In Hollywood’s finest black-comedy tradition, A Hologram for the King delivers laughs spiked with bittersweet undertones.
After Tom Hanks gave Dave Eggers’ National Book Award-nominated novel A Hologram for the King a rave review on his Twitter feed in 2012, only one issue remained unresolved for the two-time Oscar-winning actor. “I was already a big fan of Dave Eggers’ work, having read a bunch of his stuff including things he did with McSweeney’s literary review,” Hanks says. “Then I read A Hologram for the King in one sitting and my only question when I finished it was whether or not he wanted a movie made out of his book.”
German filmmaker Tom Tykwer, who co-directed Hanks in the 2012 sci-fi epic Cloud Atlas, felt just as strongly about the source material.
“A Hologram for the King hit a very particular nerve in me,” Tykwer recalls. “It was the most contemporary novel I’d read in a very long time so I felt like it couldn’t wait: this story had to be made into a movie. It’s very much about now, yet it still it has the sense of a classic novel in that it’s a book for all times. I found that to be a brilliant mix so I turned into this very pushy machine trying to put the movie together as fast as I could.”
Tykwer, who had worked with Eggers previously on a miniseries adaptation of the San Francisco based author’s novel What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, arranged a meeting with Hanks and Eggers at a Los Angeles hotel. After pitching his ideas for the book’s cinematic adaptation, Tykwer and Eggers came to a very un-Hollywood-like agreement.
“Dave and I trust each other,” the director explains. “I love that he offered to get rid of all the contract stuff and just write on some piece of paper ‘I promise not to be an asshole’ and then we would both sign it. We’re very much on the same page when it comes to artistic exchange. Dave understands that once you let somebody take over your vision, you have to keep some distance.”
Tykwer was equally excited about partnering once again with Hanks. “Working with Tom is liberating for a filmmaker because he’s so open-minded to every moment and every situation,” Tykwer says. “He’s like a super-intelligent child who comes into a room and says, ‘Okay, what are our toys?’ And then, ‘Let’s explore what we can do with them!’ That’s super inspiring because when you come up with a new idea, he picks it up really greedily and does something with it in a wonderfully playful way.”
In Hollywood’s finest black-comedy tradition, A Hologram for the King delivers laughs spiked with bittersweet undertones. “We’ve made a crisis comedy that points the finger at the fact that our economic structure is falling apart and the apocalypse seems to be looming just around the corner,” Tykwer says. “We use comedy as a tool to embrace tragedy like a balloon you stick with a needle so it explodes and the energy that comes out is cheerful. Despite all of Alan’s problems, I hope this movie cheers people up.”
Choudhury sees the film as a cross-cultural study in human aspiration. “Dave Eggers’ book is filled with anxiety and existential despair but there’s also something in the way Tom adapted the story that leads you to believe that people can move on if they just make the extra effort,” she says.
“It’s really hard to do that because all these characters have been stuck for so long, but I find that idea very moving.”
For Hanks, who’s earned iconic status and five Academy Award® nominations by playing regular, good-hearted Americans who triumph over-hard luck circumstances, A Hologram for the King is the story of a man who stumbles upon an emotional and spiritual oasis after wandering in the desert. “Why make a movie about a guy where nothing ever works out for him? That might work fantastically as a piece of literature but as far as the cinema goes, the story requires this other thing — for want of a better word, let’s just call it hope.”
Finding the Humor in Alan’s Plight
Adapting Eggers’ story for the big screen, Tykwer took advantage of Hanks’ inherent likeability by building out the comedy elements embedded in Alan Clay’s grim predicament.
“The novel has a strange sense of humor, but it was standing next to a lot of profoundly melancholic and tragic moments,” Tykwer says.
Hanks elaborates. “At the start of the movie, Alan’s adrift, he’s divorced, his job at the Reliant Corporation is tenuous and he’s worried about maintaining a connection with his own daughter…It’s like Alan’s alone on an iceberg, or in the desert, as the case may be. You wonder if the guy has any friends, and on top of that, he’s got this boil on his back and at three o’clock in the morning, he’s absolutely convinced it’s going kill him just as slowly as his slow-melting iceberg of loneliness is going to disappear out from under him. Poor Alan’s in a tough, sad spot, but you’re able to laugh because we see this juxtaposition: he’s trying to make sense of this country at the same time he can’t even make sense of his own life.”
In his adaptation, Tykwer mined Alan’s predicament for laughs. “I decided to put most of my effort into making it work as a comedy,” he says. “Even though it’s a dark story about someone who’s in a really bad place, at the same time there’s something absurd about Alan’s situation. If you have Tom Hanks playing with all the potentials of that situation, the movie will be funny in a meaningful, complicated, but very fascinating way. That’s what I aimed for when I started the adaptation.”
Hanks was initially taken aback by Tykwer’s approach to the material.
