Once a cinematic disciple of Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis long ago stood apart as one of Hollywood's most successful directors in his own right. Winning the Oscar for Forrest Gump didn't hurt, but even before that achievement, Zemeckis had won the hearts of audiences with the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Romancing the Stone, nto to mention cult favorites I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars. Other films include the 1999 documentary The Pursuit of Happiness: Smoking, Drinking and Drugging in the 20th Century (aired on Showtime), Cast Away, Contact, What Lies Beneath, and Death Becomes Her. After a decade devoted to CGI-animated 3D motion-capture animated features (The Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol), Zemeckis returns to live-action 2D film with Flight, a drama starring Denzel Washington as an anti-heroic airplane pilot. I spoke to Zemeckis at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Groucho: So you once said of your drive to succeed and your drive to work "Everything that is my greatest strength is my greatest weakness."
Robert Zemeckis: (Laughs.) Yeah. Didn’t Machiavelli say that?
Groucho: (Chuckles.) And I think that idea turns up in Flight as well, in that Whip being drunk and high may have been the salvation of 102 people.
Robert Zemeckis: Mm-hm.
G: It’s an unsettling idea or even a potentially destabilizing idea that maybe we have no idea what will be the right thing to do in any given circumstance.
G: So I’m curious what you think about that in terms of perhaps a worldview expressed in the film?
RZ: Well, I don’t know if I can express as a worldview. It’s just a magnificently ambiguous and ironic situation. And I guess the only worldview that I can think that it speaks to is possibly maybe sometimes the answer is there is no answer.
G: Mm-hm. Yeah.
RZ: (Chuckles.) And that becomes a very difficult question for people like Whip who are pilots because they’re supposed to do everything. Right?
G: By the book.
RZ: And they’re supposed to know everything. They’re supposed to know how to handle any given situation. You know, we put them on this elevated kind of plane you know because they’re responsible for a bunch of people flying around in a tube, right?
G: Yeah. Well, I guess in a sense it’s a movie about throwing out the manual and then almost throwing out the law book, you know, and all bets are kind of off. People have to—
G: Make their own decisions about what’s—
G: Really the right way to go in the given circumstances.
G: Which is certainly ironic and interesting more interesting than a movie with easy answers.
G: There’s a lot of issues that the film deals with. One primary one is the rationalizations of an alcoholic—
G: Who hasn’t realized yet that he is in need of help. And that’s something that touches all of our lives. We all know someone who has these kinds of—
G: Problems. And you also did a documentary dealing with drugs and alcohol.
G: I’m curious what your own experience has been of this and of knowing people who’ve stuggled with this, or if you ever had to work with someone who struggled with this, and what were you determined to depict about the subject?
RZ: Well you know, yeah, we all have loved ones and friends that have struggled with this disease. And I’ve learned that it is a disease. But the documentary that I thought was the most—the thing that you know, kind of like—understanding and trying to understand this disease and—
G: The hypocrisies that surround it as well.
RZ: Yeah. Well this—in Flight, it’s certainly this self delusion. It’s this incapability of being honest. It’s an amazing phenomenon. But also there’s an inborn kind of need to alter our waking consciousness that humans have. I mean, I talk about that in the documentary when I say little kids like to make themselves dizzy by spinning around. And it happens at a very young age. Then it leaps into different forms of spirituality and different things like that. There’s this need to get outside of our physical self somehow, you know? I don’t know. It’s really interesting.
G: Yeah. And does filmmaking do that for you these days? How do you fill that need?
G: Maybe that’s a little personal.
RZ: I would have to say yes. I gotta tell you, I mean I—I’ve never done heroin, but heroin addicts say it’s always trying to chase the euphoria of that very first hit.
RZ: I guess that’s what it’s all about. For a filmmaker, you know, you’re just always trying to chase—that first movie is such a grand exhilarating adventure, and you’re always just trying to replicate that. You’re always looking for that. But it happens in small fleeting moments in that, when something’s really working, you know, when you really pull something off, it’s very satisfying.
G: Yeah. Well, I guess moving into mo-cap must have been invigorating for that reason: because you got to rediscover yourself as a director. I read something you said about "It was like running theatre workshops."
RZ: Well, yes. Because that’s—what’s great about the performance capture and the mo-cap is that you can—when you work with the actor, that’s all you do all day long. And you get to do scenes like theatre. You get to do a scene from beginning to end, and the actors—they set the pace, and they feed off each other, and you don’t have to break it up for coverage, and you don’t have to shoot things out of continuity, and you get to just let the scene bring on its rhythm and you get to—and then you work with them all day long.
G: Yeah. And that childlike sense of play and pure imagination, it’s gotta be invigorating for them as well.
G: As a licensed pilot, obviously this was a project you brought a lot of know-how to—even in the subject matter. And I’m curious what you think about today’s airline infrastructure. The movie reminds us of something we don’t like to think about: this kind of "behind the curtain" of the human frailty of the people in whom we trust our lives. Do you think it’s more dangerous to fly today? Are there more broken planes? Are there lesser controls?
RZ: Oh, I don’t have any opinion about that. I actually—I believe flying is extremely safe. And that’s why, when something happens, it’s a giant news story because it’s so rare. But, um, and it is—I mean, I can speak to—I find this really fascinating. I can speak to general aviation more than I can to the airline industry.
