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Wonder of Wonders

Patrick Goldstein is a regular contributor to Calendar

In the summer of 1964, when Beatlemania was sweeping America, four young musicians from Erie, Pa., called the Wonders had their brief fling with fame, crashing the Top 10 with a hit song called “That Thing You Do!” Or at least that’s the way the story goes in Tom Hanks’ new film--also titled “That Thing You Do!"--which marks the two-time Oscar winner’s debut as a writer-director as well as co-composer of several mock-'60s songs that populate the film.

The $26-million movie, which opens Friday, chronicles the swift ascent--and even more sudden fall--of the one-hit Wonders, who go from playing Erie pizza saloons and state fair gigs to a nationwide appearance on the “Hollywood Television Showcase” variety show. The film evokes the buoyant optimism of the summer of ’64, as well as its pop iconography, from the band’s Fender amps and Ludwig drums to its members’ matching skin-tight burgundy suits. Though Hanks is on hand, playing the Wonders’ manager, the film’s central role goes to Tom Everett Scott, who plays Guy Patterson, the band’s replacement drummer who quits his job in his dad’s appliance store and helps propel the Wonders to stardom with his spirited backbeat.

Taking a break from one of the film’s final mixing sessions, Hanks, 40, seems relaxed and unusually reflective. He recalls his mid-'60s childhood, explains how screenwriting helped him escape the monotony of stardom and describes the delicate directorial art of inspiring a cast of eager young actors without making them into Tom Hanks clones.

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Question: When you sat down to write this, were the Wonders always one-hit Wonders?

Answer: Definitely. It was always a story about a band with one hit record. They go through the beginning of this great adventure and right about the time the adventure is supposed to kick into really high gear, the adventure stops. That’s the story for a great many of us. I just thought it was very real and logical. You don’t have to dig very far into the vaults at Billboard to find bands like that. When’s the last time you heard of Dexy’s Midnight Runners? Or the Strawberry Alarm Clock?

Q: Why did you pick the mid-'60s?

A: For one, it lent itself well to the concept of the one-hit wonder. But 1964 was very specific for me. For this to be a story about these kids in a band and not to delve into the grander social upheaval of the time, the story had to take place prior to Vietnam, when everything went to hell in a handbag. And I think there’s something about that summer--that last summer between Kennedy’s assassination and Lyndon Johnson’s election, that was the last time when there was more hopefulness than cynicism. It was when we still felt our institutions would provide for us, and our technology would improve our lives and our children would live better than we lived. And that’s gone--long gone.

Q: What kind of impact did that summer have on you?

A: I turned 8, and that’s probably why I view the summer in that way. When you’re 7 you’re still a kid, but when you’re 8, you’re on the doorstep to adolescence. I was the youngest in the family, and I remember the house always being filled with teenagers, with the radio constantly blaring. Everything happened so fast. It was this total atmosphere of--what’s the latest? Here’s the new Beatles! Here’s the American Beatles! Here’s five Beatles instead of four! Everybody was talking about who they liked better: John or Paul? George or Ringo? The Beatles or the Dave Clark Five? And I was just sitting in, listening to the whole thing.

Q: So what motivated you to sit down and write this story?

A: I’d just finished shooting “Apollo 13" and I’d gone to Japan to talk about “Forrest Gump” for the Oscar campaign, and it seemed like it was Month 82 of me talking about myself. I was having to answer all these questions I had no answer to: “Don’t you think ‘Pulp Fiction’ is a more revolutionary movie than yours?” “Are you going to win the Oscar twice?” “Are you Superman?” It just ended up being an unhealthy atmosphere. It wasn’t answering the questions--I was just tired of the constant attention.

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Q: So the script was an escape?

A: Absolutely. It was a creative endeavor that had absolutely nothing to do with anything I’d done before. And it was a big test. Just because I’d read a bunch of screenplays didn’t make me qualified to write one. The hardest part for me was the economy a script requires. You can write 10 pages and then realize everything you wrote can be said in a page and a half. So the hardest thing was figuring out how to stop blathering and get to the point. But I loved sitting down to write. I enjoyed the solitude. For once, I didn’t have to talk to anyone.

Q: Who read it first?

A: My wife [actress Rita Wilson]. I told her, “Just tell me if this is a movie or not.” She said, “Not only is it a movie, but I’d like to play Marguritte [a jazz club waitress in the film].”

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Q: It’s definitely not a typical studio movie. If your script had gone through all these screenwriting courses studio executives are so enthralled by today--with inciting incidents and character obstacles--you would’ve flunked.

