“Are you telling me you built a time machine out of a DeLorean”: The Magic of Robert Zemeckis
Robert Zemeckis was once asked if television was a bad influence on children. He answered, emphatically, “television isn’t an education, but I see no reason to turn it off.” What would so many television-starved children give for Zemeckis as a babysitter, or indeed a father: ‘Can I pur-lease watch more TV?’/’Of course you can!’ He was a product of the television generation – this new visual medium that found its way into most American homes by 1960 – that threatened to unhinge cinema’s monopoly of moving image entertainment. Growing up in suburban Illinois, television was not only his outlet to the world but his principle introduction and education in visual art. “Television saved my life,” says Zemeckis, “You hear so much about the problems with television but in my family there was no art – no books, no music, no theatre, the only thing I had that was inspirational was television.” He adds, “I can’t imagine what would have happened if I didn’t have that as a window to the world. I think my interests all bloom from the seed that [television] planted.”
His early film education came from “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” where he enjoyed the short, segment-based comedy skits that would later form the basis to his first two films as writer-director “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “Used Cars”. He also found out through the show that you could study film in Californian universities prompting him to apply for USC’s film school.
Zemeckis was lucky enough to have use of his family’s 8mm camera during his teenage years. He started by filming various family gatherings before embarking on more elaborate fiction using stop-motion and cheap special-effects. The process gave him an outlet for his creative desires. It also highlighted the power and potential of cinematic entertainment, how it was possible to manipulate emotion.
Zemeckis joins Spielberg and the film school brats
His almost obsessive love of television and film drove him to his ultimate goal: film director. “I love this medium of filmmaking, so I just went after it,” he says. “I don’t know why, but for some reason I have this ability to tell stories. I was being absolutely driven to accomplish this goal. I don’t know how healthy that part of it was, but I do know that’s how it was. I was completely single-minded.” And he had to show plenty of determination after initially being rejected by USC because of poor grades. He showed them a film he’d made based on a Beatles song, and then rang the school begging to be enrolled on the program, promising to go to summer school to improve his grades. Eventually, the school subsided and allowed him to enrol. Once enrolled, he quickly gravitated towards fellow student and writer Bob Gale. They both had a love of classic and contemporary Hollywood movies, and weren’t interested in many of the films studied on the course such as the French New Wave. Off the back of a Student Academy Award for his USC short film “A Field Of Honor”, he came to the attention of Steven Spielberg. Spielberg agreed to help Zemeckis with his first film, executive producing the nostalgic Beatles-inspired comedy “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” The film was critically successful and lead to Zemeckis being able to make “Used Cars.” Both films were written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale.
However, both films flopped at the box office, and after Spielberg’s “1941” (one which Zemeckis and Gale wrote) suffered the same fate, the USC graduate’s were labelled by the industry as good writers of films that couldn’t make money. This saw both men languish in Hollywood limbo for five years wondering if they’d ever get another project off the ground.
All that changed when Michael Douglas asked Zemeckis to direct his swashbuckling adventure film “Romancing The Stone” in 1984. The film was not without its production problems, partly because Zemeckis lacked experience with actors, favouring instead the Hitchcock method of camera and set-up over performance. This did not sit well with actress Kathleen Turner who famously said, “He’s a film school grad fascinated by cameras and effects.” Yet, the film went on to become a major success, its fast-paced action-orientated plot and romantic footnote proving to be a crowd-pleasing adventure for cinemagoers. This critical and commercial hit allowed Zemeckis to re-team with friend Bob Gale to get their story, about a boy who travels back in time to make sure his mother and father meet and fall in love, off the ground. Their script – entitled “Back To The Future” – had already been rejected by many of the major studios, but now they had a hit film to back it up with it.
We’re going Back To The Future
With the support of Steven Spielberg behind them, Zemeckis and Gale set up “Back To The Future” with Universal. Starring the wide-eyed, youthful-looking and keenly exuberant teen star Michael J. Fox alongside Christopher Lloyd, the film was a massive critical and commercial success grossing over $380 million. The film made Zemeckis a viable commodity to Hollywood, and allowed him to pursue any project he desired.
