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.”

Zemeckis, a devout fan of Hitchcock, Frank Capra and Billy Wilder, soon found like-minded movie buffs and small opportunities. “The film industry was dying out at that time,” he recalls. “That, coupled with the counter-cultural thing that was happening – we like to call it the 1960s but it really happened in the 1970s – meant that hardly anybody was going to the movies. And because nobody cared about the movies, film-makers could do whatever they wanted, ironically created the second golden age of cinema.”

On campus, Zemeckis soon drifted into the company of assorted Brat Pack filmmakers, working on screenplays for Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg. Like Spielberg, Zemeckis was both narrative focused and technologically obsessed. The pair later collaborated on the Back to the Future trilogy and on the groundbreaking Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

“That’s still probably the most work I’ve ever done on any movie,” recalls Zemeckis. “It takes forever to get anything done on any movie. But on Roger Rabbit it took longer than forever. I’m calm and focused when I’m making a movie. I’m at my happiest. I love the entire process. Except for the bullshit in-between. And with Roger, there was so much bullshit.”

Post-Rabbit, Zemeckis has pioneered the use of such groundbreaking SFX techniques as match-moving and green screen, although he hates it when people pigeonhole him as a tech guy.

“Tell me about it,” he groans. “I’m a script and story guy. I’m looking at technology as a way to tell a story, not the other way around. I’ve never had an agenda to advance this technology or that technology.”

Still, Zemeckis, both in content and form, has always been a futurologist. Indeed, if the 2015 segment in Back to the Future Part II is be believed, we have only two years to wait for our hoverboards.

“I’m on it,” says the franchise creator.

Children of the big, family-friendly blockbusters of the 1980s might well sigh wistfully at this juncture. Ah. They don’t make movies like that any more. By Zemeckis’s reckoning, those instincts are entirely correct. “They’d never make Back to the Future now,” he says flatly. “It’s an original idea, not a pre-sold brand.”

Caped capers

Zemeckis has scored more than a billion dollars of box office, with films such as Forrest Gump, Castaway and The Polar Express, and is troubled by the tyranny of the pre-sold brand and the subsequent rise of the homogenised superhero.

“It’s Batman and Superman and the Lone Ranger,” he says. “And what bothers me is that we’re not getting any new superheroes; we’re just getting the same old stuff from the 1930s and 1940s.” So he’s not a fan? “Naw. Although I liked the first Iron Man movie. It had a sense of humour.”

The Hollywood that allowed him to create the Back to the Future trilogy no longer exists, he says, and even if it did, we would probably have never seen the movies.

“Back when we made Back to the Future you didn’t know if a movie was a hit or not until the fourth or fifth week. The movie had a chance to breathe and to catch on. Now it’s just down to the success of the marketing campaign and the opening weekend. I find it astonishing how accurately they can predict final box office from the opening-day gross. Nothing is ever a surprise any more. That’s the thing that disappoints me the most.”

Is there anything out there in contemporary cinema that excites him? “Nothing has blown me away in the last few years. And I’m perplexed by that. I keep asking my colleagues ‘Where is the new Spielberg? Where is the guy who’s reinventing this wheel and rethinking this art form?’ I expected that guy to show up by now.

“I thought all us older guys would be pushed out by young guns by now. But we’re still here. I never expected that I’d still be making films at this age. I thought the next generation would have run me out of town by now. That they’d be telling stories in ways I couldn’t understand.”

Does he have any theories where the next Spielberg went? “I don’t know. Maybe its because technology moves so fast now, that’s all we have time to process. It’s not just confined to movies. Things haven’t changed in music or fashion or architecture either. Everywhere it’s just the same old guys doing the same old stuff.”

Does that mean the old guys can get their way with the studio now? “Ha. If anything it’s harder,” he says. “They hate to see me coming. I might make something that doesn’t fit in a box. And I love to see them biting their nails.”

Flight opens on Friday

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