This interview was originally broadcast on Nov. 29, 2012. This interview features highlights from the original.
Director, producer and screenwriter Robert Zemeckis is known for the Back to the Future films — which marked his arrival onto the Hollywood scene in the mid-1980s — as well as Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Forrest Gump. His latest film, Flight, which is now out on DVD, stars Denzel Washington as William "Whip" Whitaker, a heroic airline pilot with a dark secret.
Early in the film, the plane Whitaker is piloting takes a terrifying plunge after a mechanical malfunction. Whitaker — in a daring maneuver that others are unable to later re-create — manages to flip the plane over, fly it upside down and successfully avert a full-blown disaster. He eventually crash-lands the plane while saving scores of lives.
This dramatic action sequence may be the scene-setter, but the movie subsequently becomes a character drama. Upon waking in the hospital, Whitaker learns that toxicology reports were taken while he was unconscious — and they've revealed that he had alcohol and cocaine in his system when the airplane malfunctioned. He then faces charges and a hearing from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
And he has to face himself: Will he hold himself accountable?
"Basically what he and I spoke about was the character's level of denial," Zemeckis says about working with Washington. "That's what you're ultimately seeing in this performance, and that's what I think he did so brilliantly in his portrayal."
Zemeckis, whose films include the motion-capture animated movies A Christmas Carol, Beowulf and The Polar Express, is known for his use of new technologies. That said, he recognizes the pitfalls of jumping to embrace them too quickly.
"[Y]ou can go back and see how ... in the final years of the silent cinema, where the art of cinema storytelling was so magnificent, and then when they invented the microphone and sound, everything got really static," he says. "And it all had to be reinvented again. ... So what we do is we overuse [technologies] and call attention to them because they're just so much fun to have. And then ... we learn how to use them in the way that all tools of cinema should be used, which is to make them invisible."
On how Washington prepared for his role
"He had his own guide of what he was going to do, and he never really was specific with me about it. But he kind of gave me a sense of where he was going to be ... performing, like he's like really drunk, or he's just-got-a-sort-of-a-slight-buzz-on kind of a thing. One thing he did tell me that he did do, though, is he watched a lot of YouTube videos of drunks ... I guess you can go online and just watch drunks, and I don't think they know if they're being videotaped. But he would come to me and say, 'You know, I watched this one where this guy was trying to put his shoe on, and he was working on this for like, you know, 10 minutes to get this shoe on, and he was out there on the street, and he couldn't get his foot in his shoe.'"
On the subtext of the script
"I think that's one of the places where the film works on another level is: How much, as a society, do we allow this kind of reckless behavior ... this sort of irresponsible behavior? ... [E]verybody's got an agenda, you know. It's very fascinating in the movie. The NTSB has an agenda, the pilots' union has an agenda, the airline owner has an agenda. Everybody's got an agenda, and no one's actually ever, you know, thinking about, 'Well, what would actually be good for this human — or the people who perished on the airplane?' "
On learning that such a thing as film school exists
"I was watching the Johnny Carson show, and his guest that night was Jerry Lewis, and I remember Johnny saying, 'So, Jerry, I understand you're teaching school,' and Jerry said, 'That's right. I'm teaching cinema at the USC School of Cinema.' And [when] I heard 'School of Cinema,' I never thought anything like that even existed. ... I remember literally jumping up to my feet in the living room and thinking, 'My God, a school to learn how to make movies!' And the next day I went to the library and found the catalog for USC, and I opened it up to their cinema department. And right there on the front page was a photograph of Alfred Hitchcock standing in front of his class at a lectern, and I thought, 'My god, this does exist!' And so I went on this quest to get into the USC film school."
On making Roger Rabbit seem like a living, breathing cartoon rabbit
"Charlie Fleischer was the voice of Roger Rabbit, and he was on the set every day, and he demanded a costume. So the wardrobe department actually made a Roger Rabbit costume for him so that he could go into wardrobe every morning. And he had the red trousers and a big bow tie and he had that on. ... I had these rubber dolls made to scale of the cartoon characters, and I would place them in the set and we would rehearse the scene ... I would walk around holding the rabbit by its ears, bouncing it around the set, and Bob [Hoskins] would find places in the set where I would move the rabbit. ... [H]e would then move his eyes to those areas, and remember where they were, and then he would focus them on [that] point in space — because he couldn't look at the wall, or a target out of frame, because then the camera would see that he [was] looking through the cartoon character. It would destroy the illusion."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies; Terry Gross returns Monday. Our first guest, Robert Zemeckis, is a Hollywood veteran who directed the film "Flight," which earned two Oscar nominations. His other films include "Romancing the Stone," three "Back to the Future" films, "Forest Gump," "Contact" and "Castaway."
