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13 Surprising Facts About Cast Away

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When FedEx employee Chuck Noland’s plane crashes, he ends up stranded on a deserted tropical island for four years, with an inanimate volleyball named Wilson as his only friend. Deemed an “existential blockbuster” for the 21st century, not a whole lot of action occurs during Cast Away’s 143-minute running time. But Hanks’ long beard and survival scenarios generated an iconic character and film.

It took Apollo 13 screenwriter William Broyles Jr. six years to shape the story with Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis, to a method degree: filming halted for a year so that Hanks could shed 50 pounds as real time passed in the movie. The movie was released on December 22, 2000, and became a huge hit, grossing $429,632,142 worldwide on a $90 million budget. Here are some washed-ashore facts about the film.

1. TOM HANKS DIDN’T WANT TO TELL A STANDARD STORY.

In an interview with The Guardian, Tom Hanks explained, “Because there is a standard way of telling this story, and that’s to have a rich, snotty guy who’s obviously not in touch with what’s important and blah, blah, blah, and then he learns a lesson and he’s not like that anymore. But Chuck learns no great lessons.” The basic themes of the film are of physical and spiritual survival, and as Hanks told the Los Angeles Times, “I didn’t want to show a man conquering his environment, but rather the effect the environment has on him. I wanted to deal with subject matter that was largely verboten in mainstream movies, taking the concept of a guy trapped against the elements, with no external forces, no pirates, no bad guys, and tell it in a way that challenged the normal cinematic narrative structure.”

2. THE SCREENWRITER STRANDED HIMSELF ON AN ISLAND, FOR RESEARCH PURPOSES.

William Broyles Jr. spent several days alone in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez trying to fend for himself. He speared and ate stingrays, learned how to open a coconut, befriended a washed-up Wilson-brand volleyball, and tried to make fire, which ended up in the movie. His experiences led to an epiphany regarding the Chuck character: “That's when I realized it wasn’t just a physical challenge,” Broyles told The Austin Chronicle. “It was going to be an emotional, spiritual one as well.”

3. THE ENTIRE THEME OF THE MOVIE COMES FROM TWO WORDS.

Broyles told the Los Angeles Times the last two words Noland utters—“thank you,” to a woman in a truck—sum up the movie. “The idea of acceptance [of his fate], that there is no rationale for some of the things that happen to us. But finally there is gratitude.” The film ends on an ambiguous note, with Noland at the literal crossroads in Canadian, Texas, attempting to make a decision to either follow the woman or go down a different path toward a new city.

4. FEDEX WAS COOL WITH THE FREE PRODUCT PLACEMENT AND THE PLANE CRASH.

At the time of filming, a FedEx plane hadn’t actually crashed like that in real life—though in 2009 two crew members died in a crash and in August 2015 a plane crashed into the Caribbean Sea—but the company didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that it could happen. FedEx provided filming locations at their hubs in Memphis, Los Angeles, and Moscow, and helped with logistical support.

“As we stepped back and looked at it, we thought, ‘It’s not product placement, we’re a character in this movie,’” Gail Christensen, managing director for global brand management at FedEx in 2000, told the Chicago Tribune. “It transcends product placement.” FedEx had a sense of humor when they made a Cast Away-themed commercial for the 2003 Super Bowl. Basically, a Tom Hanks-esque character finally drops off a package to a customer and asks what’s in it. “Nothing really. Just a satellite phone, GPS locator, fishing rod, water purifier, and some seeds. Just silly stuff.”

5. HANKS ALMOST DIED WHILE FILMING THE MOVIE.

Hanks recalled how before he left the production in Fiji, he received a cut and it got infected. Turns out he had a staph infection in his leg and it almost gave him blood poisoning. “The doctor said to me, ‘What’s the matter with you, you idiot? You could have died from this thing!’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ But they literally had to take out a big chunk of the stuff in my leg.” The infection was so severe that Hanks stayed in a hospital for three days. “Then we had to shut down production for three weeks because the doctors said, ‘No way is this kid getting in the water.’”

6. HANKS WENT THROUGH SEVERAL DIFFERENT ENDING SCENARIOS FOR CHUCK.

In an audio interview, Hanks talked about how he “went down so many bad tributaries” in figuring out what should happen to Noland. “It was really called Chuck of the Jungle, and we did all of those scenarios of what happens to him when he comes back to the world: He was loaded with self pity; he was loaded with Rip Van Winkle, kind of like jeepers creepers, look how small the computers are, all of that kind of stuff. We thought, look, he’d probably be turned into some media celebrity and what’s he going to do? Be sitting in the secret square [Hollywood Squares] with Susan Anton right next to him?”

