Hanks for the memories

October 11, 1996

Tom Hanks! - Liv Tyler! - New songs! - Old dances! - Small gadgets! - Big breaks! - Live from the set of "That Thing You Do!"

Gosh kids, how hard could it be?

You sway. You clap. You wiggle your fanny like Gidget down at the clambake. You cut loose with a bloodcurdling shriek every now and then. You shimmy, for chrissakes! You've even got an ad hoc Arthur Murray to teach you, and the cat's got a pair of Oscars to boot.

"If you're under 25, you really like this song a lot!" trumpets Tom Hanks, mounting a stage at CBS Television City, scoping out a sea of flattops and beehives, coaching 280 extras in the fine art of hysteria. "You have been listening to this song all summer long. It's the big hit of 1964. I wish I could tell you a song to refer to from right now, but my tapes stopped running around LL Cool J's 'Mama Said Knock You Out.' So let's say it's kinda like 'Mama Said Knock You Out.' If you're under 25, please, rock out!"

With that, Hanks decamps to his director's perch. Four young men amble onto stage 33, where the network shoots The Price Is Right in real life. They are the Wonders. They wear matching mod suits and white turtlenecks; they've buffed their black Carnaby Street boots to a gleaming pitch. They turn to the people in the skinny ties and billowing chiffon gowns, the backbeat kicks in, and the rafters shake for "That Thing You Do!" -- a song the crowd has never heard.

But there's a problem: Rocking out, circa 1964, requires a bit of reeling in. Half the crowd might know how to do the mashed potato, but the other half looks ready to leap into the mosh pit. While crew members scour the crowd for stray remnants of the '90s, Hanks and producer Gary Goetzman gaze murkily into their monitor and let out a groan: A redhead in a middle row is banging her head and flailing her arms in a manner that's more seizure than shimmy. Goetzman has the redhead banished to the back, then launches into a little ditty of his own: "She had no rhythm/ She had no music/ She's now in another seat."

Just as the Wonders, a fictional pop band from Pennsylvania, are wrapping up their brief career with a pilgrimage to The Hollywood Television Showcase, Tom Hanks is wrapping up his directorial debut with That Thing You Do!, a breezy ode to the halcyon early '60s. As such, it's Hanks who has to make sure a giddy 1964 never lapses into a grunge 1996. In essence, he must transform a bunch of Lollapaloozans who believe there's nothing abnormal about piercing your nipples into a pack of prom queens who think they're breaking taboos by doing the twist.

"It's really a matter of explaining to them what they cannot do," says Hanks, the baby boom's beau ideal at 40. "It's hard when you're talking to an audience of 300 people and one of the first things you have to say is 'Look, please do not high-five each other. High-fiving did not exist in 1964.' But you've got to ride herd on that stuff, otherwise nothing's going to make sense." Only later, Hanks says, when the extras have shed their high heels and bouffant helmets, "do I actually get to see all their tattoos."

As for what he can and cannot do, well, it should be pretty clear by now that Tom Hanks can do whatever the hell, uh, heck he wants. Your average kid with a dandy script might be lucky to score a handshake and a free lunch at the Ivy. But when he polished off That Thing last year, Hanks--with back-to-back Oscars for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, six box office bonanzas in a row, and the official title of Most Beloved Actor in America--found himself with a $26 million budget from Twentieth Century Fox and a helping hand from Jonathan Demme's acclaimed production house, Clinica Estetico.

Hanks rates only a few minutes of screen time in the film, playing the band's benevolent Svengali, Mr. White, but That Thing bears heavy traces of his touch. He wrote the script. He handpicked the cast. He commandeered the soundtrack. He even penned four of the movie's dippy faux chestnuts. If a man as modest as Hanks can claim a manifesto, this is it. "Any movie is going to be some sort of a vanity project," he admits. "There's no getting away from that. I did say: 'Jeez, I'd really like to do this. Will you let me?' And they let me put my fat ass in the fire."

Now, however, he's put that ass--and his track record--on the line for a cautionary fable about celebrity. The story came to him during the delirium that followed Gump, when everyone from the Nation of Islam to the Daughters of the Confederacy wanted to give him a gold statuette and a box of chocolates. "It was the beginning of the Oscar-run, trophy-season, Pulp Fiction-versus-Forrest Gump dynamic that of course had the nation in its thrall," he says. "It's a time when all you're doing is talking about yourself, and that's a very unhealthy thing to do. Not only that, it's not very enjoyable. It ends up being hotel rooms and cars, and the glamorous aspect can no longer fuel your desire to get up in the day and do it.

"So I needed some sort of an outlet that had absolutely nothing to do with whether or not I was going to win anything that year--and what that would mean to my place in the cosmos."