Pushing the boundaries of the medium
Over the next few years Zemeckis would make a series of hits including two sequels to “Back To The Future”, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, and “Death Becomes Her”. In 1994 he would be recognised by the Academy, winning a Best Director Oscar for the brilliant “Forrest Gump”. Gump, with its depiction of historical figures intermingled realistically within the plot of the film, allowing actor Tom Hanks to interact with real people such as John F. Kennedy and John Lennon, was a highlight of the film’s unique charm as well as an indication of Zemeckis’ enthusiasm for technological advancement. One of the director’s most well known ideas is that “being a director is the perfect blend of technology and artistry.” He displayed this early in his career with the special visuals effects of “Back To The Future”, and the seamless blend of animation and live action in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “Death Becomes Her”. When the director released his state-of-the-art film “The Polar Express” that used motion capture techniques to track actors movements and mannerisms to produce more natural and genuinely human animation, the director enthused about new methods. “It certainly has allowed me to basically create any image that I could imagine. The movie is only limited by my imagination because I was able to do exactly that. If I said I think we should put a tree here, there it was. So it was a really fantastic experience in that regard and I think it was the most relaxed and the least compromising I’ve ever had to be on a movie because I could get the camera where I wanted it to be without being limited by the physical world.”
But being limited by the constraints of the real world is something the director has continually fought and overcome. It’s an attribute that can be seen throughout his films. From the early work (“I Wanna Hold Your Hand” using doubles and actual footage to re-create The Beatles’ first performance on the Ed Sullivan Show, to the interaction between animated characters and real actors in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”) to the later work (stopping filming on “Cast Away” to allow actor Tom Hanks to lose weight so that the permutations of life alone on a desert island with no proper food could actually, but safely, take effect, and to use special digital techniques to move the camera in ways Hitchcock could only dream about in suspense-thriller “What Lies Beneath”). He’s experimented with the medium successfully without compromising character or plot.
His interest in new technology has continued and in 1999 he donated $5 million to the Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts at USC, a state-of-the-art production, editing, and sound stage. In 2007, alongside Disney, Zemeckis created ImageMovers Digital which would make 3-D motion capture films with “Beowolf” and “A Christmas Carol” already released under the label.
When his USC production house opened in 2001, Zemeckis gave a clear indication of his future plans as a filmmaker. Alongside friend Steven Spielberg who at the time disparaged the use of digital photography, preferring the traditional method of 35mm celluloid, Zemeckis said: “These guys are the same ones who have been saying that LPs sound better than CDs. You can argue that until you’re blue in the face, but I don’t know anyone who’s still buying vinyl. Film, as we have traditionally thought of it, is going to be different. But the continuum is man’s desire to tell stories around the campfire. The only thing that keeps changing is the campfire.”
10. What Lies Beneath (2000)
Written by Clark Gregg
Starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Harrison Ford, Katherine Towne, Miranda Otto, James Remar
More an exercise in aping Hitchcock than a genuine homage, “What Lies Beneath” may be derivative but it is genuinely affective, especially in the way it brings many of Hitch’s dramatic camera techniques to a modern audience. What Zemeckis does do well is his use of special digital effects, effects Hitchcock did not have at his disposal, to imitate and add to the great suspense maestro’s work.
9. Cast Away (2000)
Written by William Broyles Jr.
Starring Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt
Tom Hanks becomes method actor in Zemeckis’ stuck-on-a-desert-island movie. Beautiful location, a dominant Hanks performance, and a brilliantly choreographed plane crash make this an entertaining and thought-provoking film.
8. I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978)
Written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale
Starring: Nancy Allen, Marc McClure, Bobby Di Cicco, Susan Kendall Newman, Theresa Saldana, Wendie Jo Sperber, Eddie Deezen,
Read my full review here
It’s 1964 and the Beatles are about to play the Ed Sullivan show. Fans are flocking to the band’s hotel to get a glimpse of their idols and six friends from New Jersey are following suit. But they have grander plans.