7. HANKS FELT THAT THE PLANE CRASH WAS THE “BEST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED” TO CHUCK.

In the same audio interview, Hanks discussed Noland post-ordeal and him standing at the fork of the road in Texas. “Somehow, at the end of the movie, you can stand on the crossroads and it’s going to be okay, it’s going to be alright, as long as you keep breathing and have a certain kind of perspective and proportion to your life. And that’s not a huge shift for Chuck to have gone through even if he hadn’t been lost. People do that all time. ‘I quit, I don’t want to do this job anymore, I’m gonna go figure out what I want to do and I’m going to be okay.’ That’s interesting. It’s almost as though Chuck can say the best thing that ever happened to him was, ‘I was in this plane crash in which five people got killed and I survived for four years and I came back and I lost the woman I love.’” 

8. SURVIVOR BEAT CAST AWAY TO THE PUNCH.

The reality show debuted on May 31, 2000, about seven months before Cast Away was released. In similar fashion, a group of people are stranded in an exotic location and must compete against each other, and the show became an immediate hit for CBS. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Hanks said he was “spooked by the show’s like-minded theme” but he knew “we didn’t have a trivial film. Good or bad, we always had something that was much more substantial than what is essentially a game show that is a television phenomenon.”

9. THE MOVIE LED TO THE CREATION OF LOST.

Lloyd Braun, who was the chairman of ABC Entertainment in the early aughts, wanted a writer to come up with a pitch based on his favorite film from 2000, Cast Away. According to Chicago magazine, in 2003 Chicagoan Jeffrey Lieber was picked to write the pilot for Cast Away-the Series, which centered around eight to 10 characters stranded on a Pacific island. Lieber named the pilot Nowhere, but Braun passed on Lieber’s script and gave the project to J. J. Abrams, who added the supernatural element to the plot. However, Lieber, the WGA, and the studio went to arbitration in order for Lieber to receive partial credit for creating the show, and he eventually won 60 percent of the “created by” credit. In 2005, his pilot received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series, and for the entire run of the show Lieber was listed in the credits.

10. ONE OF THE ORIGINAL WILSON BALLS MADE A LOT OF MONEY AT AN AUCTION.

In January 2001, one of the three original Wilson volleyballs featured in the film was sold on an online auction. According to the Los Angeles Times, it sold for $18,400. But for a much cheaper $19.99, you can buy a replica ball on Wilson Sporting Goods’ website.

11. HANKS WAS REUNITED WITH WILSON.

While attending a hockey game in New York City in February 2015, Hanks was being featured on the big screen when someone suddenly tossed him a Wilson Cast Away ball. Hanks held onto the ball and smiled at his long lost pal.

12. SOME CRITICS THINK THE MARTIAN IS “CAST AWAY IN SPACE."

When the Matt Damon film The Martian came out, critics immediately compared it to Cast Away and wrote “The Martian is Cast Away in space,” especially because both films featured men marooned, alone, and trying to survive, and both movies were distributed by Fox. The difference is Matt Damon’s Mark Watney had the ability to communicate with people. In a USA Today profile, Damon disagreed with the comparisons. “It’s not Cast Away in the sense that it’s actually a guy who is behaving with the expectation that people are watching him. He’s on video all the time on these GoPros. Nobody’s seeing the video feed live, but he’s behaving as if someday someone might.”

13. CAST AWAY WAS DEPICTED IN AN UNAUTHORIZED PARODY FILM.

In 2004, a filmmaker parodied Miss Congeniality, Cast Away, and Jurassic Park in the film Miss Cast Away and the Island Girls, starring none other than Michael Jackson in his last scripted performance. The film centered around beauty pageant contestants whose plane crashed on an island. Fox wasn’t happy about the Cast Away usage and sent filmmaker Bryan Michael Stoller a cease and desist letter. “I can't afford a lawyer right now,” Stoller said in an interview with The New York Times. “I can’t get errors and omissions insurance. No distributor will pick it up. They’ve pretty much killed the movie unless I change the title.” A year later the film was released on DVD, and in 2011 it was released on TV.

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Marvel Entertainment
10 Facts About Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian
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Marvel Entertainment

Nearly every sword-wielding fantasy hero from the 20th century owes a tip of their horned helmet to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Set in the fictional Hyborian Age, after the destruction of Atlantis but before our general recorded history, Conan's stories have depicted him as everything from a cunning thief to a noble king and all types of scoundrel in between. But beneath that blood-soaked sword and shield is a character that struck a nerve with generations of fantasy fans, spawning adaptations in comics, video games, movies, TV shows, and cartoons in the eight decades since he first appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. So thank Crom, because here are 10 facts about Conan the Barbarian.