Even so, it doesn't take a Jungian analyst to see how That Thing You Do! does wind up exploring the galactic status of its star. Consider the plot: Four regular guys form a band, write a radio smash, and cruise across the country on a post-Beatlemania gravy train that carries them to a promised land of Playboy pinups and candy-colored convertibles. Where, naturally, things fall apart. Some survive with their hearts and haircuts intact; some don't.

So yeah, Hanks concedes that That Thing deals, in its own mirthful way, with the meat grinder of the star-making machine. "If you just give yourself over to it, you're gonna lose touch with reality," he says. "The '90s, to me, have been--it seems like I've rarely been able to get out of this white-hot spotlight. Which is really fun, for a period of time. Then after a while it becomes just white-hot. It gets to be a little bit uncomfortable. If you're not analyzing why you're there, then you will just assume that it's never going to go away--or that you deserve it in the first place. And no one deserves this much attention. No one does."

If it's no surprise to find a star with ambivalent feelings about stardom--Hanks even mocked himself on this season's premiere of Saturday Night Live by whining about not winning his third Oscar--it's also no shock to see him resurrecting the '60s. Two of his recent films, Gump and Apollo 13, dished up enough "golden images" to gag even the most nostalgia-hungry boomer. That Thing is no exception; it explodes in shades of pea green and carrot orange unseen since the crest of the New Frontier. The production designer, Victor Kempster, previously labored on Oliver Stone's jittery JFK, a film that clashes with That Thing's sweet-natured fantasia. "Tom is the antithesis of Oliver in his outlook," Kempster says. "This is not about great tragedy and disappointment." Or as the Wonders' drummer, Tom Everett Scott, puts it: "Tom said that 1964 was the last innocent year."

But how do you convey innocence to an audience whose memory banks are already flooded with old footage of the Fab Four with their moptops and Jackie O. in her pillbox hat? For one thing, Hanks fills his '60s with faces you've never seen and songs you've never heard. "Early on, we made this decision that we weren't going to have any music from 1964," he says. "Because I'm just so frigging sick of that. God knows, we did that move for Forrest Gump, to great effect. But a vast chunk of that music has been co-opted by Madison Avenue. You can't escape this stuff because now it's being used to sell tennis shoes and Pepsi."

So Hanks cooked up an alternative: He, Goetzman, and music coordinator Deva Anderson commissioned a batch of songs that sounded like the '60s. They sent out feelers to the rock world and wound up with almost 300 mock-Merseybeat versions of "That Thing You Do!" (The winner: Adam Schlesinger, 28, an indie-pop songwriter from New York's West Village.) Meanwhile, Hanks and Goetzman composed slabs of the soundtrack themselves, from the surf twang of "Voyage Around the Moon" to "Mr. Downtown," the noirish theme to a detective show that never existed.

Some of the "musicians" were as green as the songs. "It wasn't like I was honestly looking for unknowns," Hanks says, "but I was looking for people who were not instantaneously recognizable." Since being cast, of course, Liv Tyler has secured a spot on the A list, thanks to Stealing Beauty and a slew of magazine stories. But That Thing represents a big break for rookies like Johnathon Schaech, who plays frontman Jimmy Mattingly, the brooder; Steve Zahn, who plays guitarist Lenny Haise, the clown; and Ethan Embry, who plays a naif known simply as the Bass Player.

Oh, and that dude behind the drums, Tom Everett Scott? The one who shuffles his way into a love triangle between Tyler and Schaech? Well, even though he's lucked into the lead role, this is Scott's first film. If he looks familiar, credit a recurring bit part on Grace Under Fire and an uncanny resemblance to a certain somebody with the same first name.

"Right off the bat I said, 'I can't cast this guy, because it's just gonna be too odd,'" says Hanks. "Subconsciously, I was probably seeing myself in the role, and I didn't want to wrestle with that kind of, like, Freudian demon." But before long that Freudian demon was tapping Hanks on the shoulder. "It actually turned into something of an advantage," Hanks says. "Because, look, if I'm playing Mr. White, and we obviously resemble each other, then I get to do this thing where Mr. White is remaking this guy into his own image."

Consider that an understatement; Scott doesn't just share his director's dark hair and crooked grin. His role in the film echoes that of the classic Hanks hero: a decent, well-mannered guy in a world full of putzes and poseurs. "For a long time, people have said, 'You look like Tom Hanks,' or whatever," concedes Scott, the 25-year-old product of East Bridgewater, Mass. "And that's great. He's a good-looking guy. Women say so. Any kind of comparison to him is flattering."But I'm taller."

