At the back end of a generation of film-school brats that flooded Hollywood in the ’70s, director Robert Zemeckis, like his mentor Steven Spielberg, emerged with a rare combination of superior craft and natural commercial instincts. After debuting with 1978’s I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Zemeckis and his writing partner, Bob Gale, went on an incredible tear in the ’80s, starting with the raunchy 1980 screwball comedy Used Cars, then graduating to a run of popular and acclaimed Hollywood entertainments, including the trifecta of 1984’s Romancing The Stone, 1985’s Back To The Future, and 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit. From there, Zemeckis’ growing interest in special effects led him from escapist fare like 1992’s Death Becomes Her and 2000’s What Lies Beneath to more ambitious statements like 1997’s Contact, 2000’s Castaway, and the 1994 Best Picture winner Forrest Gump, for which he also collected a Best Director Oscar. With advances in digital technology, Zemeckis and the effects company ImageMovers Digital attempted three cutting-edge experiments in performance-capture animation, with varying degrees of success: 2004’s The Polar Express, 2007’s Beowulf, and 2009’s A Christmas Carol.
Marking a strong return to live-action after a decade-long absence, Zemeckis’ new film, Flight, stars Denzel Washington as an alcoholic commercial-airline pilot who undergoes scrutiny—from within and without—after he crash-lands a defective plane. Though few pilots would have had the skill to land the plane in his situation, a toxicology report reveals that Washington did it while inebriated, presenting legal problems both for him and the airline. As his union rep (Bruce Greenwood) and lawyer (Don Cheadle) work to spike the report, Washington makes a fitful effort to fight his addiction, all while perpetuating the lie that he performed his job soberly and heroically. He also enters into a codependent relationship with a heroin addict (Kelly Reilly) he meets at the hospital. Zemeckis recently spoke to The A.V. Club about sympathizing with a reckless character, working on a budget, and his mostly unchecked enthusiasm over digital filmmaking.
The A.V. Club: There’s been a lot of talk about the degree to which we sympathize with Denzel Washington’s character in this movie. Was it important in your mind that we do? Where does that sympathy arise?
Robert Zemeckis: It’s very important that we do, and I think that sympathy arises from the fact that we can understand that he suffers from kind of a universal problem—it isn’t really specific to one type of person. I mean, he’s flawed. And I think we’re all imperfect, so we sympathize with him because we don’t want to be in a situation that’s as dramatic as his is, but we understand that maybe it’s a universal idea that we’re all flawed in some way.
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AVC: And did the circumstances of the flight play into that as well, the fact that it yielded a good result?
RZ: Well yeah, he’s good at his job. He’s flawed, but he’s also very good at his job.
AVC: Given your experience as a screenwriter, what kind of relationship do you have with the writers on your films based on someone else’s screenplays?
RZ: I keep them close by. I don’t discard them like most directors do in Hollywood. I truly don’t understand this revolving-door writing thing. I think it makes no sense. I always keep the writer nearby, and in this case, the first thing I asked John [Gatins, the screenwriter of Flight] was if he’d be willing to come with me and be with me every day on the set, because I just thought, “Well, this screenplay came from his brain, and so when I’m in the heat of the moment dealing with stuff, I want to be able to have somebody who I can trust to know that the decisions that I make are on the beam,” if you will.
AVC: So what kind of shape was this script in when you got it?
RZ: All scripts need a lot of work. And they always have to keep changing as you start making them three-dimensional, you start layering the cast on and you start layering locations on and you start having budgetary issues. So it’s always going through changes. But the big stuff was always there: The characters were there; the situation was there; the beginning, the middle, and the end were there; most of the scenes were there. And they just all had to be polished and honed and honed and honed.
AVC: How did it arrive to you, this script? Had you just heard about it?
RZ: No, it arrived in the system. I probably average reading a script a day. It arrived, and it was great. Most aren’t good. When you read it and go, “Wow, this is really interesting,” that’s always a good sign.
AVC: Your scripts and films have always been precisely orchestrated in a way that suggests either a lot of work on your part before the cameras start rolling, or a lot of time on the set getting things right. How would you describe it?
RZ: The first. You don’t have any time to do anything on the set. It’s just survival. When you’re on the set, all you end up doing is compromising your vision. You just strip away. So you have to frontload everything, because you know that just by the nature of the beast, you’re not going to be able to do what you want to do.
AVC: So you don’t see the actual filming as a place of opportunity?
RZ: Only with the cast. Like in the case of a movie with a cast like this, and obviously with Denzel [Washington], where it’s just astonishing to watch him come up with these choices. It’s just fantastic, and that’s the real opportunity. And that’s what it should be.
AVC: There have been so many depictions of alcohol addiction. How did you want to set this one apart? What insight into alcoholism did Gatins’ script provide you?
RZ: The script pretty much laid it out. I think the thing that makes it unique is, from the very beginning, when I read the screenplay, I realized that the alcoholism or the substance abuse was a symptom of a deeper problem. And I think it could have been any kind of mood-altering thing that the character would have done. It could have been food, gambling, it could have been anything. And I think that what I saw very vividly when I read the script was, “Here’s a guy who had a soul-sickness. He was isolated. He was apart from everybody. He wouldn’t even answer his phone.” Now, I’m sure the drug use amplifies that. But I don’t think it was the cause of the problem.
AVC: How did you want the other addict, Kelly Reilly’s character, to figure into this?
RZ: It starts off as a codependent relationship. But the thing I think is interesting about the relationship is that she’s the healthier one. And I thought that was beautifully written, in that here are these two people who suffer from the same disease, and they’re in this relationship because it’s familiar. But one of them is on a track to get healthy, and the other one is actually crashing. And so it was an impossible relationship. But I thought it was very, very elegantly written.
