Cast Away: 15 Behind-The-Scenes Facts About The Tom Hanks Movie

Cast Away Tom Hanks sits on a beach, with a stick

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Warning: spoilers for Cast Away are in play. If you’re not familiar with the film, you might want to turn away from this article. If your name happens to be Wilson, we’re doubly sorry for this fact.

Almost 20 years ago, director Robert Zemeckis and actor Tom Hanks took a pretty big gamble. With the creation of Cast Away, the team that made Forest Gump an award winning blockbuster wanted to tell a specific story, and they wanted to do it in a rather unconventional way. At the time, it sounded crazy, but when you look over some key behind the scenes facts, the attention paid to the film’s details are part of what made it a huge success.

We’ve chosen fifteen key facts behind Cast Away’s unique production to highlight just that, as the path that Zemeckis’ 2000 film took was one that only it could follow. It’s a tale of test screenings, numerous rewrites, and of course, Wilson the Volleyball. Even the inspiration behind the film shows how wild this entire story is, as it all started with Tom Hanks doing some light reading.

Cast Away Tom Hanks looking through FedEx boxes

The Idea For Cast Away All Started With An Article About Fed-Ex

As it turns out, Tom Hanks was the first party behind the creation of Cast Away. According to a THR roundtable he was a part of, Hanks credits the genesis of the story to the following experience:

I was reading an article about FedEx, and I realized that 747s filled with packages fly across the Pacific three times a day. And I just thought, 'What happens if that goes down?'

Tom Hanks then took the story to writer William Broyles Jr. and director Robert Zemeckis, and through the course of six years, the plot for Cast Away was banged out. And while Fed-Ex inspired the story, it also played a pretty big part of the action. The film had usage of the logo, some key advisors, and even the CEO of Fed Ex itself all for the taking, and for no money down.

Cast Away Tom Hanks laughs at his fire

Cast Away Was Almost A Comedy

To think that in the story breaking process for Cast Away, the movie had almost became a comedy, is actually pretty funny. When Tom Hanks was working on the script with William Broyles Jr, he had originally envisioned Chuck’s island adventure as a laugh riot, with plenty of shenanigans to be had on his own piece of supposed paradise. Over time though, the script took a reverse Dr. Strangelove approach and became a more serious story of survival and resilience.

Cast Away Tom Hanks lies on the ground, looking at Wilson

There's A Draft Of The Script Where Wilson Came To Life

If you haven’t listened to the director and crew commentary of Cast Away, you’re seriously missing out on some interesting facts. One in particular mentioned that that there was a draft of the film where Wilson was going to come to life and talk. Other interesting concepts that were revealed to be dumped, through director Robert Zemeckis and other speakers, were a vision of Kelly (Helen Hunt) in Chuck’s cave fire, and some other odds and ends.

You’re probably wondering how many drafts one would have to go through in order to get to that sort of point. Well, according to Zemeckis, that number was pretty big:

We did 125 rewrites, so there were like millions of changes, hundreds of thousands of them. Which is the process that you go through when you make a movie. Nothing’s ever just written ever. Screenplays are just endlessly rewritten, and endlessly rewritten.

To crib some dialogue from another Robert Zemeckis classic, that’s pretty heavy.

Cast Away Tom Hanks wading in the waters

Cast Away’s Writer Lived Some Of The Character’s Experience As Inspiration

Tom Hanks wanted to work with Cast Away writer William Broyles Jr. after the two had collaborated on director Ron Howard’s historical epic Apollo 13. Bringing the script to Broyles was a key decision, because without forming the team he put together for Cast Away, the script would have never gotten off the ground. When setting out to write the story for the film, Broyles actually went to a survival camp to learn all of the various skills that Chuck Nolan would need to survive on an island. Killing and eating fish, harvesting coconuts, all the basics were learned by Broyles during his time in the wild.

