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November 2004
The Polar Express: Press Conference Interviews

The Polar Express: Press conference interviews with Tom Hanks, Producer Steve Starkey, Director Robert Zemeckis and Nona Gaye

There's always magic in the air whenever you combine the work of Tom Hanks and Director Robert Zemeckis. From "Forrest Gump" to "Cast Away", these two know how to make you laugh or cry and as well as have you leave the theater pleased with what you have seen. In the spirit of the holiday season and collaborating for the third time, Hanks and Zemeckis come back to the big screen with the animated film, The Polar Express, an inspiring adventure based on the beloved Caldecott Medal children's book by Chris Van Allisburg. Joining Hanks, who plays numerous characters in the film, is Nona Gaye who voices the character of Hero Girl. In a press conference interview at the Essex Hotel in New York City, Hanks, Zemeckis, Gaye, and co-Producer Steve Starkey spoke about the process of making this films as well as discuss their thoughts on the meaning of Christmas and Santa Claus.

Tom, this is your third animated movie in some form. What do you get out of seeing your likeness represented in these formats? Also, Disney has talked about doing Toy Story III and IV without Pixar. Would you continue to be the voice of Woody if that happened?

Hanks: I don't know. The creative team that put together the original Toy Story movies was very specific and quite organic, I think, to the success of the process, not that there aren't other talented people that would be involved. But I don't know. That would be a bridge to cross when I come to it. The aspect of looking at yourself in the Toy Story movies, it's a little puppet. He sort of looks like me, but his head was nine-feet-tall. The difference between that and The Polar Express was extraordinary because The Polar Express really is me as opposed to some rendering of a character that supposed to be me.

Tom, what was it about The Polar Express that interested you enough to get involved with the film and second, did you have a favorite children's book when you were growing up?

Hanks: The book itself, the 29 pages of it, is a haunting, very effective story, and you really can't quite put your finger on it. I've been reading it to my kids, I think, since it was published. And as you get closer and closer to Christmas you read it more and more. There's something very stunning, quite frankly, about Chris Van Allsburg's paintings. They're not drawings. They're impressionistic versions of this child's house and what it was like to be on a train and all the aspects of the adventure that they go on. It was always a very tactile feeling that I got from reading the book as well as a very elegant, simple, but complicated, sophisticated story about what Christmas means to each and every one of us. The idea of maybe that turning into a movie is a complete X-factor. You have no idea if that's going to be possible or not, which was why when Bob and I first started talking about it it was really only from the perspective of, 'Well, what do you think? Is something possible here or not?' And so far as favorite books, when I was a kid I truly loved reading Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky.

Bob, is this a movie that could have been done live-action? Why the choice to do it in CGI? And also, what DVDs have you gotten lately?

Zemeckis: One of the first things I said to Tom when he said, 'What do you think?' was 'I don't think this would make a very good live-action movie.' That was for a couple of reasons. One, I thought it would be impossible. Or nothing is impossible, but it would cost billions of dollars. You could do it with enough money. And two, you would be throwing away what I thought was the essence of the book, which were those paintings. The paintings are where the emotion comes from, in my opinion, and without those paintings you're throwing half the book away. And the third problem would be hanging a giant movie like this on some kid actor, and you'd have to go around the world and try to find him and hope that you get a great one. It's always the problem with these movies with these young actors; you've got to hope you've got the next Haley Joel Osment because the whole movie hangs on him. So were, I thought, the three biggest problems. So far as DVDs, the most recent one I got was Super-Size Me.

For everyone, the movie is charming, but if you pick up the Wall Street Journal it talks about how risky the movie is. Could you comment on the idea of laying so much money on the line when there's a mood of suspicion right now about movies with too much CGI?

Zemeckis: Ultimately, at the end of the day, what those stories seem to leave out is screenplay. They talk about it like it's some manufactured hardware product rather than (a movie). I think that everybody's who's involved with the movie, from the studio to the creative team and everybody in the marketing of the movie, obviously they didn't say 'Make the movie' until they read the screenplay. We did everything really, really responsibly. We did a test of our system that was a minute and a half long. Everyone at the studio looked at it and said, 'Man, this really works.' What's great about doing movies in performance capture is that you spend only 20 percent of your budget and then you know what you've got before you spend the 80 percent. When you make a live-action movie you send the director and a bunch of actors off and they spend 80 percent of the money and come back and you ask, 'OK, do we have a movie here or not?' So this was very controllable and very responsible. What we did was realize the scripted that we said we were (going to realize). So there were no problems.