AVC: What was the casting of that role like? Were you looking for a relative unknown?
RZ: That’s an old-fashioned Hollywood story, because the last thing I was going to start looking is for an English actress. But Kelly got her hands on the screenplay; she found a scene, she put herself on tape, and just sent it, cold, to my casting director. And my casting director said, “You gotta see this.” I looked at it, and I’m like, “Wow. She’s nailing it. Let’s meet her. Bring her in here.” And that’s how she got the part.
AVC: For a production of this scale, Flight was relatively frugal in its budget. What kind of choices did you have to make to get it done at that level?
RZ: You have to make one major compromise: You’ve got to make the movie fast. The most expensive thing is always your shooting days. If the industry were not on the kind of thin ice it’s on right now, a 70-day shoot for a movie of this emotional intensity would have been comfortable. We had to do it for 45. But I had a cast that stepped up every single moment of every single day, so it was great. But that was the nervous part, because in a movie like this, you’re really walking on this razor’s edge, and you have to make these performance choices that are perfect, so it’s a shame to have to do those quickly. But it turned out okay.
AVC: Did you have to assemble the cast beforehand? Was there a lot of rehearsal?
RZ: Oh yeah. But when I say “rehearsal,” we just basically sit for a long time—many days—around a reading table, and we just talk. And we really get down into it and work everything out. And that’s the only way you can make a movie inexpensively, is to have everything ready ahead of time.
AVC: How did that figure into the logistics of the flight, the film’s big effects sequence? What was it like to plan that out?
RZ: That’s pretty basic stuff. Garden-variety stuff. We pre-visualized everything just to have it laid out. You can’t just wing it. You’ve got to shoot what you plan. You can’t start reinventing everything. Because it’s just so hard, everything’s pre-rigged, everything’s ready to go. You’ve got to make your choices ahead of time, and then you’ve pretty much got to stick with them.
AVC: This is a return to live-action moviemaking after three films that were wholly digital. Was there some readjustment there? Did you miss some of the control you were accustomed to having?
RZ: Yeah, you lose tons of control, because you’re shooting in reality. So you have no control over the weather, for example. You have no control over whether it’s going to be sunny, cloudy, all that stuff that’s a pain in the ass. But you know that’s what you’re walking into. So it wasn’t really an adjustment that had to be made. You have to just recalibrate your expectations.
AVC: But there’s still a lot of digital work in this film. It’s just subtle.
RZ: Well, it’s a tool. The digital tool that can make an actress’ iris look really harrowing is the same tool you use to create an alien. It’s just done for whatever the story needs. So you use the same tool to shade a subtle grayness into the sky because you want it to look moody, as to create an alien-planet landscape.
AVC: Are you conscious of where that line might be, where an image goes from seeming natural to not seeming natural? Is that the danger of that kind of manipulation?
RZ: Of course, but it’s the same process you use to build a set. It’s the same process you use when you’re talking about a fabric to put in a piece of wardrobe. Everything is choices. Making movies is choices. Just always making choices. And hopefully you’re inspired by the screenplay to make the right choices. Because every decision comes from that. Every single choice you make comes from what was written in that screenplay. And if I don’t have an answer, if the set designer comes to me and says, “What color should that door be?” and I can’t give them an answer, then I know something’s wrong with the script. Same with an actor. If an actor comes to me and says, “Why am I saying this?” I have to have a very specific answer for him, and if I go, “Gee, you know what? I don’t really know,” then there’s going to be a problem with that scene as it’s written.
AVC: One of the more compelling aspects of Flight is that you have two characters, played by Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle, who are doing whatever it takes to cover up this toxicology report. But they’re not villainous.
RZ: I think it’s real, because the whole piece is washed in this sort of gray moral ambiguity. And these guys represent these institutions that have their own agendas. And they’re very single-minded. It’s like, “We have to do our job. We have to get this guy off. We have to fix this.” And neither of those guys even consider the ultimate repercussion of their actions, which is they might actually be helping to kill this guy. I thought that was very real. I thought, “That’s what goes on in life all the time.”
AVC: But you do get a sense from both of them that this is fairly unseemly.
RZ: Yeah, they don’t like [Washington’s character]. Or Cheadle definitely doesn’t like him, but the Greenwood character is really interestingly conflicted, because he knows more than anyone that this is apples and oranges. This guy has a drinking problem, but that plane was defective. Here’s the thing about the story: In their own misguided way, everybody’s looking for the truth. That’s what I thought was very fascinating about it.
AVC: You’ve been on the forefront of the digital movement. Are you pleased with the way it’s been integrated, both in terms of filmmaking and also in exhibition?
RZ: Well, I think it’s great that it’s happening, finally, both in the production and in exhibition, that we’re eliminating film. That’s a wonderful thing, in my opinion. [Film is] good, it’s been around for over a hundred years, it’s done its job, time to move on. It’s 2012. But there are also things I don’t like that are happening, like these 3-D conversions. I think that’s bullshit, as Hollywood likes to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. A 3-D movie has to be planned. It can’t be something that’s decided after it’s done. That would be like making a movie and then saying, “Yeah, let’s release this in black and white.” And then desaturate it.
AVC: There becomes a kind of confusion among moviegoers about what kind of experience they’re expecting.
RZ: And what it does is, it just pisses everybody off. Because you’re paying a premium to see a 3-D movie, but it’s not really designed to be 3-D, so the experience is less. When you see a movie that’s designed to be a 3-D movie, like Avatar or [The Adventures Of] Tintin or Mars Needs Moms, those are beautiful theater 3-D experiences because the filmmaker said they’re going to make a 3-D movie from day one, and everything’s designed to do that.