To: Yahoo! Internet Life readers
In a rare interview on the set of his new movie, Tom Hanks tells West Coast Editor David Sheff how he feels when his computer announces, "You've Got Mail"!
To: Yahoo! Internet Life readers
From: Tom Hanks
I finally got online for the first time, for my upcoming movie. I wasn't quite a neophyte, but I mostly used computers as multithousand-dollar typewriters. Wite-Out would be cheaper. But now, guess what--I've started to use it for e-mail and checking in on news headlines. I'm in for the long haul now. In fact, e-mail is far more convenient than the telephone, as far as I'm concerned. I would throw my phone away if I could get away with it. E-mail is a much better way of communicating. First, you get to think about what you're saying and how you want to say it. You can compose your thoughts carefully and review them before sending them along. Second, you can deal with your correspondence when you want to. You don't have to play phone tag, and you don't have to worry about time zones. It's incredibly time-efficient. So much so that I'd like to have a single phone line in my house for personal calls and talk to everyone else via e-mail. I don't think that's going to happen, unfortunately--not in this lifetime--but I would much prefer it.
I wanted to do You've Got Mail not because of the computer or e-mail itself, but because of the script, which was Nora [Ephron, a cowriter of Sleepless in Seattle and the writer of When Harry Met Sally] at her absolute best. When she writes a screenplay that works, it's an incredibly elegant thing to behold, at the same time simple and big and glamorous in the way that movies have to be.
This was essentially the 47th remake of The Shop Around the Corner. In every version, there is always the initial problem to solve: How do you have people talk to one another and not know each other? E-mail solved the problem seamlessly.
Nora had a lot of experience with the online world and folded it into this story like a beautiful deck of cards. There's always a big conceit, a big pretense, in movies like this. You have to buy the initial premise. If it doesn't make sense, if it's not logical, you're not going to buy it, and the movie shouldn't be made. Here, however, anyone who has been online knows how this stuff works and what's possible--and it makes total sense.In our movie, the couple has a wonderful relationship online, without knowing who the other is. And meanwhile, in real life, they know each other--and hate each other. For all the appropriate reasons. Of course, the fun is when the two worlds collide.
E-mail is a great way to start new relationships because of the safety of anonymity. It frees you up so you can say things you probably wouldn't say, reveal stuff that you may be too self-conscious to reveal in another type of conversation. If somebody knows who you are, you're always considering your self-image; you're protecting it. But if you're anonymous, well, that's this different thing. You can say any damn thing that you want to. You can particularly say stuff that's true--really true, which is often tough territory: to say what you really feel, what you really want to say.
On the Net, of course, you don't know if what you're hearing is true, and there's the rub. It's gotten a lot of people in trouble. But my character is earnest. There's nothing diabolical about the way he uses the Net. As Meg Ryan's character says, "One day I wandered into an over-30 chat room, and there it began."
It's the story we hear these days on the afternoon newscasts: "Here are two people who fell in love online, blah, blah, blah." It happens all the time by way of the great vox populi of the Internet. It's a safer place than bars and other places you could meet someone--and it doesn't matter what you look like. Then if you take it to the next level and meet, it's either good or bad, isn't it? It's either a dream come true or your worst nightmare. If it's Meg Ryan, it's not bad, but the problem is that you don't know. Who knows what it could be? Which is why it's risky.
In Sleepless in Seattle, the two characters met via the intervention of one of their children. In You've Got Mail, the Internet brought them together. Either way, the bottom line is that it's a gamble. It's just different ways to meet people.
That's not to say that the technology isn't mind-boggling. It is. Back when we were kids reading Weekly Reader, we all believed that we were going to be living in cities under water and traveling by hovercraft, but no one imagined that we could have these relatively simple machines on our desk that would allow us access to a world of information or to communicate in such a remarkable way. Not even visionaries like [science-fiction author Robert A.] Heinlein imagined communication as instantaneous as this. I'm 42, so I still remember when it was impossible, and now I keep thinking, "This is incredible!" All the clichés are true: The world really is smaller.
Technology is certainly changing the movie business. Ultimately, movies still are projected images on celluloid via sprockets--a lot of moving parts. But making movies has been transformed. The editing process, using the Avid, is lightning-quick. Things that used to take weeks take hours. Things that used to take days take minutes. People e-mail scripts back and forth. It gets easier and easier.
The Net also has added to the discussion about movies. People have always talked about movies. But here's a place made for it, and you're not limited to your friends and family. And in an odd way, the Net brings the two worlds together a bit--the people making movies and the ones talking about them. It's another type of film criticism. Now the old saying is really true: Everybody is a critic. Everybody online is a film critic. It's astounding that those conversations can even become an actual force within the industry--people talking before a movie's out can influence decisions about editing or marketing. People who have seen screenings or sneak previews before a movie is done powwow online. It's not necessarily a bad thing.
