If there was ever a director who needs no introduction because of the titles in his back catalogue, most of us immediately think of names like Spielberg, Kubrick or De Palma.
As well as being a one-man revolution factory in the 80s, Spielberg also shepherded many of the other great talents of the era to the public consciousness as a producer. Among his early acolytes was Bob Zemeckis, and even if the 64-year-old writer/director had only given us the Back to the Future series and Who Framed Roger Rabbit it would be enough to cement an enduring reputation.
But there’s also Romancing the Stone, Death Becomes Her, Forrest Gump, Castaway, Contact and his work in TV anthologies like Tales of the Crypt.
Even before more recent films like Flight and The Walk, Zemeckis could have dropped the mike and left the stage a legend, but he continues to change and grow, moving into more adult fare with old-style spy thriller Allied. He talked to Moviehole.net in LA about the endgame in the kind of effects he’s always been great at, how his tastes have changed, and creative bankruptcy in Hollywood.
You’re one of the best effects directors because you make things so seamless. How do you ensure great special effects?
Very simple – it’s just like anything. It’s like hiring an actor. Your effects are only as good as your effects supervisor. You’ve got to hire a really great artist and Kevin Bailey is a genius. It’s like hiring a really great actor, that’s why it looks so good.
As your 18th film, do you think Allied is your most grown up one?
I’ve grown up, finally. Yeah. Why not, sure. Let me put it this way – it’s certainly not material I would have been attracted to when I was 25. You need to have a little bit of life under your belt before you’re attracted to certain subjects.
It seems more political than a lot of your other films.
Yeah, it deals with the dark side of human conflict. It’s two very complex characters.
Your early work was more in fantasy and sci-fi, but recent work like Flight and The Walk has been more grounded in drama. Are you conscious of your tastes changing?
Hopefully they have. It would be kind of tragic if all I kept doing was Used Cars, although maybe not – R-rated raunchy comedies make a lot of money. But I don’t give it a lot of thought. I don’t sit around thinking, “What should I do next?” I don’t think about, “What am I looking for? What’s the next thing?” Whatever happens, happens. I guess I’m very fortunate, I don’t have to calculate that much.
When you look back do you see a common thread through all your work?
I think a good film scholar would be able to track the emotional growth of my life looking at my work, see where I was, wherever I am in my personal life. It translates to where I am. To answer your question, you have to mature into a story like this.
You’ve dealt with history a lot as a filmmaker. Is there a responsibility to be historically accurate?
As a filmmaker? Oh, yes.
How much research do you do?
I grew up watching World War II movies and in my generation, World War II was the story. In the late fifties and early sixties, World War II was what everybody was making movies about. Through osmosis I kind of knew what that period – even though I wasn’t born until later – was supposed to look like.
You just kind of walk on the set and say, “Is that phone really the right period?” But listen, making a film in London, those craftsmen are so great and it all looks perfect. They’re fanatics when it comes to that, they take it very, very seriously. We literally had the Imperial War Museum as our technical advisors.
What are your favourite movies from the genre in that era?
Oh god, you want the list? Well, I’ll start with my all time favorite, which is The Great Escape. And then there’s Kelly’s Heroes, Patton, The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare, all those. I’ve seen them all.
How tricky is it to make a political movie in such politically fraught times?
Here’s one of the nice things you can do in movies, and movies do it really well, and it’s why I actually think that in doing a period film no art form does it better than the movies.
You get the luxury of looking at your story through the lens of history. So you know what happened. You know what the truth was. You know what the lies were. You have historical truth and accuracy to start from, and then you can kind of paint all your grey area and then it wonderfully resonates to what is happening in the current world, it becomes relevant.
I think the hardest thing to do if you’re doing a contemporary movie, you don’t know what’s important. History tells you. Even dressing the set – if we’re going to shoot in this hotel room today, 20 years from now a filmmaker would know, “You know what’s missing?” Right now I have no idea what that is, but you’ve got to have it in there. That’s what’s cool about being able to look in the past when you’re making a movie.