Hanks: Every one of these movies is an incredible risk. Every one is. At the end of the day who is going to care? If they don't care, we're in big trouble. Down through history people were walking and saying, 'Let me get this straight. You're going to make a movie about a baby monkey and you're going to do it with a little clay figure and you're going to do it one little shot at a time. What a stupid thing. No one's going to care about that.' And the movie is King Kong. Or George Lucas is making some rock-em, sock-em space thing with guns and robots. Everybody says, 'Nobody's going to care about that.' And it ends up being Star Wars. The only thing that is going to matter is the story. The aspect of how expensive it is or how technologically difficult it is, that's just the aspect of we had to figure out how to make the movie. And that's the way we ended up making the movie. Is it a big risk? Yeah, of course. We could lose our shirts and people could lose their jobs if the movie stinks. But that would be the same thing if it was me and Nona Gaye driving in a car talking to one another. If that movie stinks too we'd be in just as much trouble.

Tom, if more films are made this way might it render actors obsolete or does it extend your life?

Hanks: The nature of motion capture is only going to work for certain films. It's not going to put any other type of movies out of business. In fact, motion capture has been used for movies you yourself have said are great. There's been The Matrix. There's been Titanic. It's in countless movies and it's been used in the same sort of way. What this can do from an actor's point of view is, quite frankly, is free us up to a huge degree. I've used this analogy many times, and I've apologized to Meryl Streep, but she's just the name that comes up. If Meryl Streep can perform the greatest Genghis Khan in history, better than anyone else can play Genghis Khan, Meryl Streep can play Genghis Khan. And if James Earl Jones can play the greatest Mickey Rooney in The Mickey Rooney Story, James Earl Jones can now play Mickey Rooney in The Mickey Rooney Story. It's an extraordinary opportunity for actors to no longer be limited by size, weight, color of hair, gender or race. That's actually really great news. But the fact is it's right now still pretty prohibitively expensive and it's very, very difficult for the computer to capture, for example, the essence of a man kissing a woman. All those dots would meet in the face and all of a sudden the computer would go nuts and it would be one big head. So there's not even a way to do that yet. So what this allows from a filmmaker's point of view is, literally, if they can imagine it there's a new way in order to film it, and it's a little easier and a little more costly than some of the other ways. So far as an actor goes it's possible now to play any character in any circumstance in a way that simply was not as feasible as before.

Tom, what do you personally derive acting on this type of film? What challenges are there for you as an actor?

Hanks: I found, and Nona might agree, that it is actually a return to a type of acting that acting in films does not allow you to do. It was exactly like rehearsing a play in the round. You don't have to worry about lights, angles, rails, cameras, over the shoulders coverage. We essentially did a great series of 10 or 15 minute plays in which we did it real, we did it all in real time, and when we were done Bob had everything that he needed to. So, as far as being an actor goes, it was a blast.

Gaye: It was incredible because we were done so quickly. We'd do a few takes and Bob would figure out which one was right, and it was done. I was not used to that at all. Usually there's lighting and there's trying to fix things and change things and set up for the next scene, and we didn't have to do that. So it was a lot of fun. We had a great time doing it.

Nona, can you talk about your take on Hero Girl?

Gaye: Hero Girl is very outgoing, but at the same time she's a little bit self-conscious when things come up that she's not sure about. When someone kind of tests her about something she buckles. So her challenge in the movie is to figure that out. She's a really cool girl, thought. She likes boys.

For everyone, do you think this movie has a message about lost innocence? And do you worry about how kids will react to a movie with no bad guy and no violence?

Hanks: Isn't every movie about lost innocence? (Puts head in hands in frustration). It's like every time you make a movie about people who are innocent it's about the lost innocence. It's maddening sometimes. (More seriously now) It's about belief. Everybody carries around their beliefs with them on their sleeve. It's a very personal thing and it can't be described. When we began, when Bob began writing the screenplay, he started the movie with the first line of the book and ended it with the last line of the book, staying away from the standard protagonist-antagonist narrative, which is usually a bullshit way to move the story along or bring jeopardy to it. I think the vast majority of the audience can see a formulaic narrative a million miles away. They're tired of it. It's very predictable. The reason you go to the movies is to be surprised by a narrative that you can't predict where it's going. So, in a lot of ways, we kept figuring out what not to do with the story as opposed to what to do. But this all came out of a stream of consciousness of Bob's when he started digging into the material. How come there are no bad guys, Bob?

For Nona and Tom, what was the learning curve like having 150 of these center jewels on your face?

Gaye: It was wonderful; no. I know I got used to it after a while. In the beginning we had to work out all the kinks because it's so precise, and you had to keep replacing them because they would fall off. You had to have every single dot in place, and not one could even be half a millimeter off, so that the guys in the computer room could get everything correct. It was a little taxing at times, but we made it fun.

Hanks: Every time, before we'd roll, somebody would be responsible for coming up to us and going like this (he pretends to press jewel after jewel on someone's face).

Gaye: Scanning complete.

Hanks: Mo-cap ready. But Bob actually gave us a seminar on what it was we were supposed to expect, and it was this big explanation of the volume and the cameras. He talked to us for about three and a half hours and we were still kind of confused? 'What the hell is Bob talking about?' (He imitates Zemeckis). Then we did it for the first time and we said, 'Oh, oh, OK. We just do it and we play and then that's it.'

