Interview with Kam Williams
Born in Chicago on May 14, 1951, Bob Zemeckis won an Academy Award for Best Director for the hugely successful “Forrest Gump.” The film’s numerous honors also included Oscars for Best Actor (Tom Hanks) and Best Picture. The Library of Congress recently selected the film to join the esteemed National Film Registry.
Zemeckis re-teamed with Hanks on the contemporary drama Cast Away, the filming of which was split into two sections, book-ending production on What Lies Beneath. Earlier in his career, Zemeckis co-wrote and directed Back to the Future, which was the top-grossing release of 1985, and for which Zemeckis landed an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
He then went on to helm Back to the Future, Part II and Part III, completing one of the most successful film trilogies ever. In addition, he directed and produced Contact, starring Jodie Foster, based on the best-selling novel by Carl Sagan; and the macabre comedy hit Death Becomes Her, starring Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis.
He also wrote and directed the box office smash Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, cleverly blending live action and animation. And he directed the action-adventure hit z, pairing Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner.
In March 2001, the USC School of Cinema-Television celebrated the opening of the Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts. This state-of-the-art facility is the country’s first fully-digital training center, and houses the latest in non-linear production and post-production equipment as well as stages, a 50-seat screening room and a USC student-run television station, Trojan Vision.
Here, he talks about his latest film, ‘Flight’, a combination special f/x and legal thriller starring Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, John Goodman and Melissa Leo.
Kam Williams: Hi Bob, thanks so much for the interview.
Bob Zemeckis: You bet.
KW: I’m honored to have this opportunity to speak with you. I loved the film and found it fascinating. I told my readers I’d be speaking with you, so I’ll be mixing my questions in with theirs. What interested you in making Flight?
BZ: I thought it was a wonderful, beautifully-written screenplay with some really interesting, complex characters, including Denzel’s, obviously. I found it to be very bold and very courageous.
KW: Did your being a pilot play into your decision to make it?
BZ: No, not at all. But I would think that just being a pilot was helpful in creating a sense of realism to the incident on the airplane.
KW: When I saw the film, I sat next to a pilot friend who explained to me that everything that was going when the plane lost its hydraulics was technically accurate. That prevented me from being at all skeptical.
BZ: Well, that’s good.
KW: Larry Greenberg asks: What did you do as a director to show Whip Whitaker’s [Denzel Washington’s character] inner struggle to the audience?
BZ: Most of the credit for that has to go to Denzel. He really has an amazing talent, and was able to evoke the inner pain that the character was dealing with on a constant basis. I think his entire performance is sort of shrouded in the internal misery that Whip was feeling.
KW: Harriet Pakula-Teweles asks: How does a director who is truly gifted in the use of special f/x prevent them from overwhelming the performances of a great actor like Denzel?
BZ: Well, I use special f/x in exactly the same way that I use a camera. They’re simply an extension of the camera, and they’re there just to complement what the actors are doing?
KW: How do you balance storyline versus special f/x?
BZ: Like I said, the special f/x are there to serve the story. Just like the camera is there to serve the story, and the cast is there to serve the story. I think that’s the only way that I approach it.
KW: Editor/Legist Patricia Turnier asks: What message do you think people will take away from Flight?
BZ: I don’t like to use that word “message.” My feeling is, if you want to send a message, you should Twitter. I think the movie is a very human story that everyone can identify with on some level and that, at the end of the day, is a very hopeful story.
KW: Patricia also says: I believe that the word “can’t” should not be addressed to people, especially children, when they share their dreams with the world. They have all their lives ahead of them and nobody can predict their destiny. I am sure that in the past you met many naysayers while you wanted to be involved in the movie industry. What is the best advice you can give to aspiring filmmakers?
BZ: Yeah, I think the best advice is to get a video camera and just start making movies, little movies… youtube videos… and write. We’re in desperate need of good screenplays.
KW: Attorney Bernadette Beekman asks: How did you achieve that breathtaking effect of a plane flying upside-down?
BZ: It’s all digital.
KW: Documentary filmmaker Kevin Williams asks: Do you feel any pressure to measure up to your ever increasingly-impressive body of work every time you make a movie?
BZ: I really can’t worry about that sort of thing. All I can do is just keep doing what I’ve been doing, which is to do movies I’m attracted to. If the screenplay is an interesting story, just go for it.
KW: Kevin has another question: What film most inspired you to become a director?
BZ: Bonnie and Clyde. I saw it when I was in high school. I was being moved emotionally, and I thought, “Well, this is pretty powerful stuff.” And I wanted to find out more about what it was a director actually did. That sort of put me on the path.
KW: Professor/Author/Documentary director Hisani Dubose says: I love all your movies but found Cast Away especially fascinating as a great example of product integration with FedEx. I would like to know if FedEx was part of the original script.
BZ: It was, but not because of any product placement. As a matter of fact, FedEx didn’t give us any money at all because, if you remember the movie, the plane crashes. But they understood the reality of what it was we were doing, and said they were okay with it as long as the accident wasn’t caused by the incompetence of any FedEx employees. So, they were cooperative with us, which was great because it brought a realism to the movie to use an actual corporation rather than a fictional one.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
BZ: No, I’m good.
KW: The Sanaa Lathan question: What excites you?
BZ: Getting a hold of a really good screenplay.
KW: Dante Lee, author of “Black Business Secrets,” asks: What was the best business decision you ever made, and what was the worst?
BZ: My best business decision was to get all my money out of the stock market. My worst? I honestly don’t know how to answer that one. I don’t think I’ve made a bad one yet, other than something small. I’ve been pretty fortunate in that regard.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
BZ: My father.
KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
BZ: A thousand more wishes.
KW: The Judyth Piazza question: What key quality do you believe all successful people share?
BZ: A need to express themselves creatively.
KW: The Tavis Smiley question: How do you want to be remembered?
BZ: As a good father.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Bob, and best of luck with the film.
BZ: Thanks Kam, I appreciate it.