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Lost at Sea and Back Again

Bill Broyles' Extraordinary Adventure Story

By Sarah Hepola, Fri., Dec. 29, 2000

Lost at Sea and Back Again
Photo By Bret Brookshire

Chuck Noland has everything under control. As a troubleshooter for FedEx, Noland's job is, in fact, to control the path of the items shipped all over the globe by his company: when they get there, how they get there, that they get there in one piece. "The World on Time" each FedEx box promises, and Chuck Noland is making sure they keep their word.

At a Christmas Eve dinner with family in Memphis, business calls him unexpectedly to an overseas assignment. "I'll be right back," he tells his girlfriend Kelly. Of course, he won't.

Somewhere over the Pacific, his plane is knocked off-course. Suddenly, the whole thing is rattling violently, hurtling through space and into the water far below. As filmed by Robert Zemeckis, it is a painfully prolonged, graceless nosedive, punctuated by the screeching sounds of wind and metal, by the great slurping of the ocean and the groans of the plane breaking apart. In a bewildering, swiftly moving chain of events, Chuck is knocked about from one end to the other, plunged underwater before resurfacing, gasping for air, still clinging to the yellow life raft he grabbed aboard the plane. And as the whole, hulking thing collapses into the water, Chuck Noland is left on the angry, magnificent ocean. Drifting.


How Do You Know Bill?

It is the Austin premiere of Cast Away, and screenwriter Bill Broyles is finally home. Last week, he flew to New York and L.A. for the film's glitzy premieres, where he arrived in limos to greet swarms of photographers, disappointed when he wasn't Tom Hanks or Helen Hunt. But on a Tuesday night, the Westgate Theater is packed with people who are here to see him -- UT professors, fellow Austin writers, friends of his wife Andrea, Ann Richards.

"We worked on the Rice paper together years ago," Texas Monthly executive editor Paul Burka is telling a woman sitting behind me. "How do you know Bill?" he asks her.

"We go to the same church," she says. "Our kids play together."

They are here to see, for the first time, the film that is turning out to be another success in the career of Bill Broyles -- founding editor of Texas Monthly, editor of Newsweek, creator of China Beach, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter of Apollo 13. Already critics are calling the film one of the year's best -- "a mesmerizing epic of suffering, improvisation, and survival," writes David Denby in The New Yorker; "At its best," writes The New York Times' Stephen Holden, "Cast Away, like Titanic, awes us with its sheer oceanic sweep and its cosmic apprehension of human insignificance." The reviews all refer to the screenwriter by his professional name -- William Broyles Jr. -- but to the people who know him, he is just Bill.

"I worked on this movie for six and a half years," Broyles tells the audience in his commanding, husky Southern voice. His face, so effortlessly intense with his pale blue eyes and square jaw, cracks open into a soft, wide grin. "Now that doesn't mean it's good. That just means that if you don't like the movie, you don't have to tell me."

Cast Away follows the adventures of Chuck Noland, a man who learns to survive on a desert island after a plane crash leaves him lost at sea. Writing about men who are lost is becoming something of a niche for Broyles -- his first screenplay, Apollo 13 (written with Al Reinert), was about being lost in space. (His next screenplay is for Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes, another film about being lost, although closer to home than it might seem.) He is fascinated by failure, by the small and seemingly insignificant things -- a mechanical glitch, a stirring in the oxygen tank -- that can forever alter your trajectory, that can change the course of your life. The unlikely heroes of these adventures, played in both Apollo 13 and Cast Away by Tom Hanks, not only face the collapse of their dreams -- landing on the moon, living a comfortable, suburban married life -- but they also face the distinct possibility of never coming back. Cut off inexplicably from home and hope, and refusing to cave in to self-pity or fear, they do the only thing left to do -- keep trying. Along their journeys, they witness things few men ever do: see the moon passing nearby in their window, hear the hum and splash in the middle of the ocean at twilight. And though their plans fail, something new and unpredictable emerges.

It is something that resonates for 56-year-old Broyles, a man who, for all his career highs, has had his share of restless wandering. Before the lights go down in the theatre, Broyles offers one parting thought. "This movie begins and ends in Texas," he says, "and that's not an accident. This is where my heart is."


