BOP Interview: Robert Zemeckis
By Ryan Mazie
November 1, 2012
The film has moments where it deals with a variety of heavier subjects such as terminal illness, alcoholism, and drug abuse. How do you go about handling subjects that other directors can’t necessarily handle?
RZ: I think the secret of the trick is that I never spoke about it in terms of addiction or substance abuse. I always felt from the beginning that the substance abuse was a symptom of the real problem, which was this sort of emotional bankruptcy, soul sickness, disconnect from all of the other humans in [Whip’s] life. So he had to do something to anesthetize the pain, so he abused substances. But it wasn’t about that; it was about him. That’s why it feels universal in a sense, because it could’ve been about anything. It could have been about a gambling problem, a shopping problem, binging on cookies, whatever the issue may be. In my mind, it is just the symptom of what the real issue is.
All of the actors truly camouflage themselves into their roles. What is your preparation process like?
RZ: What I do is just this (gesturing to the roundtable). We just sit around and talk for quite a long time, like over a week. Some actors have notebooks, some just listen; even if they are in only a couple of scenes, they all want to be there so they get a sense of the movie that I’m making. This is the process and I always have the writer with me and we hash it out. I call it rehearsal (laughs).
When you are filming, do you have a specific vision of how you want the scene to go or do you let the actors have the freedom to embody the character’s movements for themselves?
RZ: I always come to the set with a pretty well worked out plan, but I’m flexible. Sometimes an actor will say that he prefers to be sitting than standing and I’m cool with that unless it’s like you need to be sitting to get your hand on the gun, because it is a plot point (laughs). But if it doesn’t matter to me and they’re more comfortable one way, then I’d shoot it to help them out. And a lot of times, the cameraman will say, “If we stage a scene over here we can look out this window,” and I’ll say, “Oh yeah, that’s cool.” So I’m pretty flexible.
This is your return to live action filmmaking after filming with motion capture technology over the past decade. It’s like a getting the chance to have a second introduction to a new generation of audiences.
RZ: Now what will happen is that there will be all this fury on the Internet. He’s forsaken performance capture! (laughs)
But speaking of the past, you’ve influenced a lot of today’s directors.
RZ: I don’t think so. I still think that I’m 16 years old. Of course, if they did steal from me, they’d be stealing from guys like David Lean and Hitchcock (laughs). It wouldn’t be my stuff anyway.
What were you most excited to shoot again? Those heavy dramatic scenes working with the actors or that adrenaline-pumping plane sequence?
RZ: You know, I am never excited to shoot anything. That’s the hardest part. That’s just surviving; getting through the day. I really wanted to realize the production of this screenplay and see if I could pull off some of these scenes that are just magnificent, that John wrote. That’s what I wanted to do.
What is very interesting about the screenplay is that the climax is almost at the beginning of the film and everything unravels from there.
RZ: It’s unique. It flies in the face of convention. You put the big action scene at the beginning, and naturally I was concerned about if a movie can survive that. But what ultimately happens is while that’s great spectacle, in my opinion, Denzel’s performance is an even greater spectacle.
The tracking shot of Denzel in the beginning while he is in full pilot uniform and sunglasses – how many takes do you need to capture that Denzel swagger?
RZ: (laughs) I think I maybe did four or five takes, only because we were ramping that shot; changing the pace, just for technical reasons. But Denzel did it great every time (laughs).