He also directed the innovative cartoon and live-action movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and has recently worked with cutting-edge motion-capture technology in the films "The Polar Express" and "Beowulf." "Flight," which is now out on DVD, stars Denzel Washington as an airline pilot with substance abuse problems who performs brilliantly in a mid-air emergency to save scores of airline passengers, though six people die in the plane's crash landing.
Afterward the pilot struggles with his addiction and faces the threat that he'll be held accountable for his drinking and drug abuse and blamed for the crash despite his heroic landing. I spoke with Zemeckis in November, and we began with a clip from "Flight" in which the pilot and his co-pilot are fighting to regain control of their plane as it plunges toward the ground.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FLIGHT")
DENZEL WASHINGTON: (as Whip) This is South Jet 227. We're in an uncontrolled dive and we've got a jammed stabilizer or something.
BRIAN GERAGHTY: (as Ken) Oh, lord. We're going on 7,000. I see nothing but (unintelligible).
WASHINGTON: (as Whip) When I say I want you to retract the flaps, retract the gear, trim us nose down. OK?
GERAGHTY: (as Ken) Turn down? What are you going to do?
WASHINGTON: (as Whip) When I tell you, I want you to push these forward full throttle. Can you do that?
GERAGHTY: (as Ken) Yeah.
WASHINGTON: (as Whip) OK. When I tell you.
GERAGHTY: (as Ken) Wait, wait, sir. What are we doing? Why would I turn down?
WASHINGTON: (as Whip) We're going to roll it. OK?
GERAGHTY: (as Ken) What? What do you mean, roll it?
WASHINGTON: (as Whip) We've got to do something to stop this dive. Here we go. I've got control.
GERAGHTY: (as Ken) Oh, lord!
WASHINGTON: (as Whip) All right. Now flaps.
GERAGHTY: (as Ken) Flaps.
WASHINGTON: (as Whip) Speed brakes.
GERAGHTY: (as Ken) Speed brakes. Oh!
WASHINGTON: (as Whip) Forward power.
DAVIES: Well, Robert Zemeckis, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, I think the thought of air crashes holds a special terror for everybody who's been in an airplane, which is most of us these days. You are a pilot yourself. There's this kind of calm that pilots seem to have, or at least that I imagine them having. Right, when I read Tom Wolfe's book "The Right Stuff" about military pilots, never a moment's panic. You're just always focused on the task at hand.
ROBERT ZEMECKIS: Yeah. And what it is that I think that you're taught to do is to, you know, just work the problem. And I think when situations happen that are irregular, what does happen is that your training sort of just automatically kicks in, and you start to go through those checklists and start doing all those things that you've been, you know, going over and over in your head. And you just start to go into that mode.
DAVIES: Did you or Denzel Washington listen to, you know, cockpit recordings of, you know, of pilots that were in crises and jams up in the air?
ZEMECKIS: You know, I don't know if Denzel did, but I certainly did because I know that you can go online and hear any of the sort of what they call the black box recordings from airline incidents. And you can actually go online, I guess, and listen to, you know, pilots talking to controllers live, all day long.
But, yes, I listened to some incidents in the cockpit data recorders just to get a sense of what the sort of the tone of the pilot's voice would be. Some of them were pretty calm but then some of them, you know, you could hear the panic in their voice, that's for sure.
DAVIES: The effects on this are pretty amazing. I mean, you completely buy that this is happening and you see it from many angles. And you did this on a relatively small budget for this kind of thing at, what, $31 million bucks?
ZEMECKIS: Yeah. It was $31 million.
DAVIES: I'm sure there's a long complicated answer here but how do you make it so real?
ZEMECKIS: The short answer is I really pay a lot of attention to keeping the point of view of all this action coming from the place of character, keeping the audience with the main character. So we've set up basically these four people, these two flight attendants and the pilot and the copilot. We see this incident, basically, from their point of view and, you know, not try to start introducing panicking passengers and that sort of thing and keep them basically as atmosphere, keep the drama with the main characters.