What If Your Dreams Don't Come True?

A fifth-generation Texan, Broyles grew up in Baytown, a "scraped-knuckles, greasy jeans" refinery town outside Houston. He majored in history at Rice University, and went on to study politics and philosophy on a Marshall scholarship at Oxford. Back then, his plan was to become a lawyer or a professor. But at 24, he was drafted into Vietnam.

Concerned about using his position of privilege to avoid duty, he chose not to seek deferment, and wound up a marine lieutenant in Vietnam. It was in the war that he first visited China Beach, that he saw what appeared to be Apollo 13 re-entering the atmosphere, and though these events would become the fabric of his later creative life, he was, at the time, aware only of being painfully off-course. "I was thinking that I'd messed up my whole life," he remembers. "Not only was I not going to get back, but that if I did, all the other people, my contemporaries, would be so far ahead of me I didn't know what I would do. I was hopelessly behind."

In his 1986 book Brothers in Arms, Bill Broyles writes about being stranded in the war:

"What has brought me -- out of all the rich possibilities of life -- here, now, to this? Is this why my mother bore me, why my parents raised me, why my girlfriend grappled with me in the back seats of borrowed Chevies? Is all my youth -- throwing papers after school, doing my homework, enduring two-a-day football workouts in August -- is it all come to this sorry end, to die so far away in a piece of mud?"

It is a passage that could have been ripped from Chuck Noland's island journal.

This movie begins and ends in Texas, says Broyles, here with his wife Andrea and Hanks in Canadian, Texas, where <i>Cast Away</i>'s bookend scenes were shot. And that's no accident. This is where my heart is.<br>(photo courtesy Bill Broyles)
"This movie begins and ends in Texas," says Broyles, here with his wife Andrea and Hanks in Canadian, Texas, where Cast Away's bookend scenes were shot. "And that's no accident. This is where my heart is."
(photo courtesy Bill Broyles)

In 1972, Broyles was 27 and working for the Houston school district, still wondering what he would make of his life when a 26-year-old would-be publisher named Mike Levy approached him about editing the magazine that would become Texas Monthly.

"I interviewed 300 people for the job," Levy remembers, "and Bill was the only one who got it." Only problem was, Broyles wasn't interested; he was too busy running a bond campaign for the school district.

Levy offered an ultimatum: "I said 'If you're not doing it, I'm not doing it.'" But that challenge was never tested. A few weeks later, Broyles' campaign went down in "humiliating defeat," and he found himself, once again, rudderless.

"Everybody who knew anything about journalism thought that Mike was out of his mind and this would never work," Broyles explains. "But I had nothing to lose."

He took the job.

It was a pattern that would emerge repeatedly in Broyles' life -- bitter disappointment that leads to some unexpected success. Broyles had no formal experience running a magazine; like everyone else there, he made it up as he went along. But Texas Monthly flourished under his leadership, which brings up another pattern that would mark his career -- the ability to learn a craft quickly and intimately. "He's just so smart," Levy says. "He could perform neurosurgery if you gave him the handbook."

Broyles remembers the decade he spent steering Texas Monthly as "one of the happiest, most fulfilling times of my life." But in 1982, he left the Monthly to run California magazine, and a year later, became the editor of Newsweek. "So here I was doing a job which, by every other standard, should have been a dream come true, one of the four or five best jobs in journalism, and it just wasn't." He describes a bureaucracy clogged with talented people all clamoring for their own small amount of space. He left less than a year and a half later, with the knowledge that his career as a magazine editor was over and the following sentence added to his bio: "Bill Broyles later became the editor-in-chief of Newsweek and subsequently vowed never to hold a regular job again."

He didn't. He dabbled in theatre, wrote a column for US News and World Report, returned to Vietnam to write Brothers in Arms, a poignant and profound first book about meeting the men he fought against in the war.

