Interview: Robert Zemeckis talks ‘Flight’

Robert Zemeckis and Denzel Washington on the set of Flight

(L to R) Robert Zemeckis and Denzel Washington on the set of ‘Flight’, from Paramount Pictures. © 2012 Paramount Pictures. Photo credit: Robert Zuckerman. All Rights Reserved.

This interview was originally posted on Criticize This!

From the Back to the Future trilogy to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Forrest Gump, Robert Zemeckis is one of the most visionary and influential filmmakers of the last 30 years. He’s crafted numerous memorable characters and created pop culture phenomenons, and is up there with the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas for defining an entire generation through his filmography.

Always on the cutting edge of technology, Zemeckis took a few years off from making live action films in order to focus on motion capture, a technique that allows filmmakers to direct real actors as their movements are being captured and animated. The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol all used this method to mix reviews, with most critics complaining the characters appeared hollow.

Returning to live action with Flight, starring Denzel Washington as a pilot with a drug and alcohol problem being blamed for a horrific plane crash, Zemeckis makes it known he has not lost his touch and proves once again what a great director he is. It’s intense and exciting, and if you weren’t scared of flying before, you will be after.

Criticize This! spoke with Zemeckis about the film, what his views on remakes are, and where he sees Hollywood going in the future. Read our Q&A below.

Flight is an R rated thriller aimed at adults, something of a rarity these days. Were you influenced by films of the ‘60s and ‘70s when setting out to make it?

They don’t make movies like this anymore. They just don’t. I was influenced by everything.  I watched a lot of movies that were made before I was born. Once in awhile I’ll find myself designing a shot and I’ll be able to say “This is like that scene that Coppola did in The Godfather.” But as far as finding some sort of watershed movie as a style, I can’t put my finger on that.

For the last few years you’ve been working solely in animation and motion capture. Why back to live action for Flight?

I never swore off live action, but 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 they’re not going to be categorized anymore, it will all be virtual. But right now everyone tries to keep everything separate. It was the screenplay which I thought was magnificent and it shouldn’t be a digital movie, it should be live action.

What made you cast Denzel in this role?

You can’t not watch Denzel. He has that great gravitas. Anything he plays in  you can’t take your eyes off him. You like him and you want to like him. He’s charming.

How much training did Denzel go through to get the pilot part down?

I don’t 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 you’re talking in airplane jargon… it’s like doing a scene phonetically without understanding what you’re saying. And then talking jargon on the radio and then to the co-pilot, that’s much harder than speaking with a whole lot of people who are speaking English.

The plane crashes in Flight and Castaway are both devastatingly real. As a pilot yourself, does making these scenes ever affect you?

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 in any action sequence, you have to give it a mini story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, but we have technical advisors. We would write the scenes and have people debunk them, tell us why this or that wouldn’t work. In this case, if you invert the airplane it will fly but the engines won’t last. The engines will burn up, put that in the movie. There is just a lot of immersion and you get yourself a lot of fodder for dinner conversation.

Flight deals a lot with morality and trust. Did you and the cast discuss that side of the film often?

Endlessly. The whole movie is about morality. That’s what attracted me to it. Every single character and incident has moral ambiguity, yet it’s dramatic. Conventional wisdom says if the villain’s not wearing a black hat and the hero isn’t wearing a white hat, there can’t be drama. You have to know who the good guys are. This obviously flies in the face of that. It worked on those levels. All the characters are broken and the most fascinating character is the Don Cheadle character who’s trying to get Denzel off the charges. You could write a whole dissertation on that. It’s kind of terrifying.

Your filmography has covered a lot of ground. Are you easily bored and Is there a genre you have yet to work in?

Restless might be the right word [laughs]. I haven’t done a musical. I think I would be bored doing the same type of film over and over. I guess I don’t want to keep doing the same type of film.

Any young filmmakers interest you?

There are a couple guys. Here’s what I’m waiting for though. I’m waiting for someone to redefine the art form. I’m looking for the guy out there — hopefully they’re out there — who is going to say “This is what we have to do now”. I don’t like the idea that the old guys are still making the movies.

When do you think the art form was last redefined?

The ‘70s. That’s when there was an old guard and all of a sudden some young guys came along and that’s what I grew up on. And the films were all good. We need another golden era.

Back to the Future, Romancing the Stone, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? have all been mentioned as potential films getting remade. What are your thoughts on remakes and would you rather do a sequel than see one of your films remade?

The only remakes you should make are of really bad movies, and then you can make them better. Why would anyone remake The Godfather? That’s like the Psycho remake. How do you do that? How? I decided not to do Yellow Submarine because I don’t want to do a remake. It would have been great, that’s a movie that should have been made using digital cinema and 3-D. Audiences have a love-hate relationship with sequels. They want them but they don’t. I would do a sequel to Roger Rabbit though. I would use hand-drawn and cell animation so it would look the same. Not computers.

What’s next for you?

I don’t know. I’ve never signed on to do a movie while I’m still making a 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 conventional Hollywood wisdom, which says you’re supposed to build bridges in front of you before they burn them behind you. But I don’t care. I’m afraid I would react to what I just did. I wouldn’t have a clear mind.

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