Director Robert Zemeckis talks Flight

It’s been a long time since writer producer and director Robert Zemeckis made a live action film, a lifetime in Hollywood years.  Castaway created a sensation in 2000 with its heart tugging story of man and his ball he dubbed Wilson stranded on a desert isle following a spectacular airplane crash. 

Zemeckis’ reputation was built on special effects film like Back to the Future, Polar Express, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and more, but he was just as adept at live action – Forrest Gump, Romancing the Stone, Contact and more.  He’s sitting in a special place in Hollywood. 

Zemeckis’ latest film, the live action R-rated Flight, which also begins with a breathtaking plane crash, stars Denzel Washington as a deeply troubled pilot in the aftermath of the crash. 

I spoke with Zemeckis in Toronto:

M&C: There is a remarkable diversity of your films, the spectrum of genres, emotions, stars and “tone”.  Are you easily bored?

Zemeckis: Restless might be the right word.  I haven’t done a musical.  I think I would be bored doing the same type of film over and over.  I guess I would, I guess that’s it; I don’t want to keep doing the same type of film.

M&C: It’s been a long time since you’ve done live action.  You’ve concentrated on animation and motion capture.  Why back to live action for Flight?

Zemeckis: I never swore off live action, I do love the digital cinema.  I think we’re in this digital stew and I think at some point it will gel into moving images and they’re not going to be categorized anymore, it will be all virtual.  But right now everyone tries to keep everything separate.  It was the screenplay which I thought was magnificent and it shouldn’t be a digital movie, it should be live action.

M&C: You have gut wrenching plane crashes opening Flight and Castaway.  As a pilot yourself, how does that effect the work? 

Zemeckis: The pilot part keeps it from being hokey. You know what the guys on the radio are supposed to sound like and you know where the controls are and what they do as far as knowing your way around.  As in any action sequence, you have to give it a mini story with a beginning, a middle and end, all that stuff,  but we have technical advisors. 

We would write the scenes and have people debunk them, tell us why this wouldn’t work, or that.  In this case, if you invert the airplane it will fly but the engines won’t last.  We’ll use that!  Great! The engines are burning up, put that in the movie.  There is just a lot of immersion and you get yourself a lot of fodder for dinner conversation. 

M&C: Denzel looks awfully comfortable at the controls.

Zemeckis: I don’t know how many hours he spent in a simulator. He wanted to know where all the controls are.  You have to know that to perform.  The hardest thing for any actor doing a pilot is the jargon.  When an actor works, they present the line because they understand its meaning in the scene and when you’re talking in airplane jargon. 

It’s like doing a scene phonetically without understanding what you’re saying.  And then talking jargon on the radio and then to the co-pilot and stewardess and then come back in and that’s much harder than speaking with a whole lot of people who are speaking English.

M&C: Washington’s a particular choice because of his likeability.  You couldn’t have someone less relatable playing this deeply flawed man.

Zemeckis: That is absolutely right.  That comes from an actor who has two gifts, one is talent because he understands and knows how to play that and the second is he has screen presence.  You can’t not watch Denzel.  He has that great gravitas.  Anything he plays you can’t take your eyes off him.  You like him and you want to like him, the simple word is charm.  He’s charming.

M&C: This is about morality and trust and who we thoughtlessly rely upon.  Did you talk with Denzel about that?

Zemeckis: Endlessly.  Absolutely. That was the whole character; the whole movie is about morality. That’s what attracted me. The movie, every single character and incident has moral ambiguity yet it’s dramatic.  Conventional wisdom says if the villain’s not wearing a black hat and the hero isn’t wearing a white hat, there can’t be drama. 

You have to know who the good guys are.  This obviously flies in the face of that.  That’s what attracted me.  It worked on those levels and everybody is broken.  All the characters are.  The most fascinating character is the Don Cheadle character who’s trying to get Denzel off the charges.  You could write a whole dissertation on that.  It’s kind of terrifying.

M&C: Who’s hardest to direct?

Zemeckis: The hardest acting directing you every have to do is that day player who comes on the movie on Day 40 and he’s making a completely different movie.  You cast him six weeks before shooting and he’s been working on his part for twelve months and everyone else is making this movie and this is when 90 people turn and look at you and ask “What’s going on here?”  

Practice is working and they’re in the groove, working shorthand and then the director’s job is to be the modulator, be right on the money but don’t forget where we are in this story, that’s your job.

M&C: Was there any difficulty getting Flight made as an R rated thriller?

Zemeckis: They don’t make movies like this anymore.  They just don’t.  In my deepest subconscious, when I read the screenplay and I felt I had to do something to hopefully win young people over, the people who buy tickets.  I would be so sad if they vanished completely which they seem to be doing.

M&C: Were you influenced by the films of the 70s and 60s more than the Steven Spielberg films you’ve done?

Zemeckis: I really don’t know. I was influenced by everything.  I watched a lot of movies that were made before I was born.  Those, too.  Once in a while I’ll find myself designing a shot and I’ll be able to say “This is like that scene that Coppola did in The Godfather” or I find myself doing that.  But as far as finding some sort of watershed movie as a style, I can’t put my finger on that.

M&C: What young filmmakers interest you?

Zemeckis: There are a couple guys.  Here’s what I’m waiting for.  I’m waiting for someone to redefine the art form.  I’m looking for the guy out there; hopefully he’s out there whose going to say “This is what we have to do now”.  I don’t like the idea that the old guys are still making the movies.  I want someone to redefine the art form.

M&C: When do you think that was last done?

Zemeckis: In the seventies.  Don’t you think? That’s when there would be an old guard and there was all of a sudden some young guy comes along and that’s what I grew up on.  And the films were all good.  We need another golden era.

M&C: What’s next?

Zemeckis: I don’t know.  The other thing I’ve never done, like Castaway where I had to stop the movie to do another one.  I’ve never signed on to do a movie while I’m still making the movie and I consider publicity to be still making the movie. 

I get the movie done, get it out and start seeing what the landscape looks like.  That flies in the face of convention Hollywood wisdom that says you’re supposed to build bridges in front of you before they burn them behind you.  

But I don’t care. I’m afraid I would react to what I just did.  I wouldn’t have a clear mind, it would be like, if you were working on a movie and a magnificent screenplay came along and there was a plane crash in it?  Magnificent, right?  So you can’t react.

M&C: Back to the Future, Romancing the Stone, what are your thoughts of someone else remaking it, instead of a sequel? 

Zemeckis: Personally no, why?  Is that the best we can do?  I don’t think about remakes, I decided not to do Yellow Submarine.  I don’t want to do a remake.  It would have been great, that’s a movie that should have been made using digital cinéma and 3D.  It also falls into this category.  The only remakes you should make are of really bad movies, and then you can make them better. Why would anyone remake The Godfather? That’s like Psycho. 

How do you do that?  How?  I’m not a big remake. The only sequel I would do and they are tough, audiences have a love hate relationship with sequels, they want them but they don’t.  I would do a sequel to Roger Rabbit though.  I would use hand drawn animation cell animation so it would look the same. Not computers.  Something else maybe that would be cool but this would be hand drawn.

M&C: What do you suppose your contribution as a Hollywood filmmaker is to pop culture?

Zemeckis: I don’t know, that’s your job, I have no idea. I’m flattered you suggest that I did. I don’t know, I’m trying to get through the day.

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