The character of Forrest Gump was originally born when author Winston Groom published the novel of the same name in 1986 with moderate success. Producer Wendy Finerman came across the book in its early form and instantly saw its potential to be a great film. "I found the book Forrest Gump in 1985, and I fell in love with it," said Finerman. "It made you laugh and it made you cry. I knew there are very few times in life where a piece of material can do that." The character of Forrest, she knew, was wonderfully unique. "I saw an incredibly cinematic story of a man who is inseparable from the events we've all grown up with," she said. "In the same way that children can say the most brilliant things, Forrest Gump is able to bring a rare clarity to what we went through in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. He's a remarkable character who is just as good at making you cry as he is at making you laugh."
At first, Finerman had trouble getting anyone in Hollywood interested in turning the quirky book into a movie. "People would ask me what I was working on," she said, "and I'd say Forrest Gump. And they'd get that glazed look. I knew they were thinking, 'When is she going to give up?'" However, Finerman was persistent. "There was something magical about the book," she said, "and even though I knew it would be an expensive and difficult movie to make, for nine years I always believed it was going to happen."
Finerman sent the book to actor Tom Hanks to read early on in the development process, hoping the project would attract him. Hanks was impressed with the story, and told Finerman that he would be interested in starring as Forrest if the story could be turned into a top-notch screenplay.
It took several years and just as many drafts to create a script that everyone was happy with. Writer Eric Roth's version of the screenplay, completed in December of 1992, hit all the right notes. "The script broke all the traditional rules of moviemaking," said Roth. "Yes, it was episodic. But it was also told from the point of view of Forrest...He anchored the movie on the love story. That's the spine of the film."
Armed with Roth's screenplay and two other high caliber producers, Steve Tisch and Steve Starkey, Wendy Finerman continued to shop Forrest Gump around the studios. After Warner Bros. passed on it, Paramount made the decision to take on the unusual and decidedly uncommercial project.
Tom Hanks read Roth's screenplay during a break from shooting the 1993 drama Philadelphia and was deeply moved. "I was completely broken," said Hanks. "I was absolutely bent. And I thought that if we didn't really screw it up that we could make a movie as good as what was on paper." Hanks, who was riding a tremendous wave of professional success at the time, signed on to play what would become one of the definitive roles of his career. When asked what drew him to the character of Forrest in a 1999 interview, Hanks answered, "By way of a very simple list of rules that Forrest adhered to, he survived everything. He believed in what God tells him to do. He obeys what Mama says he should do, and he believes in everything that the woman he loves says of him."
The producers along with Tom Hanks believed that Robert Zemeckis would be the perfect director for Forrest Gump. With films like Back to the Future (1985) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) to his credit, Zemeckis had proven that he could work with the major special effects that Gump would require, but not at the expense of a good story. Zemeckis signed on quickly after reading the screenplay. The story was unlike anything he had ever read: there was no villain, no ticking clock, no particular goal for the hero to reach. He was intrigued. "I read the screenplay and couldn't put it down," said Zemeckis. "It was compelling in a strange way because it didn't have any typical plot devices. And all I wanted to do was find out what was going to happen to this guy."
With star and director in place, the process began to find the remaining cast for Forrest Gump. To play Mama Gump, the most influential person in Forrest's life, Robert Zemeckis instantly thought of two time Academy Award-winner Sally Field. "Sally was always in my mind for the part," said Zemeckis, "because I needed someone who was young in the beginning of the movie and who could age. And there was something about the way the character was written. I just always saw her in this part."
Tom Hanks, who had co-starred with Field in the 1988 film Punchline, knew that she would be terrific in the role, but was initially hesitant to ask her. "They called me up and said, 'What do you think of Sally Field as Mama Gump?'" recalled Hanks. "I said, 'Look, I played Sally's love interest in a movie. I can't call her up and say, 'Would you want to play my mom in this thing?' But it worked out great...Sally's appearance is so perfect...She's a brilliant craftsperson at what she does."
