Hanks as Walt Disney ("Saving Mr. Banks," Dec. 20); Naomi Watts as Princess Diana ("Diana," Nov. 1); Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens ("The Invisible Woman," Dec. 25); Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg ("Kill Your Darlings," Oct. 18); Hemsworth as Formula One driver James Hunt (Ron Howard’s "Rush," Sept. 27); and Channing Tatum as Olympic wrestling champ Mark Schultz (Bennett Miller’s "Foxcatcher," Dec. 20).
Like McQueen, Alfonso Cuaron ("Children of Men," "Y Tu Mama Tambien") is known for his predilection for uninterrupted takes. He opens "Gravity" (Oct. 4) with an unbroken 17-minute shot, the kind that bravura craftsmanship cinephiles will drool over.
In the film, Sandra Bullock and Clooney play astronauts tethered together after they’re left stranded in space. The film is, in part, a chamber piece between two characters, floating in the black abyss. It’s also a playground for Cuaron and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to experiment with 3-D effects and zero-gravity camera movement that isn’t beholden to up or down.
To keep the audience adrift in space, Cuaron resisted cutting.
"It’s the idea of trying to create a moment of truthfulness in which the camera happens to be there just to witness, and respecting that moment in real time," says Cuaron. "In this film, we felt it was going to bring the added value of the immersive element."
Many other top-flight filmmakers will be showing their craftsmanship this fall, including Martin Scorsese, who’ll release his "The Wolf of Wall Street" (Nov. 15), a story of the decadence of modern finance starring Leonardo DiCaprio that should rival that of the actor’s last film, "The Great Gatsby."
The Coen brothers have "Inside Llewyn Davis," (Dec. 20), a film about a folk musician struggling in early 1960s Greenwich Village. Ridley Scott will release "The Counselor" (Oct. 25), a dark Mexican-border thriller from a script by Cormac McCarthy. "Nebraska" (Nov. 22) is Alexander Payne’s return to his native Midwest, a black-and-white father-son road trip. Spike Lee has his remake of Chan-wook Park’s "Oldboy" (Nov. 27).
More fanciful will be Ben Stiller’s "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (Dec. 25), an adaption of James Thurber’s short story; and Spike Jonze’s "Her" (Dec. 18), a futuristic romance starring Joaquin Phoenix.
To create a realistic impression of the Westons, the Oklahoma family of "August: Osage County," Wells congregated his cast — picked to feel like a family — at an old Osage County home.
"The cast lived in a complex of small-town homes together throughout the shoot," says Wells, the producer of "ER" and "Shameless," making his second feature film following 2010’s "The Company Men." "It was a ways from town and from home. People didn’t return to the trailers often. We were just in the house, living as a family and rehearsing."
The cast even started adopting similar physical gestures and facial expressions to match their fictional parents, Wells says. Streep’s three daughters (Roberts, Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson) aped her mannerisms to lend a familial truthfulness.
Other tales of family, albeit of very different sorts, this fall include "Prisoners" (Sept. 20), a thriller in which Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard play fathers whose daughters go missing. In "Out of the Furnace," Christian Bale and Casey Affleck star as brothers separated when one is lured into a gang while in prison. In Jason Reitman’s "Labor Day" (Dec. 25), Kate Winslet plays a mother who, with her 13-year-old son, encounters an escaped convict.
Many of these films will naturally enter the awards circuit and the months-long handicapping leading up to the Oscars. It was only months ago that Russell went through that gauntlet with "Silver Linings Playbook," which received eight Academy Awards nominations, winning one for Lawrence.
An instinctive filmmaker ("There’s an immediacy when it comes from the gut," he says), Russell escaped the frenzy by jumping — quicker than he ever had between films — into "American Hustle" (Dec. 25). The film, which stars Bale, Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams, is a stylish story about the FBI Abscam operation and a cast of corrupt characters operating in the 1970s recession-era Northeast.
"It’s about the world of these people who are jaw-dropping to me," says Russell. "You look at them, and you’re like: Oh my God. Who are these people? They’re messed up and human, but they’re fighting to survive."
Russell can again expect the prestige of a release in the heart of awards season. But the aura of the season, he says, ultimately means little.
"The film has to prove itself," says Russell. "Let the proof be in the pudding."
Opening dates for films are subject to change.