An interview with Tom Hanks on "Road to Perdition"
Recently, Tom Hanks and others from the cast and crew of Road to Perdition, a dark, beautifully presented tale of fathers and sons set in the Depression Era world of Irish gangsters, discussed their film with journalists in Chicago, where part of the movie was shot. Interviews were conducted using the roundtable format, with each cast and crew member spending 20 minutes or so taking questions from a group of five to seven writers, before moving on to the next table. Paul Newman opted out of the time-consuming, repetitive process, holding a press conference instead - a move he could get away with because he is Paul Newman.
Tom Hanks and Paul Newman from "Road to Perdition"
In person, Tom Hanks is just as you would expect him to be: friendly, funny and open. Because I enjoy the enthusiastic, occasionally jumbled way he speaks, his remarks are presented here verbatim, rather than tidied up for print. Prior to each statement, I"ve added notes to explain his references.
The session begins with a writer noting that he saw Hanks at the post-screening party the night before talking with Max Collins, the author of the graphic novel on which the film is based. NOTES: A graphic novel is the term for an expensive, long-form comic book. The film That Thing You Do is the comedy that marked Hanks" debut as a director.
Hanks: "Yes, he was talking about That Thing You Do [laughter], which I can talk about for hours![laughter] He liked it and I said, "Oh, tell me more! Which scene did you like the best?" [laughter]"
The writer, apparently acquainted with Collins, pressed on, asking Hanks" opinion of the graphic novel. NOTES: In the novel and film Fahrenheit 451, the printed word is banned and people read wordless comic books.
Hanks: "Well, I didn"t even know the artform existed, so when I first saw it I said, "I feel like I"m in Fahrenheit 451 here. Are there words in this thing?" You know what I mean? But I thought, "OK, this is an artform unto itself and it"s a brand new way of telling a story." And it was interesting, but it wasn"t a thing that instantaneously was compelling. They said, "This thing is going to be turned into a movie." Well, I don"t know what that means, because it was a completely different piece. But when I read the screenplay, then went back and read the graphic novel again, it made just much more sense to me. I could see the themes they were dealing with that were just beyond the genre, the gangster thing, the bloodletting and what have you, so then it became quite fascinating. I think now he"s actually writing the novelization."
Told that Collins has already finished the book, Hanks laughed and said, "What"s he going to write next? The paint-by-numbers comic book? [laughter]"
Michael Sullivan, the character Hanks plays, is a hitman. Hanks discussed his approach to the dark character. NOTES: Sam Mendes directed the film, his first since American Beauty.
Hanks: "The context of light and dark doesn"t matter as much as what are the logical realities of the universe he exists in, that"s the stuff that is exactly the same as every movie that you ever make - you"ve got to figure out, "Well, why is he like this and why does he go off and do these things?" Those are questions you just slowly begin to answer as soon as you start pondering the job. The aesthetic questions are really in Sam"s territory more than mine. He said, right off the bat, "I"m not interested in making an action movie with a lot of gunplay," and I said, "I think that"s great, because it seems like every other movie is an action movie with a lot of gunplay right now, so, if nothing else, let"s be original and off the beaten path." Then you get into the nature of, "Well, how personal is the violence in this?" It turns out, I think, it"s extremely personal. Because, if only, No. 1, so much of it happens sorta off-screen, but very much in the mind"s eye. But there"s also not a moment when anybody jumps up in triumph and says, "Yeah, he got "em!" And when all of the gunplay is done in this thing, there is no cause for celebration. And I think that"s really an extraordinary, visionary quality that Sam brought to the movie that only the director could bring."
So where does Road to Perdition fit in the gangster genre? NOTES: Steven is director Steven Spielberg. Costas Mandylor appears in lots of B-movies.
Hanks: "I think that it"s virtually impossible to just adhere to the rules of the genre now. I think the audience is too hip, they"ve seen far too much stuff, we"re into, you know, the realm of the brave new world feelie palace is here where movies deliver all sorts of visceral qualities to it. So therefore you"d have to take any sort of genre, be it a Western or be it a war movie, like what I think Steven did with Saving Private Ryan, and turn it on its head somehow. You have to be overpoweringly authentic or you have to be overwhelmingly underplaying it, against all the currents that are usually taken. I mean, No. 1, they"re Irish instead of Italian, that"s one element to it right now. They"re small-time as opposed to big-time. There"s no feds involved, there"s no cops involved. There"s no suitcase full of money involved, it"s about something else. So, I think, really, if you"re gonna say, "It"s the best gangster movie since Mobster [laughter], starring Christian Slater and Costas Mandylor [laughter] - he"s a good guy, Costas is a good guy - it has to stand on its own. Because otherwise, the only people that are going to show up and see it are fans of the genre."
Has Hanks ever been intimidated at the prospect of working with an actor? NOTES: Daniel Craig plays the son of Paul Newman"s character. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the wife of Michael Sullivan.
Hanks: "Sure, Danny Craig intimidated me [laughter] - he was in Tomb Raider! [big laughs] No, there"s a natural, just because we all pretend to know each other doesn"t mean we actually do. And meeting everybody - I"ve met Jennifer Jason Leigh, but I was intimidated by her. But everybody"s intimidated by everybody, that"s the great reality of it. But seeing each other in the makeup trailer, a couple of days into it, the guard is off and you actually have something to talk about. With Paul, Paul would hate to have anybody say they were intimidated by him, because Paul"s a pretty regular guy. But look, this is the guy who was in Hud, Hombre, all these kind of movies, as well as The Hustler. So you get past it, you kind of like make a mental note of when you"re having your first scene together. I mean, my first scene with Paul was just coming out of a house and getting in a car, but when I looked him in the eyes for the first time, it was like, "Gulp, uh Ö uh Ö uh Ö it"s Paul Newman!" Can"t help but feel that way."
So, after this long string of serious films, when is Hanks going to make the film the world really wants to see: Bachelor Party 2 ?
Hanks: "Just as soon as the world demand makes itself known. [laughter] Now, I"ve been doing a movie called Catch Me If You Can, which is a much different, kind of lighter kind of movie. So hopefully there"s always something different coming down the pike."
As the publicist approached to escort Hanks to the next table of writers, there was time for one last question.
With Road to Perdition being such a dark film, was the mood on the set dark as well? NOTES: The legendary Conrad Hall, who worked on everything from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to American Beauty, served as cinematographer for the film.
Hanks: "It was still fun. Sam runs around, totally preoccupied, Conrad always has this kind of bemused, Yoda-like smile on his face, doing some stuff, I"m always stumbling out of the trailer saying, "I forgot my hat. Gotta go back and get my hat." It was cold for the vast majority of it. But it definitely loosens up and you start saying things to Paul like, "Hey, Redford, you wanna pick up the cues there, for crying out loud?" [laughter] It was a brutal shooting schedule that we had, truly long hours. But everybody got along great. There wasn"t a jerk in the cast, there wasn"t a knothead in the crew, everybody just rolled with the punches. You just get on it and send somebody out for White Castles."