Hanks, who came up with the original idea for CAST AWAY, began developing the film with screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. about six years ago, when the two men were working together on Apollo 13 (1995). "Tom was interested in doing a movie about a modern man who gets stranded on an island, Broyles remembers. "He really thought there was something to that idea."
As Hanks and Broyles began to toss around ideas for the film, key themes and story and character points began to fall into place. They agreed that Hanks' character should be a FedEx employee. "As a FedEx worker, the character would be dedicated to connecting people all over the world, just as his life would be run by time and his connections," Broyles explains. "And then we wondered, what would happen to him if you took this man, who's so connected, and disconnect him from everything."
This led to other questions: What happens to him on the island? How does he survive? To find the answers, Broyles decided to get some first-hand experience. Two experts in primitive technology took Broyles to an island near the Sea of Cortez, where the writer, like his fictional creation, was cast away from the world he knew. "The first thing that came to mind was 'Oh, my god, I've got to survive,'" Broyles recalls. "I had to figure out where to get water, how to make a knife out of stone, what to eat. Some of these experiences became a kind of rudimentary basis for what happens to Chuck."
Broyles and Hanks also discussed themes from classic stories of unparalleled adventure. "CAST AWAY is really about finding your way home whether that means physically or emotionally - casting away all of the layers that complicate who we are in this world and rediscovering the things in life that really matter," Broyles comments.
Adventure stories enriched by a character's personal journey are fertile ground for director Robert Zemeckis, who together with Hanks, took the world on an incredible journey with a character named Forrest Gump (1994). The Oscar-winning director is often praised as a filmmaker whose box-office blockbusters, like the trilogy of Back to the Future (1985) films, Contact (1997) and What Lies Beneath (2000), both entertain and enlighten audiences.
Building on the work of Hanks and Broyles, Zemeckis gave CAST AWAY its dramatic and visual heart. "For me," Zemeckis says, "CAST AWAY celebrates the idea that no matter how many obstacles are thrown in our paths, we will find ways to accept them. Also, the story is not so much about the survival of a human being, but rather the survival of the human spirit and an illustration of the idea that surviving is easy, it's living that's difficult."
Hanks agrees with the vision of his director and producing partner. "CAST AWAY offers high adventure, but at the same time a simple Zen-like understanding of what things in this world are truly important."
Chuck's relationship with girlfriend Kelly is certainly important to them both, despite their all-too-frequent periods spent apart due to his job responsibilities. "These two people are not young or naive at this point in the game, and it's not a relationship based on flowers and romance," Hanks comments. "But they're grateful to have found each other. They're completely at ease and feel total acceptance with one another. Their relationship is so filled with security that it's possible for them to live these lives of total distraction caused by his job."
Helen Hunt appreciated the complexity of the relationship between Chuck and Kelly. She also recalls the humorous set of circumstances that brought her to the project. She and Zemeckis were having breakfast to discuss another possible film project, and as they were wrapping up the meeting, Zemeckis mentioned he was going off to make a film with Tom Hanks on an island.
"I said, 'I want to be in that movie,'" laughs Hunt. "Not long after, Bob called and said, 'Okay, we've got something for you.' I was totally surprised and thrilled. I really think this is such a bold and unique film."
Zemeckis was pleased that Hunt took him up on his offer. Although the character does not have many scenes, the role required a formidable actress who could make a powerful impact on - and off - the screen. Chuck's memory of his girlfriend Kelly, kept alive by a tiny photo in a pocket watch she had given him just before his fateful departure, helps give him hope during his increasing despair on the island.
"Helen's presence runs throughout the movie, because the memory of Kelly is the one thing that keeps Chuck alive when he's on that island," Zemeckis point out.
While that memory is essential to Chuck's survival on the island, a critical part of his transformation there begins with his unusual friendship with "Wilson," a volleyball that has washed ashore inside a FedEx package from the doomed flight. (Chuck names his new friend after the company, Wilson Sporting Goods, whose logo is emblazoned on the ball.)
"Wilson initially is used as a device to let the audience know what Chuck is thinking," Zemeckis explains. "But then it becomes something more, as Chuck, in his solitude and depressed mental state, starts to relate to the volleyball."
Wilson becomes a key part of Chuck's existence on the island. "Once we show that Chuck is able to figure out the four basic elements for human survival - food, water, shelter and fire - then we deal with the fifth element, which is companionship," says Hanks. "Wilson is a totally accidental creation of Chuck's that comes along at the moment he needs him most. And like all good friendships, they happen naturally."
Wilson isn't the only package that plays an important role in Chuck's survival. Chuck "rescues" several other FedEx boxes, and finds novel uses for their contents. But he decides to not open one particular package that is adorned with angel wings. The angel wings become a symbol of hope for him, one that far outweighs any physical use he could have found for what is inside the box. It is a symbol he holds on to until after he has returned to civilization. Although the box's contents remain a mystery, its value to him is immeasurable.
