How Tom Hanks and Cast Away created fire — and hope
Each month in the pages of EW, we’re chatting with the filmmakers, actors, and others involved in capturing an iconic shot in movie history. This edition of The Shot examines Cast Away's flaming victory.
“I made fire!”
But you didn’t do it alone, Chuck (Tom Hanks). “It looks simple — it’s one guy with a volleyball,” says Cast Away cinematographer Don Burgess. “But there’s another 150 people trying to make it look like there’s nothing else except one guy and a volleyball.”
Filming on Robert Zemeckis’ 2000 survival drama began in Fiji for what Burgess jokes was the “heavy-Tom period,” featuring Chuck washing ashore and getting to know his new home. Zemeckis and crew then left to shoot Harrison Ford’s What Lies Beneath while Hanks lost weight and grew out his beard. They all reconvened in Fiji a year later for four more weeks on the island. "Zemeckis and Hanks had that type of power," explains Burgess, who earned an Oscar nomination for his work with the pair on 1994's Forrest Gump. "They could say, 'Here's what we're going to do, and it's going to be brilliant."
During the "heavy-Tom" filming, Burgess says Zemeckis knew he needed to “create hope" for Chuck and the audience, and figuring out how to make fire was key. "The fire moment is a big win," shares Burgess. "It's a note that Bob really wanted to ring as positive for the audience, because, as horrible as its gets, you've got to create this reason to keep living." The visual-effects team would use a lighter to create the spark, add smoke, and ignite the kindling for the long-awaited flame. As far as shooting, the plan was to be “as simplistic as possible” and keep the camera static, to provide a “more distant feeling" and show Chuck "becoming disjointed from society."
But the only feeling Hanks was left with? Pain. "Every day out there shooting in such a remote spot is difficult," says Burgess. "The heat, the humidity, we had a lot of infection. In fact, Tom being on his knees for such a long period of time to demonstrate trying over and over to get it to work, he actually ended up opening a wound on his knees and it got infected. It became a big deal."
Adds Burgess: “But the beauty of working with a Tom Hanks is that he rises to the occasion.”
And showcases a skill useful for then, and (especially) now: He knows how to go it alone.