Rosie (Wendie Jo Sperber) is a Beatles fanatic desperate to get into their hotel just to see Paul McCartney up close and personal, while aspiring journalist Grace (Theresa Saldana) wants to do the same thing knowing if she can get a picture of Britain’s finest, she’s got a shot at the big time. Friend Pam (Nancy Allen) is dragged along too but after hiding in a food cart to avoid the band’s security officers she finds herself in the Beatles room with free reign to Paul’s bass guitar and John’s…er…comb. Tony (Bobby Di Cicco), a Beatles-hater, and Janis (Susan Kendall Newman), a protester, come along just to cause trouble, while Larry (Marc McClure) is only there because of his obsessive love for Grace. The whole gang soon finds themselves having one mishap after another, as the clock quickly ticks down to the Beatles first ever U.S television performance. [more]
7. Death Becomes Her (1992)
Written by: Martin Donovan and David Koepp
Starring: Bruce Willis, Goldie Hawn, Meryl Streep
Read my full review here
Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) is a rich, famous stage actress who comes to the attentions of her old friend’s fiance. Her friend, knowing how Madeline had taken her lovers before, wants to test the water with her latest, just to see if her rich counterpart can work her charms this time. Helen (Goldie Hawn) takes fiance, Ernest (Bruce Willis) backstage to meet Madeline and immediately he falls for her beauty, her charm and her status. Madeline and Ernest end up marrying and Helen is left all alone. Fourteen years later and all has changed. Madeline and Ernest are still living together but she is caught up in trying to regain the beauty the years had taken from her, while he is stuck in a depression fueled by alcohol. They are both invited to a book opening party of which the writer happens to be Helen, and when they get there they are bewildered to find Helen looking much younger than her years, and stunningly beautiful. We learn that Helen didn’t invite them for a friendly catch-up, but to get revenge for what they both did to her. Helen tries to use her alluring beauty to unwittingly get Ernest under her thumb, and use him to kill Madeline. Meanwhile, Madeline soon learns that Helen’s young looks had come from something ‘otherworldly’, and is quickly on to her cunning, with Ernest stuck right in the middle. [more]
6. Romancing The Stone (1984)
Written by Diane Thomas
Starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, Danny Devito
An adventure film in the Indiana Jones mould, “Romancing The Stone” was Zemeckis’ director-for-hire film, but it hardly shows. Kathleen Turner and the director didn’t get on because she claims he was too busy concentrating on the camera and not spending enough time with her, but Zemeckis’ coaxes a performance out of her anyway. Indeed, Douglas and Turner are rather swashbuckling in their roles, and their burgeoning romance never becomes contrived or schmaltzy.
5. Contact (1997)
Written by Carl Sagan
Starring Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, David Morse, Geoffrey Blake, Tom Skeritt, William Fichtner, Larry King
Based on the novel by Carl Sagan, “Contact” tells the story of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) scientist Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster). When she discovers a signal from an alien life form that documents plans to build a machine for human beings, the American government, religious factions, and the rest of the world become involved in a political tug of war over who should be chosen to pilot the machine if it is indeed built. It’s a fascinating, humane story that questions who we are without pretension. Jodie Foster is excellent as Arroway – she gives the film the grounded, human touch that makes it so captivating.
4. Used Cars (1980)
Written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale
Starring Kurt Russell, Jack Warden, Gerrit Graham, Frank McRae, Deborah Harmon, Joe Flaherty, Michael McKean.
One of the earlier collaborations between Zemeckis and Gale this film lives and dies on its quirky script and sprightly performances from Kurt Russell and Jack Warden. The story tells of two warring used car lot owners, each trying to get one over the other with increasingly outlandish stunts.
3. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Written by Jeffrey Price, Peter Seaman
Starring: Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, Joanne Cassidy, Charles Fleischer, Stubby Kaye, Alan Tilvern
Robert Zemeckis had used special-effects extensively in “Back To The Future” but here, pre-cursing his later obsession with new technology, he pushes the boundaries further than he had done before. In this comedy-crime caper, Bob Hoskins’ cop Eddie Valiant interacts with ‘real life’ cartoon characters. At the time, the techniques were state of the art, and although special-effects have improved, what you see here has hardly dated.