1. THE FIRST OFFICIAL CONAN STORY WAS A KULL REWRITE.

Conan wasn’t the only barbarian on Robert E. Howard’s resume. In 1929, the writer created Kull the Conqueror, a more “introspective” brand of savage that gained enough interest to eventually find his way onto the big screen in 1997. The two characters share more than just a common creator and a general disdain for shirts, though: the first Conan story to get published, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was actually a rewrite of an earlier rejected Kull tale titled “By This Axe I Rule!” For this new take on the plot, Howard introduced supernatural elements and more action. The end result was more suited to what Weird Tales wanted, and it became the foundation for future Conan tales.

2. BUT A “PROTO-CONAN” STORY PRECEDED IT.

A few months before Conan made his debut in Weird Tales, Howard wrote a story called "People of the Dark" for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror about a man named John O’Brien who seemed to relive his past life as a brutish, black-haired warrior named … Conan of the reavers. Reave is a word from Old English meaning to raid or plunder, which is obviously in the same ballpark as barbarian. And in the story, there is also a reference to Crom, the fictional god of the Hyborian age that later became a staple of the Conan mythology. This isn't the barbarian as we know him, and it's certainly not an official Conan tale, but the early ideas were there.

3. ROBERT E. HOWARD NEVER INTENDED TO WRITE THESE STORIES IN ORDER.

Howard was meticulous in his world-building for Conan, which was highlighted by his 8600-word history on the Hyborian Age the character lived in. But the one area the creator had no interest in was linearity. Conan’s first story depicted him already as a king; subsequent stories, though, would shift back and forth, chronicling his early days as both a thief and a youthful adventurer.

There’s good reason for that, as Howard himself once explained: “In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”

4. THERE ARE NUMEROUS CONNECTIONS TO THE H.P. LOVECRAFT MYTHOS.

For fans of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, one of the only names bigger than Robert E. Howard was H.P. Lovecraft. The two weren’t competitors, though—rather, they were close friends and correspondents. They’d often mail each other drafts of their stories, discuss the themes of their work, and generally talk shop. And as Lovecraft’s own mythology was growing, it seems like their work began to bleed together.

In “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard made reference to “vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones,” which could be seen as a reference to the ancient, godlike “Old Ones” from the Lovecraft mythos. In the book The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, editor Patrice Louinet even wrote that Howard’s earlier draft for the story name-dropped Lovecraft’s actual Old Ones, most notably Cthulhu.

In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow of Time,” he describes a character named Crom-Ya as a “Cimmerian chieftain,” which is a reference to Conan's homeland and god. These examples just scratch the surface of names, places, and concepts that the duo’s work share. Whether you want to read it all as a fun homage or an early attempt at a shared universe is up to you.

5. SEVERAL OF HOWARD’S STORIES WERE REWRITTEN AS CONAN STORIES POSTHUMOUSLY.

Howard was only 30 when he died, so there aren’t as many completed Conan stories out in the world as you’d imagine—and there are even less that were finished and officially printed. Despite that, the character’s popularity has only grown since the 1930s, and publishers looked for a way to print more of Howard’s Conan decades after his death. Over the years, writers and editors have gone back into Howard’s manuscripts for unfinished tales to doctor up and rewrite for publication, like "The Snout in the Dark," which was a fragment that was reworked by writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. There were also times when Howard’s non-Conan drafts were repurposed as Conan stories by publishers, including all of the stories in 1955's Tales of Conan collection from Gnome Press.

6. FRANK FRAZETTA’S CONAN PAINTINGS REGULARLY SELL FOR SEVEN FIGURES.

Chances are, the image of Conan you have in your head right now owes a lot to artist Frank Frazetta: His version of the famous barbarian—complete with rippling muscles, pulsating veins, and copious amounts of sword swinging—would come to define the character for generations. But the look that people most associate with Conan didn’t come about until the character’s stories were reprinted decades after Robert E. Howard’s death.

“In 1966, Lancer Books published new paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's Conan series and hired my grandfather to do the cover art,” Sara Frazetta, Frazetta's granddaughter owner and operator of Frazetta Girls, tells Mental Floss. You could argue that Frazetta’s powerful covers were what drew most people to Conan during the '60s and '70s, and in recent years the collector’s market seems to validate that opinion. In 2012, the original painting for his Lancer version of Conan the Conqueror sold at auction for $1,000,000. Later, his Conan the Destroyer went for $1.5 million.

Still, despite all of Frazetta’s accomplishments, his granddaughter said there was one thing he always wanted: “His only regret was that he wished Robert E. Howard was alive so he could have seen what he did with his character.”

7. CONAN’S FIRST MARVEL COMIC WAS ALMOST CANCELED AFTER SEVEN ISSUES.

The cover to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #21
Marvel Entertainment

Conan’s origins as a pulp magazine hero made him a natural fit for the medium’s logical evolution: the comic book. And in 1970, the character got his first high-profile comic launch when Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian hit shelves, courtesy of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith.

