Life is like a FedEx box

Tom Hanks says that until crisis strikes, you always know what you're going to get.

Published January 12, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

The only commentator who hit on the sub-surface appeal of the runaway hit "Cast Away" is cartoonist Ted Rall in last week's Time magazine. In a strip called "The Movie Pitch Meeting," a screenwriter is trying to sell a story about a Type A-plus personality who "loses everything he has due to a bizarre twist of fate," is presumed dead for four years, then "gets back the job and the life that was stolen from him and is welcomed home as a hero." In the strip's final frame, he says, "I call it 'Castaway 2,'" and the producer responds, "Thanks for coming, Mr. Gore. We'll be in touch."

Watching "Cast Away" at a critics' screening five weeks ago, the Gore connection was inevitable -- after all, Tom Hanks' character, Chuck Noland, hails from Tennessee. Though the movie is in large part a "Robinson Crusoe"-type adventure about a FedEx hotshot who crash-lands in the ocean and learns how to survive on an island without a stopwatch, it is less about handling goods -- or loneliness, or the infinite -- than it is about transforming loss into victory.

If any single thing in "Cast Away" made me turn against the film, it's what happens after Chuck returns from his island. I won't spoil it here, but I will say that I found the action hugely disappointing -- if not unbelievable. "That's so anti-movie," I said to a colleague. "It's so anti-life," she corrected me. The filmmakers may feel the ending represents an authentic turn of events, but in effect they're operating like the U.S. Supreme Court. To the audience, as to the voting public, Chuck, like Al Gore, is a loser only in disguise -- he's a loser who should be a winner.

Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis are smart, talented and resourceful; what separates them from Gore is that they're also instinctive politicians, with a hammerlock on middle-class sensitivities. The 70-minute mid-section of the film, when Chuck is on the island, is wonderfully engrossing and surprisingly funny, especially when Chuck interacts with a Wilson volleyball he names "Wilson." But this actor and director are too anxious to be believable, in a regular-guy sort of way, to transport us into magical or transcendent realms. Moments like Chuck staring into the eye of a whale become precious gifts, because otherwise the film is cautious in the area of wonder. The movie takes the form of a fable, but its few fairy-tale strokes are wispy, even wan, and are expressed in the hollow visual terms of angel wings -- which Hanks sees first as an odd decoration on a FedEx box, then as the plastic sails he carves from a beached Port-a-potty.

Both Hanks and Zemeckis have superb creative reflexes, yet the indefinable sheen that made them consummate entertainers pre-"Forrest Gump" has been wearing thin. Hanks gives his most trenchant serious performance in "Cast Away" (I vastly prefer it to his virtuous turn in "Saving Private Ryan"), but I miss the lunatic serenity he had in "Splash," the weird, square-cut grace he had in "Turner and Hooch"; in "Cast Away," he's easy to admire, but no longer a simple joy to watch. The danger is he'll go the way of Jack Lemmon: into practiced, award-winning pathos. Maybe I'm demanding from Hanks -- and from Zemeckis, who was a delirious slapstick artist in "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," "Romancing the Stone" and "Back to the Future" -- a near-impossible blend of sophistication and spontaneity. Still, it seems to me that "Cast Away" is at best the height of Goldilocks moviemaking: The filmmakers want a cinematic porridge that's not too hot and not too cold.

As interviewees, Hanks and Zemeckis are nonpareil. Reaching San Francisco as the last, dinnertime appointment of a three-city tour -- the jet-age version of a whistle-stop -- they spent roughly an hour apiece with two groups of four or five journalists. The actor and the director refueled on Starbucks while reporters nibbled; and at their separate group sessions, each did an expert job of focussing on the scribblers surrounding them at table.

Below are just my questions from the Q&A with Hanks, and his responses to them. I'll run the Zemeckis answers in my column next week.

Hanks made it easy to start by talking about how much he liked Salon. "I check Salon every day," he said, "to see what's going on. It's not unlike the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. If you just give it a quick scan every day you're pretty much up on the good, juicy stuff that's going on."

How do you feel about coming out with an "anti-'Survivor,'" since that show ended up celebrating a Machiavellian scenario, whereas the whole voyage your character takes in values is a 90-degree turn from that show.