The only place I draw the line is at anyone who ruins the ending of movies. They should be shot. Those are diabolical minds at work, trying to screw things up and ruin them for other people. But I looked at the chats when The Truman Show was in previews. The conversation was totally accurate and interesting, and nobody blew it. No one gave away the ending. It was a new forum for intelligent talk about the movies--the ones they like and the ones they don't like. It's what Siskel and Ebert are paid to do. Now everybody can do it.
The Net also provides a new place to converse about the issues raised in movies. When a movie enters into national consciousness--Saving Private Ryan, for instance--what's better than a venue for a large and vigorous conversation about the issues? World War II veterans are finding each other, reminiscing. Same thing happened when the HBO series From the Earth to the Moon aired. There was conversation all over the Net about it, even among engineers who worked on the space program who were picking us apart for what we got wrong and giving us credit for what we got right. Very cool. Could that kind of dialogue have happened before the Net? I don't think it could have.
Though it's exciting to get the "You've got mail!" message when you log on, it ain't so great when you have 50 messages waiting. You can't not answer them. It's oppressive. Maybe that's why I'm reluctant to spend too much time online. I don't have time to read a book, much less surf the Net. And frankly, when there is time to surf, I'll really surf--get my board, head to the beach.
Tom Hanks in a remake of The Shop Around the Corner, the 1940 romantic comedy starring Jimmy Stewart? It's a no-brainer. Meg Ryan as his leading lady? Another no-brainer. But how to update the film's plot, which tracks the burgeoning romance between two real-life acquaintances who are also unwittting pen pals? Hmm. That's a bit harder. Move the two lovers underwater? Transplant them to war-torn Kosovo? Endow one of them with superpowers?If these seem like good ideas to you, then you may have a future in Hollywood--as a traffic cop. When it came time to reupholster The Shop Around the Corner as the upcoming You've Got Mail, it took the crack skills of an expert to find new juice in the hoary old story. Enter producer Lauren Shuler-Donner, who has also produced such high-concept hits as Mr. Mom (hey, kids, it's a gender-role switcheroo!), Dave (the president's staff hires a double for him, high jinks ensue), and Free Willy (killer whale teaches boy meaning of love).
"Julie Durk, who is our executive producer, saw the original Jimmy Stewart film," says Shuler-Donner, "and she mentioned to me that she felt it was a good candidate for a remake. The two characters are pen pals in the original, so I thought, 'What about e-mail?' Boom! We sold it based on that idea."In the film, Ryan plays New York children's bookstore owner Kathleen Kelly, whose livelihood is threatened when a Foxbooks megastore moves in across the street. Hanks is Joe Fox, the scion of the Foxbooks firm. Though Joe and Kathleen have a Hatfield-McCoy relationship during the day, they are quickly becoming the best of friends via instant messaging and e-mail, although neither knows the real identity of the other. "Love letters are a classic device, but people stopped writing letters for a long time," says Shuler-Donner. "E-mail is helping to change that."
The film reunites Hanks and Ryan with Sleepless in Seattle director and coscreenwriter Nora Ephron, and it has a strong supporting cast that includes indie empress Parker Posey (Henry Fool) and TV talk-show émigré Greg Kinnear (As Good as It Gets). David Chappelle, Dabney Coleman, Michael Palin, Jean Stapleton, and Steve Zahn round out the cast's comedy vets.Hollywood has been dabbling in in-boxes since the mid-'90s. But such early e-mail-themed films as Disclosure and Copycat cast the Net as a sinister, faceless place, and associated e-mail with either brilliant scientists or creepy psychopaths. It wasn't until last year's blockbuster My Best Friend's Wedding that e-mail figured prominently in a romantic comedy. Now, with always-more-Mr.-Nice-Guy Hanks and the eternally cute Ryan logging on and checking their messages, e-mail may have finally hit the mainstream. "There has definitely been a change in the overall attitude toward e-mail in the years since I thought of this idea," says Shuler-Donner. "It's much more accepted now, to the point where I don't feel that I have to defend it as a valid medium. It is a valid medium. Anyone who resists it is being ignorant. It's like resisting the automobile."
With so many people going e-postal in You've Got Mail, some lucky e-mail interface will get marquee billing. But it won't be Netscape Mail, Yahoo! Mail, or Excite Mail. In Ephron's script, all of the instant messaging and e-mail happens within the confines of pay-service giant America Online. AOL's e-mail, as any user knows, is somewhat restricted. Users can only store a limited number of messages online. The service has difficulty sending attachments across platforms. And it's unlikely that Ephron will come clean about the busy signals and dropped connections that can madden actual AOL users. Still, Shuler-Donner insists that AOL, with almost half of all America's Net users, is the people's choice. "Nora felt specifically that this is an American movie," says Shuler-Donner. "It's about New York. So we felt America Online would be a good match." The partnership has a financial rationale, too--as a main character in the film, AOL will no doubt promote the film enthusiastically. And though Warner Bros. has already snagged www.youvegotmail.com as the URL for the film's official Web site, there's no word on whether the AOL Keyword you'vegotmail, currently reserved for the service's gallery of celebrity e-mail voices, will be reassigned to promotional duty.
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