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The Polar Express - Tom Hanks Q&A



Compiled by: Jack Foley

Q. Tom, I believe the project started with you acquiring the right to Chris Van Allsburg’s book and giving it to this gentleman on my left? [Zemeckis]
A.
That’s exactly what happened, yes.

Q. Thank you very much [laughs].
A. [Laughs]
It sounds like we’re robber barons or something like that. Somebody in my office said: "I just want to let you know that Chris Van Allsburg’s book is available".
And I said, 'Oh, well try to get the rights' and that’s the way it worked. We didn’t have any idea, we just spoke to Bill Titler, who was partnered with Chris Van Allsburg, and said: "Look I don’t know how to make this into a movie yet but let’s work together and try and figure out how to do it."
And about a year and a half later or so of trying various roads and formulas that were not working, I sent it along to Bob with a note that said ‘what do you think?’
And Bob and I started talking about it and about a year and half later I guess, we began in earnest making the movie.

Q. You seem to have a very serendipitous piece of luck of being in the right place at the right time to enable projects, I’m thinking of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and this. Is that a keen eye, an eye for the business prospect, or just something that charms you? What is it that says yes, I want to get involved with this movie?
A.
It’s mostly seeing something that’s unique and off the beaten path, that in some ways goes against the grain of standard business philosophy. My Big Fat Greek Wedding was a very delightful new enterprise that I thought was very funny and I thought that if there was a way of doing it with an organic truthfulness to it and letting Nia Vardalos tell her story as opposed to turning it into something that was bigger and grander than it should have been it had a shot.
I honestly say that I pursue the things that are interesting to me and me alone and I’m amazed when it turns out to be something that other people are attracted to as well. And that was a good thing.

Q: I wondered what it was like having 150 reflective diamonds placed on your face for the motion capture and what would you like for Christmas?
A:
Well it really hurt when they nailed them in. The tack hammers are very small but the actual tacks themselves are very sharp (laughs). I’m joking, they just glue them to your face, you’re not even aware they are.
They’re not just odd little things, they’re specially manufactured reflective sensors and each one costs three bucks a piece. They had to be glued on in a very certain particular pattern and they had to test them in order for the computers to read the data. It’s nothing that was just haphazardly put on there.
They don’t hurt, they don’t itch, the only thing you can’t do is come up to Bob and half way through say “I don’t know Bob,” [wipes hand across face in mock thoughtfulness] “should we…. Oh gees… Well it looks like we’re breaking for lunch!” because they come off very easily and they have to stay there.
And for Christmas I would really like [picks up a reporter’s iPod with a dictaphone attachment] one of these things that you plug into your iPod.

Q. During the course of the film each of the main children learns a valuable life lesson. I was wondering if you could tell me what the most valuable lesson you learned making the film was?
A:
I think it really stems from the original book, which is all about the fact that Christmas is what you yourself put into it. It’s a very elegant book, even at home and I think adults… Has it not even been published in the UK? Have you guys not even seen it before? Staff? Crew? Fourth estate reporters? You’ve never seen it? It’s not in local book stores?
Grown ups get more out of reading this to their kids I think than kids get because it’s from the perspective of a grown up and the last line of the book is 'and the bell still rings for me'.
This is powerful stuff and it’s an important aspect of our lives that even though there might be no empirical evidence for such a thing as the Christmas Spirit, if you want it to be so then it is there, and that’s why I think we made the movie in the first place, in order to communicate that rather important but rather personal idea.

Q. Can I ask how you encapsulate the magic of Christmas and whether any of your children still believe in Christmas?
A:
They’d better! Cos I’m knocking myself out. We adhere to a very strict timeline in our house. There’s nothing unique about it, we don’t do anything special but that timeline has to occur on the tick of a clock. We have to get the tree a certain weekend, we have to decorate it over the week, we have to wear certain hats when we decorate the tree, you have to have certain music playing. As the kids get older they all fight about climbing up the ladder.
A big deal this year, our old star at the top has finally given way, it doesn’t exist any more, so we are actually investing in a brand new star at the top of the tree.
We hope it works out, if not pandemonium will ensue well before the Christmas holidays. But it’s all about the calendar just like the advent calendar, things have to happen on certain days or those kids go nuts.

