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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

But what ground did you have to break in order to pull of the film?

Zemeckis: Well, we had to perfect the system and we had to figure out what the limitations of it were, which aren't very many. And I guess the ing we had to do was figure out how you take a traditional 2D movie and imagine, like in a lavish set, like the North Pole for example, and then grid it down into 10 x 10 chunks of volume and make the movie in 10 x 10 pieces at a time. But once we had that laid out, that really went like clockwork. Once we figured out that as the system, if we were doing a scene in this ballroom for example, what you would do is you would have the crew come in here and measure everything and break it up into 10 x 10 squares. And if I had an actor who had to walk from this end to that end, you'd just do it in these increments. But now, in the current performance capture movie that's being done, the volume is 20 x 30. So it's getting bigger and bigger.

What measurement?

Zemeckis: Feet.

Starkey: It's a cube. It's a cube of infrared volume.

Not metric?

Zemeckis: No, no, no, we're still using feet.

Hanks: No, if there's a mistake, deaths can occur.

Starkey: But I'll also say, in the beginning, when Tom did the test, in that stage in the evolution of performance capture technology, you could only capture the body and the face separately. So in the test, Tom came out of the house and ran down this little lot and then came up and greeted the conductor. Then, after he did the physical body part of the performance, he had to sit in a barbershop chair and recreate himself running while he was static in the chair. And then we would have had to attach the head to the body. So then when Bob saw the results of the test painted and beautiful, he said, "Well, this is great, but I can't make a movie like this with the head and body done separately. So you guys had four months to figure this out or we're just going to have to abandon it." So that was something we had to overcome.

Tom: That's a great long, arcane answer for the process we didn't use.

Starkey: He wanted to know what the difficulty was.

Hanks: But honestly, write that down because if you need a paragraph, a bar on the side that's "What they didn't use: the road not taken." I'm sorry.

Can you talk about Chris Van Allsburg's involvement?

Zemeckis: Chris was really supportive on this. He was just great. We spent a whole day where I acted the movie out for him and he was great. For him, this was 20 years ago, so he just listened and said, "Sounds great." Chris never wanted this to be an animated movie because he could imagine what it would look like. You couldn't make those paintings look like that in a cartoon. So, what he wanted to make sure is that the style of the movie had the same, I guess, resonance as his paintings did. And when we showed him our conceptual art, he couldn't be more thrilled. And one of the things that the guys from Sony did which I thought was really great is they had him come down and actually do some seminars with their artists and they could ask questions all day long about how he painted, so they would get some insight into what it was that he was doing as an artist that would help them to render the movie as best we could and make it look like his original art.

For any of you, what are your impressions of Van Allsburg as an illustrator?

Hanks: Well, actually, I had read his other stuff prior to this, between Jumanji and The Garden of Abdul Gasazi. Particularly Jumanji, that's almost like a scary book to read for me because it's black and white, stark. It's about these kids alone in this kind of Manhattan apartment. And the Garden of Abdul Gasazi is much the same. There's this incredible mystery. You can almost be afraid. They're like little miniature Twilight Zone episodes that are more benign than Twilight Zone episodes, but are still wrought with this kind of danger and power and jeopardy that is inherent into what all of his stories were. And yet you meet him and he kind of comes off as this buttoned down (guy). He's not like a kooky artist who wears a beret and says, "Yeah, man, I'm wild about them trippy wolves.' He actually is kind of like a straight laced (guy), but understands what he was going for and in this case was very open to the ideas. 'Look, it's a 29-page picture book. You've got to do something other than what I did there.' So I think he's a brilliant man.

Tom, at what point did you decide to play 5 characters? Which was the most challenging to pull off?