"There was a time," remembers Texas Monthly writer Larry Wright, "when the only thing I came to expect from Bill is that he would come up with some new, radical change on his life that I hadn't expected." Like many Austin writers before him (and like Larry Wright specifically, who wrote 1998's The Siege and last year's Noriega: God's Favorite), Broyles began pitching his stories to Hollywood. Along with John Sacret Young (who wrote the television adaptation of Phil Caputo's A Rumor of War), Broyles developed China Beach, the acclaimed hourlong drama series that ran from 1988-1991. Lest we forget that his early career wasn't all award nominations and applause, it should also be noted that he also wrote JFK: Reckless Youth, at the time it aired on ABC, the lowest-rated miniseries in the history of the network.

Itching to break into feature film, Broyles pitched a Vietnam script to director Ron Howard, and while that didn't pan out, Howard liked it enough to tap Broyles for Apollo 13 (which he co-wrote with another Texas Monthly writer, Al Reinert, who had worked on the Apollo documentary, For All Mankind). It was during the filming of that movie that Cast Away was born, developed from an idea Tom Hanks had about a modern-day Robinson Crusoe. The concept was to take a man of the times, comfortable in the predictability and connectedness of his life, whose life is knocked perilously off-course. Once marooned, he must learn to survive both physically and emotionally and, eventually, come to terms with the path his life has taken. "What happens when your dreams don't come true?" Broyles asks. "That's a question all of us have."

It is something he has been thinking a lot about lately. "Sometimes it's better if your dreams don't come true," he says. "Because sometimes they're the wrong dreams."


A Movie Star, a Director, and a Writer Make a Movie --

The character Hanks and Broyles came up with was Chuck Noland, a combination of Broyles' deadline-crunching workaholic and Hanks' sarcastic, likable Everyman. A few years into the development, they paired up with Robert Zemeckis, who directed Hanks in the Oscar-winning Forrest Gump, to create a close collaboration that would last through filming in Fiji and into post-production. "Usually you get a movie star, a director, and a writer, and you make a movie," Broyles says. "At least one of them is going to be unhappy, and usually it's the writer. But I can honestly say, all three of us made the movie we wanted to make."

It might seem surprising that a screenwriter only a few years out of the gate would land a collaboration with two of the industry's most respected talents. But not to those who know Broyles.

"He inspires confidence in people," says Stephen Harrigan, who worked under Broyles at Texas Monthly and recently authored The Gates of the Alamo, "which is the basic trait of a successful screenwriter, even more than writing. Bill is the kind of person, you know, when you hear him saying, 'This movie is going to work,' you just trust him. He melts all the fear away."

Early in their partnership, Hanks, Broyles, and Zemeckis made the following, now-famous decisions about Cast Away: There would be no voiceover or music once Noland arrived on the island; there would be no cuts back to civilization; and since Noland's transformation would have to be dramatic and convincing, production would stop for a year while Hanks lost 55 pounds (and Zemeckis directed last summer's What Lies Beneath). All those things meant Broyles' script would have to slim down as well. Nearly half a movie with only one character -- it was the kind of challenge the writers on China Beach used to give when they were just fooling around, pushing each other: "Who can write a scene with the fewest lines of dialogue? Who can write a scene where the only words you can use are 'yes' and 'no'? Who can write a scene where the only words you can use are 'yes' and 'no,' but 'yes' has to mean 'no,' and 'no' has to mean 'yes'? And then, who can write a scene with no dialogue?"

Tom Hanks, Bill Broyles, and Robert Zemeckis on location in Fiji<br>(photo courtesy Bill Broyles)
Tom Hanks, Bill Broyles, and Robert Zemeckis on location in Fiji
(photo courtesy Bill Broyles)

Broyles has long been inspired by the ability of film and television to tell a story in a different way -- to illuminate the interior life through only a handful of well-appointed phrases, if that. "The better actor you have," he says, "the less dialogue you need."

It certainly helps to have Tom Hanks. The actor, who has already been nominated for a Golden Globe for his work in Cast Away, tells the adventure through the flash of recognition in his eyes, his furrowed brow, his dry, puckered lips. "You never get tired of watching him," Broyles says about Hanks. "I think he has an extraordinary ability to let the audience see into what he's thinking and feeling. You can really watch his mind connect the dots."

Which is important, since once Noland is lost on the island, his story becomes one discovery after another: Is he alone there? How can he get water? How can he get food? And what is that thudding noise?