Q. Is this process liberating for you as an actor; is it a purer form of acting?
A:
It’s best described in the very fact that I don't just play different roles, because you can do that with hair and make-up, Peter Sellers has done it, Robin Williams has done it, Jerry Lewis has done it, Marlon Brando has done it.
The fact that I played an eight-year-old kid is the best example of the freedom and the possibility that the technology will allow.
You will no longer be limited by your size, shape, skin colour, gender, none of that is going to matter. If you have the interpretation that the director wants for the role, then you can play any role, I could play Florence Nightingale, I could play Abraham Lincoln, Meryl Streep could do the same thing.
That can be very, very exciting for a number of actors who would never get the opportunity to play certain roles and this technology will allow that.

Q. Have you been required to dress up as Santa Claus before on a more domestic level and will this film give you the power to say no in the future?
A:
To say no?
Q. If your family want you to dress up.
A.
Well in fact before my eldest son was born I had a job playing Santa Claus in that little gingerbread house out at one of the shopping centres in Sacramento.
I was 21-years-old and rail thin so it’s not like I was a traditional Santa Claus even then. I had essentially a square stomach as that was the shape of the sofa cushion that I had stuffed into my pants.
So that was my first pass at the role and I was let go after two weeks as there just weren’t that many visitors to Santa’s little gingerbread house but I haven’t done it since and this might be the one chance I get to do it.

Q. You said you felt like a kid on playing the Hero Boy so did it bring back your time on the set of Big?
A:
Josh in ‘Big’ was 13-years-old and he was hiding out as an adult and that’s a substantial different thing. He was also like a budding sexual creature and there’s no sex to an eight-year-old kid who takes everything at very face value.
The nature of the boy here really was described and defined by Chris Van Allsburg’s story. He was undergoing a crisis of faith, he was getting on board ‘The Polar Express’ in order to find out if everything he believed was true or false, and that is a different kind of super structure to a character, but I will say at the same time, Nona Gaye played an eight-year-old girl, Peter Scolari played an eight-year-old boy as did Eddie Deezen and to get a bunch of adults together forgetting the 40 years of experience and bitter compromise and sadness and one damn thing after another adulthood is really makes for a fun day… and the type of job that really makes you wonder ‘how did we get this license to steal’?
They’re paying us to get together and pretend we’re in second grade for crying out loud, that’s a nice job, we’d do it for free. As a matter of fact I’m doing it later this afternoon.

Q. The film is very magical, do you remember seeing any movies when you were younger that you found very enchanting?
A.
On the realm of Christmas movies, the Alistair Simm A Christmas Carol scared the living daylights out of me when I first saw it. I mean Marley himself when he comes “OOOOOHHHHHH!!!!” and that kind of thing as well as the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. It was horrifying but you know what I brought away from it? The Spirit of Christmas [laughs].

Q. You have to sing a couple of songs I just wondered are you comfortable with singing?
A:
Well you know, you say I sing songs but it’s not like I’m up there singing 'doo-be-doo-be-doo' or anything like that.
I am the conductor announcing songs over the PA system. That’s a substantial different vocal technique as opposed to Cliff Richard or something like that.
I’m just a guy saying: “Oh yeah!”, “Hot chocolate!”, “Here we go!”, that’s a but different than actually having to entertain people with some song stylings. But it was fun, it was nice and now I have all my own records [laughs].

Q. Robert and Tom, before you retire have you got any plans to work together again?
Zemeckis:
I certainly hope so, but we don’t have anything that’s anywhere near a movie anywhere.
Hanks: I haven’t caused Bob nearly enough pain and suffering. I’m going to keep going at that given an opportunity.

