I love Tom Hanks as a director. L O V E, love. I have mad affection for “That Thing You Do,” and I have been eager to see him get back in the director’s chair for a while now.
In June of 2010, I got the call to a join a group of other writers on the set of “Larry Crowne,” his newest film as a director, on the campus of Cal State Dominguez Hills. It’s not often I can drive myself to a set visit, and it’s always a relief. I enjoy spending time with filmmakers working at their craft, particularly if there’s time to chat with them during the day, but I’m increasingly less interested in having to stay somewhere overnight to do so. I spend enough time away from my kids thanks to film festivals, and at least there, the pace of the event justifies it. Most of the time on a film set, you spend the majority of your visit waiting for things.
We ended up speaking with Hanks, with his producer Gary Goetzman, with “That ’70s Show” star Wilmer Valderrama, and with Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who went on to star in the spy show “Undercovers” afterwards. We were there for most of an afternoon, and it was a lovely, relaxed atmosphere, as laid back as you would expect a Tom Hanks set to be.
I’ve had many opportunities to meet Hanks and speak with him over the years, probably the longest-lasting of which was on “The Green Mile” set, where I spent many, many, many afternoons observing. That was a real opportunity for me to watch a great ensemble of actors at work, with one of the biggest movie stars in the business right at the center of things. Even then, though, I never saw Hanks act like he thought he was a “movie star.” There was no ego to his behavior on-set or on-camera. He was the same person he projects as his public persona, warm and funny and uncommonly sharp.
One of the first questions we had for Hanks was why he took so long to follow up “That Thing You Do,” and he was typically self-deprecating in his response.
“Well, I’ve directed some other things since in order to put into practice what I learned not to do in ‘That Thing You Do.’ [That film] was like a fever. The idea overtook me and I needed something to do as a relief from the trophy run season that ended up being ‘Forrest Gump.’ That was a long time ago, but I was just so pumped by the time I was done writing that there was no reason not to just keep the momentum going.”
What I loved about Hanks on the “Green Mile” set was the way he would go above and beyond with people. Visitors would get his full attention, and in ways that showed he wasn’t just looking to soak up a little random adoration from a stranger. Instead, he has that ability to make anyone feel like they are fascinating, turning his full focus on them, and giving that extra little bit in a conversation. Here, he took an answer that was full of potential for self-congratulations and instead gave us the real answer, the answer that might carry some real value for aspiring filmmakers. “There are lot of jobs that will provide you with the skills to direct. Acting is not necessarily the best avenue for that. Film editing is. Writing is. Cinematography is. Producing is. But if you’re an actor, the whole day is free haircuts and a sandwich anytime you want. You don’t really have to talk to anybody about what you’re doing. I directed ‘From The Earth To The Moon’ and ‘Band Of Brothers,’ and I kept my hands in creatively on other things. They just keep showing me what I’ve done wrong. So I’ve started paying attention to the other things I’ve done and asking why they’re moving so fast and how come it’s not as precious as I think they’re supposed to be? How does a director really communicate with the cinematographer and everybody else? So I’ve just learned the more important lessons about what not to do as opposed to what to do.”
When pressed about why “Larry Crowne” spoke to him and finally made him get serious about a new feature, he continued, “We’ve been talking about this for the last four or five years, and the idea has just been stewing after the really kind of big, massive, huge scope projects, between ‘The Pacific’ and the ‘Da Vinci Code’ movies, the idea being just to do a run and gun smaller film that I had in my head. That was the reason. I mean, it sounds like we’re backing ourselves into directing our own movie, but the idea was fresh and no one is making movies like this right now. No one gets laid. There’s no gambling or tigers involved. Nothing explodes. No one gets punched in the face. It’s almost like you just take the rock and roll sequences out of ‘That Thing You Do,’ so it’s a character analysis as well as a situational one.”
Have you seen the trailer for “Larry Crowne”? If not, check this out.
I like the look of that. I think we’re living through a moment where guys who are the same age as Hanks are having to consider going back to college just to stay viable in the job market. It’s awful and brutal and yet, it’s real, and the script by Hanks and Nia Vardalos looks like it focuses on the human face of what we’re going through right now. There is, of course, a chance that when someone as rich and successful as Hanks writes about financial problems, it will come off as false or condescending, and we asked Hanks about that.
He replied, “I’m pretty successful. I don’t have quite those pressures. It is all relative. And, look, all these things are biographical somewhat. I remember losing a job and feeling horrible about it. I remember very well the anxiety of not being able to pay your rent and trying to make a plan over a long course of time. And also, quite frankly, pubic education — specifically junior college — changed my life. I wasn’t 53, but the atmosphere that I remember is distinctive and still pays off now. And I think that whatever motion picture you’re doing, whether it’s a huge budget that opens day and date nationwide on 60,000 screens or something like this, it still has to hold the mirror up to nature. I think we’re definitely in the wheelhouse of what’s going on. About a week ago, I was watching a story about strategic foreclosures on ’60 Minutes,’ and the next day we issued new pages in order to get this whole concept into it. Originally, Larry lost his house by just not being able to make the payments. Now he loses his house by walking in and saying, ‘You know that bad debt of mine? It’s yours. My house? Take it. I don’t care about my credit. I have no credit. I don’t owe you 400 grand anymore. I owe you nothing. So the bag is yours.’ That’s what people are doing. So we’re trying to stay current to the flavor of society and what’s going on. And that’s my job as an actor.”
