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Q&A: Robert Zemeckis

Robert Zemeckis
Art Streiber

After a rough few years, the director is redeemed in "Flight's" success but isn't quite ready to sing the praises of a "terrified" Hollywood. "I'm not going to respond to anything a critic says."

At 61, Robert Zemeckis has a track record few directors can match: He has racked up nearly $4 billion in worldwide box office; his 1994 film, Forrest Gump, won six Oscars, including best picture and best director; and he has pioneered groundbreaking techniques in just about every movie he has made. He also has faced constant skepticism. When he invented a new way to meld live-action and cartoon characters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the animation community predicted the picture would be "the Ishtar of animation." That technology now is standard. When he became enamored with motion capture for The Polar Express, some derided the "dead eye" look, but the film grossed more than $300 million worldwide, and the technique came into common use. Then the 2011 film Mars Needs Moms, produced by Zemeckis, reportedly inflicted a $125 million loss on Disney, which led to the shuttering of his San Rafael, Calif.-based ImageMovers Digital animation facility. It is easy to view Flight, with a budget of $31 million, as Zemeckis' contrite return to live action. But the director doesn't see it that way.

THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: You've pioneered a lot of new technology in movies and taken a lot of heat. Do you have a feeling you're ahead of your time? Does it bother you that when James Cameron did Avatar with motion capture and in 3D, he was hailed as a visionary?

Robert Zemeckis: You know, I don't really think about it that much. I really don't. I've just always felt that's the way everybody treats me. It's like everybody's just skeptical. I do feel that. I do feel that it's gotten worse in the Internet age.

THR: How so?

Zemeckis: Well, look, it's human nature to fear new ideas. That's just the way it is. People, you know, were afraid of steam trains. People were afraid of cars. People were afraid of airplanes. But now we have this gigantic worldwide thing where people can ventilate their fear. So what I fear is that new ideas and innovations will be strangled in the crib because of the Internet. It's so huge, and everybody can criticize the idea before it even takes its first breath. I can't imagine how horrible it would have been in the Roger Rabbit days had we had an Internet.

THR: I'm going to read you a quote from Manohla Dargis in The New York Times. Do you read your own reviews?

Zemeckis: Mostly not, no. But go ahead.

THR:  She says, "To watch Mr. Zemeckis working fluidly in consort with Mr. Washington's ferocious performance is to regret this director's last technologically determined decade."

Zemeckis: What do you want me to say to that? I'm not going to respond to anything that a critic says.

THR: But do you feel that you've been in the weeds of technology in the past 10 years? There's a feeling that your movies became less emotional and more up in your head.

Zemeckis: They became more intellectual?

THR: Cerebral -- let's put it that way. If I were to talk to somebody about you, I think they might say, "Bob is so interested in the technology, all that sweetness and romance of Romancing the Stone and Back to the Future was there less and less."

Zemeckis: Maybe the sweetness and light went away because I just sort of grew, got older. I mean, it has nothing to do with technology, does it? It seems like it's presented to me that because movies are digital, they're less than. And I come to the conversation saying, "Hey, a moving image is a moving image. A movie is a movie is a movie."

THR: What's the status of your Yellow Submarine remake?

Zemeckis: I'm not going to do Yellow Submarine. My champion to do it was [former chairman of the Disney studio] Dick Cook. And I don't want to do any remakes. You're behind the eight ball from the get-go. And how many movies have I got left in me, really? I'm getting kind of old. So I don't think I should take those years out of my life and do a remake.

THR: How do you process losing ImageMovers Digital?

Zemeckis: Well, when Dick Cook left, all things Dick Cook had to go. It's very easy to make sense of it. And here's the thing: I was able to make Flight for $31 million because I put together this magnificent team of digital artists when ImageMovers Digital was up and running. Young, unbelievably talented, hungry guys. I was able to do 300 digital shots for very little money. Everything that I've been doing in the digital cinema for the last 10 years actually allowed me to make this movie that no one considers to be digital for $31 million, which happens to have over 300 CG shots in it.

THR: How did the conversation with Paramount go about making this film?

Zemeckis: That conversation was very, very straightforward, and the budget was not an issue. It was a very responsible way to make this movie. It was very apparent to me that everyone at Paramount really wanted to make this movie. They like these kinds of movies.