Chuck's friendship with Wilson, and his perception of the angel wings as a symbol of hope, point to one of the key questions the film poses: After you've learned how to survive alone physically, how do you survive emotionally, psychologically and spiritually? Broyles learned some of the answers while reading the logs and journals of several castaways, shipwreck victims and others who survived, but ultimately succumbed to a disaster. "They reached this cracking point of desperation, where they just couldn't go on any more," Broyles says.
After four years on the island, Chuck faces the same circumstances uncovered in Broyles' research. "Once Chuck has figured out how to stay alive, his battle is no longer against the elements, it's about desperation," Hanks points out. "It's about a different brand of loneliness that is very different from being home on a Saturday night with nothing to do. He's completely removed from any of the distractions that fill up our lives. That's where Chuck begins to crack, and begins to lose the battle of his own desperation."
The scenes of Chuck waging this battle for physical, and then emotional survival feature very little dialogue and no music. "Those scenes are among the most active parts of the movie, because something important is going on every second," notes Hanks. "I think that we have gotten used to a voice-over that explains everything, or characters that wisecracks their way through their adventures. But Chuck doesn't say anything unless there's a reason to. He does everything for a specific purpose. The absence of music and sparse dialogue were essential."
Chuck makes a daring escape from the island, four years after he had washed ashore its beaches. He returns to civilization a profoundly changed human being. But Zemeckis and Hanks resisted making his transformation a conventional one that would tie everything neatly together for the character - and for the audience.
"Chuck thinks that he wasn't supposed to have survived," Hanks explains. "So when he returns to society, it's not a 'Rip Van Winkle' type reaction - 'Hey, what did I miss?' - but more like 'Everything is chaff.' The things that were important to him then don't even exist anymore, because he's gone through this 'wall'. There's a lot of self-realization, but no self-pity."
"He also knows that the world has changed so much that he has no place left in it. He faced this void, and everything that comes after that is of a different shade and a different color, and it means something different to his life."
"Chuck realizes that the best thing that ever happened to him was almost getting killed in a plane crash and living by himself for four years on an island," the actor adds. "If Chuck hadn't gone through that experience - and lost everything - he would never have come to understand what's truly important."
Surviving the global and grueling production schedule for CAST AWAY was a unique challenge for cast and crew alike. Recognized as one of the more unusual production schedules in recent filmmaking history, the film was shot in two parts over the course of 16 months with a one-year hiatus within that time.
While admitting that he initially thought the schedule was somewhat daunting, Zemeckis eventually embraced the opportunities it afforded. "The schedule turned out to be a liberating experience," he explains. "For the first time in my career, I had the chance to come back and look at what I'd done with fresh eyes and a bit of objectivity, which is something you generally cannot do when you're in the midst of making a movie."
During this extended break, Zemeckis and much of his crew made the psychological thriller What Lies Beneath (2000) starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, while Hanks began a quiet and slow physical transformation.
From the earliest stages of CAST AWAY's development, Zemeckis and Hanks agreed that the most realistic way to depict the passage of time in the story, and to convey the dramatic impact of Chuck's ordeal, was to put the production on hiatus. The one-year break offered Hanks the time to effectively complete a physical transformation for the character that in one visual showed the ravages of his character's deprivation.
For Zemeckis, Hanks' efforts were as extraordinary in their subtlety as they were for his obvious physical changes. "When we returned to film the second half," Zemeckis remembers, "a kind of life spark was out of Tom's eyes, which was perfect because of what's happened to Chuck. Tom brought that. It was wonderful - and a little eerie - to see."
Supported by many of his longtime production colleagues, including production designer Rick Carter, director of photography Don Burgess, executive producer Joan Bradshaw and producers Steve Starkey and Jack Rapke, Zemeckis began principal photography on the first part of CAST AWAY in January, 1999.
Unlike most productions, CAST AWAY was shot mostly in story order. "It's actually just common sense, which movie production so rarely is," says Hanks. "We began shooting the movie at the beginning of the story and ended production at the end of the story. It put everything into a very realistic perspective for everyone working on the movie to recognize how far we've come and all the places we've been to."
Moscow, the production's first international location, is a visually dramatic, energetic backdrop to introduce the character of Chuck Noland. The Russian capital also worked beautifully for cinematographer Don Burgess to begin executing the photography plan he and Zemeckis had designed for the film.
"Energy - a lot of energy - was our approach to photography in the first act of the film," says Burgess. "We were always moving the camera in Moscow. Its movement is meant to reflect the pace of Chuck's life."
After a week in Moscow, which included completely closing down Red Square, the production returned to Los Angeles for work on soundstages at Sony Pictures and at FedEx in Los Angeles. In February, 1999 the production embarked on its first journey to Fiji to begin some of the most challenging filmmaking the cast and crew had ever experienced.
The search for the perfect desert island began in June, 1998. After scouting virtually every island group in the South Pacific, the filmmakers found the uninhabited island of Monu-riki in the Mamanuca-I-Ra group of the northwest section of the Fiji islands would become "Chuck's Island," the tropical "paradise" that imprisons him for four years.
