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Honor Roll 2012: 'Flight' Director Robert Zemeckis Embraces the Restlessness, Flaws and Limitations of His Work

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire December 14, 2012 at 10:39AM

Following the computer-animated folly "Mars Needs Moms," the biggest flop in his remarkably accomplished career, Oscar-winner Robert Zemeckis is back on top a mere one year later with one of his most acclaimed films to date, "Flight."
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Paramount Robert Zemeckis on the set of "Flight"

Honor Roll is a daily series for December that features new or previously published interviews, profiles and first-person stories of some of the year's most notable cinematic voices. Today, we're running a new interview with Robert Zemeckis, whose acclaimed return to live-action filmmaking, "Flight," has been drawing praise and awards buzz since world premiering as the closing night film of the New York Film Festival.

Following the computer-animated folly "Mars Needs Moms," the biggest flop in his remarkably accomplished career, Oscar-winner Robert Zemeckis is back on top a mere one year later with one of his most acclaimed films to date, "Flight." Already a hit at the domestic box office, where it surprised in early November by opening to a $25-million gross (a big win for an R-rated adult drama), the film recently earned its star Denzel Washington Golden Globe and SAG nominations, which bodes well for the film's Oscar prospects.

Marking his first live-action film in 12 years following his groundbreaking forays into computer animation "The Polar Express," "Beowulf" and "A Christmas Carol," "Flight" stars Washington as a pilot who crash-lands a crippled airline. Hailed a hero upon landing with most of the passengers intact, he soon comes under fire after it’s revealed he was out boozing the night before. The plot affords Zemeckis the chance to show his action chops with a crash sequence among the most harrowing ever commited to celluloid, but it’s the moral darkness of the tale that shows a different, more nuanced side of the director his fans aren't accustomed to.

READ MORE: Honor Roll 2012: Christopher Walken On 'Psychopaths,' 'A Late Quartet,' 'Heaven's Gate' and Why He Talks Like That

In our chat with Zemeckis, the helmer opens up about why he was drawn to "Flight," how his approach to actors has evolved over the years and whether he'd ever make a live-action feature in 3D.

Confession: I'm a big "Death Becomes Her" fan.

Oh, there you go!

Paramount "Flight"

You probably don't get that too often.

Actually, it's got this kind of afterlife, after-death-life. Yeah, it's got this resurgence, which is interesting.

How did you first come across the script for "Flight." I know it was on the shelf for quite some time.

Yeah. I first read it in February of 2011. I had no idea it existed before then. It was just so good. It was really good and beautifully written with interesting characters -- something you don't see too often.

READ MORE: 'Flight' Breakout Kelly Reilly on Auditioning Opposite Denzel Washington and Why She'll Never Fly With Robert Zemeckis

So much has been made about the fact that this marks your return to live-action filmmaking, but it's interesting to draw the parallels between "Flight" and "A Christmas Carol." Both films are essentially character studies about lone, morally flawed guys who redeem themselves over the course of the films.

Well, if you look at my entire body of work, I think you'll see that whether the characters are morally flawed, they're all flawed. And that's the thing that I have to hook into to do a movie. I have to know what the character arc is. I can't just do a procedural. I can't just do a cop story, or a spy story. I have to have character growth. If you're going to have character growth, they have to start from somewhere, so they're basically flawed.

"To me, moving images are moving images no matter how they are created."

What do you make of the fact that so many people are harping on the fact that this marks your big return to live-action filmmaking?

I can understand it. The part that I'm just confused by is that a movie that's not a live-action movie is not considered a real movie. I guess that's just me, because I think everything's legitimate. But it's apparently not considered a real film if there isn't a live-action actor in it -- which I guess is just people's perception of it. I guess that's why animated films are not considered real films. To me, moving images are moving images no matter how they are created.

At $31 million, "Flight" marks one of your lowest budget films in quite some time, especially following your expensive foray into animation. Did you see the amount as a hindrance or was it a challenge you embraced wholeheartedly?

