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Tom Hanks on his debut novel, 'The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: You could be forgiven for not knowing about the new blockbuster film "Knightshade." That's because it's a fictional film at the center of a new novel starring, or make that written by, Tom Hanks.

This is Hanks' first novel. And, earlier this week, he talked with Jeffrey Brown in New York about it and his own love of making movies for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Tom Hanks, Actor and Writer: I'm a schoolteacher.

Jeffrey Brown: Take a blockbuster film, one starring, say, Tom Hanks.

Tom Hanks: Sometimes, I wonder, if I have changed so much, my wife is even going to recognize me whenever it is I get back to her.

Jeffrey Brown: We know Hanks and perhaps the famous director, but what of all those names in the credits? One day, Tom Hanks the author realized he had a story to tell about them.

Tom Hanks: My editor said: "You should write a novel next."

And I said: "You are right. I should. What should it be about?"


Tom Hanks: And he said: "You live in a pretty rarefied world that would be an interesting thing to read about. Everybody just assumes they like movies and they know how movies are made." He said: "Well, and isn't that something to write about?"

And I said: "You are exactly right." And right at that moment, the book landed in my head.

Jeffrey Brown: The result? The making of another major motion picture masterpiece, part send-up, all love letter to an industry.

Where does your ambition come to write a novel like that?

Tom Hanks: Well, I can't help it. I wake up with stories in my head and I wake up with questions that I want to ask of people.

I know this is new to everybody.

Jeffrey Brown: Hanks draws on what he knows from his storied career.

Tom Hanks: An excellent lawyer.

Jeffrey Brown: Two-time Oscar winner for "Philadelphia" in 1993 and "Forrest Gump" 1993 a year later, some 100 films, from the youthful "Big," through "Saving Private Ryan," to, more recently, "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood."

Tom Hanks: My neighbor.

Jeffrey Brown: Which brought us together in 2019.

Hanks is a world-famous star, but one who loves the process and the stories of people behind it.

Tom Hanks: I do this thing. Like, when I'm watching particularly an old movie, right, a movie made before 1959, and there's a crowd scene, and it takes place at night, and they shot it on the back lot at Paramount, OK?

Jeffrey Brown: A place you are familiar with.

Tom Hanks: I am familiar with. I shot "Bosom Buddies" on the back lot of Paramount.

See, it's all perfectly normal.

If there is a taxi and a bus and pedestrians, every single one of those people showed up from their apartments, their houses.

Jeffrey Brown: They had to get there.


Tom Hanks: Had to get there. They had to be put in wardrobe. They had to be told what to do. They had to stand around and wait. They had to drive on the thing. They had to do all this stuff.

And at the beginning of every shot, there is a moment of controlled chaos. Quiet, quiet, quiet. We're rolling, we're rolling, we're rolling. Background, and action. That has gone into every single shot in motion picture history.

The mechanics of that, to me, is as fascinating as those kind of like documentaries of how it is made. How is it made? Well, it's made very -- over a long haul with very particular tasks that have to be solved.

Jeffrey Brown: The novel follows the making of the making of a film in 2020 filled with rich characters, including director Bill Johnson, chapter headings direct from the film process itself, even pages from the fictional screenplay.

But Hanks goes further to give us a big story that begins in 1946 and a made-up comic book which would lead to the made-up film decades later.

Tom Hanks: Comic books were the original versions of storyboards for motion pictures, so that now, when you read storyboards for movies...

Jeffrey Brown: Oh, you see it that way, of course, right.

Tom Hanks: Yes. Yes, exactly, and particularly the comic book at the end.

This would literally be like these storyboards that you would see closeups of eyes, something like that, somebody floating up like that. The script gives you a description of what you're going to see, but the storyboards are actually what you are going to see.

Jeffrey Brown: And a novel is a form of telling us how that works.

Tom Hanks: Exactly. Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: In 2017, Hanks published a book of short stories titled "Uncommon Type."

We spoke then about the move to fiction, and now, with the more ambitious storytelling of a novel, about how it differs from his work in film.

As novelist, you are the storyteller.

Tom Hanks: A novelist, I get to do the whole shebang, and I get to get into the heads of the people and the motivations of the people and the weaknesses of the people, as well as the strengths.

A lot of time, actors are given way too much credit for the end result of the movie that they are in. But, in fact, we shot that one day. I mean, we twisted ourselves in a knot in order to give unto the camera something that was ephemeral only and logical only unto ourselves.

And then a director and a screenwriter and an editor and a whole phalanx of people ended up taking that and sometimes twisting it around just enough, moving it around, so it becomes something a little different than what you brought to it. And I could walk you through any of the movies that I have been in, in which, on the day that I shot it, I was just trying to carry an idea from one room into the next.

But in the final moment of the film, with the rest of the story, with the other performances, with the cut, with the score, it has become a much, much, much more important building block in the movie than I ever anticipated.

Jeffrey Brown: The making of a movie, as we see in your novel, looks like a series of plans and then accidents, right...


Tom Hanks: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: ... piled on top of each other.

When you look at the arc of a career, how much planned, how much accident, how much serendipity do you see?

Tom Hanks: Well, I'm going to say that, in the younger days, I actually thought there was a ton of stuff that you could control or you could make happen, that you could force, manifest into it, like, I'm going to wear it like this, I'm going to say it like this, and I'm going to make this decision, and this movie will impact that movie.

The fact is, you begin at square one every time. Nothing you have done up to that point warrants anything that you can assume is going to be in the palm of your hand going into it. You can only show up on time. You can only know the text to the -- and I don't mean just your own dialogue. I mean know the material that you're making.

Jeffrey Brown: You still -- you really feel that? I mean, after the success, Tom Hanks walks into -- and that says something?

Tom Hanks: I will tell you this. Sometimes, there's a number of people that can walk in and allow the thing to be made in the first chance.

I'm going to -- I'm going to drop my own name like I'm a big shot.

Jeffrey Brown: OK.

Tom Hanks: OK. They get in and say, we got Hanks.

Jeffrey Brown: Right.

Tom Hanks: So, therefore, we're going to get our -- we will get our financing. Why? Because we got Hanks. We're OK. We got Hanks.

And then I show up and we start...

Jeffrey Brown: That's how I'm feeling right now.

Tom Hanks: OK. I'm glad.

Jeffrey Brown: I got Hanks. Yes. Yes.

Tom Hanks: OK.

But then, once you start doing that, you realize that, well, you got the financing, but that doesn't guarantee you the output. It doesn't necessarily warrant the theme of the movie that you make is good enough in order to withstand people's attention for two and half-hours, better about 110 minutes.


Tom Hanks: I find the 110-minute movie is an awfully good movie, just under two hours.

Jeffrey Brown: You planning to keep writing?

Tom Hanks: Oh, yes, yes. I can -- yes. I don't know what, but I like to consider myself to be a writer with a day job.


Tom Hanks: And the day job is pretty glamorous sometimes.

Where are you?

Actor: Asteroid City.

Jeffrey Brown: Tom Hanks returns to his day job in June in the film "Asteroid City."

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.

Amna Nawaz: And there is much more online, where Tom Hanks talks about the writers strike and the changing economics of his industry.

You can see that on our YouTube page.

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