Zemeckis is back from the future for a flight of fancy
Robert Zemeckis can't promise hoverboards by 2015, but the film-maker does intend to remain as original as he can, for as long as he's allowed - although what he really wants is a revolution, writes TARA BRADY
In his career, Robert Zemeckis has successfully weathered the countercultural 1970s, the high-concept 1980s and 21st-century motion capture. Still, it does feel incongruous meeting the director for Flight, a new aviation disaster drama starring Denzel Washington in an Oscar-nominated turn as a hard-drinking, cocaine-snorting pilot.
It’s not that Zemeckis, now 60, hasn’t made grand, award-courting pictures before. During the 1990s, the director and Tom Hanks were near annual fixtures at the Academy Awards ceremony. For the past decade, however, Zemeckis has worked exclusively with pixels and performance capture to make The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol.
Until recently, legend and movie magazines had it that Zemeckis was working on a 3D reimagining of Yellow Submarine, and that he wouldn’t ever return to live-action or 2D film-making.
“That’s done,” he says, with a wave of his hand. “It would have been really cool but I decided against it. I don’t know how many films I have left in me. But a remake probably shouldn’t be one of them.”
He nods patiently when asked about this apparent about-turn. “People ask me this all the time. But I never look for a type of film to do. I’m always looking for a screenplay and whatever screenplay you’re chasing dictates its own style. That’s what happened with Flight. Flight shouldn’t be a digital film.”
It opens with a bravura crash sequence that we mustn’t spoil with details. Aviation experts have repeatedly questioned its plausibility, though not its execution. Zemeckis, a pilot with more than 1,600 hours of flight time, assures me that the physics check out. “I’m sure. I wouldn’t have shot it otherwise. You couldn’t fly like that for very long. But you could fly. I think being a pilot allowed me to bring a real authenticity to that scene. I hope so anyway.”
Windy city soul
Born into an Italian-Lithuanian family on Chicago’s southside, Zemeckis had no early artistic or cultural influences beyond the TV set, and certainly no access to a private aircraft. “I grew up working-class and poor and blue-collar. This line of work wasn’t on anyone’s radar. Chicago wasn’t cultured. Years later the city decided to purchase its culture, and it’s great that so much art is there now. But it’s all bought in. It’s not the soul of the city. It’s not what I remember.”
The young Zemeckis had never even heard of film school when he heard Jerry Lewis talk about the USC School of Cinema on the Johnny Carson show. He applied twice and was finally accepted on the strength of a begging letter and a home-made pop promo inspired by The Beatles’ Golden Slumbers. “The film school at USC was very much an embarrassment to the university,” he laughs. “It was mainly funded by the Navy to train combat photographers. Half the class were hippies and half the class were Navy guys. Everyone got along fine. Those guys had all the money and equipment. But the main thing for me was being in an environment where people were passionate about film.”