Casting About


When screenwriter William Broyles Jr. was stranded--voluntarily, we hasten to add--on a desolate beach off the Sea of Cortes, a volleyball washed up on shore. While kicking it around, he came up with an intriguing idea for the movie he was working on, “Cast Away.”

The survival drama, which opens Friday, reunites Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis, the Oscar-winning team from “Forrest Gump.” And yes, a volleyball--fondly named “Wilson” by Hanks’ character while on a deserted island--plays a significant role, one of several real-life inspirations that became part of the film.

The story was based on Hanks’ original idea about how a man survives when he is cut off from civilization on a remote Pacific island--and the impact of that experience when he returns to civilization. Broyles, a 56-year-old former journalist and editor, had worked with the actor on the 1995 film “Apollo 13,” which deals with the fate of astronauts stranded in space. What intrigued Broyles about Hanks’ concept was that it offered an opportunity to tell a story that’s “not only about how we survive, but how we live,” he says.


From the first draft, through countless rewrites and two directors (Jonathan Demme was at one time attached) “Cast Away” always hewed closely to a very simple structure: An individual who is very much a part of society is suddenly removed from the world he knows and then returns completely altered.

“There was always this sense of taking a man who is completely connected, whose life is about making connections, who lives his life by time,” says Broyles, who began working on “Cast Away” in 1994. “Then he is disconnected and must respond to a different time. Instead of the clock, the man-made time by which we all live, he has to follow the rising and setting of the sun, the tides, the seasons. We wanted to take everything that we think of in modern life as human--family, career, conveniences--peel it away and see what was left.”

As the story developed, Broyles, Hanks and eventually Zemeckis strove to eliminate traditional narrative conventions, distilling the idea to its essence. Broyles likens the process to actors trying to find the core of a performance by experimenting with different approaches. With each successive draft, extraneous characters, subplots and dialogue were jettisoned to home in on the basic premise: physical and spiritual survival.

“We set ourselves the challenge of not using any of the usual Hollywood narrative crutches in an attempt to push the scenes toward authenticity,” says Broyles.

For instance, protagonist Chuck Nolan doesn’t undergo the typical changes that prevail in movie drama. He doesn’t start out flawed; he’s not unhappy at his job or in his private life. And in the end, says Broyles, Nolan’s grueling survival experience changes him, but again, not in a heroic way so common in mainstream movies.

There are none of the normal Hollywood moral lessons to be learned, Broyles says. Even the central love story between Hanks and Helen Hunt, which bookends the island experience, counters conventional expectations. Particularly in the film’s crucial second act on the island, Hanks scoured every rewrite for any signs of what he calls the “Gilligan’s Island factor.”


“I didn’t want to show a man conquering his environment, but rather the effect the environment has on him,” Hanks says during a phone conversation. “As with ‘Apollo 13,’ I wanted to deal with subject matter that was largely verboten in mainstream movies, taking the concept of a guy trapped against the elements, with no external forces, no pirates, no bad guys, and tell it in a way that challenged the normal cinematic narrative structure.”

That, Hanks maintains, required that Broyles’ script “be very particular” about the details of the character’s life, before, during and after being washed up on the island. The choice of Nolan’s profession, a Federal Express systems engineer, came from Hanks, who suggested it after reading an article about the modern-day Pony Express operation, a job that seemed to him romantic and, at the same time, contemporary.

Early on in the writing process, Broyles spent time at the FedEx hub in Memphis, “going through the sorting, following the packages, talking to trouble-shooters, hearing about the war stories,” he says.


But the sequences on the island seemed pat. So Broyles’ decided to get himself stranded. With the help of professional survival specialists, he was left to fend for himself for a week on a remote Indian reservation in the Sea of Cortes. There he was forced to find water, food and shelter, even to create fire. Broyles’ experiences helped him map out a logical dramatic structure and eliminated the need for voice-over narration or other simplistic script solutions.

The scenario for this part of the film gradually evolved into a mostly “silent movie,” according to Hanks. The more specific the actions, the more visual the story became, the actor says. Broyles’ descriptions had to be meticulously detailed; for example, Nolan has to find a way to secure a head covering to protect against the sun using the elastic band from his underwear.

A naturally dramatic sequence of events unfolded: When Nolan is washed up on shore after a plane crash, he waits to be rescued, then tries to escape. Once he realizes he’s trapped, Nolan “essentially goes through the basic arc of human history--finding water, food and shelter, creating tools, hunting, inventing fire,” says Broyles.


“At first I was afraid of boring the audience with these details. But after I had gone and done it myself, I found it all incredibly absorbing and interesting. They showed that Chuck doesn’t survive because he’s some incredibly gifted person. He survives because he’s drawing on bits and pieces that are unconsciously inside all of us but that we’ve forgotten because we haven’t needed them.”


Having mapped out the character’s physical actions, Broyles then moved on to “his emotional and spiritual survival.” Just a week of isolation impressed on Broyles the solitude and sense of loneliness Chuck would experience in his four years on the island. So he created a “unique friendship” for Nolan with Wilson, which imbues the survival adventure with an almost spiritual dimension.

“The ability for language and math are hard-wired into us as humans, and [the friendship] showed that a certain spiritual need is common to us as well,” Broyles explains. “Like language and math, it transcends every culture.”

Further refinements were added when Zemeckis came aboard. What had originally been the character’s deus ex machina rescue evolved into an adventurous escape. When Broyles traveled with the director to the actual locations, “we made changes according to where we were actually going to shoot and what Tom was physically capable of doing there.”

Another opportunity to fine-tune the script came when the production closed down for several months. While Hanks shed 55 pounds, Broyles pared down the script. “We were able to get rid of a lot of repetitious survival stuff in the second half,” says Broyles.

The third act, when Hanks returns home, proved to be as challenging as the first two, Broyles says. A neatly tied-up ending would have diminished the dramatic impact of Nolan’s survival, he says. And Hanks says that from the start he made it clear he wanted no self-pity involved when Nolan rejoins society.


Again Broyles partly drew on his own experience after he returned home from the Vietnam War. Just like Nolan, Broyles found it difficult to sleep on a mattress, making a bed for himself on the floor. There were also kindred feelings of dislocation and altered perception. While on the island, the image of his fiancee (a photo in a timepiece) buoys Nolan’s spirits, which parallels the feelings of men in battle.

“The illusion of her on the island is important because [Hunt’s character] becomes a lifeline, even though on some level he probably senses that her life has moved on,” says Broyles. “ It’s similar to guys who are in a war. They need that illusion, which is why Dear John letters are so painful. You’d almost rather not know [the truth] until you get back.”

Broyles struggled to set the right tone for the last part of the film, “to create simple, honest scenes between a man and a woman with no phony dramatic conflict in which deep, almost inexpressible emotions are presented.” In an early draft he had written an epilogue with a new relationship and profession for Nolan, but again found it diminished the impact of his survival experience.

Trying to remain true to the spirit of the film, Broyles eventually distilled the ending down to two words, “thank you,” the last words Nolan utters in the film. Though the circumstances under which he delivers the line are deliberately ambiguous, the meaning behind them, says Broyles, is clear--”the idea of acceptance [of his fate], that there is no rationale for some of the things that happen to us. But finally there is gratitude.”