DAVIES: It's not a spoiler to note that the pilot, Denzel Washington, whose name is Whip Whitaker, has problems. I mean, he's a substance abuser. He drinks alcohol and takes other drugs. We see this in the opening scene, and that sets up the story. I thought we'd listen to a clip here, where this is after the crash, and six people died: two crew members and four passengers.
But everybody else survived, which was, you know, due to this captain's remarkable maneuver in the air to bring the plane down. And this is a meeting where he's sitting down at a restaurant and kind of discovering what a serious situation he might be in.
He's meeting with an old friend, a union representative and an old navy buddy who is played by Bruce Greenwood and he has brought an attorney, who is played by Don Cheadle. And they're talking about what these guys are going to be facing. We'll hear Denzel Washington, the pilot, speaking first.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FLIGHT")
WASHINGTON: (as Whip) So why do we need a lawyer from Chicago?
BRUCE GREENWOOD: (as Charlie) He specializes in criminal negligence.
WASHINGTON: (as Whip) Criminal negligence?
GREENWOOD: (as Charlie) Mm-hmm.
DON CHEADLE: (as Hugh Lang) Death demands responsibility. Six dead on that plane. Someone has to pay.
WASHINGTON: (as Whip) I flew the plane inverted. That means upside down. You have any idea what that's like?
CHEADLE: (as Hugh Lang) I do. I heard the black box recordings last night.
WASHINGTON: (as Whip) Oh, you heard the - oh, are you a pilot?
CHEADLE: (as Hugh Lang) No, I'm not.
WASHINGTON: (as Whip) Then you don't know what you're talking about. All right. Let's cut to the chase. What - what - just tell me what it is I need to know, Charlie.
CHEADLE: (as Hugh Lang) The NTSB go team also collects blood, hair, and skin samples. And initial report shows that you had alcohol in your system.
WASHINGTON: (as Whip) Hmm.
GREENWOOD: (as Charlie) So that was the...
WASHINGTON: (as Whip) Doesn't mean anything. I had a couple of beers the night before the flight.
CHEADLE: (as Hugh Lang) This toxicology report states that you were drunk, and if it is proven that your intoxication was the cause of the death of the four passengers now we're going to look at four counts of manslaughter. That could be life in prison.
DAVIES: And that's Don Cheadle speaking with Denzel Washington and Bruce Greenwood in the film "Flight," directed by our guest, Robert Zemeckis. How did Denzel Washington prepare for that role? Or how did you help him?
ZEMECKIS: Well, you know, Denzel has - he's very, very focused and he's very prepared, and the only thing that we spoke about as far as levels of intoxication were, you know, he kind of had his own guide of what he was going to do, and he never really was specific, you know, with me about it.
But he kind of gave me a sense of where he was going to be, like, you know, performing like when he's really, really drunk or he's just got sort a slight buzz on kind of a thing. One thing he did tell me that he did do, though, is he watched a lot of YouTube videos of drunks. And I guess you can go online and just watch drunks.
ZEMECKIS: But he would come to me and say, you know, I watched this one where this guy was trying to put his shoe on and he was working on this for like, you know, 10 minutes to get this shoe on. He was out there on the street, and he couldn't get his foot in his shoe. And so he was - you know, he was looking at the physicality of what it is he was going to do.
But I think basically what he and I spoke about were the characters' level of denial. That's what I think you're ultimately seeing in this performance, and that's what I think he did so brilliantly in his portrayal.
DAVIES: You grew up on the south side of Chicago in a working class family, right?
ZEMECKIS: That's correct.
DAVIES: I read that you heard on the Johnny Carson show that there was such a thing as film school and decided to apply?
ZEMECKIS: That's true. That's true. That's very true. Well, right because I had no - I mean the story is, I was watching the Johnny Carson show, and his guest that night was Jerry Lewis. And I remember Johnny saying: So Jerry, I understand you're teaching school. And Jerry said that's right, I'm teaching cinema at the USC School of Cinema.
And I heard School of Cinema. I never thought anything like that even existed. And I remember, you know, literally jumping up to my feet in the living room and thinking, my God, a school to learn how to make movies. And so then I went on this kind of quest to get into the USC film school, which I ultimately was fortunate enough to do.
DAVIES: Was it hard to get in?
ZEMECKIS: Well, it was very hard to get in. You know, it was hard. I mean, you know, USC is a very, very, very, very, you know, academically driven school. You have to have, like, a 5.0 grade point average to get in. It always was that way. And I was in a strange situation because you also had to submit work to the film school.
