Saving Private Ryan Created A Personal Dilemma For Tom Hanks And Steven Spielberg

By 1998, both Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks were among the largest parts of the Hollywood establishment. They had both won multiple Academy Awards each, most of their respective films were enormous hits, and they both had a reputation for intelligence and decency. In 1998, Spielberg was coming off of the Oscar-nominated "Amistad," and Hanks had just completed his directorial debut "That Thing You Do!" Both men were standing firmly astride cinema like a mighty Colossus. But, more significantly, the two were friends. Prior to "Saving Private Ryan," Hanks and Spielberg had never worked together, but they did spend a lot of time together. Their wives, Rita Wilson and Kate Capshaw were also best friends. 

Details of Hanks' and Spielberg's personal friendship are — appropriately — not a matter of public record, other than the public knows they have one. And it was their friendship that was a large reason the two never worked together. In an interview with the Desert News, Hanks admitted that he had seen interpersonal relationships ruined by mutual work: 

"I've seen friendships that ended because of a bad moviemaking experience, and I was really reluctant to do it because of that. Sometimes I'm just astounded that I know this great guy and that I'm friends with him. So it hasn't been worth it to risk our friendship until now."

Spielberg, meanwhile, felt it untoward to work on a film with a friend. When it came to "Saving Private Ryan," however, the two reached an impasse. Both were interested in the project at the same time ... and they both knew it. Were they going to pull the trigger, as it were, and make the film they each wanted to? 

Never discussed working together

Screenwriter Robert Rodat (who was nominated for an Academy Award for "Saving Private Ryan") took his inspiration from Stephen Ambrose historical book "D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II," first published in 1994. In Ambrose's book, there is related the true story of the Niland brothers, four siblings who fought in WWII, with only one returning home. Rodat extrapolated from the Nilands the story of the fictional Ryan brothers for "Saving Private Ryan," three of whom had been killed in action, with the fourth deep into enemy territory. The story was about the platoon of soldiers sent to bring him back home so the Ryans' parents would not lose all of their children. This is Hollywood wartime melodrama at its finest, and it's a cinematic tale that would not have felt out of place in theaters in the 1940s. 

Steven Spielberg was attracted to Rodat's screenplay and was about to commit to it when he learned that Hanks was interested in playing the lead. On the special features for the "Private Ryan" DVD, the director talks about his friendship with Hanks and the good/bad timing involved with making the movie. As it goes, the two had never discussed making a movie together. 

"Tom and I kind of came upon the project at the same time coincidentally, and also coincidentally, you know, we're such close friends personally. And we had never really discussed working together as director/actor. We had always been happy with our kids playing and going on vacations together, and our wives are best friends, and we didn't know. We didn't want to jeopardize a friendship, and so we never really talked about working together."

Business and personal

It was a complete coincidence that Hanks and Spielberg were looking at "Private Ryan" at the same time. High-end projects float around Hollywood on the regular, and scripts pass through many hands; there's likely several movies that both Spielberg and Hanks mutually passed on. That they both chanced upon "Private Ryan" at the same time was mere kismet. 

"Tom, independent of my read, had read 'Private Ryan,' and when Richard Lovett at CAA [the talent agency] told Tom that I was about to commit to it, Tom said, 'Well, this has posed a difficult dilemma in my life, because I'm about to commit to it.' And Tom had to, you know, do some soul searching to see whether he wanted to mix business with personal, and so did I."

There was nothing stopping from the two working together other than their mutual, personal belief that one should not work with friends in Hollywood. While neither Spielberg nor Hanks are known for their overwhelming egos — indeed, Hanks has a reputation for being one of the more pleasant and decent people in Hollywood — one might understand how their presence might dominate a singular production. It's likely both the actor and the director didn't want their own personal fame to overshadow the other's.

A new working relationship

Luckily for "Private Ryan" fans, Hanks and Spielberg were able to get on the horn and talk it out.

"So, we got on the phone together and, basically, never wanted a conversation about whether we should mix personal with business. We just began saying, 'Wow, what a great script,' and 'We can do so much with it,' and 'What an amazing story,' and was it true, and what wasn't true and what was true about it, and before you knew it we were caught up in the blizzard of enthusiasm, and we wanted to make it a movie."

"Saving Private Ryan" was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture (it lost to "Shakespeare in Love" that year), Best Actor, and Best Director, which Spielberg won. Since "Private Ryan," the director and the actor seem to have learned to like working together, as they have gone on to make "Catch Me if You Can," "The Terminal," "Bridge of Spies," and "The Post" together. Their reluctance to work together was out of fear they would ruin their friendship, but Hanks and Spielberg seem to have developed a wonderful working relationship as well. May they continue to work together for a long time.