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Voted on the island

Screenwriter of the year

David Letterman recently quipped that Nicole Kidman is dating Wilson, the volleyball from “Cast Away.” One thing’s for sure: If a character from a movie makes it into the latenight monologues, the film is either a big hit or a big bomb. It’s fair to say that “Cast Away” is the former.

The pic’s scribe, William Broyles Jr., is this year’s ShoWest screenwriting honoree. Here’s to ShoWest for acknowledging a script that’s not so much about memorable lines as it is about memorable moments.

Broyles says of the laurel, “It’s great, a real honor. Sometimes I think even people in the biz think screenwriters write dialogue. The truth is, we write the movie.”

“Cast Away” began with an idea Tom Hanks had about a deadline-obsessed workaholic who gets stranded on an island. Broyles, who had worked with Hanks before when he co-wrote “Apollo 13,” shared a vision about the story and got the gig — one that would last more than six years and entail working very closely with Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis. A gig where he would be the sole writer from start to finish. A good gig.

Broyles and Hanks knew early on that a big part of the movie would be main character Chuck Noland’s re-entry into society and his emotional reaction to having been cast away. This struck a chord with Broyles, who served as a Marine in Vietnam. “I had the same feeling of being expendable when I was there,” he says, “and some of the same problems of adjustment, like sleeping on the floor because the bed was too soft, or being amazed at things like running water.”

The sequences on the island weren’t as personal, and were somewhat flummoxing to write. Broyles knew there would be very little and possibly no dialogue. “It had to be real,” he remembers. “Anything remotely reminiscent of ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ or ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ Tom would ax immediately. I began calling him the Gilligan’s cop.”

So Broyles put himself on a deserted island in the Sea of Cortez for a few days to experience his character’s plight. He tried to spear a fish, open a coconut and start a fire. He went zero for three. But on the island, he did make a profound discovery: A castaway has to deal with another kind of survival: emotional survival. Broyles got lonely — so lonely that when a volleyball washed up on shore, he decorated it with seashells and talked to it. “I knew that I had a key character that would either be memorable or a total bust,” Broyles admits. “I mean Tom Hanks not saying a word for a huge chunk of the movie, and then when he talks, it’s to a volleyball. It was a big risk.”

For the first couple of drafts, Zemeckis was not signed on as the director. He was acting more as a consultant. He still had problems with the story. But all that changed when Broyles pitched the idea that instead of getting rescued, Chuck would attempt to save himself. Zemeckis now was on board full throttle. A good thing, according to Broyles, because “Bob sees things in ways none of the rest of us do.”

From there, Broyles, Hanks and Zemeckis became a finely tuned trio. They all pitched ideas, they all provided support for each other in moments of difficulty. Not a bad situation for a writer who, to this point, had only one produced script. Says Broyles, “Every writer should be so lucky as to work with people like Tom Hanks and Bob Zemeckis, who can make the simplest bit of writing soar.”

Broyles began his writing career as a journalist. He was the founding editor of Texas Monthly and editor-in-chief of Newsweek. He made the leap to Hollywood by co-creating the TV series “China Beach.” He moved on to features and was nominated for an Academy Award for “Apollo 13.” He most recently wrote a draft of “Planet of the Apes,” and now is writing a Western for his old pals at Fox. Not to mention the ShoWest award he’ll receive March 8.

If he keeps this up, he’ll be as famous as that volleyball.

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