“When Tom Tykwer told me he thought the book was very funny, I was surprised that he would amused by this painful, terrible fate that Alan Clay’s going through. I filed that away thinking we might come to loggerheads over it at some point. But when I read Tom’s screenplay, I saw that he had found the comedy in Alan’s outside observations as opposed to the great sturm und drang that are going on inside his head. Clay arrives in Saudi Arabia without any prior knowledge of the place, other than his owncartoonish, stereotypical concept, according to Hanks. “Though he’s not a happy guy, when Alan tries to sell the upbeat nature of the 3-D hologram and rally his team, he becomes this other guy, the former Alan Clay, a man with energy and vibrancy. That’s where the comedy comes from.”
The Doctor in the Hijab
In addition to emphasizing the book’s humor, Tykwer bolstered the romantic elements as he translated Eggers’ story from page to screen.
“The longer I worked on the script, the more profound the love story became because it connects to this whole third-act decision where the movie becomes a more optimistic tale,” Tykwer says.
Alan is coaxed out of his funk by Zahra Hakem, an alluring, talented surgeon portrayed by London born Sarita Choudhury. In her role as CIA Division Chief Saul Berenson’s long-suffering wife Mira on the Emmy-winning series “Homeland,” the half-Indian, half-English actress developed an avid following that included Hanks himself. “I remember seeing Sarita for the first time on ‘Homeland’ and thinking, ‘Alright, I don’t know who she is, but that woman is riveting. I don’t know where she comes from but I can’t take my eyes off her.”
Choudhury made an equally indelible impression when she got together with Hanks and Tykwer to audition for the role.
To inform her performance, Choudhury followed doctor friends on their rounds, learned to speak Arabic and mastered a Jeddah-specific accent for her English-language dialogue. Once filming began, Choudhury assumed the traditional clothing of a Saudi woman. “The first time I put on the hijab, it felt weird, like I was wearing a scuba-diving suit kind of thing,” she says. “It was strange wearing the scarf and the hijab until I got used to it. I didn’t think I would feel attractive in those clothes but I actually felt almost pretty, which I didn’t expect.”
Riding with Yousef
Before he meets Sarita, Alan forges his first solid human connection in Saudi Arabia with Yousef, a taxi driver played by Egyptian-born actor Alexander Black.
Black’s Egyptian heritage proved to be a plus for director Tykwer. “Besides having an incredible sense of humor, Alexander brought this interesting balance between Western influences and Middle-Eastern roots from his own life,” he says. “We wanted an actor who is not well known, so that he comes out of nowhere like a discovery for the audience, just as Yousef does for Alan.”
Hanks savored bantering with the quick-witted actor during their sometimes grueling driving sequences. “Because Alexander’s a comedian, his instincts about what works were quite dazzling,” Hanks says. “He has this odd timing not predicated on getting specific laughs at the moment, but on something more subtle.”
Two Trips to Jeddah
The geographic, cultural and psychological landscape depicted in A Hologram for the King draws on one journey taken separately by two men. First, Eggers traveled to Saudi Arabia and used his experiences there as a foundation for the novel. Then, Tykwer researched his film adaptation by retracing Eggers’ path to Jeddah and the ghost town formally known as “King Abdullah’s Economic City” or KAEC.
“In order to really understand the cultural subtext, I decided to travel to Saudi Arabia,” Tykwer explains. “Like Dave, I flew to Jeddah and asked this guy Mandur to be my guide. He turned out to be the same man who drove Dave around — the role model for Yousef. So I actually became like Alan Clay, making this trip with the driver that inspired Dave to write the book in the first place.”
On the way back from KAEC (dubbed “King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade” in the film), Tykwer accidentally wound up in the holy city of Mecca, just as Alan Clay does in the film. “I’m not Muslim so I’m not allowed to go to Mecca, but we actually missed the exit and drove through the city,” Tykwer recalls. “That was kind of intimidating. I didn’t want to break this law, but it just happened and there we were in the middle of the city and my guide said, ‘Well, let’s just go through and nobody will realize.’ Then we went to the countryside and visited Mundar’s father’s house, so all these places you see in the movie are very similar to what I actually experienced. My trip to Saudi Arabia gave me the confidence to make a movie about this part of the world.”
Finding Saudi Arabia 3,000 miles to the West
Denied permission to shoot A Holograph for the King in Saudi Arabia, Tykwer and his team began scouting locations in the neighboring United Arab Emirates, where landscape and architecture would have provided a near-perfect match. But UAE officials ultimately decided to prohibit production there. Jordan and Egypt also proved unworkable, so the filmmakers wound up in Morocco, about 3,000 miles west of Saudi Arabia, where they began principal photography in March 2014.
Working from a few iPhoto images that Tykwer snapped while in Saudi Arabia, filmmakers fashioned their own version of KAEC in southern Morocco.