To everyone's delight, Sally Field agreed to do the part. Her fondness for Hanks helped her decision making process. "He's absolutely the most lovable human being on the planet...Top-notch. First-class in every category," said Field. "So you know the familiarity and the love and all that was just there. Because we'd already worked together; because we were friends. It was just easy to be his mom."
A host of skilled actors soon joined the cast: Robin Wright (The Princess Bride ) as the complicated Jenny, Gary Sinise (Of Mice and Men ) as Forrest's commanding officer in Vietnam Lieutenant Dan, Mykelti Williamson as Forrest's shrimp-obsessed Army buddy Bubba, and a pre-Sixth Sense (1999) Haley Joel Osment in his film debut as Forrest's son.
One of the most important roles to cast was that of young Forrest, who would help set the tone for the whole film based on his performance. To find the right actor, Robert Zemeckis put the word out that he was looking for "a young Tom Hanks with light eyes and a quirky disposition." A young Mississippi boy by the name of Michael Conner Humphreys showed up at an open casting call in Memphis, Tennessee and fit the bill perfectly. His talent and natural ease with the material charmed everyone. During Humphreys' screen test, according to Robert Zemeckis, "He jumped off the screen when we saw him because he had a very different type of delivery."
Michael Humphreys' unique dialect turned out to be a major contributing factor to making Forrest Gump work. Before Humphreys was cast, Hanks had not settled on how Forrest would talk throughout the film. "Then Jessica Drake, my voice coach, and I heard Michael Humphreys, who played the young Forrest Gump," explained Hanks. "He was from Mississippi up by Tennessee and he had this great vocal cadence with very particular characteristics, with hard 'Gs' in the middle of things. Like he said, 'sing-ging'. I listened to Michael a lot, she made linguistic templates and then I read the entire script to her. It took the better part of three weeks and by the end I was doing it without having to think about it."
With a budget of $40 million, Forrest Gump began production in the summer of 1993. It was a demanding schedule that required shooting all over the United States. "We had to work at a breakneck pace," said Hanks, "but I just remember laughing all the time...It was always a blast." Hanks' amiability helped keep the atmosphere on the set pleasant throughout the shoot. "I couldn't imagine anyone else who could play the character [of Forrest]," said Robert Zemeckis in a later interview. "Not only is Tom Hanks one of the most incredibly talented actors, but he just brings such an energy and a tone to the movie. Tom's characterization of Forrest is better than I ever imagined."
One of the most complicated elements of Forrest Gump was its stunning use of state-of-the-art computer-generated special effects. The manipulation of archival footage to visually juxtapose Forrest with some of history's most prominent figures opened up the story of Forrest's charmed life immensely, but the work was painstaking. Two post-production supervisors spent over a year before shooting began scouring archives all over the country for footage that would fit with the script. "Our goal was to carefully match or blend Forrest's image to every shadow, every scratch, every moment of the corresponding cuts in the archival sequence," said Special Effects Supervisor Ken Ralston of Industrial Light and Magic. "How we choreograph the shot and how we light our work, because the lighting has to match perfectly with the rest of the scene, are very important. It all has to look like one big dramatic moment in the film. That can be very difficult considering that much of the 16mm archival footage during the early sixties was shot by amateurs with very unsteady, handheld cameras. Our footage had to match the movement of the original footage. We shot ours handheld and on the same type of film, such as 16mm black and white or 16mm color so that it would look as realistic and documentary-like as possible."
Perhaps even more challenging than the archival footage in Forrest Gump was the use of computer technology for more subtle effects. Huge crowd scenes, vivid sunsets, Lieutenant Dan's amputated legs, speeding ping-pong balls, and even the traveling feather that floats across the screen in the film's opening sequence were all a result of CGI magic. "Bob's [Zemeckis] shows are always hard because a lot of Bob's stuff utilizes some very subtle effects he wants to achieve," said Ken Ralston, "and that, for me, is the hardest stuff."