Someone made the unavoidable comparison between the campus we were on and the rising popularity of “Community,” and even before they finished asking the question, Hanks was nodding. “Oh yeah. That’s a very funny show and if you go around the country, community colleges are bursting with people who are willing to learn arc-welding and composition 101and bicycle repair and hotel and restaurant food preparation.”
Another reporter offered up, “There is a new statistic that says that the traditional path of graduating high school and going to college only describes 25% of the US college population.”
Hanks replied, “I didn’t. I only went to college for three years and then got a job and worked on my own.” When someone joked that it went well for him, he laughed. “Well, frankly, attention deficit disorder helps out a lot. I’ve been able to take that and turn it into a lucrative living. But it seems that, in a entrepreneurial society, there are no rules. You can figure out whatever and do it any way you want to. I mean, college is great. As it was explained to me, in the line from MARATHON MAN where Lawrence Olivier says to Dustin Hoffman. He’s torturing him and says, ‘I so envy you, your college days. The only time in your life when truly nothing is expected of you.’ If you can stretch that out as long as you can, it’s great. I have a friend whose aunt and uncle said, ‘I will pay for all your college because the moment you get out of college you have to work every day for the rest of your life.’ They’re both true.”
A big part of the success of “That Thing You Do” comes down to casting, and it looks like Hanks was very careful in picking this cast as well. We arrived a day after George Takei wrapped his role on the film. We talked to him about how he puts his casts together. “Sometimes I just call up people who I know are able to do it. Other times you’re just hoping. It’s an artificial atmosphere. I’d rather have someone auditioning for this who is just in a room with regular folks as opposed to having me walk in. Because it just blows the standard dynamic of someone being able to relax and do their best out of the water. It’s just intimidating. So our fabulous casting team just kept working people and cycling them through. Then you look at the tapes and you’re just dying to see the person who leaps out. And Wilmer [Valderrama] certainly does. I must have seen three people to play Bell until I saw Wilmer and he was just hilarious. And he was perfect. There’s a lot of fantastic people out there. A lot of great actresses that could have been Talia. But it’s just this intangible X-factor that comes from the tape and Gugu had that. We follow up on it to make sure it’s really there and then it is. So it’s a mix and match. Pam Grier, we were just sitting around one day and said, ‘Hey, could we get Pam Grier in this movie? Let’s find out.’ And she said sure, so that was it. Bryan [Cranston] was always the guy. I wrote it with him in mind. We needed someone who could withstand the stigma of being married to Julia. It can’t be a unknown. You don’t want to do stunt casting. You can’t have Elvis Presley playing Julia’s [husband]. Part of it is just a former repertory company and then other folks you just need them, [and] I’ve known Brian. His wife did commercials with my wife, Rita, a million years ago. I’ve known him for 20 years. He played Buzz Aldrin. He was actually in “That Thing You Do”. He came in for that. He was in “Band Of Brothers”. He was in “Saving Private Ryan,” independent of me. Steven just cast him because he was perfect.”
We had a chance to enjoy a little time on the scooters that are such a big part of the film, then spoke to Gary Goetzman, Hanks’s partner in PlayTone, the production company they’ve shared for a while now. They met on “Philadelphia,” made “That Thing You Do,” and then formed the company so they could keep working together. He talked about the main reason it took so long for Hanks between features. “Number one, we’re slow as shit. We don’t do anything fast. We let things incubate and think about them. We don’t really feel a hurry to do anything. He does go off and be a movie star fairly often. We just have a lot of other projects that he’s not starring in where he takes more of a producing role.”
Asked if this film represents a look at where Hanks and Goetzman are in life, looking at how hard it is to reinvent oneself later in life, Goetzman deflected that to Hanks, saying the script really started with him. “We’re older guys and we ain’t dead yet. We’re all forced to live longer. To realize, ‘Hey, I thought we were going to be good. Working at the gas company. I had a retirement plan.’ But then you find out, before you retire, that you are getting laid off. That you don’t have enough money. We all seem to have second careers. Whether it’s because of longevity or whether it’s just because of the way the economy goes a lot of the time. It’s interesting. You embrace it and you find that new kind of energy when you thought you were just going to be on that slow boat to La Jolla. That’s really what it all comes from. That new energy and that new sometimes naiveté and sometimes curiosity. You learn new things about yourself and actually have a more interesting life.”
When asked about the growing popularity of “Community,” Goetzman seemed somewhat chagrined. “Our nightmare. You write a script and then you find out, ‘Oh, great! There’s a TV show on community college? And Chevy plays an old guy who goes to college?’ But that’s just one of our communities in ‘Larry Crowne.’ He has his K-Mart adventure where he works in a Wal-mart type store situation, and then you have the college and the scooter situation and the community of his restaurant where he gets a job. There’s a lot of layers of different types of things.”
In our next piece on “Larry Crowne,” we’ll talk to both Wilmer Valderrama and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, two of the younger stars of the film, and what is clear in those conversations is just what a shadow Tom Hanks casts, and how much everyone on the film respects him as a collaborator.
“Larry Crowne” will be in theaters July 1, 2011.