A: It’s true. No one has a big scene at the beginning of the film where they talk about dreams and aspirations.

Q: The script really has very few big moments. As an actor, you’ve gotten Oscars for playing those very dramatic moments. So why did you avoid that in your script?

A: I’ve been lucky to have great writing in a few scripts. But I’ve been in plenty of films where the big dramatic scenes were so fake--because people don’t really talk that way. I’m a firm believer that conflict with a small c is just as interesting as with a capital C. I couldn’t write a scene where someone says, “Man, I just want to get up there and play in front of 10,000 people. Then I’ll be truly happy.” Come on, that’s a bunch of baloney.

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Q: Why do you think so many actors have been directing films this year?

A: I guess I’m the last one, huh?

Q: Well, what made you do it?

A: All I could see was this movie. There wasn’t anything I was seeing as an actor that was as interesting as this. All I could think about was the Wonders and what would happen to them in 1964. So I gave it to 20th Century Fox and said, “This is your worst nightmare come to life. An actor is giving you a script, saying he’d also like to direct it.” So in all honesty, this one was a free pass. I know as well as anybody that the studio wasn’t going to offend me by saying, “No, you can’t direct this movie you wrote.” I had an advantage that a guy named Tom Barhead didn’t have. The only way I can go back and ask again is if people like this movie enough so that it’s a success.

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Q: I guess you know that Tom Everett Scott, who plays the drummer, reminds people of a certain other actor.

A: [Laughs] Go ahead--say it.

Q: He’s like a younger version of you.

A: As soon as Tom walked in, I said, “This guy looks too much like me.” I told him, “I’m sure you’re sick of hearing my name,” and he said, “Yeah, I get asked about it all the time. It’s sort of a burden.” [Laughs] So I said, “Sorry.” But I wanted a guy who looked content, who wasn’t posing as the coolest guy in Erie but who was the coolest guy. And Tom had it. Subconsciously, I was probably always writing this envisioning myself as the drummer. Now I’m too old to play it, but I can almost guarantee that in a different time and place, I was that guy playing the drums.

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Q: What I think would be tough is keeping the film’s young actors from being over-awed of you. How did you find a way to inspire them without having them do their character the way you would’ve done it?

A: We had a meeting before we started shooting where I said, “Now look, if I give you a direction you don’t understand or I’m unintentionally giving you a line reading--just disregard it.” I told them, “You can do no wrong. You’ll get in trouble if you’re late or you look to me to tell you what to do. But as long as you have a direction or a plan for your character, you can do no wrong.”

That’s the kind of atmosphere that, as an actor, I would like to work in. Because the truth is, just because I’m an actor does not mean I know how to talk to other actors. My process is extremely personal. I can’t explain it to anybody--I have to figure out some way to do it myself. So I told them, “If you’re not having fun, it won’t work for you--or for me. And if you’re faking it, it’ll never make it to the movie.” I just said, “Go man, go.”

Q: What was the hardest part of directing?

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A: Staying mentally sharp when your body is exhausted. It’s a thousand miles of bad road. You’re up at 4:45 a.m. and you’re not home until 11:45 p.m. You’re sleep-deprived, you’re eating standing up, and people ask you 5,000 questions a day. The hardest thing is getting past the fatigue. You have shots at the beginning of the day when you’re fresh and shots at the end when you’re exhausted--but they’re all just as important! You can’t say, “Hey, let’s wrap. I’m beat.” No way, man, you’ve still got to get the shot.

Q: Does that mean it’s easier being a movie star?

A: Actually, I’ve gone more crazy as an actor. You just get bored sometimes--you know, how much longer can I sit in this trailer eating tuna sandwiches that they bring me whenever I ask. But compared to being a director, acting is a vacation. There were days when I’d look at the guys, thinking enviously, “Man, they get to take naps, play the guitar and hang out. I remember when I used to be able to do that.” But instead I have to go to the set and figure out a way to shoot the scene where the telephone rings--and make it interesting. When you’re an actor in a scene where the telephone rings, all you have to do is answer it.

Q: You know, some of the last names in the movie seemed awfully familiar. The Wonders’ lead singer is Jimmy Mattingly. The guitarist is Lenny Haise. And the lead character from your imaginary TV detective show is Shake Lovell. They’re all last names of Apollo astronauts.

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A: We even have an instrumental song [that Hanks co-wrote] called “Voyage Around the Moon” by the Saturn 5. Hey, I was racking my brain for names and I guess “Apollo 13" was still in my head. But that’s part of the fun when it’s your movie. You get to put in all the stuff that you love.


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