2. Forrest Gump (1994)
Written by Eric Roth
Starring: Tom Hanks, Robin Wright Penn, Gary Sinise, Mykelti Williamson, Sally Field, Rebecca Williams
“Forrest Gump” was immediately taken to the hearts of cinemagoers. Tom Hanks’ wonderful performance as Forrest Gump became the iconic image of 1994 Hollywood. His simpleton’s line: “Life is like a box of chocolates” became an immortal line, and his lifelong adventure, that interspersed with significant historical events and real people, made the character and the film an instant crowd pleaser.
1. Back To The Future (Trilogy) (1985, 1989, 1990)
Written by: Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Chriostopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover (not in sequels), Thomas F. Wilson, Elisabeth Shue (sequels only), James Tolkan, Billy Zane, Mary Steenburgen
What would you do if you could go back in time and meet your parents when they were teenagers? That’s the irresistible premise of Robert Zemeckis’ “Back To The Future”. Essentially, a movie built on the American dream, it’s deliciously filled with a nostalgic retrospective of the fifties underlined by the cultural-political clash of the time periods teen protagonists Marty McFly finds himself in.
It is without doubt Robert Zemeckis’ best film – a writer-director whose career has been very much under-appreciated by critics. The mere fact Steven Spielberg got “Back To The Future” off the ground, and his early assistance and support during Zemeckis’ first few films, may be a reason why he, in many quarters, is seen as a knock-off Spielberg. However, while Spielberg, Zemeckis, and of course George Lucas, hailed from a childhood fed on late night fifties B-movies, science-fiction serials, and the television revolution, Spielberg and Lucas never captured the comforting nostalgia of middle to late 20th century Americana like Zemeckis achieved so often. It isn’t strange then that whilst Spielberg phoned home and had Richard Dreyfuss making mash potato mountains, and Lucas went off to fight a war in the stars, Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale would quietly concoct Back To The Future – dare I say it: the best science-fiction adventure ever made.
The film is regarded so highly not only because of the perfect script (used in many film schools as the blueprint for writing character-driven, narrative cinema) but because it explores such a beautifully enriching ideal. Like any great sci-fi, those questions of ‘what if’ are carefully investigated by Zemeckis’ warm touch and sprightly direction, from a script infused with humour and inter-textual references. The film also detracts a little from the John Hughes school of the repressive parent, turning the notion on its head to reveal a rather cyclical sense of history and human nature.
Yet the film could have been very different had it not been blessed with two such terrific leads. Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd may have pushed their skills as actors further in other films but never, before or since, have they embraced their characters so well, or with as much comedic chemistry. Lloyd’s Doc Brown is a kind of mad scientist living off a kinetic childlike energy, whose optimistic attitude and moral values suggest, given the chance, he’d make Frankenstein out of dead poets, Peace Corp reps, Vietnam heroes and JFK. His energy is anchored by Fox’s wide-eyed teen who gets himself into a spot of bother which eventually equates to an adventure of not only his lifetime but his parents too. Of course, one cannot go without mentioning the excellent support from Crispin Glover as Fox’s Dad, and Thomas F. Wilson as the school bully. It is only when you evaluate all these component parts and pause to contemplate the filmmaker’s inspired use of time travel’s infinite possibilities, that the full sense of the film’s true genius prevails.
Of course, Back To The Future produced two sequels and it’s extremely difficult to look at them as separate entities. The original film is superior, but the second showed time-travel at its most dark and exhibited Zemeckis questioning the idea of such an ability having an adverse effect on a world that simply could not deal with it. The third showed us that second sequels are not always bad, eclipsing “Back To The Future Part II” by virtue of returning to the values and ideals that made the original such a joy. Forget your “Indiana Jones”, your “Star Wars”, your “Three Colours”, and your “Lord Of The Rings” – this is the finest cinematic trilogy there is.