Interview with Robert Zemeckisby Meg Elison on Oct, 13 2012
Every movie fan dreams of getting an opportunity to ask an actor or a director how they do what they do. One of my dreams came true this week when Caliber was invited to be part of an interview with legendary director Robert Zemeckis. I joined a group of college journalists from all over the country, and we all got to ask Mr. Zemeckis (he let us all call him Bob!) about his thoughts about his upcoming film, Flight, starring Denzel Washington. I got the inside scoop on details on Flight, as well as some thoughts on Zemeckis’ earlier films and his ideas about filmmaking and the industry.
Flight is a film about Captain William Whitaker, played by Denzel, who is a commercial airline pilot. Faced with a mid-air disaster, Whitaker must save his passengers with some expert maneuvering and an emergency landing. However, after becoming the hero of the day, Whitaker is discovered to have been flying under the influence of alcohol. Zemeckis directed and co-produced the film, based on the strength of what he termed an excellent screenplay by John Gatins (Real Steel and Need for Speed). The film deals with very relevant issues about alcohol and drug use in the context of competency and safety, as well as the heart rate acceleration of a disaster film.
When asked about the technical aspects of filming a mid-air disaster, Zemeckis had some unexpected points to share.
“I myself, am an instrument rated pilot, so I’m familiar with a lot of it. And yes, we spoke to people at the airlines. We spoke to people at the NTSB, and we studied many aircraft accident—incidents… I think if you are familiar at all with the world of aviation, you will find that everything in the flying parts of the movie are very accurately depicted.”
Zemeckis is known as a director for using effects to tell the story of a film in a series of images rather than relying on dialogue. Flight is ripe for such moments, so he was asked many questions about creating the effects for this film.
“I watched a bunch of films that had plane crashes in them. You know, yes, absolutely; just to see if I could steal any tricks or see things that—I’m not going to mention any movies, but there were quite a few—well, I watched specifically any scene where planes were inverted because that was the tricky part. And there was one movie where they just kind of moussed everybody’s hair up and turned the camera upside-down. And I thought, you know, that’s not going to work. So I think I—so having seen that, and I’m not going to mention what movie that is, but yes, you learn a lot of things to do and you learn a lot of things not to do, so it’s always important to watch other movies… We have a scene in the movie where the Denzel character, Whitaker, has to invert the airplane to try to pull this airliner out of a dive, and so there’s a scene where you have to actually invert the whole aircraft. That was the trickiest to do both from a cinema standpoint and from a physical standpoint because we had to weld the airplane cabin on a gimble and turn all the passengers upside-down. So that took a lot of design and planning to do correctly.”
Denzel Washington has been asked by multiple media outlets what he did to prepare for this physically demanding and rather technical role. In an interview with The New York Times, he admitted to logging a surprising number of hours in a flight simulator to prepare for the role. He also spent time with commercial pilots, learning their routine and habits. He offered up this gem about the craft of acting: “Every little thing you use helps you create the reality. One of the pilots I was working with let me use his flight bag in the movie, so I carried that old, beat-up thing. I always say the universal comes from the specific.”
Though everyone present for the interview was excited about the upcoming release of Flight, many of us couldn’t resist asking a few questions about Zemeckis’ earlier films. One hopeful reporter, with cringing hope and obvious love in his voice, he asked, “Any chance of a Back to the Future 4?” Our favorite director answered quickly, resoundingly, “No.” Clean kill; he didn’t let the kid suffer. We can put that rumor to bed. In the same vein, he aired some good-natured contempt for the current Hollywood crop of remakes and rehashing of old themes:
“Write, write, write! I mean, I don’t know if you’ve noticed there is a lack of good screenplays. I mean, we have no good screenplays. We need to revitalize this art form by writing really interesting and clever stories. So I think that is going to be the best calling card that anyone who’s interested in getting into the film industry can have is a really great screenplay in their possession.”
During our interview, Bob Zemeckis returned time and time again to the subject of screenplays. He chose to work on Flight because he believed in the screenplay. What he wants to see most in the film industry is a fresh, new, well-written screenplay. He left us all with the distinct impression that in his mind, the play’s the thing. He returned to the story, the screenplay, whenever he was asked a technical question or about why he decided to film a certain way or chose certain techniques. Robert Zemeckis has a long and impressive oeuvre of films to his credit; his career spans across the transition from film to digital and through major upheavals in the filmmaking industry. Despite every technical detail we reporters tried to pinpoint him on, he returned always to the primacy of story. It was the most respectable position I had ever heard a director take.
My own question to Mr. Zemeckis got a very telling answer. I asked if as a director he felt himself drawn to stories of imperfect heroes. He responded thoughtfully:
“Yes, I think so, and I think that the reason for that is because most people are imperfect, and perfect heroes pretty much—well, not even—I was going to say comic book heroes, but they’re really not because even characters like Batman are very, very troubled humans. And I think that I’m drawn to those characters because those characters lend themselves to the most drama and we can all relate to them because everyone’s imperfect.”
To their credit, the L.A. colleges were up-front about their curiosity. They asked, flat-out, what Zemeckis’ advice was to new graduates trying to break into the industry. Rather than repeat his advice about screenplays, he told a short story:
“I remember I asked this exact question. When I first got out of film school, I had an audience with George Lucas. And I asked them that exact question. I said, ‘How do I become a filmmaker—I mean, a film director, George? How do I do it?’ And he said, ‘Somehow.’ And I think that’s the best advice anyone ever gave me. Somehow you just do it.”
How does a drunk pilot land a plane? How does a young screenwriter or director or actor break into the business? How does a journalist at Berkeley land an interview with a legendary director and get to write about it for the best college magazine in the nation?
Somehow, you just do it.
Flight will be released on November 2nd and is rated R. Read more and view the trailer here: http://www.paramount.com/flight