RZ: So what I found in—and what I love about flying—I love—you said the word, the "infrastructure." I love being able to play with the big infrastructure. It might be—and I don’t know, maybe nuclear power plants—but as far as human endeavor, it’s one of the most seriously thought-out things that humans have ever attempted to do. I mean they work really hard at attempting to do the impossible, which is perfect it. So it’s really fascinating. I mean, the airlines—people who—not airlines, but the aeronautic industry really wants to make it perfect, although it’s never gonna be possible. So in general aviation, every year, we get these reports, and they’re always...in the country, an average of, like, thirty general-aviation fatalities.
RZ: They can’t get it to zero.
RZ: It just—for some reason—
G: It’s the unpredictability of of nature and weather and—
RZ: It’s everything, yeah. They can’t get it to zero.
G: Yeah. But it’s a noble pursuit.
RZ: It’s a noble pursuit. And they work at it really, really hard. But it just—there’s just that human fallibility that, you know, some guy's going to get in his plane and run out of gas. It’s just always —it’s always gonna happen, you know?
G: I want to talk a little bit about your approach to telling this story. There’s some bold tonal shifts in the film, right?
G: Where we’ll be in an intense moment of drama, then suddenly it’s humorous. Like when John Goodman comes in to treat his friend.
G: And then contributing to that maybe is also the use of source music to kind of snap us into a mood. Can you talk a little bit about those choices and to what degree maybe they were found in the editing room, or was it always part of the design to do those scenes that way?
RZ: Well, the only piece of music that was suggested in the screenplay was—
G: "Feelin' Alright"?
RZ: "Gimme Shelter." And then I ran with that because, you know, the source music I always felt was—always came from the John Goodman character. Whip doesn’t have source music. He doesn’t have enough soul to have his own music. So that grew out of Goodman. So that’s why. And then the Stones and all that just felt right. The humor was always in the screenplay, as well. Obviously, when you have a magnificent actor like John Goodman, he just ratchets it up. He’s got perfect comedy timing. But the sprinkling of very ironic humor—and the reason why it’s so funny, of course, is, like anything that’s funny, it’s always truthful. So that was always in the screenplay, and it was something that I just felt like it’s the most natural thing in the world for it to be there.
G: Mm-hm. Talking of music, too, you’re obviously a Beatles fan. I’m a Beatles fan. So I wanted to ask you about—your first film was a Beatles almost-music video of sorts—
G: And then I Wanna Hold Your Hand, and then you’ve been working on developing [a motion-capture remake of] Yellow Submarine, which I guess you’re shopping now, right?
RZ: No, I’m not gonna to do that.
G: You’re not going to do that. Okay, that’s—
RZ: No, I’m not gonna do a remake.
G: Can you talk about that progression there a bit? And I’m curious if you ever made contact with the band over the years.
RZ: Oh yeah. I’ve met—I’ve been fortunate enough to meet everybody but John Lennon.
RZ: I’ve had great conversations with them.
RZ: It’s been great. Yeah.
G: You made a colossal commitment to mo-cap over the last decade. And I wonder, during that period, did you feel any career pressure from your confidants or studios to abandon that or hand it off to make live-action films?
RZ: No. I think—movie making is movie making. You know, I don’t think—and I think very quickly the conversation is going to not be—it’s going to just—like the that fact that nobody’s really concerned whether that’s a digital recorder or an analog recorder. And it’s all just going to be moving images. And it’s going to be a giant digital stew. And I think what will be actually a wonderful thing that will come out of that is everything is going to get back to the writing.
G: Mm. Interesting.
G: I want to talk about the process of getting the film made here, too: Flight. I was shocked to read that this budget is your smallest since Used Cars, adjusted for inflation.
G: And that could only be possible by—I think you mentioned that you and Denzel Washington deferred your fees, I guess.
G: Is that right?
RZ: Of course. Right.
G: So hopefully, presumably, you guys have a deal whereby if the film is profitable, you’ll get paid, right?
RZ: Yeah. It would be nice, yeah.
G: There are certain things you are able to do, like take advantage of tax credits in Georgia and such. But on the other hand, you also made it a decision for the—I guess you kind of drew a line in the sand where you said "I really want to shoot this as much in continuity as possible," which must have been a challenge—
RZ: But the word "as possible." But obviously, there are things that, you know, "as much as possible"—I mean, yeah, why not? Nothing’s worse—really worse than having to do the last scene of the movie on the first day.
G: (Chuckles.) Yeah.
RZ: But the reason that I suggested that is because we understand that this is ultimately a character piece. And so we’ve got to give the cast as much as we can in terms of letting them, you know, find the character rather than to have to step on the set, like I said, and shoot it in reverse order. But, you know, at the end of the day, there’s always something that takes precedence over that. You can’t be that—you can’t really, ever really pull that off—except in performance capture. Then you can. (Chuckles.) That’s exactly how we made performance capture movies.
G: Right. I also wanted to ask you about the story sessions you had—I guess you would call it, or the text work sitting in a conference table with you and the writer John Gatins and Denzel Washington. Was that at Washington’s behest, or was that your idea? Is that something you commonly do?
RZ: I always do that and I never even—it’s interesting—
G: Seems like a great way to set the tone.
RZ: Yeah, but you know, it’s not like I said, "So here’s what I’d like to do, and I would like you to—" It was just like we just did it. And I think it’s more common than not. And I think that—especially if you’re doing a piece like this—because everybody wants to get on the same page; we all want to get on the set making the same movie.
G: Yeah. All right. Well, it’s been great to talk to you.
RZ: Well, thank you. I appreciate it. Thank you. I hope you have some good stuff.