Hanks: Well, when Bob explained it enough to me so that I could understand the process we were doing would make it possible for grown-ups to play the kids, that Nona could play the girl and I could play the boy and Eddie Deezen and Peter Scolari could come along with it, that opened up a lot of opportunities for one aspect of it. But then came, where are all these adults coming from? And what they are, in my sensibilities, is they're all the caregivers. They're all the authorities in this boy's life and he imagines them as variations on himself and variations on his uncles and variations on his father. As well as the great mystery of how he would have imagined Santa Claus needed to be himself. Santa Claus to this boy was not this roly-poly accountant that came down the chimney every day. He was this huge, muscular man that had to lift up this massive package, this sack of presents. He had to be a big, strong guy. Bob at one point said (in high, squeaky excited Bob voice), "I think you should play every role in this movie because then we could do it. You could play every role!" Forgive me, Bob. But I said, "Well, wait a minute. There's girls in this movie. I'm going to play every elf?" He said, "Yeah, it'll be great." There's only so much that I can internally grasp as an actor and on the day of tests that we did I played five or six or seven roles in the course of that day, and I said, "Bob, I'm exhausted here." So in my mind, I had a track on the five characters that I played. I could understand the differences between them all and I understood how they related to the boy and I understood what the boy's perceptions of them were. And it was just a circumstance where it was doable. It was possible without having to do it in the way, like say for example, Jerry Lewis made The Family Jewels or something like that.

And the differences between the characters?

Hanks: Well, they all were extremely different and a lot of it came from the specifics of what costumes they were wearing. We did full-on wardrobe tests and wardrobes were assembled for each one of these characters. We all went through the standard process of costume fittings and choosing up the props. Everything about each one of these characters, we had. We can show you the photographs of Nona and myself and everybody in our actual costumes. Then we were data scanned for a day and video referenced for a day, and then we just sort of had to remember. I had to remember that the conductor had a hat and had a vast with pockets, and the hobo had all this stuff jammed up inside of him. I would change my shoes depending on which character I would play based on, "Who am I this time, Bob?" It was one of those kinds of things. And the conductor had a very specific pair of shoes that he wore and a walk, and the boy had a specific pair of shoes. The body language all just kind of came about. There's no trick to it because quite frankly, that's my job. My job is to make manifest these other people and you just imagine what they are and you come up to a kind of physiological understanding of who they are and then you stick to it.

For everyone, at what point in your lives did you stop believing in Santa Claus? And for those of you who have kids how do you keep Santa alive for them?

Hanks: (indicating to Starkey) Well, he doesn't even have kids.

Gaye: I don't have to push. I don't have to try to create or make my son believe. He's an avid believer in Santa Claus and he can't wait for him to get there every year. I hope it lasts longer than it did for me because it's a beautiful feeling to believe in that every year, to wait for it to come and to wake up in the morning and know that Santa Claus has been there. But it's also beautiful to be Santa Claus, to go out and get the gifts for you children and have them open their eyes wide. It makes them feel so happy and special because he came down the chimney. You came down, but they don't know that. So it's OK.

Zemeckis: In the movie, Santa Claus says to the boy, 'I am a symbol of the spirit of the holiday.' That's the whole belief thing. When the symbols of the spirit start to become confused with reality that's when you get into problems. That's what I feel about it. That's why I think the spirit of the holiday is what all the trappings are ultimately all about.

Hanks: I flummoxed in with semantics. 'What's your question?' (Speaking like a smart-ass kid: 'Is there a Santa Claus? Is he going to bring us stuff?' 'So let's get this straight: you go to bed on Christmas Eve.' 'Yeah.' 'Do you leave out the milk and cookies?' 'Well, yeah.' 'Are they gone in the morning?' 'Well, yeah.' 'Are there Christmas presents there that weren't there the night before?' 'Yeah.' 'Well, then, what's your point?' Do you believe or not? And then I said, 'Santa doesn't care if you believe in him or not. He just cares whether you go to bed when I say so.'

How do you go about creating a balance to make a film for adults and kids? Why would you add a Newton Rings to the film?

Hanks: That's the aurora borealis.

Starkey: We call those flares.

Hanks: Let's answer this flare question first because if you need another sidebar for that other thing we didn't useŠ

Zemeckis: We shot shots in our wheels room, where we actually did the shots, we had a human camera operator with a remote head, pan and tilt wheel, do every single shot, so the camera moved like a regular movie that you're all used to seeing instead of in your typical animated CGI cartoon, where the cameras are always moving in that click and drag kind of way. We did it with humans and held-held, where we put sensors on the ceiling and just took a little shoebox and the camera operator would actually move the camera, and shots were hand-held. We would put flares in. We would put...

