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'Survivor' it ain't

Cast Away a change of pace for Zemeckis

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The last time director Robert Zemeckis and star Tom Hanks joined forces, they struck box-office (and Oscar) gold with the 1994 blockbuster Forrest Gump. In their second collaboration, Cast Away (opening Dec. 22), Hanks plays a hustling, bustling Fed Ex exec who's forced to stop and smell the tropical foliage as the sole survivor of a plane crash, which leaves him stranded on an unchartered Pacific island and presumed dead.

In a manner of speaking, so is the film a deliberate change of pace for Zemeckis, 48, whose previous directing credits include such high-tech movies as Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the Back to the Future trilogy. To give Hanks time to drop some 50 pounds for the latter half of the film, Zemeckis shot the first part of Cast Away in early 1999, and then he suspended production for almost a year -- during which time he made the Michelle Pfeiffer/Harrison Ford thriller What Lies Beneath -- before rendezvousing with a much-leaner Hanks to shoot the rest of the movie earlier this year.

"It was literally the only way we could do it, to put a dramatic time cut in the story and then break the movie in half," Zemeckis observes during a recent interview. "We shot and edited the first part and put it on the shelf while Tom was undergoing his physical transformation. It was wonderful getting to come back to it a year later and finish up the second part, because for the first time ever I was able to bring an objectivity to a project while I was making it."

What drew the director to the material? "Aside from the fact that Tom presented it to me and that I jumped at the chance to work with him again, what involved me at the beginning was the idea: What would it really be like if this actually happened? Or could it actually happen? I was intrigued by the idea of exploring the themes of isolation and connection. It was a metaphorical way of looking at our comfortable way of life as a society, and how the things we depend on to survive in modern life are beyond our grasp intellectually," he replies.

"We all use these computers and fly on these planes, but not many of us who depend of those things to survive have any idea how they really work," Zemeckis continues. "Part of the story is about how we've harnessed all our natural resources, so now we're trying to harness these virtual, conceptual resources like time, and then creating a whole lifestyle around them. We live in an absolutely-positively-overnight kind of a world, a world of instant information. We don't know how to live any other way, how to function without it."

In Cast Away, Hanks' character has no choice but to learn how to function without it. While the bulk of the film is a one-man showcase for the actor -- who braves the elements, forges fire, learns to fish, and maintains his sanity with the help of an imaginary friend of sorts (he draws a face on a discarded volleyball and dubs him "Wilson") -- it will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the previews that Helen Hunt bookends the movie as Hanks' love interest.

Zemeckis bristles at the suggestion that the trailer divulges too much about the outcome of the story. "It never dawned on me that the film had an M. Night Shyamalan sort of twist ending that needed to be protected by our advertising campaign," he comments with a shrug. "The people who've been complaining about that are perceiving that that's what the story's about, and it isn't. It isn't a story about will-he-or-won't-he [get off the island], you know?"

And don't even get him started on the whole craze that was last summer's TV phenomenon "Survivor." He insists he didn't follow the show: "I only watched a little of it to see what it was all about, and I guess it was interesting, the whole Machiavellian aspect of it. What really amazed me, though, was that people didn't realize it was all fake, all scripted," the director says.

Asked whether the popularity of that show will bode well for Cast Away (or make any difference at all), and he concedes, "I certainly don't think it's going to hurt if it puts that sort of thing in everybody's consciousness, but other than the surf and the sand, there really aren't a lot of similarities between the two."

Zemeckis pauses. "To be perfectly honest, it only seems to be a concern in the media, another symptom of attempting to draw those kinds of parallels and to label the movie somehow," he notes. "I guess the title of the film immediately triggers a lot of iconic images, but it's much more than that. It's so much easier for me to tell you what this movie isn't, as opposed to what it is. It isn't 'Survivor' or Robinson Crusoe or Swiss Family Robinson or 'Gilligan's Island.'"

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