William Broyles Jr. was the founding editor of Texas Monthly and later an editor at Newsweek. In 1988, he created the critically acclaimed television series "China Beach" before moving to screenwriting. His screen credits include "Apollo 13" and "Entrapment." His latest film, "Cast Away," starring Tom Hanks, arrives in theaters on December 22. Jonathan V. Last recently sat down with Broyles to talk about solitude, spirituality, and "Cast Away."
Where did "Cast Away" come from?
During the filming of "Apollo 13," which I co-wrote, Tom Hanks mentioned he'd be interested in doing a movie about a modern man on a deserted island. Coincidentally, I had just reread "Robinson Crusoe." I had been struck with how powerful it was, as a tale of resilience and survival and solitude and faith. I had been to Vietnam and felt really lost. I came home into a different kind of world than I had left.
So far as the modern man went, I'd worked in journalism, had had my life ruled by time and schedule. And I thought maybe we could come up with something that could have a chance, with someone like Hanks interested in it, to explore some themes film hasn't been able to explore.
Tom Hanks and I talked about it for a while. We made the main character, Chuck Noland, a Federal Express executive because that's the perfect modern company and because he'd be ruled on a daily basis by time. Then we'd disconnect him from everything that defined him. Take away man-made time, make him subject to a deeper time set by the waves and the tide and the rising and setting of the sun.
How do you research a script like this?
I went to Federal Express, and I went to The Sort in Memphis. It's incredible human activity and noise and complexity. I talked to the troubleshooters, whose job it is to squeeze as much time out of the process as they could.
I did a draft and the Federal Express stuff felt really great. But the stuff on the island just felt canned, like I had just watched "Gilligan's Island." Then I ran into the primitive technology guys. There's this whole subculture of people fascinated with the tools and art and everything else from primitive man.
They took me out to the Sari Indian reservation. The Saris are the last hunter-gatherers in North America. They stuck me on a sand dune on the beach. I had to figure out everything, how to make shelter, what I was going to drink. I tried to open a coconut, and I threw it against a rock. I pounded it with another rock. The rock slipped and hit another rock and cut me. And I thought, Ah, sharp! And I used that stone knife to open the coconut and to make a spear. I speared a crab I couldn't possibly eat.
So I tried to make fire, and that's really hard. It took a day and a half. Rubbing your hands together doesn't work. Striking sparks doesn't work. Finally, I went over to these primitive technology guys who were listening to music two sand dunes over and said, "Help!" And they made fire in about two minutes.
Once I had that, I was sort of OK. But it hit me that physical survival was only the first step. Even more difficult--and unexpected--was the emotional and spiritual isolation.
After a couple of days, time just stretched out. So many things we think about in modern life started slipping away. There was a sort of hunger in me for something. I realized this movie had the potential as a mythic or spiritual journey. You can see it as just an adventure story, or as an extraordinary story of improvisation and ingenuity and resilience, or as a love story. But also, you can see it as a spiritual story.
We wanted this thing to be a message of hope, ultimately. That you don't live by coconuts alone.
Looking at your "Apollo 13" and now "Cast Away," Jim Lovell and Chuck Noland seem that they must be men of some great bedrock faith, although it's not a specific faith.
Right, exactly. They are very much engineers in their own way, who seem to have a lot of faith in human beings' ability to master the physical universe. But they end up lost far from home, and the traditional tools they had faith in don't work. James Lovell's flight plan they had to throw away. Everything Noland has--his watch, his beeper--is of no use to him. Both characters have to improvise. There's Jim Lovell against the wonder of space, and there's Chuck Noland in the vastness of the ocean. I think that, actually, "Cast Away" deals much more directly with the spiritual dimension of the journey than "Apollo 13." But they have a lot in common.
On perhaps a simpler level, the movie is saying modern life is too rush-rush.
We have become able to master time. All this extraordinary technology lets us communicate with each other, lets us handle huge amounts of information, peer into the very mysteries of life. But none of that changes the reality that life is the one disease for which there's no cure. We're all wired for failure at some level. That's a constant that binds human beings from the dawn of time to now. We all have to deal with death.
You read a lot of journals from ship-wreck victims.
I did. I've got a huge shelf of them.
What did you learn from them?
Part of it was the creativity of the human mind when confronted with situations far beyond our experience. There's an arc that goes from first expecting you're going to be rescued, to trying to escape, to accepting that you're stuck, to deep despair, followed by either giving up or determination to do whatever it takes to survive. Crusoe, for instance, has a real religious crisis because he can't believe that God would let him suffer through this.
What draws you to these situations?
What attracts me to these kinds of ordeals, particularly the ones that are solitary, is the questions, What would I do? How would I survive? What would it do to my own faith?
In modern life we avoid those kinds of issues until something happens that hits us like a ton of bricks. Something happens to someone we love or we have a huge disappointment or our dreams don't come true. And we're faced with who we are, whether we have the emotional and spiritual resources to get through those ordeals. We all have them, but modern life lets us preserve the illusion that we're insulated from them.