I guess the closest you can come [to connecting "Cast Away" and "Survivor"] is saying that Chuck voted himself off the island! You know, we had to do long-lead press before we even had a cohesive version of the entire movie and people hadn't seen the film. And that was the first thing they asked: Well, what are we going to do about this "Survivor" thing? I said, well, look, this is July: I believe "Survivor" will be long gone by the time we come out. We're pretty much right on time.

This is a rare, totally original Hollywood project -- it's not even based on a Vanity Fair article. How close were you to the conception of the guy at the center of this? It's interesting to hear you talk about reading on the Internet -- you clearly like the pace of contemporary communications and the reflexes you develop scanning them. But here you're playing a guy who is going to find out, in an almost Dickensian, "Christmas Carol" kind of way, that there's a cost to all that. What was the hook here? What made you feel you had to do it?

I don't know how or where it all began. I remember I heard Louis L'Amour, the writer, on some talk show. I heard him talk about how he had been shot down or shipwrecked during World War II and had clung to some atoll somewhere. The person who was interviewing him on TV couldn't quite get that it was not a pleasant experience for him. She asked two questions. She said, "Oh, that must have been interesting for you." "No," he replied, "It wasn't. It was a life-and-death situation." Then she asked: "Well, have you ever wanted to go back to that island?" And he said, "No, I haven't."

This was so obviously counter to everything we would assume about the castaway on a desert island -- be it "Swiss Family Robinson" or "Gilligan's Island" -- that I thought, well, now, that's interesting. And FedEx, I've always thought, is a fascinating business model. I read some article about them and put together that they have these jumbo jets filled with packages that fly across the Pacific every day as routine. That gave a brand of logic to the idea of what would happen if our lives were totally free of distraction? If there were literally nothing to get your attention away from your environment after you have figured out how to eat, how to drink, how to make fire and how to get a roof over your head? Well, then, what do you do without communication, without religion, without art and without anybody else to talk to?

Originally, I was thinking that the theme to examine was as small as a guy who talks all the time [and] suddenly has no one to talk to. Well, it ended up being much bigger than that, when [screenwriter] Bill Broyles and I started talking about the connection between what the character does for a living and the reality of all this time he's spent on this island. There was a whole kind of philosophical credo, a manifesto that we sort of came up with of how we were gonna do this. But we ran into a huge roadblock that frankly we could never get past. He's on the island and four years go by. But we knew that we wanted to get to a place where a man and a woman are standing in a room, and they love each other more than anything else, and they have been soul mates for each other, but they will not stay together.

What is the construct for that? Either working backwards or forwards from whenever that happens? So that everybody who is participating in the story will understand both their motivations? It's not like a clap-o-meter decides what's going to happen. There is a relentless truth to the endgame that plays out here. That is what we were trying to shoot for. But we went down so many bad, bad tributaries to get there and they were just cheesy beyond belief. You know, it was originally called, like, "Chuck of the Jungle." We did all of those scenarios of what happens to him when he comes back to the world. It was loaded with self-pity; it was loaded with Rip Van Winkle. Kind of like, "Jeepers-creepers, look how small the computers are." We thought he'd be turned into some media celebrity. And what is he going to do, be sitting in the Secret Square with Susan Anton right next to him? "OK, and now we'll go to Chuck Noland to block! Chu-u-u-ck, true or false?" We tried all those kinds of scenarios. Bob became involved after about four years. He was the one who cracked it open for us.

So it predated Bob Zemeckis?

It predated Broyles, too. I had to talk to some other writers and they just didn't see the same kind of story or idea -- I didn't even really see it myself yet. And it wasn't until Bill came along, very soon after we'd done "Apollo 13," that he saw the same sort of thematic enterprise as I did.

So from the beginning the whole love relationship was central to your concept?

Very much so. Yes.

Because that island stuff has been done in many different fashions, but this particular kind of romantic separation seems to be done best comically -- like in "My Favorite Wife."

We played around with it in all sorts of permutations -- they were married, they weren't married, they wanted to get married, she wanted to get married. And when Bob came along, the way it solidified was that both of these people have been failures at [love and marriage] prior to this. You know, Kelly [Helen Hunt] had been married and they make jokes about that in a pretty good-natured way and somewhere along the line we get the understanding that Chuck has not been very good at relationships.

