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Casting About

Author William Broyles Jr. visited the FedEx hub and spent a week on a remote island while attempting to write 'Cast Away's' screenplay.

December 20, 2000|RICHARD NATALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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."

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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."

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