21 December 2000

See the sea

The uncharted desert isle called elegance and simplicity

To attain the sublime, sometimes you must tempt the ridiculous, a thought that may occur when you are watching a movie where Tom Hanks' best friend is a volleyball named Wilson.

"Cast Away" is not ridiculous. Indeed, it often tempts greatness. Hanks may offer the year's best performance in Robert Zemeckis' haunting, masterfully restrained, breathtakingly refined story of the road not taken. "We are not promised tomorrow," the Bible reminds us, and "The journey is more meaningful than the destination" is the wisdom of another culture. Zemeckis and company manage to simply, lyrically meditate on those notions for more than two hours, and never once bang us over the head with a banal observation. This is a simplicity and elegance that tempts platitude and commonplace, but in the film's final twenty minutes, simplest emotions take on deepest heart. When a plane bearing FedEx efficiency whiz Chuck Noland, leaving behind his fiancee (Helen Hunt) splashes down in the Pacific, he's stranded on a reef-encircled island, alone, with little more than his wits -- and a few choice FedEx packages that wash up -- to survive. If you make it through this ordeal, the film asks, can you ever be the same again? "Cast Away" ends on perhaps the year's sparest note, yet it is a conclusion of thrilling hope, in which Chuck has learned about journeys and about necessary choices.

Talking to Hanks and Zemeckis, their seriousness about craft is stirring. One of "Cast Away"'s most compelling aspects is its restricted point of view. "Bob is brilliant about that," Hanks says. "He never cuts to the exterior of the plane going through the clouds or something like that. So all it is these people inside this little [compartment] where all of a sudden all hell busts loose."

"I approach everything that I do that way," Zemeckis adds. "I actually have a theory that the really great movies are all told from a singular point of view, and anytime you're watching a movie that ten minutes in you cut to the bad guy's headquarters, you're already in some not-that-great-a-movie. I don't care how big the cast is, when you cut to the bad guys, it's like OK, we see how this movie's going to work. But when I approach a scene, I always have to know, wait a minute, whose point of view is this from? And then everything is about that."

Hanks adds that authenticity was important, too. "We couldn't fall off into a realm of cinematic narrative that wasn't going to adhere to [the idea] that this takes place in a real universe and it happens to a real guy. How does he get off the island, that was a huge question. Does a boatload of Japanese tourists show up out of nowhere, a deus ex machina? Does Elle McPherson come ashore with a Sports Illustrated photographer? Does he go crazy and start talking to himself? We didn't want this to be a kind of thing, that four years go by, and he's learned a lesson about himself, and he becomes Nature Boy when he gets back. Because I got news for you, you've been on that island for four years? You're going to take a shower and you want to go to Pizza Hut as soon as your stomach can digest the food! That was the area where it was tough. We could figure out the logic of how he got there, and we could work on the authenticity of everything that happened to him on the island. But when it came time for him to come back to Memphis, that where it became very complicated."

The only "music" in the island passages of "Cast Away" is orchestrated sound effects, and that is a marvel as well. "If you pay close attention to the sounds of the island, we took out all real production sounds," Zemeckis says, "and the sounds of the surf and the wind as best we could are used to score. When there's tension in a scene, the surf is much more pounding, the waves come in at a quicker rate. When it's a melancholy moment, the surf is softer and the wind is softer, so we use the sound to score, definitely."

Zemeckis, always a master of special effects, has strong ideas about how they should be used. There is a gorgeous, radiant shot of an island disappearing behind a gentle gray curtain of rain. Is that the future of effects? "Yeah," he says. "Not even I can be rolling when something like that happens. But there's an example of something that there's no other way to do a shot like that. It's poetic, and that's what I think special effects should be used for, to be able to just paint an image like that to advance the story."

Simplicity's failure becomes triteness. I wondered how Zemeckis' approach to straightforward storytelling was more intuitive or intellectual. "I think it's a combination of both. I think as I've made more movies, I've been more in tune with my instincts. I'm finding that I can feel them. When I'm instinctually saying, 'This is working,' I don't beat myself up over it like I used to, to make sure. That's an eloquent way of putting what the process was. That was the endless process in the screenplay, which is that balance. That balance between it being too earnest or saccharine and to be truthful, and that was -- beyond shooting in the surf and all of that -- the biggest challenge of the movie. When we got to the preview process, we were pretty far down the road. There wasn't anything that jumped out when the film was finished. There weren't any groans or anything coming from the audience. But that's why I do preview, because sometimes you don't know. Sometimes it's very much a mystery."

[Originally publshed in Newcity, 21 December 2000]