These were all Broyles' own discoveries -- things he learned during his research at a survival camp on an island near Mexico's Sea of Cortez. He stayed out there alone for days, where he speared stingrays and ate them raw, where he had to learn how to open coconuts to drain their juice.

"How did they taste?" I ask him.

"Not good," he says.

He built himself a lean-to made of bamboo and palm leaves. He spent a day-and-a-half trying to make fire. "I rubbed sticks together. I twirled them. And finally I had to get these primitive technology guys and say 'Help, I can't eat anymore raw stingray.'"

Almost all of these moments went straight into the film. The experience also gave Broyles a deeper understanding of what it means to be truly alone. Time began to take on a different meaning -- tracked by the stars and the tides. He grappled with loneliness and boredom. "That's when I realized it wasn't just a physical challenge. It was going to be an emotional, spiritual one as well."

One day he saw a volleyball lying on the beach and began talking to it, calling it Wilson, after the name brand. What resulted from that is what Broyles calls his "favorite character in the movie" and one of the most unlikely cinematic pairings in some time -- between Tom Hanks and a piece of sporting equipment. Wilson, as he is called, is the outlet for Noland's urge to share laughter and despair, a character who becomes almost more real than the home Noland left years ago. "Here's a man whose emotional connections have not been as deep or as simple and honest as they could have been," Broyles says, "and he is learning to communicate and to form this deep attachment not to another human being but to a volleyball. In a way, to his own projection." Broyles even wrote lines for Wilson, which Hanks would say in his head during their "conversations" together.

The most challenging scenes to write, however, turned out to be between Hanks and his other co-star, Helen Hunt, whose relationship must be established quickly in the film's first reel. "The hardest thing to do," Broyles says, "is to show real people acting in a simple, honest way -- particularly men and women. Everybody has a kind of built-in bullshit detector about those scenes." Broyles worked to create moments that transmitted the couple's affection and history: When Noland returns home from Russia, he catches Helen Hunt's character Kelly copying her dissertation. Leaning against the door jamb, he watches her lovingly until, perhaps feeling his presence in the room, she turns around and they move toward each other and begin dancing back and forth to the steady ka-chunk of the copy machine.


You're Not Gonna Get Fired, Even If You Want To

When screenwriters and directors disagree about a film -- and they usually do -- it is standard practice that the writer be replaced. Films are too costly for such squabbles, and writers are too cheap. It happened to Broyles on Apollo 13 (John Sayles did the rewrites) and more recently, on Planet of the Apes. "I'm collecting these metaphors," Broyles says. "The Ron Howard one was, 'Well, Bill, you, and Al [Reinert] have got us into the ninth inning and we need to get someone else on for the last two outs.' And the Tim Burton one was, 'Well, we've done this beautiful picture, and we just want to get someone else to color in a little bit between the lines.'" Broyles isn't bitter about it; he's done rewriting on films himself, like the 1999 Sean Connery-Catherine Zeta-Jones caper, Entrapment, on which he replaced Ronald Bass, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of Rain Man.

But Cast Away was different. When Zemeckis came on the film, he told Broyles: "You're not gonna get fired. Even if you want to."

That assurance gave him the security to try wildly varying scenarios without the fear of getting axed. That was crucial, since midway through Noland's adventure, the creators were still figuring out what was going to happen to Chuck.

At one point, Broyles wrote a scene in which Chuck tries to kill himself. One day, Broyles and Zemeckis were watching Patch Adams. In the grips of despair, the title character, played by Robin Williams, stands on the edge of a cliff and contemplates throwing himself off. He speaks to God, gets in a few good lines. And then a butterfly flitters down and perches on his finger, renewing his spirit.

"We said, 'We can't do this,'" Broyles remembers.

Broyles researched the film at a survival camp on the Sea of Cortez, where he drank coconut milk and made a lean-to from bamboo and palm leaves.<br>(photo courtesy Bill Broyles)
Broyles researched the film at a survival camp on the Sea of Cortez, where he drank coconut milk and made a lean-to from bamboo and palm leaves.
(photo courtesy Bill Broyles)

The two showed the scene to Tom Hanks, who said, "Oh my God. Look at what we almost did."