For all of you, if you'd been on the Polar Express what would your ticket have said and why?

Gaye: Open the doors and please let me on. I would dream of such a thing. It would be the most incredible thing in the world. I can't imagine being able to just look out your front window and see this beautiful, majestic train waiting to take you to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus. What could be better than that? That's beautiful.

Zemeckis: Well, having written the screenplay, mine probably would have said, 'Believe.'

Hanks: Mine would have said 'Calm Down.'

Starkey: 'Don't Worry, Be Happy.'

For all of you, what role has Santa played in your life?

Gaye: He doesn't call me anymore. He hasn't been around in a while, but my son has talked to him. As long as he and Santa Claus keep in contact we're OK.

Zemeckis: Hey, Santa Claus is great. You know, he's great. I mean, what a great concept.

Hanks: I actually subscribe to the more Russian tradition of a guy named Baz Morose who would come around and I think he'd leave you a pear if you were a good boy and he'd leave you a switch if you were a bad boy. I had my share of pears.

Tom and Bob, what was your role in the Imax conversion, and at what stage was the decision made? Also, did it affect the production?

Hanks: I had nothing to do with it. That's all Bob's territory.

Bob: What's wonderful about capturing a movie in three dimensions is the decision was made around April or May. And it's a lot more complicated than this as you probably know, but compared to deciding to do it- - the Imax movie is 3D, so compared to mounting and producing a flat 3D movie as opposed to a 3D 3D movie, all you had to do was flip a switch. So it's pretty great. Production had finished and Imax came to us and said, 'You know, we want to release the movie in Imax.' And their guy said, 'How about 3D, can we do that?' We said, 'Well, everything's in 3D. I guess you can.' So they did.

Bob, are you happy with the 3D version?

It's fantastic. It's actually better than any other 3D I've ever seen because you can adjust the depth of field for every shot, because everything's digital and everything is separate, which you can't do in real life because you're hampered by light levels and depth of field. So, every shot's perfect.

Hanks: And the new glasses are really flattering. They make everybody look really cool.

Zemeckis: They look like the Lew Wasserman glasses. That's how cool they are.

For everyone, what special holiday memory can you share and favorite holiday movies?

Gaye: The first question is very easy. It's something I shared with Tom and Bob and with Steve before I got the role. It's a memory of my father and my mother, my brother and I in Belgium during Christmas. It was a very happy time in our life. I was eight years old and we were looking over the water because we lived in a beachfront apartment. But it was snowing, so you couldn't see the sand. You could only see this beautiful, stark white over the ocean. I was standing outside with my father and he said 'Isn't this the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?' I said, 'Yes, Daddy, it is.' And he said, 'It's almost the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.' So that's my favorite Christmas memory. And my favorite holiday movie is A Christmas Story.

Hanks: I always took the Greyhound bus from Oakland, CA to Red Bluff, CA, to go to my mom's house. The day we'd get out of school we'd go down to the Greyhound bus station and get on the bus for three and a half to five hours, depending if we were transferring through Sacramento or not. And I'd have a little stack of comic books and look forward to hopefully staying awake by the time we pulled into the frigid cold of Red Bluff. And I'd hope we sat nice to some nice old lady passing out banana bread. Happened quite often. And my favorite traditional Christmas movie that I like to watch is All Quiet on the Western Front. It's just not December without All Quiet on the Western Front in my house.

Steve, how different were your responsibilities on this film versus some of your previous collaborations with Bob. And for Bob, given that you survived Who Framed Roger Rabbit, how different were the technical challenges on this versus Roger Rabbit, given the number of years between the films?

Starkey: It wasn't really any different than any of the projects that I've done with Bob. It started as soon as he decided to push ahead with the project. The difference was that since Bob was developing the screenplay, simultaneously he was developing the artistic look of the film. And also we were trying to figure out how to do it. Most of the time, we did have a vague idea how we were going to do the movie before we started. In this particular case, that evolved out of the process of developing the screenplay and developing the artwork. So normally, I would start at the point when Bob received the script or worked on the script and then I would launch into it with him. In this case, we were immersed in that process with Bob, so that's how this was different than the projects before.

Zemeckis: Well, Roger Rabbit was an insane endeavor. That was probably the hardest movie I ever made. This, in comparison, was an absolute dream. Roger Rabbit had a team of animators that had to be directed for two years after we finished doing a live action film noir movie and I walked away from every setup hoping that it was right and it couldn't be changed and decisions had to be made before you even saw the rabbit's performance, which took like a year maybe to do a minute's worth of his performance, that sort of thing. This was a complete dream because you got to direct in two phases, got to work exclusively with the cast and work on their performance and only that. And then when we were done with that, in the comfort of an office, you did the cinema part. And it was just great. You didn't have to worry about the elements, the rain, whether the trucks were going to get stuck in the mud, whether the generator's going to run out of gas, any of that stuff. It was wonderful.

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