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'Greyhound' director Aaron Schneider breaks down his favorite war dramas

"The film wormed its way into my visual memory and stayed there," the director said of one of the classics on his list.
Image: Stills of movies \"Apocalypse Now;\" \"Das Boot;\" \"Saving Private Ryan\" and \"Greyhound.\"
Tom Hanks in "Greyhound" (lower right), surrounded by images from war dramas that influenced director Aaron Schneider.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

It all comes back to "Saving Private Ryan" for director Aaron Schneider.

Schneider was a rising cinematographer with a handful of credits ("Kiss the Girls," "Simon Burch") and an Emmy nomination ("Murder One") to his name when he and his father, a Korean War veteran, caught a showing of Steven Spielberg's seminal World War II epic. The film partly inspired Schneider to try his hand at directing and led him to adapt William Faulkner's "Two Soldiers" into an Oscar-winning short.

He credits "Saving Private Ryan" with having put him on the path to direct "Greyhound," a WWII drama starring and written by no less than Tom Hanks. "Greyhound," which debuts Friday on Apple TV+, marks Schneider's return to feature-length filmmaking more than a decade after the release of his Faulkner-flavored dramedy "Get Low" (2009).

In a phone interview this week, Schneider took NBC News on a tour through the three war-themed dramas he most frequently "leaned on" for visual and thematic inspiration during the production of "Greyhound," which centers on a Navy commander (Hanks) during an especially tense chapter in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Here are excerpts from that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

"Apocalypse Now" (1979)

The film: Francis Ford Coppola's hallucinatory trip through the horrors of the Vietnam War, loosely based on Joseph Conrad's novella "Heart of Darkness," follows a soldier (Martin Sheen) on a top-secret mission to assassinate a colonel (Marlon Brando) who is believed to be insane.

Schneider's take: "In film school, our heroes were all the directors from the 1970s. I literally fell in love with the work of ["Apocalypse Now" cinematographer] Vittorio Storaro.

"What blows me away is the juxtaposition between the intimate and the epic. It has moments that are both massively huge and beautifully, subtly small. The film wormed its way into my visual memory and stayed there.

"Coppola doesn't scream his theme or his ideas in the screenplay. He lays them out visually and lets you come to the theme yourself. I suppose that was an influence on 'Greyhound,' in the sense that it doesn't overtly announce what it's trying to do.

"The film endeavors to put you through an experience and let you draw out themes, whether it be the nobility, the heroism, the horror, the sacrifice. Tom [Hanks] and I hoped that putting you through the wringer would force you to experience what these men went through."

Where to stream: HBO Max, HBO Now.

"Das Boot" (1981)

The film: Wolfgang Petersen's big-budget portrait of a German U-boat crew trying to survive grave danger and occasional boredom amid the Battle of the Atlantic is considered one of the greatest films in German cinema. It was nominated for six Academy Awards.

Schneider's take: "The film is a really great example of how to build tension, drama and suspense out of a hyperspecific world, in this case a submarine. The drama is built on the mettle [of the crew], the challenges, the technical difficulties, the tactical dilemmas.

"It's a visual masterpiece and a great essay on how to create claustrophobia and stasis, how to shoot a close-up, how to milk tension out of a sweaty face. It's textbook for all that.

"The end of the film is shocking, in terms of being an anticlimax. It's an example, like 'Apocalypse Now' and hopefully like 'Greyhound,' of a film where the theme reveals itself organically and rises out of the experience itself."

Where to rent: Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play, Fandango Now, Vudu other VOD platforms.

"Saving Private Ryan" (1998)

The film: Spielberg's acclaimed epic follows an Army Rangers captain (Hanks) and his squad as they search for a paratrooper, played by Matt Damon. The frenetic 25-minute re-creation of the Normandy landing is seen as a landmark in unflinching cinematic realism. (Spielberg and Hanks talked to NBC News' Tom Brokaw in May 2019 about the film's legacy.)

Schneider's take: "I've been swimming in this film since it came out. You could go to film school on that movie and study Tom at the same time and remind yourself of what he can do.

"Spielberg shocked everybody with how brutally honest it was in every frame. That's why the Normandy landing sticks out. Spielberg made sure to put as much chaos and uncertainty into the film as he could. I know pieces of that opening sequence are highly choreographed, but he has sanded the edges so far down you don't even see that.

"The film is meaningful to me as a cinematic reference, but it's also a big linchpin in my life and my career."

Where to stream: HBO Max.