So I had been making these small films and I sent a portfolio of my work to the film school, and I got this letter that accepted me into the film school, but I wasn't accepted into the university because my grades weren't good enough. So - and in an impassioned phone call I got on the phone with my evaluator and promised that I would go to summer school, and I'd get the grades up, and I would do everything I needed to do.
And I think I - you know, and I think she heard all the sort of passion in my voice and she said, oh, OK. I'll let you in. I'll accept you.
ZEMECKIS: But you've got to go to summer school, and you've got to get these grades up. And I did do that.
DAVIES: You made a couple of early films, "I Want to Hold Your Hand," which is about some young women trying to get into see the Beatles; and "Used Cars," which were critical, but not commercial successes. And the big breakout film, I guess, for you was "Back to the Future," which you wrote with your friend Bob Gale.
You know, it's a fun film, because it's about time travel, but it's really about these relationships, right, about this guy going and meeting his parents when they were teenagers.
ZEMECKIS: Right. Bob and I were kicking around the idea, and Bob said one day: I wonder if I would have been my father's friend if I were in high school with him? And we were thinking about our relationships with our fathers, and he said that. And he said, yeah, and he started to think, yeah, wouldn't it be interesting if a teenage kid went back in time and met his parents as teenagers. And that was the germ of the idea.
DAVIES: I read that studios were nervous about it, because it was a little too soft for some studios that were doing, you know, a lot of racy stuff - except for Disney, who thought it was a little too hardcore because a guy kisses his mom.
ZEMECKIS: Right. They were worried about the Oedipal implications. Yeah, that's true. I mean, I have a - you know, a very, very, very wonderful file of rejection letters from every studio passing on "Back to the Future." I kept them all.
DAVIES: And the amazing thing is you get it funded, and you shoot five weeks with Eric Stoltz in the lead role, right, and then had to reverse course. What happened?
ZEMECKIS: Well, it was a, you know, it's being an inexperienced director. Eric is a magnificent actor, but the comedy sensibilities of what I was doing and his sensibility as an actor just weren't working. He wasn't understanding what - where the humor was that I was seeing in the piece.
Now, you know, it's my responsibility, because I cast Eric, and I didn't do it for the right reasons, if you know what I - and I'm about to explain what that is. And that is, is that I was ordered by the studio to start the movie on a specific day, and if I - and basically, I was told if you don't start it on this day, we're not going to make the movie because we want it out for the summer.
And the actor I really wanted was Michael J. Fox, but he wasn't available So I thought, OK, I can make this movie work with Eric. And, you know, it had nothing to do with Eric's ability, but I wasn't seeing the movie working. And so I assembled all the film that I had and I ran it for Steven, and I said, you know, I don't think this is working.
And he said, you're right. It's not working. And so we went to the studio and said we want to reshoot. The head of the studio at the time literally said to me, sir, he said, you are insane. He said you are insane. And I guess I just sort of shrugged.
ZEMECKIS: But, you know, they backed my decision and allowed me to go and reshoot those five weeks and cast Michael J. And he worked literally 24 hours a day, working all day on his TV series, and we shot everything with him at night, And he never slept, and we went back and reshot all those weeks of shooting.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Robert Zemeckis. He directed the new film "Flight," starring Denzel Washington. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Robert Zemeckis. He's directed the new film "Flight," starring Denzel Washington. We can't talk about all of your films, or we'd be here all day. But I did want to bring up this other memory from one that's a memorable film. And rather than introduce it, let's just play it. Let's us hear this moment.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?")
MAE QUESTEL: (as Betty Boop) Cigars? Cigarettes? Eddie Valiant.
BOB HOSKINS: (as Eddie Valiant) Betty?
QUESTEL: (as Betty Boop) Long time, no see.
HOSKINS: (as Eddie Valiant) What are you doing here?
QUESTEL: (as Betty Boop) Work's been kind of slow since cartoons went to color. But I still got it, Eddie. Boop-boop-be-doop-boop.
HOSKINS: (as Eddie Valiant) Yeah. You still got it.
DAVIES: Bring back a memory?
ZEMECKIS: Yeah. Yeah. That's Betty Boop, you know, in glorious black and white.
DAVIES: That, of course, is from "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." Mae Questel played Betty Boop, and the detective, Eddie Valiant, is played by Bob Hoskins. I mean, this was a really remarkable film and, you know, a lot of people remember it, I bet, as being amazing. And, probably, it's long enough ago that they don't remember it so well.