During a bright March day on the set, the governor of Pennsylvania comes bearing gifts. The cameras stop cold while Hanks spends a few minutes signing autographs for Tom Ridge, a husky, square-jawed Republican from Erie--just like the Wonders!--who's swinging through Hollywood to scare up film business for his home state. Hanks gets the inevitable box of chocolates, which he quietly foists on the crew. ("He's such a gracious guy," Schaech says later, "you'd never know that he doesn't really want the f---ing chocolate.") He also gets an engraved Zippo lighter, which he keeps for himself. "A That Thing You Do! lighter," he enthuses to the pol. "I'll take it!"
The rest of the day, Hanks never lets that lighter out of his sight. The crew has camped out at the Ambassador Hotel, a chipped, shabby monument to California glamour (the home of the Cocoanut Grove) and heartbreak (the site of the 1968 assassination of Bobby Kennedy) on the outskirts of Hancock Park. While the Wonders squabble in a teal and aqua coffee shop, their director keeps trying--unsuccessfully--to light the Zippo in one swift flick.

Some movie stars lust for Learjets; others covet vintage wheels. Tom Hanks has a fetish for gadgets. Just as he mooned over each button, knob, and switch in the space capsule on the set of Apollo 13, the detail in each frame of That Thing betrays the mind of a pack rat. Wander through the set and you'll find a machine that dispenses 10-cent stamps, a pipe with JFK's face on the bowl, old newspapers with headlines like PEKING VOWS AID TO RED VIETNAM.

Hanks' passion for exactitude even extends to the performances. The Wonders don't just lip-synch like a '60s pop band; they play the right chords. Scott doesn't just pound the drums; he bobs his head just like Ringo. "If you look like one of those mechanical monkeys," Scott explains, "then you're way off."

The catch? Scott had never touched a drumstick, and "the first time we gave Johnathon a guitar, it was like we'd just handed him a huge salmon," Goetzman recalls. So before shooting started, the actors spent a month getting acquainted with their Rickenbackers, Silvertones, and snares, jamming and bickering like a real band. Sort of. "We felt like any minute our mom was going to come down the stairs and go, 'Oh, put down the brooms and tennis rackets!'" says Scott. Schaech suffered more than a culture shock when he brushed up to one antediluvian microphone. "The thing burned my lip," Schaech recalls. "The electricity shot through me. I was very scared of the microphone after that."

Otherwise, they learned that thing people used to do by listening to records (the Beatles, the Dave Clark Five) and watching videos (everything from The T.A.M.I. Show and Hullabaloo to Viva Las Vegas, The Endless Summer, and Beach Blanket Bingo). "I love the Counting Crows; they gave me something to believe in," Schaech confesses. "And now I've been listening to the Beatles. Never had that influence."

Ironically, it was one of the youngest members of the troupe--Tyler, 19, playing Schaech's long-suffering gal pal, Faye--who brought along the only real experience with the rock & roll demimonde. "I grew up around bands and stuff, so it's funny for me," laughs the daughter of professional groupie Bebe Buell and Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, whom she didn't meet until she was 10. "I'll be standing there on the side of the stage, and, like, I've done that since I was born, practically. I have to pretend I don't know anything about the music business. When in fact they don't, and I do." Even so, Tyler did have to learn to plant her derriere like a proper pre-Woodstock maiden. "Women sat differently; it was more of a ladylike thing. I mean, I grew up sitting like this," she says, throwing her olive Capri pants open wide. "The day I met my dad, the first thing he said to me was: 'Close your legs!'"

All this time, Tom Hanks was getting an education of his own: Just because they give you a canvas chair doesn't mean the director gets to sit back and relax. "You feel it as an actor, where a scene is behind you and you go home at the end of the day," he sighs. "As a director you have a brief flash like that, but then you're immediately enmeshed in seeing the dailies of the work you did yesterday. Which isn't as good as it should have been. And then you're thrust with all the problems that are going to come up tomorrow."

Then again, frustration has its privileges. If it's Freudian demons you want, ponder Hanks' casting his wife, Rita Wilson, as a surprisingly buxom cocktail waitress, and his partner from the '80s sitcom Bosom Buddies, Peter Scolari, as the smarmy host of The Hollywood Television Showcase. A director gives thanks for the little things.

"I must say, I do like sitting down and watching the movie," Hanks says. "I thought that when it came down to the public seeing it for the first time, I'd be in the back of the car throwing up on the way to the cinema. But I can't wait to get there. So, call me a goof."And, it should be noted, by the end of the day, Hanks could light the Zippo with a single snap of his wrist.

"I said, 'I can't cast this guy, because it's just gonna be too odd.' subconsciously, I was probably seeing myself in the role, and I didn't want to wrestle with that kind of freudian demon." (Tom Hanks on casting Tom Everett Scott in the lead role)

Source : Entertainment Weekly