Last night at The Aero in Santa Monica, Robert Zemeckis hosted a screening of his newest film: the awards-bait Flight. All weekend The Aero has been hosting a retrospective of Zemeckis and his classic films: Romancing the Stone, Used Cars, Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Castaway. Last night – the final night of the retrospective – Zemeckis was on hand to discuss the Denzel Washington starring ‘adult’ picture. Much has been made of Zemeckis’ return to live action and how this is his most serious film — perhaps in part due to the subject matter: alcoholism, drug abuse, sins of the father, etc… But Flight feels at one with the rest of Zemeckis’ filmography — in that all his films tend to focus on overconfident people (Marty Mcfly, Ellie Arroway, Whip Whitaker) whose resolves are challenged by extraordinary circumstances (an impromptu trip to the past, aliens, a plane crash).
The Q&A with Zemeckis veered from topic to topic – covering Zemeckis’ own love of aviation to how he approaches actors to why he hates being on set. For highlights from the conversation, click through to the jump.
Highlights from the Zemeckis Q&A:
Zemeckis noted his affinity for flying. As a pilot himself, he “likes being able to use a big infrastructure… be[ing] in this big thing.” Although he admitted that both his films which feature planes (Flight and Castaway) have spectacular plane crashes. “[These films]” he joked “will never ever be seen on a plane.”
On what drew Zemeckis to the script: It was Denzel’s character Whip above all else. The duality of a guy being in charge of a plane and responsible for all these lives whilst at the same time being completely irresponsible. “You don’t want to think your surgeon is having a bad day.” If there’s one thing in a screenplay that draws Zemeckis — “You have to have a character arc… Sometimes it may not even be the main character. Marty Mcfly and Forrest Gump don’t [change], but the characters around them do.”
On the performances in Flight: Zemeckis took exception to the notion of Denzel Washington as a inner hold-it-all-back actor. “He put it all out there [in Flight]. There’s zero vanity in the performance.” And on John Goodman’s brief but memorable comic turn – “It’s all there in the screenplay.” Zemeckis added that he doesn’t understand why movies have to be exclusive — dramas purely dramatic, comedies comedic –an intermingling of the two always being the most preferable of options.
“Good directing” he stated, “is good writing and good casting. [You] should never cast anyone if you have any doubt. Don’t think you as a director can make it work.” When on set, it’s “up to the actor to bring the performance.”
Of course technology and film became a topic of conversation for the filmmaker renowned for pushing the envelope in the field. Zemeckis confided that in his ordinary life, he doesn’t do “technical things anywhere else.” He added, “[Film’s] all about illusion. When I was a kid I loved action, war, horror, monster movies… Anything with special effects. I was fascinated with how’d they do that.” Zemeckis loves using “the newest tools to present the story.” But he also quickly admonished against tinkering with the effects of his older films. Film isn’t just an entertainment or a story but “a historical document”. It’s of paramount importance to preserve this historical accuracy.
Zemeckis seemed slightly annoyed when asked about transitioning back to live action films (his last three pictures The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol have all been computer animated). “I didn’t go anywhere” Zemeckis opined “I just didn’t find a [good] script for a live action film.” Zemeckis stated that he loves all film — whether a moving image captured on an iphone, a digitally captured picture, an animated movie or a lens shot film. “Making movies is all the same — it’s about telling a story.” To Zemeckis there was no transition because he’s never stopped telling stories.
Music has always played an important role in Zemeckis’ work. In Flight, the opening Joe Cocker number ‘Feelin’ Alright’ (played to Denzel’s ‘morning routine’) was the director’s idea; whilst John Goodman’s ‘Gimme Shelter’ intro was writer’s John Gatins. Zemeckis stated that choosing music for film is a long process — “a few you have early, others much later in post production.” Forrest Gump – arguably the most musically eclectic of Zemeckis’ films – happened “right before the record industry collapsed” so it was easier to obtain a wide array of songs. Zemeckis stated that he approached the music in Gump as if “there’s a radio always on” reflecting the specific time period. “[Forrest Gump] is an American story so only American music… well there was a little Neil Young — so some Canadian [music]… I [guess] it’s a North American story.”
On frequent collaborator Tom Hanks (Castaway, The Polar Express, Forrest Gump), Zemeckis was effusive in his praise. Hanks “is one of those amazing actors who can literally be standing on his mark telling a joke… The A.D. will run up and say [camera] rolling. He’ll stop the joke, shoot the scene and the minute cut is yelled go right on back to finishing the joke…” Zemeckis lauded Hanks as a performer of “genius level versatility”.
When making a movie, Zemeckis’ least favorite part is being on set. He noted his love for both pre-production and post – but during shooting, “it’s all about survival.” “Shooting is an exercise — an hourly compromise” he lamented “I always feel depressed at the end of the shooting day… It’s always rough and brutal.”
Finally, Zemeckis shared a story of ‘advice’ he received when just starting out in the industry. He had just graduated from USC Film School with his short film. He began to show it around to various producers — finally landing a screening with fellow USC graduate George Lucas. Lucas watched Zemeckis’ short, brought him into his office, inquired ‘So I assume you want to be a filmmaker?’ Zemeckis replied – ‘Of course — How do you do it?’ Lucas looked at the young burgeoning filmmaker – offering only one word: “…Somehow.”
Zemeckis’ current film Flight can be seen in theaters everywhere (but probably not on any planes).