Monu-riki, an uninhabited volcanic island owned by a neighboring Masengali, or family, is approximately 99 acres. (One can walk around the island in 2 1/2 hours at low tide.) The filmmakers chose the island mainly for its dramatic peak, pristine beach, and small coconut grove.
"We needed to show the audience Chuck's devastating predicament in one powerful visual," says production designer Rick Carter. "Monu-riki, with its rugged beauty and very distinctive geography, allowed us to do that."
Obtaining permission to photograph and eventually film on the island was a complex process that demanded patience and detailed research into the customs of Fijians. The production had to arrange a sabu-sabu, or formal meeting, with the island's owners, as well as participate in a formal ceremony.
The filmmakers requested that the contract they drew up with the Fijians for use of their island include an environmental code of conduct, which was the first to have ever been written into a land lease in Fiji. The production worked with an environmentalist over the lease period to ensure Monu-riki's environmental health. For example, any tree removed by the production required that three trees be planted in its place. Additional indigenous plants and foods for the Crested Iguana, an inhabitant of the island, were cultivated as well.
The pristine beauty and serenity of the island stands in contrast to Chuck's life in civilization. It was also a rich opportunity for Zemeckis to capture Chuck's quiet desperation on the island. "All the action and energy of the film comes to a screeching halt once Chuck is on the island," says the director. "We wanted the experience on the island to be as static as possible."
Chuck is washed ashore on the island after a terrifying and violent plane crash. That Chuck is cast upon this paradise after such a devastating event would seem to be his good fortune. But as time goes by, the desperate reality of his situation becomes clearer. To convey that reality, Zemeckis wanted the lighting to be very gritty and as unglamorous as possible in order to add to the stark reality of Chuck's new world.
In April, 2000 - approximately one year after completing Part 1 on Monu-riki - the production returned to the island for another week of filming. The company then moved to the islands of Namotu and Tavarua. Known principally as surfing havens, the islands provided a scenic and convenient base camp for crew and an excellent docking area for the production's flotilla of ships.
Near these islands, the production found the right oceanography to film Chuck's daring escape attempt through a dangerous reef that acted as the "bars" for his island prison. Months of research, design and testing went into building the ten different rafts/rigs that would house the cameras placed right in the surf to capture the action. Numerous support boats holding various key department members floated close by.
With water safety instructors hidden off camera to the side of him, Hanks worked tirelessly at the helm of Chuck's raft, taking on dangerous surf and on occasion diving off the raft to avoid a head-on collision with a fast breaker that would topple the rig.
Hanks' surf/photo double, Jon Roseman, took the most perilous waves for Hanks, as his character makes a harrowing escape from the island. Second unit director and producer Steve Starkey shot these action-packed moments. "Jon helped us make this escape look realistic, daring and dramatic," says Starkey. "He also generated some breathless moments with his courage and ability to take on the biggest surf I've ever seen."
The production finished a day and a half ahead of schedule in Fiji, then traveled back to Los Angeles for stage work at Sony, including special effects filming (under the auspices of visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston of Sony ImageWorks) that augmented the escape sequence. Ralston and his team made invaluable contributions to the action sequences, such as the escape and plane crash.
For Chuck's re-introduction into civilization, the filmmakers shot a "welcome home" scene at the FedEx Superhub in Memphis, Tennessee. Zemeckis, Hanks and additional cast and crew worked alongside 1,200 FedEx employees in Hangar 21 to film the scene in which Fred Smith, the founder and owner of FedEx, makes a special cameo appearance.
Smith and screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. both served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, and while they had not known each other during their service, they met years later. Broyles approached Smith about FedEx's possible involvement in CAST AWAY. "He asked if we could help by allowing them to use the Federal Express system as a backdrop for a very interesting theme," says Smith. "It was an easy decision."
FedEx gave the production an unprecedented level of support. From the earliest stages of development, key FedEx personnel worked to assist the filmmakers in a wide variety of areas from conveying corporate philosophy to contributing key technical resources.
After completing work in Memphis, the company wrapped principal photography in the small town of Canadian, Texas, in May - nearly a year and a half after beginning principal photography in Moscow. Months later, while finishing post-production work on CAST AWAY, the filmmakers offer some final thoughts on the film's different levels.
"CAST AWAY is a great adventure, but it's also a movie about faith, hope and redemption," says William Broyles, Jr..
Agreeing with Broyles about the film's elements of adventure, Robert Zemeckis adds: "I hope audiences experience this sort of life journey that Chuck goes through, and respond to its celebration of the resilience of the human spirit. The film says that there are a lot of mysteries out there to be lived."
Adds Tom Hanks: "People have been asking me what do I want audiences to take away from the movie, and the answer is a question you might ask yourself after watching it: 'What if that was me? What would I think and do if I found myself at the crossroads of my life, and could go absolutely any direction I wanted?' I hope that means they'll have some sort of emotional investment in the film and characters."