Hanks: Newton rings.

Zemeckis: To answer your first questionŠ

Hanks: Not that that's not fascinating.

Zemeckis: I have a very simple philosophy about movies and kids, and that is, when I was a kid, I never wanted to see a movie that was made for kids. I only wanted to see a movie that was made for adults. I believe that all the great kid movies that have been made, you know, like the ones that Walt Disney was making, they were all made for adults. My approach was to make this movie for adults because kids get everything. I think one of the things that they resent is when they're being talked down to. This idea of making a movie for kids, I just didn't even go there. I just made the movie that I would enjoy and that other people would enjoy. Obviously, you have certain boundaries because you don't want kids offended by them or disturbed by the movie. I wouldn't even know how to begin making a movie that a kid would kind of understand. So I just did it and hoped that the kids would enjoy it.

Bob and Tom, you've made a lot of films that pushed the envelope, where did this fall in as far as film accomplishments?

Zemeckis: You guys saw a scanned out release print. That's the only film that was used on this movie at all. That's a big breakthrough, for me anyway.

Hanks: I pride myself on my powers of remaining oblivious to the other stuff that goes on. Every time I've done something with Bob, I found myself in some insane position. Like Bob is saying or Steve (Starkey) is saying, 'Now stand up, look at the tape, shake, shake, shake, stand up, go back, stand up, stand up, look at the tape, shake, shake, shake.' In the movie (Gump), I ended up meeting John F. Kennedy. When I did it, I was just standing up, look at the tape, shake shake, shake. His hand wasn't there, so...

Zemekis: What Tom is remembering when we actually had to record these specific video cues so that he would do the action on a kind of metronome thing, which we don't have to do anymore.

Hanks: For me, that was just being Forrest Gump, standing up, playing the tape, shake, shake, shake. I didn't know what was going on. I just know that I had to stand up and (in Forrest Gump voice) shake, shake, shake. On Castaway, I knew at one point sooner or later, at one point I would be on a raft adrift in the ocean and Bob was going to be on a boat somewhere shooting me, and that's exactly what happened. I was out there for 45 minutes hoping they were shooting me and hoping some Zodiac was going to come and pick me up, as opposed to drift into the surf line and die a horrible death. The nature of the movie, when it's finally done, as I've experienced with Bob a number of times when he finally shows it to me in whatever form, I experience this like optical topitude (???) where for me, it was a personal, interior kind of day in the course of shooting all this stuff, in which I was just trying to be "the guy." And here Bob with his powers of imagination, more than I could imagine, or I could even summon, has crafted it into this vast work that ends up being a movie that is more complicated and sophisticated and dazzling than I could have ever imagined in the first place.

Tom, I heard that you are a relative of Abraham Lincoln ...

Hanks: We keep that quiet, but it's absolutely true.

How has that affected your career?

Hanks: (Hanks is rubbing face in disbelief) Here's the deal.

Starkey: That explains everything.

Hanks: I was in the casting session for Bosom Buddies and there was a guy there who was related to Stephen Douglas -- Who got the job.

For all of you, the film is rated G, which at times is a curse. Did you make it for a G, what does it mean to you in terms of an audience?

Zemeckis: I don't think (a G rating) has ever been a curse for Disney/Pixar, or any of those companies. I never even thought about it. I can never figure out the ratings board no matter what they do. I just made the movie and we got a G and we said that's great.

Hanks: I kept trying to say as the hobo, 'What the fuck are you doing here?'

Zemeckis: I wouldn't let him say that. I wouldn't let him do that. I don't know why.

Hanks: It was funny. He just kept making me do it again and again and again. Then I did it once and I forgot to say "Fuck," and the next thing I know it's rated G.

Zemeckis: You know, we only would have gotten a PG-13 if he would have said it once, but he insisted on saying it twice.

Hanks: I know. I think Eddie Deezen was going to cut loose with some foul language. (in Eddie's voice) 'I tell you this. This is a big motherfucking train. This is the greatest fucking train I ever rode. Jesus, this hot chocolate tastes like horseshit. Jesus Christ.' Forgive me my language, I'm sorry if this is for the radio but uh...

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