The challenge on this movie was very, very specifically working to realize the screenplay, which was very, very different. But because it was different, it was apparent there would be very little money to do something. You can't spend a lot of money on something that's different -- so it was a very responsible way to do the movie. I didn't find it challenging. I was a little concerned about not having enough days, because the material was so character-driven and the actors would really need to deliver. So I was worried about having enough days for the performances. But the actors were great -- they were just on fire and stepped up every day.

How did you execute the crash sequence with the budget you were given?

Well, you just plan it out. It all comes down to days and what you can do. It's like building a ship in a bottle. You say, how many days do I have, what can I afford to build. I wish I had a more elaborate set, more ability to wile things out. But we couldn't afford it, so we had to struggle with all the atmosphere going in and coming out of one door -- that kind of thing. When you know what your limitations are, you just have to make it work.


Paramount Robert Zemeckis on the set of "Flight"

Going back to what you said earlier about character -- all of your films are credited for their visual panache, but you have a remarkable gift for generating great performances from your cast. How has your approach with actors evolved over the course of your career?

I don't know it's evolved, I think it's pretty much been the same. I don't try to coax a performance out of an actor in any way. If it's even necessary, I just try to explain what that character might be feeling in any given scene. And then it's their responsibility to find however it is they go about finding that.

So it's really in the casting. When I interviewed Denzel's co-star in the film, Kelly Reilly, she told me you really had to fight to cast her in the film.

Look, the studio always wants to top-load the movie as much as they can. I don't even know what actress brings whatever box office cache to movies these days -- so you always have to go through that dance. But once they saw Kelly's audition tape, she was pretty much the person. It's never easy, though.

Let's talk about this journey you've been on with this film. You've done countless press junkets over the years, but you've never been on the festival circuit quite the way you have with "Flight."

Yeah, I've never done the New York Film Festival before. "Polar Express" was at the Chicago Film Festival. I think it's generally because the films that I've been making over the years are released at a different time. When you release a movie on the first of November, then you are kind of in that place, so you might as well take advantage of everything you can.

Paramount "Flight"

Releasing it in the fall, on top of the festival hoopla, it also positions itself for the awards race. What's that side of the circuit been like for you?

We'll have to see what happens. It's always a great honor to get recognized by your peers. If that were to happen, I don't think there's anything much you do differently. My own opinion is, the best chance for a film to get recognized by awards committees is for the film to be successful.

Which "Flight" is. What do you make of its surprise success?

It's remarkable. It makes me feel like, okay, mission accomplished! But it also makes me a bit sad to think that a movie that's R-rated… when we talk about movies by their ratings, it always seem to suggest that they're exploitive. This was just an adult drama that was made the way it should be made. It makes me a bit sad to think that an adult drama is expected to do no business. It's a sad state of the industry.

You're proving against-the-grain.

Well, if it continues to do business it will be a fluke. I do think there's a hungry audience out there for movies that are about something.

And does the success of "Flight" make you want to do more films of its nature?

"I'm not one of those guys who needs to be constantly working."

You know, I try not to react to what I just did. No film has ever made me want to make another kind of film. Although maybe you can't help but react to the movie you just made.

That's the one thing that can be said of your career: you never repeat yourself.

Yeah, that's just my restlessness -- it's not by design. I guess if someone sent me a script about an alcoholic airline pilot, I wouldn't do it. Unless it was, like, so good.

I want to talk about you and 3D. Do you have any interest in tackling the medium for a live-action feature? I can't think of a more suited candidate.

3D is a magnificent format if it comes from the story. So the short answer is absolutely. Now that you don't even need two cameras anymore, the answer is "sure." But it has to come from the story. It can't be 3D just for the sake of being 3D; that's why it gets a bad rap.

So what is next for you?

I have no idea! No idea. But that just goes along with the question that you asked earlier. Even though it's not conventional Hollywood wisdom to do it -- I've never had my next film set before a film comes out. I kind of like to finish it completely and take a breath. I'm not one of those guys who needs to be constantly working. I work a lot, but not constantly.

This article is related to: Honor Roll 2012, Interviews, Robert Zemeckis, Flight