Director Robert Zemeckis talks Flight

Itís 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. 

Zemeckisí 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 Ė Forrest Gump, Romancing the Stone, Contact and more.  Heís sitting in a special place in Hollywood. 

Zemeckisí 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 ďtoneĒ.  Are you easily bored?

Zemeckis: Restless might be the right word.  I havenít done a musical.  I think I would be bored doing the same type of film over and over.  I guess I would, I guess thatís it; I donít want to keep doing the same type of film.

M&C: Itís been a long time since youíve done live action.  Youíve 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 theyíre 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 shouldnít 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 wouldnít work, or that.  In this case, if you invert the airplane it will fly but the engines wonít last.  Weíll 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 donít 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 youíre talking in airplane jargon. 

Itís 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 thatís much harder than speaking with a whole lot of people who are speaking English.

M&C: Washingtonís a particular choice because of his likeability.  You couldnít 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 canít not watch Denzel.  He has that great gravitas.  Anything he plays you canít take your eyes off him.  You like him and you want to like him, the simple word is charm.  Heís 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. Thatís what attracted me. The movie, every single character and incident has moral ambiguity yet itís dramatic.  Conventional wisdom says if the villain's not wearing a black hat and the hero isnít wearing a white hat, there canít be drama. 

You have to know who the good guys are.  This obviously flies in the face of that.  Thatís 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 whoís trying to get Denzel off the charges.  You could write a whole dissertation on that.  Itís kind of terrifying.

M&C: Whoís 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 heís making a completely different movie.  You cast him six weeks before shooting and heís 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 ďWhatís going on here?Ē  

Practice is working and theyíre in the groove, working shorthand and then the directorís job is to be the modulator, be right on the money but donít forget where we are in this story, thatís your job.

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

Zemeckis: They donít make movies like this anymore.  They just donít.  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 youíve done?

Zemeckis: I really donít 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 Iíll find myself designing a shot and Iíll be able to say ďThis is like that scene that Coppola did in The GodfatherĒ or I find myself doing that.  But as far as finding some sort of watershed movie as a style, I canít put my finger on that.

M&C: What young filmmakers interest you?

Zemeckis: There are a couple guys.  Hereís what Iím waiting for.  Iím waiting for someone to redefine the art form.  Iím looking for the guy out there; hopefully heís out there whose going to say ďThis is what we have to do nowĒ.  I donít 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.  Donít you think? Thatís when there would be an old guard and there was all of a sudden some young guy comes along and thatís what I grew up on.  And the films were all good.  We need another golden era.

M&C: Whatís next?

Zemeckis: I donít know.  The other thing Iíve never done, like Castaway where I had to stop the movie to do another one.  Iíve never signed on to do a movie while Iím 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 youíre supposed to build bridges in front of you before they burn them behind you.  

But I donít care. Iím afraid I would react to what I just did.  I wouldnít 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 canít 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 donít think about remakes, I decided not to do Yellow Submarine.  I donít want to do a remake.  It would have been great, thatís a movie that should have been made using digital cinťma 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? Thatís like Psycho. 

How do you do that?  How?  Iím 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 donít.  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 donít know, thatís your job, I have no idea. Iím flattered you suggest that I did. I donít know, Iím trying to get through the day.

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Further Reading on M&C

Denzel Washington Biography - - Denzel Washington Movies -
Don Cheadle Biography - - Don Cheadle Movies -
Robert Zemeckis Biography - - Robert Zemeckis Movies -