‘Cast Away’ at 20: Inside the Tom Hanks Classic and the Real “Wilson”

Screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. explains how his time in Vietnam and the failures of his life made Tom Hanks's 'Cast Away' possible.

Tom Hanks Cast Away 20th Anniversary
“We all go through terrible, dislocating experiences in life,” says Cast Away screenwriter William Broyles, Jr., looking back on the iconic Tom Hanks film. Fox

“I think failure burns the fat off your soul,” screenwriter William Broyles Jr., a man whose very life was built on the notion and practice of failure, tells me as we discuss his film Cast Away ahead of its 20th anniversary today, December 7. Some of his movies—Cast AwayPolar ExpressJarhead—often revolve around people whose initial dreams don’t come true, whose paths to success are knocked off balance. Other scripts of his—Apollo 13Planet of the ApesFlags of Our Fathers—are stories in which one small thing goes wrong before cascading into a larger, nearly unsolvable disaster. They say write what you know.

“I’ve failed at pretty much everything I’ve tried to do and I came to think that success is the real danger,” he says. “Success tends to make you complacent and scared and protective.”

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Broyles’s background is littered with false starts, disruptions and flat-out defeats. The 76-year-old Houston, Texas, native with a stout chin and a warm smile had studied his way into Oxford and was on a path to traditional success as a young man. But his sterling strategy to capture the American Dream was cast aside once he was drafted into the Marine Corps for Vietnam. Plucked from his trajectory as a twentysomething and dumped in a rice paddy at the epicenter of a war zone, his transition was about as smooth as sandpaper.

Visiting a triage center with a nurse caring for wounded teenagers after his unit had been attacked, Broyles fainted. Leaving the hospital later, he would look up at the night sky and see a light streaking across the horizon. “This was the moment of my deepest failure. But years later, that nurse was the inspiration for China Beach, which was the first thing I ever did in film, and the light was actually the Apollo 13 mission.”

He pauses here and contemplates for a moment.

“We don’t know what in our lives we might think is the worst part might end up giving us strength, opportunities or experience that lets us succeed in other ways we never would have expected,” he says.

“I found a coconut,” he recalls, “and then everything [Hank’s character] does in the first stages of the movie is exactly what I did.”

Broyles would survive the war and return unmoored from everything he believed his life would be, much like Tom Hanks’s Chuck Nolan in Cast Away. Brief political aspirations in the 1970s wound up going nowhere before a successful career in print media, including the founding of Texas Monthly and a stop at Newsweek, enabled him to scratch his way through adulthood. The Oscar-nominee wouldn’t even write his first Hollywood script until the age of 40.

Broyles believes that success and failure are two halves of the same truth, both immeasurably illuminating for each individual. What are you made of? What does crisis bring out in you? Those are the questions he asks of himself and his characters. One would be forgiven if they initially believed he spoke only in folksy Southern witticisms. (“Sometimes you climb the wrong mountain and sometimes you climb the right mountain. Either way, you have to come down and climb another one.”) But the gentle reminder that his trek up the 23,000-foot Aconcagua in the Andes in 1986 had him fearing for his life makes you realize his philosophy is rooted in lived experience.

Tom Hanks Cast Away 20th Anniversary
Tom Hanks in Cast Away Fox

Cast Away  started with Tom Hanks, FedEx and brutal, real-life survivalism

The genesis of Cast Away is rather simple. Tom Hanks and Broyles were working on Apollo 13 together when Hanks mentioned his idea for a reimagining of Robinson Crusoe. A later conversation led to the idea of using a FedEx employee, as Hanks’s character would later become. “I thought, Wow, this is perfect, because the motto on the FedEx truck at the time was ‘The World on Time.’ And that’s the theme of the movie. It’s connection in the world and disconnection from everything.”

Broyles, survivor of war and climber of mountains, approaches story research in a more extreme manner than you and me. To write a tale of man stranded alone against the elements, he arranged to be dropped off at Shark Island in the Sea of Cortez by two survivalists from the Boulder Outdoor Survival School in Utah. They dumped him on the beach without food, water, shelter or tools. For comparison, I write this story on my WiFi-connected laptop while laying on my couch complaining about my shower’s poor water pressure.

“I found a coconut,” he recalls, “and then everything [Hanks’s character] does in the first stages of the movie is exactly what I did.”

They dumped him on the beach without food, water, shelter or tools. Around the fifth day, he came across a volleyball that washed ashore.

Trying and failing to get to the sweet nectar of the coconut in order to sustain himself, flaking rocks to use as tools, drilling holes with seashells; Broyles went to bed hungry, thirsty, and freezing cold that first night. When he woke the next morning, he sharpened a stick and started spearing stingrays which he would then eat raw since he had not yet managed to start a fire. “Let me tell you, stingray is not going to start appearing on menus at fusion restaurants anytime soon.”

Eventually, though, the smell of cooking bacon and the sound of the Grateful Dead wafting over from the survivalists’ camp five sand dunes away would force him to relent and ask for help creating a fire. That’s where the structure of the film begin to crystallize in his mind. The journey—ineffectually stabbing at coconuts, gathering palms for a makeshift shelter, trying to master the elements—would be the progression of the story. Watching a man create a new domestic life in the thick of unforgiving isolation. But like Leonardo da Vinci’s St. Jerome in the Wilderness or Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, the work was unfinished.