THR: "These kinds"?

Zemeckis: Complex drama that's got moral ambiguity.

THR: Nobody at the studios wants to make those kinds of movies.

Zemeckis: No, no, no, no. They wish they could make those kinds of movies. They like to see those kinds of movies. They're terrified to make those movies because they're very difficult to connect with at the marketplace. So the only responsible way to make a movie like that is to say, "It has to be made for very little money."

THR: What about the material was so compelling?

Zemeckis: The screenplay was so good. It was something that allowed me to feel that kind of filmmaker passion. It was a challenge. It was, "Can I pull this off?" It's got no bad guys. It's got no good guys. It's got no obvious ticking-bomb plot, and yet it was extremely compelling and very dramatic. I thought that the character Denzel plays -- that his substance abuse is a symptom of a deeper problem. What I saw in the screenplay was a story about a guy who's just completely disconnected. He's isolated from everybody in the world around him and doesn't know what to do.

THR: Is it too Dr. Freud to say, "Bob, is this you?"

Zemeckis: I think the last thing that any filmmaker or artist can do is to try to figure out why they select certain movies that they make. You could say that, yeah, it's the extension of Back to the Future.

THR: You're going to have to walk me through that.

Zemeckis: Marty is in a land where he's isolated. He's in another time zone. So you can go all the way back to that.

THR: I'm going to read you a quote that you gave to The New York Times. "I'm really tired of making these huge, over $100 million movies where they literally mean life and death for a studio. It's really rough making these expensive movies. Everyone is hysterical."

Zemeckis: That's correct. When you spend $160 million to make a movie, spending another $100 million to market it is kind of good business. So that's $260 million, and you have to gross worldwide like, $500 million to break even. So of course everyone's running around hysterical because there's only maybe three movies a year that do that.

THR: Are the studios committing suicide?

Zemeckis: I don't know. … My own opinion is that it's just too hard to get any traction on a really unique and clever idea. … I don't believe I could make Cast Away today.

THR: It's just too "not classifiable"?

Zemeckis: It's just too "not classifiable." I see the really interesting stuff migrating to cable television. Cable television is like the second golden age of cinema, which was the 1970s. It all comes down to the money. … If a movie's got to gross $400 million or $500 million worldwide to break even, then everybody has to go see that movie. And if everybody has to go see the movie, then by definition the movie can't be about anything. So you can't try anything. It's not anyone's fault. It is what it is.

THR: But now you've made Flight, which turned out to be an adult drama that is working.

Zemeckis: My biggest fear was, it was going to be the final nail in the coffin. If nobody showed up for this movie, then it would have been the end of all adult dramas probably forever. Now something you should probably write about is whether this will be considered a fluke by the rest of the industry, or will this be embraced and studios will say, "Hey, maybe there's a way that we can actually climb out of the presold title thing a little bit here."

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THE $4 BILLION MAN YOU PROBABLY FORGOT ABOUT: When it comes to blockbuster directors, Robert Zemeckis doesn’t often get spoken of in the same sentence as James Cameron, Michael Bay or Christopher Nolan, but a quick look at his filmography -- and its worldwide grosses -- should prompt a reassessment.

  • 1978: I Wanna Hold Your Hand -- $1.9 million
  • 1980: Used Cars -- $11.7 million
  • 1984: Romancing the Stone -- $86.6 million
  • 1985: Back to the Future -- $381.1 million
  • 1988: Who Framed Roger Rabbit -- $329.8 million
  • 1989: Back to the Future Part II -- $332 million
  • 1990: Back to the Future Part III -- $244.5 million
  • 1992: Death Becomes Her -- $149 million
  • 1994: Forrest Gump -- $677.4 million
  • 1997: Contact -- $171.1 million
  • 2000: What Lies Beneath -- $291.4 million
  • 2000: Cast Away -- $429.6 million
  • 2004: The Polar Express -- $286.9 million
  • 2007: Beowulf -- $196.4 million
  • 2009: A Christmas Carol -- $325.3 million
  • 2012: Flight -- $47.7 million (still in theaters)
  • TOTAL: $3,962,530,003