Q. What is it between the two of you that really works?
Zemeckis:
I think we love working together because our sensibilities of what should be in the movie I think are very, very similar. That’s how I look at it. In the three films that we have done there hasn’t been a single situation where we didn’t see eye to eye, not one.
Starkey: If you’re on the set with Bob and Tom it’s amazing. Nothing is ever said. All they do is they just go out and work.
Zemeckis: Here’s how it works. Tom’ll be doing a scene and I’ll say cut and I’ll say, 'Tom maybe you should'… and Tom says, 'yeah I’ll do that'. That’s how we work together. Like an old married couple.
Hanks: We get to resemble each other after a while which is quite scary. We were down in Cast Away and we had this big three page scene, you know it was hot, it was miserable and we were looking at it and I said: "Bob, you know can’t I just achieve that by looking over there?"
And he said, 'well yeah'. So I said, 'why don’t we cut all of this nonsense and I’ll look over there and we will have saved three minutes?'.
"That’s great, let’s do it!" So we have that kind of collaborative give and take.
Zemeckis: Yeah and it’s great. Trust me, I do not have this experience with any other actors I work with so there are these scenes with these lines and I’ll go into Tom’s trailer and I’ll say, 'Well you know Tom, I was thinking do we need this line here?', and he’ll say 'cut it out! Get rid of it!'.
"What about this line?"
"Get rid of it! I don’t want to say of this. As a matter of fact Bob, I think we should cut this whole page out." And we do.

Q. What does Christmas Spirit mean to you and do you still believe in Santa?
A: I think Christmas is a reward we give ourselves at the end of the year of one damn thing after another. It’s a time of true solace and emotional replenishment.
I think that we get something from the season and the connection that we have to our family and to the consciousness say, for example, that really is a sincere wish for peace on earth and I think everybody does truly feel that.
Maybe it comes out on Christmas morning, or Boxing Day, or at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, but I think it is a moment where as human beings we are all momentarily bound together in something that is larger than ourselves.
You don’t necessarily have to be spiritual to feel it and I think without it we would all have long since exhausted ourselves off the planet long long ago.

Do you believe in Santa Claus?
A:
Oh listen, I don’t question. I go to bed on Christmas Eve, the next morning the cookies are gone, the stockings are stuffed, I don’t care who did it.

Q: We were talking about partnerships earlier. Have you had talks with Ron Howard about The Da Vinci Code?
A:
Yes, I have. I know it broke in the papers and it’s like big news. I have talked with Ron and I have talked with Brian.
That’s going to be a hard movie to adapt, quite frankly, and we had problems enough adapting a 29 page picture book.
The Da Vinci Code is very thick and very much in the national consciousness and it’s one thing to talk about the possibility of doing it, it’s something else to read the screenplay that is actually going to shoot and that hasn’t happened yet. So if it does, great.

Q: In every production before this you’ve had to do things like finding your mark and the other things actors need to do. This is the first time you haven’t had to, how liberating is that or did you want to throw your motion capture suit away at the end of it?
A:
It’s not the most flattering suit to wear, it shows off every fault but everybody had to wear it so all of us looked just as ridiculous.
This was very liberating in some regards, fantastically so; the pace with which we were able to work, the speed with which we could imagine these things and the freedom of not having to wait.
I think that’s why actors go nuts after a while because you have to go in and pretend to cry over something and then sit in their trailers for two and half hours before they’re called in to go and cry over the same thing all over again.
The speed with which we could do this was really like a magnificent return to a type of acting that you do onstage more so than in films. I would have loved to have had a costume on a few occasions.
That was the hardest thing to get used to as actors. Without those pockets as the Conductor, and without the heavy overcoat of the Hobo, and without the bathrobe and the slippers of the Little Boy you had to remember an awful lot of stuff that was not there but that’s our job.
I can tell you on regular movies I’ve been supposedly standing some place looking off in the distance and what I was really looking at was the crew parking lot just where all the cameras and trucks are. That’s what we do for a living, we just had to do it for a bit longer and to a bit farther degree on The Polar Express.