But before the crash, they are at this point in their lives: They aren't teenagers; they aren't America's Cutest Couple. They have done something to restart that includes each other. And it's kind of like, "Thank God they found each other! Thank God they are in this position!" He's rising up. He's got not only the gig, but also a lifestyle that provides him with plenty of excitement and distraction. And she's working on her dissertation, which is probably after a long hiccup in her life when she wasn't doing that. And here they are on the cusp of all the security and solidity that they've been yearning for.

And they're old; they're probably 38, 39, 40 years old. Well I am [laughter], she's probably 32. But you know what I mean. So right then when it's all supposed to be done, all the hard work has finished and we're now actually going to go off and reap the benefits of everything we've been struggling with, well -- this crash comes along. This crossroads happens in both of their lives. And it doesn't come out of a time of great anxiety; it actually happens at a time of great promise. And that's just the kind of thing to throw the film in a different direction -- otherwise it's just the story of a man who learns his lesson.

It's often said that a one-man show is the hardest thing to do in show business, but at least onstage you actually have an audience there. When you have long stretches like you do in this movie, of just you on the island, where do you get the emotional connections that you usually strike with other actors?

I don't know! It was hard. I must say it was hard. It's the greatest challenge I think you can face because there is nobody to play off of. It is reacting, it is still doing that, because there's plenty of stuff to react to. But just the pace of it was bone-wearying after a while. Because all [the crew] had to do was move the camera and they were ready. The pace that movies can often take -- of off-and-on, three minutes here, then five minutes here, then 40 minutes there -- was instead like [snaps fingers twice] "OK Tom, they're ready for you!"

It's tough. Particularly when there's bona fide emotionality that's required. If I ever talk to acting students again, I'm gonna say, "Look, you have to be prepared because one of these days a soccer ball with a face painted on it is going to be drifting away and you have to have a nervous breakdown out in 40 feet of open water -- and it has to make sense and be real."

I also was wondering about the physical tactics you used to prepare for this role -- your way of trying to "look real" was also your way of feeling the real emotions.

Yeah, you know it's not easy to walk on those rocks underwater and stuff like that. It's not easy to climb around like that. It was an oppressive climate in order to make the movie. Much worse for the crew. I got to strip down while they actually had to move stuff around in it. But at the same time if the job is to tell the truth in front of the camera, that was there. There were some times when we just turned on the camera and said, "Let's see what happens." You didn't have to fake the things that were happening. They were happening.

In that kind of situation does the partnership with the director become more crucial?

Yeah, I don't know how I would have made this movie with any other director than Bob based on the communicative shorthand that we have and our working relationship. I know that Bob Zemeckis is the hardest-working man in show business. For everyone else it's hard but for Bob it's doubly hard because he never leaves the camera. His work ethic is incredible and he doesn't shuffle off anything the way a lot of other directors would. You know, a lot of directors direct like pashas; they have a coterie of people who bring them in on a sedan chair. Bob isn't like that. Bob is always up and around and trying to figure stuff out.

But more than that was Bob's trust to be able to sit down with me at any given moment and examine what it is we just shot and how it impacts what we're going to shoot next and what that means about what we shoot farther down the line. I think Bob is extremely anxious to hear what I have to say, he knows that I'm the actor in it. And I think there are other actors and directors that are not interested in that process at all. "Please come to the set and do exactly what I tell you to do! Don't ask any questions! Because if you do it's going to cost us time!" And Bob isn't like that. Bob would say, "OK, so what about this thing that we're going to do today?" Sometimes we'd have an hour and 20 minutes' conversation about it. Sometimes we'd have a two-minute conversation about it. And sometimes it was just, "I'm ready, Bob. I know what we're doing here. Let's go."

Along with the physical changes, you make some distinct vocal changes in this movie. When you introduce the character at the beginning, he's totally glib; he defines glib. He defines it in a very affable and lighthearted way, but nonetheless, he's so facile that you don't know if he means what he says unless you're his employee and he's yelling at you to get you to do something. The first time you hear him on the island there's a purity to his exclamation that's unlike anything we've heard out of the guy's mouth before. You and Bob made the choice not to use any voice-over, and I think that works, because the audience wouldn't register Chuck's vocal changes as strongly if he were always chattering at us on the soundtrack.