"You have to fail all those other ways to find out what's right," Broyles says. "I just kept saying: What if?"

What if Noland became an artist? What if he were rescued by Japanese divers? What if he fell in love and started a family? Each of those scenes was written, only to wind up crossed out or crumpled. "Never be satisfied" is Broyles' motto -- and if he ever grew complacent, Zemeckis was there to give him a swift kick.

"Well, anybody could do that," the director often responded when Broyles showed him a draft. Which meant, Broyles explains, "in Bob Zemeckis land: That's just regular filmmaking. We've gotta find a more interesting way to do it."

"We worked on it for six years," Broyles says, "and even at the end, you're still getting ideas for how to do something better." At a recent premiere, Broyles and Zemeckis were already discussing one of the scenes they wished they'd done differently. It is one of the film's most despairing moments, when Tom Hanks watches as one more thing close to his heart drifts away from him. The conversation was about whether he should say "Come back" or "I'm sorry."

"Too late now," Broyles says. He smiles and shrugs. "Maybe for the airplane version."


You Tell Me

Bill Broyles' new office is on West Sixth -- just a stone's throw away from Bill Wittliff, the Austin screenwriter who wrote another lost-at-sea saga this year, The Perfect Storm. Broyles moved there after rent at his old Congress Avenue digs tripled, and as busy as the past months have been, things are still spilling out of boxes and leaning against the wall. He is no stranger to moving -- "He's had more property than any person I've ever known," Larry Wright tells me. When I ask Bill how many homes he has lived in, he replies, "It's like asking how many drafts of Cast Away there are. It's beyond mortal reckoning." I ask him to e-mail me a list of cities where he has lived, and I get the following response: "Houston, Baytown, Houston, Oxford, Washington, D.C., Annapolis, Md., (I'm not counting Vietnam here), Houston, Austin, Los Angeles, New York, Houston, Los Angeles, Austin, Wilson, Wy., and Austin. You can take the boy out of Texas but you can never take the Texas out of the boy."

He has just gotten back from L.A., where he visited the set of Planet of the Apes and saw first-hand the media blitz necessitated by a huge Hollywood movie -- junkets, interviews, appearances. Journalists pump him for answers about the film's symbolism and deeper meanings, but as a writer, he says, "that's what you have the least control over. Anything specific you say is your theory diminishes what it could possibly be for someone, so I'm trying to keep my mouth shut. But I end up blabbing more than I should, because it's interesting to me."

He is also prone to quizzing people who have seen the movie for their reactions: Did the ending work for you? Were you left depressed or hopeful? What do you think happens after the movie ends? In two weeks, Cast Away will become the number one film of the holiday weekend, and Broyles will have access to more reviews and opinions than he knows what to do with, but right now, he is still craving feedback. He is also craving a creative project that won't take quite so long.

"As much as I've liked this collaborative experience," he says, "one of the things I'm gonna do is write a book. I'm really ready for some simple, singular creative work." He's also revived two projects -- a Western he was originally working on with Michael Mann, who chose to do The Insider instead. Broyles has that story back now. And the second is -- no surprise -- another movie with Tom Hanks, this time about the Vietnam War.

I ask him if he has any interest in directing.

"I don't want to be the boss anymore," he says. "My kids may disagree with me."

Upstairs in his office, Broyles is starting to settle in. His desk is lined with pictures of his four children, and mementos from Cast Away are displayed throughout the room. A portrait of Stephen F. Austin hangs on the wall. And across from that is a pair of wings -- a charcoal sketch on a black background, made by his wife Andrea. "They're kind of the inspiration for the movie," he tells me.

"What are they?" I ask.

"I don't know," he says with a coy little smile. "You tell me." He adds, "You'll see them in the film."

The wings are, indeed, in the film. They are next to impossible to miss, one of the first visuals of the movie. They are stamped on a FedEx package that is picked up in Canadian, Texas, a small town of dirt roads and grass fields that looks just like the middle of nowhere -- that is, until Chuck Noland really winds up in the middle of nowhere. The package is on its way to Moscow when it veers off-course on a most unexpected adventure, only to wind up, years later, back home in Texas. Just like Bill Broyles. end story

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