Cast Away Tom Hanks finds Wilson

Wilson’s Character Came Out Of A Real Life Experience

Wilson the Volleyball is one of the most popular inanimate objects of film history, all thanks to the believable relationship that Tom Hanks had with his Cast Away co-star. Part of that believability was due to the Academy Award winning chops Hanks displays on screen, but the other key ingredient came from the fact that William Broyles Jr. actually met a volleyball during his survival camp adventure. A random Wilson volleyball that Broyles found on the beach became a random conversation partner, and eventually found its way into the final script.

Cast Away Helen Hunt smiling at the copy machine

Cast Away Actually Cast A Copy Machine

Another fun point from the Cast Away commentary came from sound designer Randy Thom, who revealed the fact that the copy machine in Tom Hanks & Helen Hunt’s first scene together was handpicked by Robert Zemeckis:

Bob cast that copy machine for sound. He auditioned lots of copying machines, and he wanted a copy machine that would have a kind of musical rhythm to it. In post-production in fact, we tried to augment the sound of that copy machine. Bob was nice enough to listen to our attempts, but he said, ‘Nope, I like the original one that I cast”, and so that’s the one we used.'

One has to wonder if the copy machine and Wilson the Volleyball have the same agent, as that’s two inanimate objects that landed crucial Hollywood roles.

Cast Away Tom Hanks looking away from tally marks on a tree

Cast Away Went Without A Musical Score For A Very Important Reason

If you haven’t noticed it before, most of Cast Away is devoid of a typical Hollywood soundtrack. That wasn’t for a lack of trying, as Robert Zemeckis’ commentary provided the following explanation:

I always knew, once I started shooting the movie, that there was gonna be no music. I did my due diligence, and tried temp music, and I had long conversations with [Alan] Silvestri, my composer, and it just didn’t work, because music is tricky, in that it leads the audience to what they’re supposed to be feeling.

Instead, Zemeckis and sound designer Randy Thom decided to “score the movie with sound effects”, with various motifs present in the sound effects at any given moment. Alan Silvestri’s limited musical score eventually does come into play during crucial moments of Chuck’s journey off the island, and his return to the mainland.

Cast Away Tom Hanks sits teary eyed in a study

Cast Away’s Sound Department Almost Caused An Incident With Skywalker Ranch Security

Sound was a really crucial component to how Cast Away worked as a film, especially with the absence of a musical score. Randy Thom’s commentary on working with the film’s soundscape eventually highlighted this fact by mention how the sound department wanted to simulate outdoor acoustics with studio recorded dialogue.

The way that Thom and his crew cracked this challenge was that they’d record pristine audio in the studio, play it outside through a speaker, and re-record it to give it the right sound. This process was done at Skywalker Ranch, in an area that they thought wouldn’t arouse suspicion, and yet when it came to recording the scene where Tom Hanks yells “Help!” at the top of its lungs, it drew attention pretty quickly:

…people did hear [it], and so the security department at the ranch showed up and said ‘What’s happening? Is somebody in danger?’ But nobody was in danger, we shooed them away, and continued our recording.

Imagine what would have happened if that incident took place during the production of a Star Wars film.

Cast Away Wilson sitting in the dirt

Wilson Became An Award Winning Actor As A Result

Wilson, Wilson, Wilson. The volleyball of the hour has been a consistent punchline, and one of cinema’s best friends for life. But Cast Away actually landed this inflated actor a once-in-a-lifetime honor, thanks to the 6th Critic’s Choice Awards. He took home the trophy for Best Inanimate Object in the film’s awards season blitz, and Wilson still remains its sole recipient. Should you want to ask him about his various exploits in the industry, you can consult him yourself in your very own home. Be warned though, in true Robert Zemeckis movie fashion, he only speaks to those who truly believe.

Cast Away Tom Hanks spearing a fish

Tom Hanks Took A Year Between Shooting To Lose The Weight

Cast Away had one pretty specific catch when it came to being made: it needed to shut down production for a year, so that Tom Hanks could lose the 50 pounds he put on for Chuck Nolan’s pre-island life, and turn into a tanned, svelte Fed-Ex stalwart. So what’s a director to do in order to maintain the studio’s faith in such a project? Make another movie, with the same crew, in the off-season. Robert Zemeckis admitted as much on Cast Away’s commentary:

The only way I could then really make it become fiscally sound was to do another movie in between, so that I could just roll the production company onto another movie so that we didn’t have to pay people for sitting around for a year.