Though now it’s hailed as one of the company’s highlights from the ‘70s, the book was nearly canceled after a mere seven issues. The problem is that while the debut issue sold well, each of the next six dropped in sales, leading Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to pull the book from production after the seventh issue hit stands.

Thomas pled his case, and Lee agreed to give Conan one last shot. But this time instead of the book coming out every month, it would be every two months. The plan worked, and soon sales were again on the rise and the book would stay in publication until 1993, again as a monthly. This success gave way to the Savage Sword of Conan, an oversized black-and-white spinoff magazine from Marvel that was aimed at adult audiences. It, too, was met with immense success, lasting from 1974 to 1995.

8. OLIVER STONE WROTE A FOUR-HOUR, POST-APOCALYPTIC CONAN MOVIE.

John Milius’s 1982 Conan movie is a classic of the sword and sorcery genre, but its original script from Oliver Stone didn’t resemble the final product at all. In fact, it barely resembled anything related to Conan. Stone’s Conan would have been set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where the barbarian would do battle against a host of mutant pigs, insects, and hyenas. Not only that, but it would have also been just one part of a 12-film saga that would be modeled on the release schedule of the James Bond series.

The original producers were set to move ahead with Stone’s script with Stone co-directing alongside an up-and-coming special effects expert named Ridley Scott, but they were turned down by all of their prospects. With no co-director and a movie that would likely be too ambitious to ever actually get finished, they sold the rights to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who helped bring in Milius.

9. BARACK OBAMA IS A FAN (AND WAS TURNED INTO A BARBARIAN HIMSELF).

When President Barack Obama sent out a mass email in 2015 to the members of Organizing for Action, he was looking to get people to offer up stories about how they got involved within their community—their origin stories, if you will. In this mass email, the former Commander-in-Chief detailed his own origin, with a shout out to a certain barbarian:

“I grew up loving comic books. Back in the day, I was pretty into Conan the Barbarian and Spiderman.

Anyone who reads comics can tell you, every main character has an origin story—the fateful and usually unexpected sequence of events that made them who they are.”

This bit of trivia was first made public in 2008 in a Daily Telegraph article on 50 facts about the president. That led to Devil’s Due Publishing immortalizing the POTUS in the 2009 comic series Barack the Barbarian, which had him decked out in his signature loincloth doing battle against everyone from Sarah Palin to Dick Cheney.

10. J.R.R. TOLKIEN WAS ALSO A CONAN DEVOTEE.

The father of 20th century fantasy may always be J.R.R. Tolkien, but Howard is a close second in many fans' eyes. Though Tolkien’s work has found its way into more scholarly literary circles, Howard’s can sometimes get categorized as low-brow. Quality recognizes quality, however, and during a conversation with Tolkien, writer L. Sprague de Camp—who himself edited and touched-up numerous Conan stories—said The Lord of the Rings author admitted that he “rather liked” Howard’s Conan stories during a conversation with him. He didn’t expand upon it, nor was de Camp sure which Conan tale he actually read (though it was likely “Shadows in the Moonlight”), but the seal of approval from Tolkien himself goes a long way toward validation.

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The Annual Festivals That Draw the Most People in Every State
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iStock

Every state has that one big event each year that draws residents from across the region or even across the nation. Louisiana has Mardi Gras. Kentucky has the Kentucky Derby. South Dakota has Sturgis. Genfare, a company that provides fare collection technology for transit companies, recently tracked down the biggest event in each state, creating a rundown of the can't-miss events across the country.

As the graphic below explores, some states' biggest public events are national music and entertainment festivals, like Bonnaroo in Tennessee, SXSW in Texas, and Summerfest in Wisconsin—which holds the world record for largest music festival.

Others are standard public festival fare. Minnesota hosts 2 million people a year at the Minnesota State Fair (pictured above), the largest of its kind in the U.S. by attendance. Mardi Gras celebrations dominate the events calendar in Missouri, Alabama, and, of course, Louisiana. Oktoberfest and other beer festivals serve as the biggest gatherings in Ohio (home to the nation's largest Oktoberfest event), Oregon, Colorado, and Utah.

In some states, though, the largest annual gatherings are a bit more unique. Some 50,000 people each year head to Brattleboro, Vermont for the Strolling of the Heifers, a more docile spin on the Spanish Running of the Bulls. Montana's biggest event is Evel Knievel Days, an extreme sports festival in honor of the famous daredevil. And Washington's biggest event is Hoopfest, Spokane's annual three-on-three basketball tournament.

Mark your calendar. Next year could be the year you attend them all.

A graphic list with the 50 states pictured next to information about their biggest events
Genfare

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