I mean, this is where we have these cartoon characters, who are toons, people who are - these creatures in 1947 Los Angeles, kind of live in a seedy part of town, and interact in live-action with real characters. This was the first time anybody had done this. And I know there's probably a long, complicated answer to this, too, but how did you make it look so real in 1988?
ZEMECKIS: Well, there were two artists, I guess, and one rule that we violated. One, I had a magnificent director of animation, Richard Williams, who was a very rebellious, expatriate Canadian who lived in London, and he was just a great animator. And Ken Rolston, who was the effects supervisor at ILM.
And what Ken Rolston was able to do is he was able to come up and devise a way to put, like, this three-dimensional painting on each cell of animation that would match the lighting that we did in the set to give the cartoon characters the same sort of feel of the actual practical lighting that were on the human characters.
And then Richard Williams was, you know, I said to him, I said, well, you know, what's never been done in these animation-live action movies is that they never move the camera. I mean, if you look at the scenes in "Mary Poppins" or in "Pete's Dragon" or any of those, they always lock the camera off.
And he said yeah, well, that - you know, it would be so difficult to draw the different changes of perspective. And would they feel like they're floating? And all these rules about you can never move the camera. And he said, but let's do it anyway. Let's move the camera.
And so, you know, all of these scenes with the cartoon characters, I just shot the movie like I would any live-action movie. And the animators actually found that it worked better by having the camera moving, that they were able to actually give more life to the cartoon characters, and have them feel like they're more integrated into the actual two-dimensional set.
So it was that. It was like doing something that no one had ever done before, which gives it that sort of ability to suspend your disbelief about this whole kind of weird thing that you're looking at.
DAVIES: So you'd shoot the live-action scenes first.
DAVIES: And if he had a cartoon that would later be throwing something in the real world, like a plate or a cup, he'd have to figure out a way to make the plate or cup move.
ZEMECKIS: Right. And then later we would go back and animate the - and back the animation into the live-action, we call the background plate.
DAVIES: But Bob Hoskins had to imagine who he was talking to. There was - it was a voice, but he had to just, what, hallucinate a rabbit?
ZEMECKIS: Right. Well, Charlie Fleischer was the voice of Roger Rabbit, and then I had these rubber dolls made to scale of the cartoon characters, and then I would place them in the set, and we would rehearse the scene. And I would walk around holding the rabbit by its ears, bouncing it around the set.
And Bob would find places in the set where I would move the rabbit. And he would then move his eyes to those areas, and remember where they were, and then he would focus them on a point in space because he couldn't look at the wall, or a target out of frame because then the camera would see that he would be looking through the cartoon character, and it would destroy the illusion.
So it was a lot of work, and - but the secret, the secret to the blend between animation and live-action working was the performances of the live-action characters. They're the one that make the illusion work.
That's why it worked so much, so well in this movie, as opposed to, say, watching a Frosted Flakes commercial with Tony the Tiger and some kid actors. And you kind of look at it and go, OK, I get the gimmick, but it doesn't really look true.
DAVIES: You've always been interested in changing movie technology. I mean, you did a lot of stuff with motion capture, "Polar Express," "Beowulf." Do you think digital technology has sort of fundamentally changed moviemaking, I mean, even in films that really don't involve special effects?
ZEMECKIS: Oh, yeah, but that's because every new - everything always did, from day one. I mean, you know, you can go back and see how, you know, we - they - in the final years of the silent cinema, where the art of cinema, of storytelling was so magnificent.
And then when they invented the microphone and sound, everything got really static, and it all had to be reinvented again, and the same when color came in. And when the invented the steady cam, every movie had a chase up and down a staircase, you know.
So what we do with these technologies is we overuse them, and we call attention to them, because they're just so much fun to have. And then we learn how to use them in the way that all tools of cinema should be used, which is to make them invisible.
So now I don't think you can even tell when a director is using a steady cam. If he's really good at his job, the camera movement won't call attention to itself. So, yeah, I think that, you know, some of the digital stuff that we're doing now, especially in editing, I find that we're - there's editing for what I call no reason.
You know, we just edit to edit. And I think we do that in films now because we can. But we'll get that out of our system and, you know, and then something else will be there that'll be the new technology of the month.
DAVIES: Well, Robert Zemeckis, it's been fun. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
ZEMECKIS: I appreciate it. Thank you very much.
DAVIES: Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis. His film "Flight" is now out on DVD. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.