For those of you keeping score at home, this gamble paid off two fold, as Cast Away was the 3rd highest grossing movie of 2000’s international film market, and What Lies Beneath was the 10th. Both films were released in the same year, with the latter project beating Cast Away to theaters by about five months. And all it took was Tom Hanks’ intense personal training requirements, and some pretty creative moviemaking.

Cast Away Tom Hanks looking over the ice skates

Tom Hanks Almost Died During The Filming Of Cast Away

A random staph infection almost robbed the world of Tom Hanks, as he cut his leg during a scene in Cast Away and refused to have it treated for an extended period of time. Cutting it down to the wire, the actor was supposedly an hour away from dying due to his staph infection. In light of his recent successful battle against the Coronavirus, we can now count two times that Tom Hanks’ DNA beat the devil.

Lost cast lineup in the jungle

We Wouldn’t Have Lost If It Wasn’t For Cast Away

It’s a pretty long and complicated story, but if it wasn’t for Cast Away inspiring an ABC executive to want to adapt the film into a TV series, we’d have never gotten the hit supernatural mystery series Lost. While Cast Away: The Series never left the tarmac, the idea was given to a writer who would spin it into another idea, which was then given to J.J. Abrams for further work. The rest, as they say, is fan fueled history.

Cast Away the angel box in the passenger's seat

What Was In The Box Tom Hanks' Character Wouldn't Open?

The greatest question of Cast Away history, much like the ending of Seven, centers around the contents of one mysterious box. The “Angel Box” that accompanied Chuck Nolan on his journey to the deserted island was shown to be a huge inspiration to him, as it inspired him to survive and get home to his supposedly waiting fiancée. But according to Cracked, a scene from the widely circulated third draft of the script had a deleted scene that told us exactly what was in there. Stage direction from that draft saw Tom Hanks doing the following:

Casually he reaches over and cuts it open with a stone knife. Inside he finds two bottles of green salsa. And a letter.

The letter was from ranch owner Bettina (Lari White), as she was begging her husband, Dick to come back. As we saw in the beginning of the film, and in the final scene between Hanks and White’s characters, Dick stayed in Russia with his mistress, and Chuck Nolan might have been heading over to ask Bettina on a date after their previous encounter. Though maybe he should have opened that box, so as not to waste some good salsa.

Cast Away Tom Hanks shouting in front of a bigger fire

Test Audiences Were Brutal To Cast Away

Closing out the film’s commentary track was a pretty interesting fact: Cast Away was Robert Zemeckis' lowest tested movie he'd ever made at the time of recording his commentary. The director opined that the numbers indicated this movie should have flopped, instead of becoming the third highest grossing film of its year.

While those test screenings revealed the fact that Chuck and Kelly don't end up together stymied teen girls, it also highlighted that women 21 and over totally got it. Because of the film’s success in bringing moviegoers who hadn’t been to the movies in a long time back to the table, Zemeckis now rejects the notion of test audiences.

The directing career of Robert Zemeckis and the acting career of Tom Hanks have both been diverse experiences that have yielded some pretty wild stories. But the ones we’ve told you from the production of Cast Away are unquestionable highlights in that particular field, and you can see why as you watch the film.

As luck would have it, you could do just that on HBO Max, should you be a subscriber. If you aren’t, then you can always take advantage of the 7-day free trial that’s being offered, and strand yourself in this soon to be minted classic.

Mike Reyes
Senior Movies Contributor

Mike Reyes is the Senior Movie Contributor at CinemaBlend, though that title’s more of a guideline really. Passionate about entertainment since grade school, the movies have always held a special place in his life, which explains his current occupation. Mike graduated from Drew University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science, but swore off of running for public office a long time ago. Mike's expertise ranges from James Bond to everything Alita, making for a brilliantly eclectic resume. He fights for the user.