Yeah. You can almost hear a bad voice-over, whatever kooky things he would say: "I'm on an island and not a Four Seasons Hotel to be found anywhere on it. This is madness I tell you, madness! There's got to be a swimming pool in here somewhere."

You've talked a little bit about the fierceness and the hardship and doing the unconventional thing in a conventional framework. But wasn't there some feeling of zest in doing the kind of outsize persona you have in the second half, when you seem almost like Billy Bones out of "Treasure Island," with that weird beard and the bent walk and all that?

Oh yeah. It was a blast. Because you rarely get to play someone whose gone through such a substantial change from beginning to end, and one that is so physically manifest as it is there. And that was a bodacious thing that Bob suggested at the beginning: "Oh, we'll just shoot the first half and then we'll take a year off and come back and shoot the other half." And that was fantastic because then [everything you need to know is] physically evident. That shot after four years later: You don't need any voice-over saying "and so I lived by my wits for four years" because it's all there.

It was just getting around the island and doing all the stuff that I had to do minus the 60 pounds that I had to do it with the first time -- that was a stroll in the park now. I was a little tired, a little hungry, but by and large it was so much easier to pull myself in and out of the water and get up on the boat this time than it was the first time. It was enjoyable. But it was going to a place and getting dirty every day. And we had these things on my hair that were, I don't know -- were they glued, were they stapled? Just these things every day that were pulling on my scalp. And then the beard itself. Sometimes it's fun to have one for a week: "I'm doing a job, so I have to have a beard." But doing it for eight months was -- you know, it was a pleasure to take that thing off.

I was also wondering about this subtle theme about the artwork: Chuck does his own artwork on the island, and develops this almost mystical connection with a female artist he doesn't meet until the end. Were you trying to suggest that this area was opening up for a guy who would never have had the chance to --

You know this whole artwork thing, in earlier incarnations, particularly when it was just me and Bill working on the script, did have a much bigger part. Chuck was opening himself up to a world of creativity through art. I like it better the way it is now because it is so much more sotto voce. We did shoot some scenes of him figuring out that mud could be yellow and he could figure out red. But if we were going to say that he came back from this island a completely altered individual with new talents and new interests and new pursuits I think that would have been false. If he'd come back and said, "Well now I appreciate art because I was on that island by myself," I think that would have been bogus. He might have developed some interior openness to other things, but I think the truth of all the research that Bill did and all the things we have seen is that you come out of this monastic experience much like you went into the monastic experience. John McCain, I think, is the same guy now that he was before.

If it would work that you can put somebody off by themselves with a can of paint [and have them become artists], well, then, let's do it at San Quentin because all those guys would come out and then they wouldn't be crooks anymore. But at the same time, just the very fact of how he did this, we can get a sense of what he's like -- he's not educating himself, he's entertaining himself. He is somehow painting his world and the first time he's doing that he's talking to Wilson, which I think is really cool, too. He's filling his day with something that can somehow connect him to the world. It is a distraction much like the distractions we have but it can only last for so long because eventually even that becomes a hollow pursuit for him. And maybe you need four years to go through this. Otherwise you're making what could be a pretty cheesy editorial on "What everybody needs is a good solid dose of losing everything because -- then you kids could appreciate what you have."

Human nature really doesn't work that way. The best you can hope for is, I think, what we have at the end of the movie. That you can stand at the crossroads and feel everything is going to be OK, going to be all right. As long as you keep breathing and keep up a certain perspective and proportion to your life, you'll be OK. And that's not a huge shift for Chuck to have gone through even if he hadn't been lost. People do it all the time. "I quit. I don't want to do this job anymore. I'm going to go figure out what I want to do. And I'm going to be OK doing that." And that's interesting. It's almost as though Chuck can say, "The best thing that ever happened to me was that I was in this plane crash where five people got killed and I survived for four years and I came back and I lost the woman I loved. That was the best thing that happened to me. That really put some perspective on my life."

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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