The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece by Tom Hanks

The phrase “write what you know” has always been, at best, a loose construct. At one end of the spectrum you have C. S. Lewis, a man who pieced together the Narnia books from fragments of an upbringing filled with religion and travel and war and ancient epics. On the other, you have Tom Hanks, a World War II–obsessed typewriter collector who caught the coronavirus and makes films for a living, who has just written a novel about a World War II–obsessed typewriter collector who makes films for a living in the age of the coronavirus. Both approaches are equally valid, although one does sound slightly easier.

This book—The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece—has been coming for a while. In 2017, Hanks published Uncommon Type, a resoundingly lovely short-story collection that hinted at a writer straining for a broader canvas. But even earlier, in interviews and podcast appearances stretching back almost a decade, Hanks has grown increasingly preoccupied with the idea that most people—journalists in particular—don’t understand the reality of life on a film set. It isn’t about agents and managers, he has said. It’s mainly about learning how to convincingly waddle away from a table after getting up, so that your head stays in the frame.

Hanks has a personal collection of more than 250 typewriters.

With a celebrated acting career that now spans four and a half Oscar-littered decades, Hanks is obviously a leading authority on the subject. The novel is filled with tiny lessons that others might have preferred to slot into nonfiction: it’s best to start filming a movie on Wednesday, he tells us at one point, because then you have a chance to identify the weak links in the crew by Friday and replace them by Monday without losing a full week.

And Hanks includes long, loving descriptions of the various departments you’ll find on set, all the way down to craft services. If there’s any message to the book at all, it’s that filmmaking is ultimately a noble profession in which hundreds of well-intentioned soldiers fight a doomed battle against nothing short of fate itself.

When it was announced, the book was billed as “wildly ambitious.” This is primarily down to its structure. The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece is ostensibly told by Joe Shaw, a Montana resident plucked from obscurity by noted film director Bill Johnson, to chronicle his newest picture (the awkwardly titled Knightshade: The Lathe of Firefall) all the way from idea to release. But Hanks requires a windup before we get to this, and it lasts for almost a full quarter of the book. Set in the 1940s, the first chunk of the story bypasses Hollywood altogether and follows a young boy briefly visited by his uncle, a World War II veteran who operated a flamethrower in the Pacific.

We hear about when the uncle was born. We read the letters he sent his sister during wartime. We learn of his struggles to find purpose as a civilian and, two decades later, how he cleaned up his act and began to make amends. By this point the boy, now an adult, has become a cartoonist specializing in countercultural comics.

When it was announced, the book was billed as “wildly ambitious.”

All this—all this backstory, all these details, this entire decades-long sweep of regular human life—simply serves as an extended prelude to a throwaway moment when a film director finds a comic in an old box of junk and decides to put a man with a flamethrower in his new movie. This leisurely pace, along with the accompanying full-color comic-book reproductions (also written by Hanks), hints at a wider literary aspiration.

You sense that Hanks might be a little too in love with filmmaking to land all his intended punches, though. A film set can be a tinderbox, the sort of highly stressed, co-dependent environment that permanently teeters on the brink of disaster. But here, all of the negative aspects of the entire business are bundled up and crammed into just one character—O.K. Bailey—who exists as a walking H.R. nightmare. He pulls rank as the film’s director. He tries to screw his leading lady. He’s rude and loud, and, most damning of all in Hanks’s eyes, sometimes late for work. Bailey is by far the standout character of the book, written with such toxic relish that people are almost certainly going to lose hours trying to figure out the identity of his real-world analogue.

Steven Spielberg and Hanks on the set of Saving Private Ryan (1998).

Meanwhile, the other characters are all determined to pull together to make the film the best it can possibly be. Hanks’s Hollywood is a total meritocracy; a golden-hued wonderland in which anyone can be plucked from obscurity—seriously, it happens a lot—so long as they work hard and solve more problems than they cause. It’s a place where everyone gets their chance and almost nothing goes wrong. The studio heads don’t mind that the director has sanctioned an outside voice to document production. The comic-book company fairly compensates the creators of the source material. No VFX artists grind themselves through a miserable, thankless postproduction crunch. Everything is tickety-boo.

And although this relative lack of conflict means that not much happens in terms of story, as a love letter to the profession that made the author’s name, The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece couldn’t be sweeter. Extended proximity to the source material has meant that Hanks writes about this stuff with real affection. The characters all ring true, and the film itself—which buzzes away in the background, always second-billed to the people making it—doesn’t sound nearly as awful as something called Knightshade: The Lathe of Firefall deserves to. A lot of it is very deftly done.

Screen stars often like to underline their legacy with a memoir in the latter stages of their career. You get the feeling that Hanks no longer feels the need. With this book, he has said everything he could ever want to say about the movie business.

Stuart Heritage is a Kent, U.K.–based Writer at Large for AIR MAIL and the author of Bedtime Stories for Worried Liberals