Tom Hanks, with back-to-back Oscars, is sailing on familiar but still uncharted waters. His latest movie, "That Thing You Do!" is his newest "child." He wrote the screenplay, composed some of the songs, directed it, and has a small acting role as the band's manager.
Everything but the acting was for the first time. According to Hanks, "It's like running a marathon and reading the Encyclopedia Britannica aloud at the same time. It's brutal."
Moving his chair forward and placing his elbows on the table, he starts to explain. He is obviously excited to talk about this new experience.
"The premire audience here in Toronto was fantastic," Mr. Hanks says. Now, if we get the same reaction from the paying public, we're in the running."
His "marathon" began six months before the movie with prep work, and involved five months filming and another six months sitting in the editing room.
Fellow directors offered Hanks some advice. Ron Howard, who directed Hanks in "Apollo 13," suggested: "Always get a wide shot, a medium shot, and a close-up. Great movies have been made using that technique." Garry Marshall, who directed "Pretty Woman," advised, "Always change your shoes after lunch."
Hanks says that when he wasn't answering film critics' questions about his Academy Award-winning movies, "Forrest Gump" and "Philadelphia," he worked on the screenplay for "That Thing You Do!"
He had the idea for the new film for several years and decided to put it on paper. "I figured it would probably fall apart on page 7 or 8, but I'd have it out of my system and could forget about it."
Just the reverse happened - the more he wrote, the more ideas flowed. Hanks sums up the story: "It was 1964, and these four teenagers from Erie, Pa., formed a band," he explains. "The drummer breaks his arm the night of a local gig, and they recruit a pal who plays the drums. The drummer lays down a rock beat, and the rest of the group is panting to keep up. The kids at the high school dance love it. The band gains fame, has one hit record, and then everything falls apart."
Hanks not only finished the screenplay, but after his wife, actress Rita Wilson, said it was wonderful, he shyly showed it around.
"Everyone had an idea about it; one writer sent me 30 pages, single-spaced, to give me his opinions." Hanks had a tiger by the tail, and he didn't want to let go.
"It's like picking up the Sunday crossword puzzle. Once in a great while, you take a whack at it, and it's easy. You get so steamed up you wouldn't stop for anything.
"I wanted to surprise people on paper with something they weren't expecting. It was my 'child,' so naturally I wanted to direct...."
As an actor, Hanks says, he would watch directors dressing sets, lighting scenes, and loading film from his trailer (dressing room) while munching on a turkey sandwich.
"Then they'd call my name, and I'd saunter out," he says. "The director would ask me to do a scene. I'd do it, and I'd go home. That to me was the filmmaking process."
As a director, Hanks found himself constantly talking to people, explaining what he needed, and checking out the TV monitor to get an overview of the action.
"I was striving for those extra things outside the screenplay that enhance the performance. I was always begging the cast to come up with something, anything, please come up with an idea that adds more dimension, more naturalness to the characters."
The cast couldn't believe their ears. The director wanted their input.
Holmes Osborne Jr., (an old pal of Hanks) plays the drummer's father and owner of the town's electric appliance store. Hanks says, "He was great. He added that line in the movie where he's wondering how to improve business, and someone suggests staying open on Sundays, and he explodes with "I wouldn't want to live in a country where you had to work on Sunday."
Hanks set the film in 1964. He selected the young actors in the rock group, mostly new to audiences: Tom Everett Scott, a Hanks look-alike, who plays the drummer and whose rock beat reinvents the band; Johnathon Schaech, the handsome lead singer; Steve Zahn, whose improv comedy ad-libs Hanks loved; and the youngster of the group, 18-year-old Ethan Embry, who knew how to play the guitar.
"I cast them for their acting, not their musical skill," Hanks explains.
Two months before filming, the actors were given private music lessons, then worked together as a band. When filming began, Hanks says, they were good enough to perform at professional engagements.
The premire audience in Toronto gave Hanks a standing ovation; subsequent screenings have also won raves.
In his next movie, Hanks will let Steven Spielberg run the marathon. Where will the Oscar winner be? "Rested and relaxed in my trailer, waiting to be called for the next scene," he winks, "and munching on a turkey and rye."