Apocalypse Soon: Tom Hanks Discusses His Web Series ‘Electric City’

July 16, 2012

Whether you know Tom Hanks for his performances as a boy in a man’s body or a history-shaping simpleton, an officer in World War II or a lawyer with AIDS, his latest project may present him in his most surprising roles to date. In “Electric City,” an animated Web series that makes its debut Tuesday on Yahoo, he provides the voice of Cleveland Carr, a mysterious operative in a future world where society is still putting itself back together after cataclysmic events. He is also a creator of the series, which is produced by his company, Playtone, and the Indian media company Reliance Entertainment, and worked closely on shaping the world of “Electric City” from his colorful memories of sci-fi culture past and sometimes dark imagination of events to come.

Mr. Hanks spoke recently to ArtsBeat about the creation of “Electric City,” his thoughts on Internet content and the supreme importance of pizza to post-collapse civilization. These are excerpts from that conversation.

We previously talked about this project when you announced it almost two years ago. How long has it been gestating?
A hundred million years. We didn’t know it but we were waiting for this current version of the Internet to exist. When we started out, I thought wouldn’t it be hilarious if we took a very familiar, kitschy form, smack-dab out of our sense of nostalgia – the thing that for me begins somewhere between 1963 and 1965, “Fireball XL5” is on now and when “Clutch Cargo” is over it’s time to get dressed to go to school – what if we took that and applied it to something that was just deadly serious? Let’s take just the audio track of the scene from “The Godfather” where Michael Corleone kills Sollozzo in the Italian restaurant and also shoots Sterling Hayden, and build it for puppets.

So what happened with that?
Well, we never did that, but it started off this character of Cleveland Carr, a guy of extremely mixed morals, who is doing good but doing it in a bad way. We came up with the scene of a meeting between him and this old lady who is his boss. And we worked with really great marionette folks out here in Glendale that do all kinds of stuff on the Internet. And let me tell you something, the production values that go into building something like that are exactly the same as doing anything else. Where do you show this? Who buys this thing and puts it on TV? And the fact is that no one does. [laughs] But it prompted the longer, ongoing possibility – we said, “What world do they inhabit exactly?”

How would you describe the world that “Electric City” takes place in?
We were aiming for something other than the build-up to the collapse of the world, or the immediate dystopia that exists right after it. This is now onto the third or fourth generation, after the pioneers have established everything. If you took American history, it would probably exist somewhere about 1720. As time went by, they were able to develop a version of society, but it’s not Version 2.0. It’s like Version negative 0.6. It’s smaller, it’s primitive, it’s very dangerous – you could die if you get a toothache. Winters could kill people. We took away all of the digital world, more specifically the binary world. There are no more 1’s and 0’s that you can string along. The hardware is gone. Everything that had become a common possession and part of the way society worked is gone. And it disappeared because, essentially, the power went away. The grid disappeared.

What else do you have to contemplate when you’re thinking up a post-apocalyptic society?
We had long, long, long discussions about, what is money? We’ll call it something like credit vouchers. You can go into your local regenerating station and, in the course of a week, pump up 300 kilowatts. You get some credit vouchers and that’ll keep you in food. One day we were all sitting around talking and somebody said, “What is pizza?” I said, “Oh man. That is true.” So instead it became noodles. That’s like coming up with what warp drive is, or how it’s possible to transport down to a planet without taking a rocket ship.

Of all the characters in the series, the one who is ruggedly handsome, good in a fight and gets all the ladies –
Gets a lady.

– happens to be voiced by you. How did that work out?
Well, you gotta voice it somehow. Sometimes you ask somebody to come in because their voice is really great. And other times it’s like, well, who do we know? [laughs] I went in and did it. It’s enough of a vanity project as it is. Is it still called “Tom Hanks’ Electric City”? [It is.] That’s embarrassing. I like to view it like it’s Del Webb’s Sierra Tahoe or Walter Lantz’s “Woody Woodpecker.”

There are many elements in the series — not only the between-the-sheets intrigue and some graphic violence, but also a persistent dystopian tone — that people might not expect from a project with your name on it. Are these the kinds of things you like to see in other people’s storytelling?
I’m not a huge science-fiction reader, but I read a lot of fiction that is based in non-fiction worlds. When I was growing up I discovered Heinlein, and now, I’m reading Alan Furst’s books about espionage prior to World War II. It’s all fake characters, but they’re living governed by the rules of the time. In “Electric City,” we always try to adhere to human behavior. Human nature is always: I’d like to have another piece of pizza. [laughs] Even if there’s no more pizza left, I’d like to have another one. There are savage people out there, and they use that version of savagery certainly for bad. But there are those who come along with retribution and their sense of what justice is.

Could something like this, that is so different from your other work, have an impact on the Tom Hanks brand?
I don’t think so. The reality is, none of that stuff matters any more. I’ll speak in highfalutin tones if you wish: as an artist, my desire has always been to expand the horizon of what I get to examine. And without a doubt, I have a countenance, if you want to call it that, that does in fact permeate every role I’ve ever done. It’s me, whether I’m executing people on “The Green Mile” or if I’m trying to figure who this e-mail lover is and it turns out to be Meg Ryan. As a producer, we’ve already done some stuff that’s pretty bodacious, I must say. When the guys on “Big Love” said they want to do this thing about a renegade Mormon polygamy sect, I said, “I’ve never seen that before – let’s go.” Our World War II stuff always kind of gets grouped into the patriotic celebration-of-heroes bag. But one of the things I must say I always revert to – very rarely is there such a thing as an all-encompassing bad guy. Everybody does things for very specific reasons and they can rationalize all their behavior. And if you’re so inclined, you can agree with them.

Episodic Web series are still something of a holy grail in that no one’s created one yet that has gotten a mass audience to sit up and take notice. Is that your goal here?
Our goal really was just to get it up and have it be a cohesive story. Although no one else has, we gave up long ago the idea that you can make money doing this. [laughs] It has yet to happen, and I think it has yet to happen because at the end of the day it is all free. The only way you could probably make money is if you put it out there and somebody else comes to us and says, “Hey, we’d like to do – blank.” “We’d like to turn it into a series or movie.” There’s no crap shoot for us in our current status. We can’t lose money on this thing. It exists purely for the content, for people to watch on – the Reliance guys come in and say, there are a billion phones in India, a billion people will watch this on their phones in India. What they’re talking about is software for their hardware. All we had to do is pay everybody’s salaries, and then after that it simply exists.

But that money still comes out of somebody’s pocket somewhere.
Well, here’s how I understand it, because I’ve asked this question really well. I have asked this of the people who were running Yahoo back at the time when we started. Now they’re all new people. [laughs] The question was, “Explain to me how this is good for Yahoo?” And it just is: “Then you’d click on the Yahoo page.” And that’s all they want. They want the eyeballs. They say, “Let us pay you to create content,” and we say, “Great, because we have this content we’re really excited about.” But the caveat is, no one gets rich. [laughs] Everybody got a check for doing this. I don’t think anybody makes money at this thing. But they get the freedom in order to do whatever they want to do. And that’s palpable, man. That gets everybody excited. We get to do whatever we want to do here? Yeah, you do. Well, sign us up, we got another 20 story ideas. And it could go on and on and on forever.

By Dave Itzkoff

Source : The New York Times