In 1994, Tom Hanks was mulling an idea for a Vietnam movie about the siege of Khe Sanh, and he was thinking of asking William Broyles Jr., with whom he had just worked on “Apollo 13,” to come up with a screenplay.
Hanks, who had a production deal at Fox at the time, called Elizabeth Gabler — then an exec VP of production, now Fox 2000 president — and asked her what she thought of hiring Broyles. Gabler said she’d get back to him, and invited Broyles to lunch in the Fox commissary to talk about Khe Sanh.
“What else does he have?” Broyles asked after a while, referring to Hanks’ various projects.
“Well, there’s ‘Chuck of the Jungle,'” Gabler replied.
“What’s that?” Broyles asked. So Gabler told him Hanks’ idea about a guy stranded on a deserted island, fending for himself, surviving in almost unbearable solitude.
As he listened, Broyles began moving the salt shaker and other condiments around on the table, “as though he was making landmarks on the island,” Gabler recalls. He marked the spot where he thought the guy might pitch his makeshift tent, for instance, and where he would cross a lagoon.
“It was almost kismet,” Gabler says. “We had spoken to quite a few writers and no one had approached the story in quite this way. Bill’s immediate reaction to the idea was almost identical to Tom’s vision. So I called Tom and I said, ‘I think you should talk to Bill about ‘Chuck.'”
And so “Cast Away” was born. It would become Broyles’ first solo screenwriting credit on a movie, after sharing the honors on “Entrapment” with Ron Bass and Michael Hertzberg and on “Apollo 13” with several scribes.
Broyles, a former journalist, had a productive working relationship with Hanks, Gabler recalls: “Tom was extremely involved. They would meet for days and plot out everything. They debated even the smallest details of that script and the emotional reality of it. That’s the kind of writer Bill is — his characters are very alive in his mind.”
Broyles, who lives in Austin, Texas, flew frequently to Los Angeles for story meetings, especially after director Robert Zemeckis signed on.
“It was a really inspirational collaboration,” Gabler says. “When you’re an executive at a studio, you wish on a falling star that you have this kind of a partnership. Tom is a great thinker. He’s got these great ideas and visions and he’s not afraid to let people into the process. All three of them are that way.”
As part of his research, Broyles spent several days alone on an island in the Sea of Cortez, drinking water from leaves, scrabbling for nourishment and “dealing with the isolation and the slowness of time passing,” Gabler says. “The genesis of a lot of the things that happened to the character in the movie happened to Bill when he was on that island — including a ball that washed up on the beach.”
Once shooting was under way, Broyles had “a complete open door to the set, like all the writers I work with,” Zemeckis says. “Of course, if there’s a writer who’s a jerk, I’ll exclude him from my set in a second.”
But Zemeckis has only fond memories of working with Broyles. “It really is a pleasure,” he says, “to work with someone who’s so creative and so professional.”
Still, writing a script is never a breeze. “We had 120 rewrites prior to production and 16 during the production,” Zemeckis says. “But that’s how movies are made — you do a lot of rewrites.”
Another fan of Broyles is Sean Connery, according to Gabler, who asked the screenwriter to join the “Entrapment” team after Bass had delivered his script.
Connery’s producing partner at Fountainbridge Films, Rhonda Tollefson, says Broyles’ talent “is that he’s a writer who writes from reality — he has to see it and he has to believe it in order to write it.”
One example of that was when an “Entrapment” heist scene was switched — primarily because of the expense — from a freighter offshore to England’s Blenheim Palace, posing as a museum. As part of his research, Broyles went to Blenheim and, while talking with a groundskeeper, discovered there was a series of tunnels that connected to the building to the surrounding moat.
Although the tunnels are flooded and no longer usable, Broyles was inspired to use tunnels in the script. Shooting in a tank on a soundstage, Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones are shown diving off a boat in scuba gear and swimming through a tunnel into the palace, where they steal a priceless mask.
“He was very thoughtful in allowing me to express what we needed to do with the movie within the parameters of the budget we were dealing with,” says Tollefson, who had to wrestle a budget originally set at $100 million down to about $65 million.
“Bill is tremendously original,” adds Tom Rothman, chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment. “He works incredibly hard to create new, original, dramatic stories. People don’t realize how hard it is to be a great dramatic screenwriter. When you look at what he’s done for us in the last year — ‘Cast Away’ and ‘Planet of the Apes’ — it’s an unequaled period of output. He is, in my opinion, the top of the game.”
For ‘Apes,’ Rothman says, Broyles “came up with an entire re-imagining of the concept, a brand new story, with new characters.”
The Khe Sanh story has not been forgotten, and Hanks still intends to make it into a movie. Meanwhile, Broyles is writing an original script for a Western epic with the working title “Tom Harris,” originally set up at Disney and now at Fox 2000.
“It’s a story about the beginning of the end of the Old West, in the 1880s, when big business entered the ranching business,” Gabler says. “Bill found out that some of the old maverick cowboys, who were still trying to run everything, went on strike against the businessmen. The hero is the reluctant leader of the cowboys.”