As its release date neared, there was some doubt as to whether or not Forrest Gump would succeed. The story was offbeat and non-traditional in structure, and Gump would be Tom Hanks' first film since winning the Academy Award as Best Actor for Philadelphia. Expectations would be high -- maybe too high -- for Forrest Gump. "The hardest thing about this movie was the overall scope and the epic size of it," said Robert Zemeckis, "the logistics we had to handle. We built 150 sets, shot in eleven states, costumed 12,000 people. But part of me subscribes to the George Lucas binary theory: Movies are either ones or zeros - they either work or they don't...So, that's the big fear. You go through all the complication and suffering, and you wonder, 'What if nobody wants to see a movie about this guy?'"
Forrest Gump was also a difficult film to market to the movie going public. It wasn't an easy film to describe or boil down to a simple tagline. In the end Paramount decided not to try and explain it at all. Studio executives felt that the best course of action would be to market it on the strength of Tom Hanks' name with a simple ad campaign that featured the star sitting alone on a park bench with the words: "The world will never be the same once you've seen it through the eyes of Forrest Gump."
Forrest Gump opened big on the July 4th holiday weekend of 1994 and went on to become one of the top grossing films of that year, exceeding all expectations. Variety said, "Forrest Gump is whimsy with a strong cultural spine. Elegantly made and winningly acted by Tom Hanks in his first outing since his Oscar®-winning Philadelphia performance, Robert Zemeckis' technically dazzling new film is also shrewdly packaged to hit baby boomers where they live." Rolling Stone called it "a movie heart-breaker of oddball wit and startling grace," and Roger Ebert called the film "magical" and Tom Hanks' performance "a breathtaking balancing act between comedy and sadness, in a story rich in big laughs and quiet truths."
When Academy Award announcements came out, Forrest Gump was the leader of the pack with a whopping 13 nominations. The film ended up winning six, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Visual Effects, Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor for Tom Hanks. Hanks became only the second person in Academy Award history to win back-to-back Oscar®s for Best Actor (the first had been Spencer Tracy). In his acceptance speech, Hanks said, "I feel as though I'm standing on magic legs in a special effects shot that is too unbelievable to imagine and far too costly to make a reality." Hanks' victory in Forrest Gump represented a high water mark for his career and solidified his reputation as one of Hollywood's top leading men and most versatile talents.
The success of Forrest Gump at the box office may have surprised everyone, but what came as an even bigger surprise was the film's subsequent influence on pop culture and the demand for Gump-related merchandise. There were Gump hats, cookbooks, t-shirts, a best-selling music soundtrack, books containing Forrest's highly-quotable words of wisdom or "Gumpisms," and everyone seemed to have his or her own Forrest Gump impression. Winston Groom's original novel was re-issued as a paperback and quickly became a bestseller, and a chain of successful Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurants opened around the world.
In an attempt to build on the success of the film, author Winston Groom published a sequel to Forrest Gump in 1995 called Gump and Co., but the response was lukewarm. There was the inevitable talk of filming the sequel, an idea that Tom Hanks quickly shot down. "I'll be saying 'box of chocolates' again about the same time Sean Connery says, 'I'm Bond, James Bond,'" said Hanks. "I have to confess I don't see this as a franchise. A sequel would ruin what we have done."
Forrest Gump touched the hearts of millions of moviegoers and went on to become a beloved bona fide modern day classic. "The childlike innocence of Forrest Gump is what we all once had," said producer Wendy Finerman. "It's an emotional journey. You laugh and cry. It does what movies are supposed to do -- make you feel alive."
Producers: Wendy Finerman, Steve Starkey, Steve Tisch
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay: Eric Roth (screenplay); Winston Groom (novel)
Cinematography: Don Burgess
Art Direction: Leslie McDonald, Jim Teegarden
Music: Alan Silvestri
Film Editing: Arthur Schmidt
Cast: Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump), Robin Wright (Jenny Curran), Gary Sinise (Lt. Dan Taylor), Mykelti Williamson (Pvt. Benjamin Buford 'Bubba' Blue), Sally Field (Mrs. Gump), Rebecca Williams (Nurse at Park Bench), Michael Conner Humphreys (Young Forrest Gump), Harold Herthum (Doctor), George Kelly (Barber), Bob Penny (Crony).
C-142m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Andrea Passafiume