Earlier this year, Robert Zemeckis
took “Flight” with Denzel Washington, a story about an airline pilot who prevents a plane from crashing, but only after his substance-induced actions led to the accident in the first place. “Flight” is firmly rooted in the ongoing awards season madness, with most eyes on Washington’s performance and Zemeckis’ emotional rollercoaster.
But “Flight” is a noteworthy film for the director on another level: it’s his first live-action feature film since 2000′s “Cast Away.” In the years between the Tom Hanks and Washington-starring dramas, Zemeckis directed three performance-capture flicks — “The Polar Express,” “Beowulf” and “A Christmas Carol” — to varying degrees of critical reception. But the director remains firmly committed to experimenting with moviemaking technology, skills he hopes to bring to his next round of projects — a list that includes a potential sequel to his classic “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” in fact.
Zemeckis recently stopped by MTV News for a chat about not just “Flight” but his thoughts on performance-capture, his hopes for a “Roger Rabbit” sequel, why you won’t see him directing the next “Star Wars” movie, and much more.
MTV: Over the last decade, you made three films using performance-capture. I know you’ve talked before about the actors you’ve worked with — they’ve by and large embraced and enjoyed that process. That being said, were there any that either refused in the end to say, “I’m not going to make that leap,” or somewhere you had to hold their hand and get them acclimated to the process?
Robert Zemeckis: Everyone was game. No one ever said I’m not doing that. I had famous actors in the “Roger Rabbit” days say, “How dare you suggest making a movie with a cartoon character?” It was Paul Newman. He was one of my early choices for “Roger,” and he didn’t take kindly to the idea of doing a movie with a cartoon rabbit. Some of them, when they got the ridiculous costume on with the dots and everything, I had to kind of ease them into it. But what happens is, and it’s very interesting, is that everyone looks equally ridiculous. There’s no primping pecking-order, so everybody’s equal. Nobody gets overly primped or gets into a situation of, well, why are they working on his or her hair that long, and not mine? It makes everything go very smoothly!
MTV: Has the attitude about performance-capture and the work you’ve done in the last ten years surprised you? I feel that some critics, not all, for some reason, don’t equate it with live-action; they think there’s a subtext that it’s a lesser art-form, that it has less value, that you’ve been slumming it or something. Has that surprised you along the way? What do you chalk that up to?
Zemeckis: Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t understand it. It does surprise me and I don’t know why that is. I think it just comes from basic human nature; we fear something that’s different. I think it got confused with this idea that actors would be replaced. But actually it’s the reverse; actors act like they never can do in a movie. They got confused by that somehow. It was a double-whammy: it scared animators because they thought animation would get replaced by actors coming in and doing cartoon characters, which isn’t the case, and actors got freaked out that they would somehow be replaced. Neither one was the case.
MTV: How often do you come across a script that really touches you? That makes you say, “This is worth pursuing.”
Zemeckis: Oh, so very rarely. It’s amazing how much bad material is out there. Very few good screenplays come along. So when one does come along, like “Flight.” I hadn’t seen a screenplay… people always ask, “Did you make this conscious decision to not do live-action?” And the answer is “no.” I was just waiting to find a decent live-action screenplay, and it didn’t come along until I saw “Flight.”
MTV: I know you go project to project and you’re not diving into the next one exactly tomorrow. But I know you’ve said recently that this Philippe Petit project is something that’s close to your heart. I was a big fan of “Man on Wire,” as I’m sure you were. Would that entail performance-capture?
Zemeckis: It would be a blend of live-action and digital 3-D. Nothing exists there anymore, so it would have to be created. Where I got the idea to do this was in searching for movies that should be made in 3-D, not taking a movie and converting it, but finding a movie that would only work the best in 3-D. I thought being up on a wire would work! When you think about it, you only watch wire-walking by looking up. The only guy who gets to see the real magnificent art of it is the guy. To be able to put the camera up there with the guy and put it in 3-D, it’d be a worthy thing.
MTV: Is there a script yet?
Zemeckis: I’ve made the whole movie in an animatic!
MTV: Would you consider doing 3-D post-conversion on any of your earlier films?
Zemeckis: The only one is “Roger Rabbit,” because you could really pull the animation out as a separate element. It would be very spectacular 3-D. As far as converting, the “Back to the Future” films… I don’t see the point in that. But they did a test on “Roger” back in 2006, somewhere around then, and it looks really great.
MTV: Speaking of “Roger,” I’ve pestered you about a sequel over the years. And I hear there’s a script that you’re happy with?
Zemeckis: I’m happy with the script. It’s very good. It’s written by the original writers, and it’s good. [But Disney] is still thinking about it. If I were to do the sequel, it would be done just like the first one. It would look the same way, but we would present it in 3-D in its release. I would do all of the animation hand-drawn; 2-D, but using 3-D tools. It wouldn’t be like Pixar 3-D. It wouldn’t look like that.
MTV: You mention Pixar, and I’m not going to write your script for you — it’s already been written — but do those Pixar characters enter into the fray, or do you stick to the original stable?
Zemeckis: No, this would again be another period movie. That’s all I can say!
MTV: What do you think about the notion of “Star Wars” continuing?
Zemeckis: Well, you know. I guess they’re going to continue long after I’m gone. [Laughs] My kids love watching “Clone Wars,” they love watching that stuff. God love ‘em.
MTV: Sounds like you’re not directing, then!
Zemeckis: Oh, I wouldn’t even know what to do. I wouldn’t know how to do “Star Wars.”
MTV: We all enjoyed when the “Back to the Future” shoes came out last year. Bob Gale teased to us that auto-laces are just around the corner.
Zemeckis: Well they’re supposedly working on those, yeah! That’s what the promise is! I hope I get [the first pair]. You’d think I would! But none have arrived yet. I do have the ones that light up, so that’s cool.
MTV: Is it true that you’re considering bringing “Back to the Future” to the stage as a musical?
Zemeckis: You know, there’s talk about that. Again, it’s all stuff that’s speculative and way down the line. Nothing that’s up front and center.
MTV: You’ve always been at the forefront from a technological perspective. Do you imagine that there’s another hurtle to get by in terms of what we’re going to see next? We’re seeing IMAX more and more, 3-D is perfected more and more every day, performance-capture… what’s left, if anything?
Zemeckis: You never know. As I know intimately, it’s very difficult to predict the future. Usually what happens when you predict the future is, you underestimate it. I think that probably what will happen, and this is my opinion, is that 3-D will become a big, home theater thing. If there’s a way to do 3-D and do it without glasses, that would be very cool.
Check out everything we’ve got on “Flight.”