Colin Hanks is intrigued by my tape recorder. It’s an old, gray, brick-sized JC Penney model with only a cassette portal and five plastic buttons on top. Even the interview tape inside is a pre-used fossil, inscribed “Joe Satriani—Crystal Planet.”
“Let’s see that thing,” he insists, peering through the transparent plastic window and spotting the hand-scribed guitar-god label. “Let’s see if it still works. Is that one of Joe’s live concerts,” he asks with genuine, wide-eyed interested, “or just the album?”
I’m embarrassed. This is the son of Capt. John H. Miller. He’s the buddy of Jack Black. He’s Preston from Peter Jackson’s King Kong. His interview is worth more than a second-hand, taped-over music cassette. With red face and an ashamed, hangdog look, I tell him it’s just the album.
“Hey,” he exclaims with a sincere smile. “Recycling helps.”
Hanks and I are getting acquainted in a press room at Seattle’s hip W hotel. Our table is stocked with pitchers of lemon water. The occasion is 2008’s Seattle International Film Festival, where the son of Tom is promoting The Great Buck Howard, a surprisingly sweet, old-fashioned ode to the power of doing what one truly loves to do.
The film stars John Malkovich in full self-conscious, raging egomaniac mode as Buck Howard, a “mentalist” entertainer who performs magic tricks, croons Burt Bacharach tunes, and tells stale jokes. He tours old, dilapidated theaters in small towns, still milking his old-school rep with the few pockets of admirers who haven’t yet forgotten him.
Hanks plays Troy Gabel, Buck’s inexperienced (but already long-suffering) road manager. Troy is a law school dropout looking for true meaning in life. Does this impressionable, green showbiz newbie have the cajones to tell Buck that he’s all washed up? Or does Troy really have the right to squelch this survivor’s enthusiasm, however self-deluded it might be?
In person, Hanks radiates the same easygoing charm that his megastar father nearly invented. (In addition to being a producer on The Great Buck Howard, Hanks, Sr. also stars in a supporting role as Troy’s disapproving dad.) Behind glasses, his eyes appear soulful and patient. Hanks is unpretentious and thoughtful—a patient listener, even when he’s supposed to be the one answering questions. He often uses “circus” metaphors to describe his show business upbringing.
Hanks appears more relaxed and low-key than his father; it’s tough to envision him frantically chasing a flabby-jawed, furniture-eating canine, as did pop in Turner & Hooch. This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, his laid-back affability is a refreshing antidote to showboating co-stars. As Troy, he plays the straight man to Malkovich. As Preston in King Kong, he countered Jack Black’s perpetual mania. Hanks’ ability to act as a solid, supporting counterbalance to extreme subject matter served him well in the nihilistic, serial killer thriller Untraceable.
Was Buck Howard based on a real celebrity? How did finances appear for the movie? Is it challenging to create a sweet, character-driven comedy in the age of superhero epics and torture porn? After the “record” button is pushed on my prehistoric cassette recorder, Hanks reveals all of this and more in the following exchange of questions and answers.
KJ Doughton (MM): How long did The Great Buck Howard take to shoot?
Colin Hanks (CH): To be honest, I don’t remember, because we shot it two years ago. It might be eight weeks, it might be five; I don’t recall. It was a fun shoot, though. This was definitely one of those really fun experiences where [writer-director] Sean [McGinly] and I had been trying to get this movie made since 2003. We were very excited to finally be going forward with it, with a great group of people involved.
MM: Did it materialize to you in a script form?
CH: Yeah. The script was sent to me in what I lovingly refer to as a “script bomb.” My agent sent me a bundle of eight scripts. He said, “Throw these against the wall and see what sticks.” I was slacking on it, and the agent said, “Look, if you’re gonna read any of them, read Buck Howard and tell me what you think, because I think it’s really good. There’s no one attached to it and no financing. Just read it because it’s a fun read.” I hung up the phone, picked it up, finished it very quickly and enjoyed it immensely. Then I picked up the phone, and said, ‘Okay, you’re right.’
Then I went and met with Sean. We talked and he was keen on me to do it, which is sometimes not the case. We started trying to secure financing. It took awhile, with a couple of false starts. But we were able to make what I think is a pretty delightful little film that I’m really proud of. I think it’s got some really great, simple performances in it. It’s not something that will beat you over the head, but hopefully, people will watch with a smile.
MM: It seems like in the new millennium, people are very hip on dark films. To be “real,” you have to push people’s noses in the dreck – which can sometimes be very creative and amazing. But you don’t see as many films like Buck Howard, that convey optimistic, or life-affirming perspectives.
CH: Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it? So much of it ends up as coming off as really cheesy, or calculated, and fake. With this one, even reading it, I felt that it was something inherently kind of special and different. It wasn’t striving to be something that it wasn’t. It wasn’t capitalizing on any specific sort of thing. It had interesting characters, including Buck Howard. We just wanted to make something that was fun to watch, but that wasn’t syrupy or too corny. It’s all about doing that sort of tightrope. I continue to use the “circus” blueprint. (laughs)
MM: Your role in the movie is almost as protector to Buck Howard, kind of acting as a buffer to keep him from getting slapped in the face by reality too hard.
CH: Definitely. That was the thing that made him a three-dimensional character. Everyone knows what it’s like to have a boss or someone you work with, that you don’t like and who you want to peg as “evil.” In high school, if you see your English teacher buying groceries, all of a sudden you look at that person as a human being. That was the touching thing, to me, about the film. It sort of brings it home and makes this guy a real person. I always try to look for that human aspect to the story that you can relate to.
Just recently, someone was trying to interview my dad. It did not go well. They got in some sort of spat. The guy went to barge out. He opened the door, slammed the door—and then realized he had actually walked into the bathroom as opposed to exiting. He had to stay in the bathroom for 20 minutes until everyone left. I don’t know this guy, and don’t need to have been there, but I know how embarrassing that would be, in a sweet kind of way.
MM: It seemed like there was room in this film to breathe and prioritize small moments—as opposed to larger productions where the focus might be on action set pieces.
CH: Well, that’s all we’ve got! When you break it down, most movies are, you know, people having conversations. That’s sort of what it is. You’ve gotta try to have a believable conversation. Even something like The Bourne Identity movies, much of it is just people having conversations. In that case, usually two scared people. (laughs)
MM: The Great Buck Howard spends a great deal of time in dilapidated old theaters. Any weirdness to report in these seedy old venues? Any rats?
CH: One of the coolest ones that I enjoyed the most was the from the film’s Las Vegas scene. That was actually the Hollywood Palladium, a very famous music venue in L.A. It was cool to see the Palladium empty and snoop around like that. We also shot at the Orpheum Theatre, and other great places in and around L.A., some known and some completely unknown. It kind of brought me back to my theater days. The old stage. But no falling lights or ghosts or anything like that.
Hank’s publicist appears at the conference room door, alerting us that it’s time to wrap things up. The actor’s gaze shifts one last time to my clunky relic of a cassette player, and he smiles. And I wonder if he’s thinking what I’m thinking: “That thing is as old and outdated as Buck Howard’s stage routine.” It’s one of those small moments that means so much, both onscreen and off. A “Buck Howard” moment.