William Broyles Jr. during ShoWest Awards 2001. Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc

Around the fifth day, he came across a volleyball that washed ashore. Already succumbing to the crushing loneliness, he adorned it with seaweed and seashells and sat it next to him that night. When he awoke, the emotional core of the film—and Wilson, its most enduring artifact—was clear.

“The movie isn’t just physical survival, it’s what happens once we’ve already survived and now must face who we are as human beings,” he said. “We have to connect—not just physically, but emotionally—with other beings to survive.”

Cast Away‘s focus on time is the heart of the movie

With the physical and emotional journey in mind, Broyles began working on the film’s themes. Cast Away opens with Tom Hanks’s character giving employees a lecture about the importance of time. But when he’s marooned on the island, both he and the audience lose all sense of it. Humans are the only species on this planet that measure time, which we’ve allowed to control our actions, thoughts, moods and perceptions. It is time that we mark our days with, schedules and clocks dictating what we do and when we do it.

Chuck brings the pocket watch his wife gave him as a gift to the island, where it breaks. He has a flashlight which eventually goes out. Then all he is left with is night and day, sunrise and sunset. He plots the course of the sun on the wall of the cave, completely disconnected from the world and the life that he once knew.

Our obsessive, compulsive measurement of time and our innate fear of running out of it has us convinced that we can beat it. That we can elongate our stay on earth as masters of our own destiny. But wrestling with time prevents us from reaching inner acceptance, which is the hidden message director Robert Zemeckis pointed out to Broyles.

In Cast Away, there’s a transitional stage from the island to home where Chuck must give himself back to the ocean and free his grip from his own mortal coil. It comes in the third act when Chuck builds a raft to escape the island. He’s sailing, he has oars, and he has ownership over his own fate for the first time in the film. But then he loses Wilson, the storm rips away the sail, and he finally lets go of the oars. He gives himself to the larger rhythms and powers of the universe. Once he’s done that and gone to the depth of despair, he’s awakened by whales (a deliberate Old Testament reference to Jonah) and is eventually spotted by a passing ship.

“That progression was important,” Broyles said. “That he didn’t just leave the island and be rescued. That he had to go through the ocean passage just like we are reborn out of the ocean where all life comes from.”

Tom Hanks Cast Away 20th Anniversary
Tom Hanks in Cast Away Fox

Both the studio and the test audiences thought Cast Away was a dud

Development hell is an appropriate term for Cast Away‘s circuitous path to the screen. Several directors, including Jonathan Demme, were attached at one point or another, and Broyles worked on the script for six years.

The unconventional screenplay, largely bereft of dialogue and supporting characters, works because of Tom Hanks, Broyles says. The actor conveys his internal and emotional state through raw physicality, though not in the normative American depiction of classic masculinity prevalent in 20th-century Hollywood (Cast Away was released in the twelfth month of the new millennium). There’s far more vulnerability visible from the page to the screen.

There were regular phone calls from nervous execs all too aware that they were spending nearly nine figures on a film where the main character talks to a volleyball.

Still, Cast Away was a hard sell for both FOX (FOXA) footing the $90 million bill and the audience. Broyles remembers the studio pushing hard for a voice over and cuts back to the mainland throughout the film. While Fox ultimately relented, there were regular phone calls from nervous execs all too aware that they were spending nearly nine figures on a film where the main character talks to a volleyball.

The temperature of their cold feet dropped several more degrees when Cast Away began testing with audiences.

“Our first previews we got really terrible scores,” Broyles recalls. So Zemeckis and the team cut several large sequences and made tweaks to further streamline the movie. The result? “The next preview, the scores were even worse and they never got better.”

Backstage after a particularly brutal testing, Broyles huddled with Hanks and Zemeckis, and they all apologized to one another. They had believed they were making something great and the early feedback robbed them of that belief. Ironically, though, it gave them boldness in return. Call it the mystical acceptance thematically woven into the film, or chalk it up to having nothing else to lose. But the trio resolved to stop second-guessing themselves at this point, plunging forward unencumbered and in the way only the doomed can be.

“If we’re going to fail, let’s fail with the movie we want to make,” the screenwriter said.

Cast Away would go on to become the third highest-grossing movie of its release year with $430 million worldwide and would notch Hanks his fifth Best Actor nomination at the Oscars.

Cast Away, ultimately is about coming home 

Cast Away isn’t just a movie, it’s a personal time machine for Broyles. He used it to work through his own feelings about returning from Vietnam decades earlier, with Chuck’s journey mirroring his own.

“It was metaphorically me going off to a strange place on the other side of the world, disconnecting from everything I knew, going through this experience and then coming back home. And nobody understands,” he said. “Life has gone on, and it’s pretty much the same, but I’m not. It’s like Chuck lying on the floor flicking the light on and off. He knows he can’t go back to who he was.”

There may not be a way to reverse time and resume being the individual you once were, slotting back into the path you once envisioned for yourself. But the message of Cast Away is that there’s always a way back from whatever traumatic experience you’ve gone through. It isn’t the failure or the breaking point that defines you, but how you respond to it. You can always find yourself again.

“You don’t have to go to war, your spaceship doesn’t have to blow up 200,000 miles from home, you don’t have to have your plane crash and be stranded on an island. We all go through terrible, dislocating experiences in life. Divorce, death, loss of job, COVID. It marks us; it changes us. But like the character says, ‘Tomorrow the sun will rise and the tide will come in. Who knows what the tide will bring?’”

Cast Away is available to stream on HBO Max.

‘Cast Away’ at 20: Inside the Tom Hanks Classic and the Real “Wilson”