How do you make sure all the authenticity in the backdrop and period detail doesn’t detract from the heartbeat of the story and the main characters?
Everything that we do in movies is spectacle, but the key to doing is elegantly is to always have the spectacle be the subconscious background, kind of like the way music is. A less elegant way of describing it is, you throw it away. You build it, and then you don’t feature it. You put the actor in the front and then that just falls way back there. But the audience feels it, so it’s all got to be good.
The trailer and clips so far have an adventure movie tone a bit like Romancing the Stone. Why don’t they make films like this anymore?
I can answer for myself and it’s a real simple answer. That’s the kind of movie I want to see, and I hope somebody else wants to see it, but I really don’t know. We’re in strange times, scary strange times. Something’s going on and I don’t know what it is.
When you and your contemporaries in the 70s and 80s were doing effects movies, you were the only ones doing it successfully. Now every second movie’s overstuffed with CGI.
That’s because it’s so easy to do.
How have we got to this stage where it’s often a replacement for the heart and soul of the effects you Spielberg, Joe Dante, etc used to make?
I’ll answer it positively, Every little rudimentary shot I’ve shown so far I did on the Avid in the editing room, nothing’s come back from the effects house yet.
Everybody’s gonna catch on to the fact that if you go to the U of C Film School and sit in their edit bays, you got students doing visual effects that are just as good as ILM. Anybody can do that on a desktop.
So hopefully the audience is gonna get hip to that and it’s not gonna be anything that they care about. Which, the positive side of that is that all that will matter is story. We’ve got this strange thing happening though, where people just don’t go to the movies like they used to.
But if I was asking a question about the movies in the late 70s, early 80s when I was coming up, I’d say; where are the new guys? How come all the directors are old? Where are the guys who are reinventing the art form? That’s what was the energizing thing that was happening back in those days, the whole thing was being turned into a different form of storytelling, it was re-energized. Maybe it’s just around the corner, maybe it’s gonna happen tomorrow. I hope it does.
So is it harder to become a director now than when you started?
Much harder, for a lot of reasons. Mainly, fewer films are being made and there is so much risk aversion. Giving a new director a movie to make is high risk. I know that back in the day when I was coming up, the studio executives would look the director in the eye and say, “At least the guy’s got passion. Let him go do it, at least he loves what he’s gonna do.”
Nobody in the corporate world can make a decision based on someone sitting across the desk from you and you feeling that they have passion. That can’t happen in the system any more. That’s probably why movies look the way they do.
You’re still more interested in original scripts than remakes or sequels. How come?
It’s important, but it’s really risky. First of all, I think it’s important because if you don’t have original stories, where are the new franchises going to come from? If you want to be completely commercial about it, right? How many more Harry Potters can you make?
Because I’m also a screenwriter, a horrible thing happening that I see is that there’s very little incentive for young writers to write original material because they know they’re just going to get crushed under the heel of the system. Their hearts are going to get broken. How do you advise a young writer to write that really original idea? No one will buy it. What we have is a vicious cycle.
I’m an established filmmaker, I can get an original screenplay made. But I gotta get one. I’m so fortunate that [Allied writer] Stephen Knight had the courage and conviction to pitch this to Graham [King, producer] to decide if we’re gonna develop it. And he did a good job.
He was in a very fortunate situation where he had a producer like Graham, a director like me and an actor like Brad decide they all like that screenplay. If you don’t win that jackpot, where is the next turn for an original screenplay from a young writer? It’s grim.
Like I said, what we need is for somebody to turn the art form on its head and get people excited about movies. Isn’t it just that the audience isn’t as excited about movies like they used to be?
Do you think there might be light at the end of the tunnel because of the more varied material coming out of Amazon, Netflix, etc?
Oh, I think so. Exactly, there you go. Everybody’s got to stop pretending that that’s television and movies are only in the cinemas. When they’re watching Netflix, the audience considers that they’re watching a movie. The only people who don’t get that are the six people running the studios. Wake up. The audience, they just want to get good stuff where they get it. If there’re good movies playing in the cinemas, they’ll go to the cinemas.