Q. I suppose in a way it’s the antithesis of what you physically put yourself through on Cast Away, making it very real. It’s ironic that you’re working with the same director and it’s sort of hyper real or surreal.
Zemeckis:
Yeah, I mean the mandate and the thing that we said to ourselves for years working on Cast Away was 'what would he really do, what would really happen, what would really happen if this coconut didn’t open, what would really happen if he had to try and make fire, what would really happen if he cut himself on a piece of coral'
And this was absolutely the antithesis. We never asked that question once.
Hanks: Yeah, it’s like 'how come they don’t get frostbite up on the roof of that train? Because it’s The Polar Express!

Q: How soon after your performance would you actually view a result or series of results?
A:
We never did. We did have video reference cameras all the way around but they were just there for the editing process so they could understand where they were in the take. I never saw anything until Bob had done some work on it in some way in the computer.
I will say I was walking through the control room one day while we were shooting and I saw what the computer saw. I saw white dots on a black background and I knew that that collection of white dots was Peter as the Lonely Boy running in order to catch the train. That was quite an eye-opening thing.
It was just a collection of 300 dots on a black screen and it was already a human being in that regard so I had physical evidence right away that the process worked and that our true physical performances were being captured within the camera but it wasn’t until Bob had worked on the shots substantially that…
One of the first ones was really the opening, the boy in the bedroom and the difference between what we really shot and what is in the film is startling, it’s mind numbing how realistic it is and what it looks like compared to what we were actually doing.

Q. Is there a way you could use this technology to make you look like other actors such as Harrison Ford?
A:
Yeah, but they would have to pay him [laughs]. I guess we could but that would be… let’s not get into that. Why would you do that?

Q. Mr Zemeckis was just talking about Steve McQueen being put in a commercial. If you were put in a commercial being played by another actor who would you want it to be?
A:
Me! I’d like to play me. But if I’m dead? That’s a good question. Who’s got the coolest voice? I want to have someone with a voice down there like that you know…
Zemeckis: But you know, it wouldn’t sound like Tom. It would have to be exactly the same voice so it’s never going to really work 100 per cent.
Everyone thinks about this from a two dimensional point of view, we’re thinking about what Tom looks like. Tom looks like he looks, but as an actor that’s where the acting part comes from, it comes from every part working so you’ll have someone mimicking Tom but it won’t be Tom.
The way you’ve got to look at this is the other way around; it’s the actor being liberated to do characters that don’t necessarily exist but not copying what another person looks like; so you’ll have an image of Tom but if some actor is there remanipulating his cyber skin if you will, it’ll never be Tom.
I’ll be like a tribute artist trying to be like The Beatles, you know, they’re never really The Beatles and if those guys put on the motion capture and still went out and tried to perform as The Beatles and the computer wrapped the actual scan around them, it would still never be The Beatles and you would see right through it.
Even though they would look exactly the same they wouldn’t act or sound the same.
Hanks: Rosie Perez! I’ve been thinking about it, I think that would be a cool mix. My face, Rosie Perez’s voice. It’d be unforgettable man, blow your mind.

Q. On that mind boggling thought we’re nearly out of time but can I just ask you that given that this book has obviously meant so much to you through the years, how it feels to have made something that other people will cherish and think of as part of as the whole Christmas festivities?
Zemeckis:
It feels great. I mean it feels like mission accomplished.
Hanks: The lifespan of a Christmas movie is very particular - I mean, in the US there’s almost a religion that’s sprung up around Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and there’s something very specific and not only the Alastair Simm version of A Christmas Carol, but we had a half hour Mr Magoo cartoon of ,A Christmas Carol, as we were growing up and we were like, 'We’ve got to watch this, it’s the most amazing thing'.
It would be very nice if we had something that we pulled out… I’d much rather say in the year 2007 or 2017 have the families gather round and have a choice between say The Polar Express to watch on December 17, or The Blob, I'd rather have them choose The Polar Express (laughs].
Not that The Blob isn’t a fine motion picture.

 


 

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