‘Flight’ director Robert Zemeckis talks about getting back into (live) action

Robert Zemeckis
Robert Zemeckis

Robert Zemeckis made some of the biggest hits of the '80s and '90s, including the "Back to the Future" trilogy, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" and the Oscar-winning "Forrest Gump." His work displayed a signature style that blended humor, action, emotion, and cutting-edge special effects.

But he shifted course in his career with 2004's "The Polar Express," the first feature film done using performance-capture technology. He went on to make two more completely digital films, "Beowulf" and "A Christmas Carol," but now he's returning to the physical world for his first live-action film since 2000's "Cast Away."

The project is called "Flight," and it stars Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker, an airline pilot who is able to miraculously land a jetliner after a mechanical failure sends it plummeting to the ground. Whitaker is hailed as a hero at first, but when revelations about his personal life surface, he finds himself heading into an even more dangerous tailspin.

I spoke to Zemeckis on the phone about why "Flight" persuaded him to return to live action films. He also offered advice on the best way to overcome a fear of flying, and he revealed the film that made him want to become a movie director.

Matt McDaniel: What was it about this project and the script in particular that grabbed you?

Robert Zemeckis: Well, whenever a really good screenplay comes across your desk, you have to do it, and that's what the situation was with "Flight." It was great, great screenplay.

MM: It's unique -- it's at least for Hollywood today -- that it's not based on a book or a comic book or TV show. Was the originality part of the appeal?

RZ: Yeah, of course. It's not, as we say, a pre-sold title. So the fact that it's very unique and original was very appealing.

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MM: Was it inspired by true stories, or where there elements of truth that were worked into the movie?

RZ: No, it's completely fiction. The movie draws from different incidents that involved airplane malfunctions from the last couple of decades, but [there is] nothing that it's based on that's a true story.

MM: I'm assuming that you had to do quite a bit of research into airlines and airplanes and how that all works?

RZ: Yeah, you have to do that on any movie whenever you get in there. But you have technical advisors and people who guide you. But that's one of the fun things about being a movie director. You get to become an expert on all these strange device and things.

MM: Was there anything you found in your research about airlines and pilots that you found particularly surprising or maybe even scary?

RZ: No, actually, the more that you research the airline industry and especially the sort of regulations that the FAA has and those sort of things, you end up feeling better. The reason that, when an incident happens in an aircraft, that it becomes headline news is because it happens so rarely. So statistically, you're a much, much safer flying in an airplane than you are driving in a car.

MM: Now when you get in a plane do you feel safer than you did before?

RZ: Here's what I would say: the more you find out about how airplanes work and how the system works, you'll feel much safer. I believe that anyone who has a fear of flying, my recommendation is to take some flying lessons, and you will overcome your fear of flying. Because you'll understand how airplanes work, and you'll understand how the system works. You'll understand that it's a very well thought out system.

MM: Your lead in this is Denzel Washington. I don't believe you've ever worked with before. Has he been one of those actors that you've always wanting to find a role for?

RZ: Well I would say the answer is "absolutely yes," although I don't watch actor's work and say, "I got to find a part for this guy." I watch him in his movies and then go, "Wow, this guy is a really great actor." Then when the opportunity came along to cast him in a movie, it was a very easy decision. I think he is one of the greatest actors that's ever lived. He is amazing and wasn't a trouble to work with.

MM: It seems like a great part for him, because it combines the natural authority he has with that element of humanity and that weakness in it as well.

RZ: Yeah, that's what makes him such a great actor. The character that he plays in "Flight" is extremely complex. It's takes a really great actor to be able to play all those shades of gray of a complex character, and that's what Denzel done so brilliantly in "Flight."

MM: Personally speaking, as a fan of "Devil in a Blue Dress," it's great to see him reuniting with Don Cheadle on screen.

RZ: Yeah, they were great. Don's another great actor. My whole cast is absolutely really, really great. They're great together in the movie, and they had a lot of fun working on the movie together.

MM: When you're working with this caliber of actor, what's your directing style on the set? How do you shape and craft performances?

RZ: Every actor is different, and you'll work with different actors in different ways. But my basic directing philosophy is when you're working with a really brilliant actor -- a really talented, great actor -- your job as a director is just to modulate the performance. And not ever suggest to him where he should go to find the emotion that he is portraying. You basically are just helping him to understand if he has any question as to where the character is at any given moment in the piece.

But generally that all comes out in very, very early before we were around the set. We really spent a lot of time punching down the script and that's where he worked all that stuff out.

MM: You've always been at the forefront of advances in visual effects. Were there pertaining elements of this story that where a visual effects challenge to bring the life in a realistic way?

RZ: All of the plane stuff was pretty challenging. But what it ultimately became was all the years of special effects work that I've been doing sort of all came together here. And of course the trick to any kind of a special effects illusion is to make it look seamless and real, and that's always the most difficult thing to do.

MM: How much of the crash putting the inside of the plane were you able to do practically on the set?

RZ: Well, quite a bit. In the inside of the plane was a set, and the set was built on a gimbal, and we had a capability of being able to turn the entire set upside down. So we had a lot of stuntman hanging from their seatbelts, and a lot of stuff flying around, so that was pretty cool. But, you also have to augment it, and you have to also allow the camera to get through there. So there's you have to do a lot of tricks like paint virtual walls in and put seats where they aren't and that kind of things. So everything is a hybrid between practical effects and digital effects.

MM: Any bumps, scrapes, or bruises from flipping people upside-down in a airplane?

RZ: A few. A few, but nothing serious. Anytime you're doing anything physically like that, people are going to get couple of scrapes and a couple of bumps. But usually it was the stunt people who were doing the roughest staff, and they're the ones who got banged up but not seriously.

MM: I'm sure you hear this all the time, but people who love movies usually have one particular title from their childhood that they can point to and say, "That was it. That was the one that started it for me." For me it was "Back to the Future." I saw it when I was nine and just blew my mind open. So, of course, I wanted to thank you for that and ask you what was it for you? Can you point to a movie that really opened the door for you?

RZ: You mean, when I was kid? I think there were a couple of them. I think that the one that caused me to really understand the power of what a director really does was probably Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde."

That was a movie that I went to go see because I'd heard it had some pretty bloody gunplay on it. Then I found myself being emotionally moved by the performance of the characters, and so I thought to myself, "Well, that's pretty amazing power that the cinema has." I think that one of the movies that tipped me into wanting to become a movie director rather than just a special effects technician.

"Flight" opens on November 2.

[Find advance showtimes and tickets for 'Flight']