Well, how did I get here? Tom Hanks is the fish out of water in the comedy-drama based on the best-selling novel
Cultures collide when an American businessman (Hanks) is sent to Saudi Arabia to close what he hopes will be the deal of a lifetime. Baffled by local customs and stymied by an opaque bureaucracy, he eventually finds his footing with the help of a wise-cracking taxi driver (Alexander Black) and a beautiful Saudi doctor (Sarita Choudhury).
After Tom Hanks gave Dave Eggers’ National Book Award-nominated novel ‘A Hologram for the King’ a rave review on his Twitter feed in 2012, only one issue remained unresolved for the two- time Oscar®-winning actor. “I was already a big fan of Dave Eggers’ work, having read a bunch of his stuff including things he did with McSweeney’s literary review,” Hanks says. “Then I read ‘A Hologram for the King’ in one sitting and my only question when I finished it was whether or not he wanted a movie made out of his book.”
German filmmaker Tom Tykwer, who co-directed Hanks in the 2012 sci-fi epic CLOUD ATLAS, felt just as strongly about the source material. “A Hologram for the King hit a very particular nerve in me,” Tykwer recalls. “It was the most contemporary novel I’d read in a very long time so I felt like it couldn’t wait: this story had to be made into a movie. It’s very much about now, yet it still it has the sense of a classic novel in that it’s a book for all times. I found that to be a brilliant mix so I turned into this very pushy machine trying to put the movie together as fast as I could.”
Tykwer, who had worked with Eggers previously on a miniseries adaptation of the San Francisco- based author’s novel ‘What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng,’ arranged a meeting with Hanks and Eggers at a Los Angeles hotel. After pitching his ideas for the book’s cinematic adaptation, Tykwer and Eggers came to a very un-Hollywood-like agreement. “Dave and I trust each other,” the director explains. “I love that he offered to get rid of all the contract stuff and just write on some piece of paper ‘I promise not to be an asshole’ and then we would both sign it. We’re very much on the same page when it comes to artistic exchange. Dave understands that once you let somebody take over your vision, you have to keep some distance.”
Tykwer was equally excited about partnering once again with Hanks. “Working with Tom is liberating for a filmmaker because he’s so open-minded to every moment and every situation,” Tykwer says. “He’s like a super-intelligent child who comes into a room and says, ‘Okay, what are our toys?’ And then, ‘Let’s explore what we can do with them!’ That’s super inspiring because when you come up with a new idea, he picks it up really greedily and does something with it in a wonderfully playful way.”
Finding the Humour in Alan’s Plight
Adapting Eggers’ story for the big screen, Tykwer took advantage of Hanks’ inherent likeability by building out the comedy elements embedded in Alan Clay’s grim predicament. “The novel has a strange sense of humor, but it was standing next to a lot of profoundly melancholic and tragic moments,” Tykwer says.
Hanks elaborates. “At the start of the movie, Alan’s adrift, he’s divorced, his job at the Reliant Corporation is tenuous and he’s worried about maintaining a connection with his own daughter.” Alan’s father, portrayed by Emmy®-winning veteran Tom Skerrit, only compounds his distress by scolding his son on the phone about a career low point: the time he steered the once-mighty Schwinn Bicycle Company into bankruptcy after outsourcing hundreds of manufacturing jobs to China.
“It’s like Alan’s alone on an iceberg, or in the desert, as the case may be,” Hanks says. “You wonder if the guy has any friends, and on top of that, he’s got this boil on his back and at three o’clock in the morning, he’s absolutely convinced it’s going kill him just as slowly as his slow-melting iceberg of loneliness is going to disappear out from under him. Poor Alan’s in a tough, sad spot, but you’re able to laugh because we see this juxtaposition: he’s trying to make sense of this country at the same time he can’t even make sense of his own life.”
In his adaptation, Tykwer mined Alan’s predicament for laughs. “I decided to put most of my effort into making it work as a comedy,” he says. “Even though it’s a dark story about someone who’s in a really bad place, at the same time there’s something absurd about Alan’s situation. If you have Tom Hanks playing with all the potentials of that situation, the movie will be funny in a meaningful, complicated, but very fascinating way. That’s what I aimed for when I started the adaptation.”
Hanks was initially taken aback by Tykwer’s approach to the material. “When Tom Tykwer told me he thought the book was very funny, I was surprised that he would amused by this painful, terrible fate that Alan Clay’s going through. I filed that away thinking we might come to loggerheads over it at some point. But when I read Tom’s screenplay, I saw that he had found the comedy in Alan’s outside observations as opposed to the great sturm und drang that are going on inside his head.
Clay arrives in Saudi Arabia without any prior knowledge of the place, other than his own cartoonish, stereotypical concept, according to Hanks. “Though he’s not a happy guy, when Alan tries to sell the upbeat nature of the 3-D hologram and rally his team, he becomes this other guy, the former Alan Clay, a man with energy and vibrancy. That’s where the comedy comes from.”