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September 2014
Issue: February 1, 2013

Director's Chair: Robert Zemeckis — 'Flight'

By: Iain Blair
HOLLYWOOD — It’s been a long 12 years since Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis, who has focused his energy on animated projects over the past decade, has made a live-action film. 

So Flight, his most recent drama starring Denzel Washington as Capt. Whip Whitaker, an airline pilot who controversially crash-lands a plane while under the influence, marks a welcome return to live action by the Forrest Gump and Cast Away auteur.

Here, in a rare and exclusive Post interview, Zemeckis talks about making the film, his love of post and editing.

POST: How would you describe this film, and what sort of film did you set out to make?
ROBERT ZEMECKIS: “It’s really a character study more than any sort of action movie, and that’s what I set out to make. It was all in the screenplay, which I thought was magnificent and so well-written. I loved it and the character of Whip.”

POST: Were you looking to get back into live action films?
ZEMECKIS: “Not really. I don’t have any agenda, and I don’t decide I’ll try to make a certain type of film and then look for a screenplay. I basically always just look for a great story, and if it’s animated then I’ll go that way, and if it’s live action like this, then I go that way.”

POST: But you did spend a long time doing nothing but animated projects.
ZEMECKIS: “Right, and all those performance capture films were so much fun to do. It’s a very intriguing art form and I seemed to find stories that just lent themselves to that form, so I just kept doing it.”

POST: What were the biggest challenges of making such an ambitious film?
ZEMECKIS: “Technically, the big thing was shooting all the pieces we needed for the plane crash. It took about 10 days. We broke the scene into the main cabin and cockpit. We did five days of what we needed in the cabin, in the complete set, then we’d go away and shoot other stuff while they put the cockpit on the motion base. 
“Then we’d shoot all the cockpit stuff — this is up to where we had to turn people upside down. Then we shot all the cockpit pieces of them turning upside down. Then we’d go away, shoot other stuff, and they would put the main cabin on the rotisserie, the device that inverts it. Then we’d shoot all the stuff with the people inverted, go off and then finish with the cockpit on the rotisserie, so it was like a checker-board dance. 
“My DP Don Burgess, VFX supervisor Kevin Baillie and mechanical FX supervisor Michael Lantieri were key in putting it all together. We shot all that in Atlanta, Georgia, where the story is set, and about 75 percent of the shoot was on location, with the rest shot on stages and in warehouses down there. But the biggest overall challenge was having just 45 days for the total shoot and a budget of just $31 million. That’s a big challenge when you’re doing a character-driven piece like this, because you always want to give your actors as much time as you can, so they can really do the work. Fortunately, I had an amazing cast who were very prepared and ready to go, and one of the reasons I feel you can make a film that looks as elegant as this for so little money is because everyone involved is so experienced.”

POST: With this and Cast Away you seem to be obsessed with plane crashes?
ZEMECKIS: (Laughs) “No, I’m not. It’s all just a coincidence. In fact, I had a long conversation with my partners about this very subject, whether I should do another movie about a plane crash, but we all agreed that wouldn’t have been a very smart reason not to do it.”

POST: It’s been 10 years since your last live-action film — a lifetime in Hollywood — and the digital revolution has completely changed the cinematic landscape. I assume the first big decision was, do we shoot it on film or digitally?
ZEMECKIS: “That’s very true, and all of Hollywood’s been working in a sort of digital sandwich since the mid-‘90s anyway, with the only time film being used in the camera magazine and in the theater. Now it’s all digital, which I think is a wonderful thing.” 

POST: So what guided your choice?
ZEMECKIS: “My DP recommended that we go digital, and I thought, ‘great.’”

POST: Was there a bit of a learning curve for you?
ZEMECKIS: “Not really. All the lenses are the same, and all the terminology, and I just learned all the different procedures, which aren’t that different from when you shoot film. Going digital gave me a lot more opportunities because the digital cameras now are so much smaller and more versatile, so I could shoot in a more dynamic and elaborate way in terms of moving the camera. 
“For instance, we were able to get the camera right in the cockpit with far more ease. We went with two Red Epics for most of the time, and then added a third or fourth camera as needed; I was very happy with the results.”

POST: You collaborated again with DP Don Burgess, who shot both Forrest Gump and Cast Away, and whose credits include such varied fare as Spider-Man and The Muppets. What did he bring to the mix?
ZEMECKIS: “The thing that’s great about Don is he always approaches the cinematography of the movie from the screenplay, which I think is really crucial. He’s not looking to make the film feel or look different from what it should emotionally, because he’s always looking at the screenplay. He bases every camera move on what’s on the page, so he brings that great storytelling sensibility to his visual work, which is why I feel the films we do together look so good.”

POST: Where did you do the post? How long was the process?
ZEMECKIS: “We did all the editing at my offices in Santa Barbara, where I live. I start editing right behind my shooting, so we began shooting the movie October 2011 and finished cutting it by the end of February, with some time off for Christmas, so it was pretty quick. But that’s all we could afford because we had to do the film on a very tight budget.”

POST: Do you like the post process? 
ZEMECKIS: “Love it. I hate the shoot, and I love everything else! Post and editing is my favorite part of making any film, because it’s cinema and you get to do the final rewrite. You’re back to writing, except with images this time, and you get to try things and do it all very methodically; you can really think things out without all that pressure of time and money on a crazy set.”

POST: Tell us about working with editor Jeremiah O’Driscoll, who first collaborated with you on Death Becomes Her and worked on Forrest Gump and Cast Away. How does that relationship work?
ZEMECKIS: “We don’t really do a rough assembly. I can’t bear to watch scenes that are roughly edited, so right away we try to fine-cut as much as we can from the get-go. He basically began assembling the film as I shot it; that’s very helpful, because you see what the rhythms of the performances are looking like and if the style of the movie is all coming together. 
“Obviously he’s quite a few weeks behind me, but that’s so helpful for a sense of the overall pace of the movie, so you can make adjustments while you’re still shooting. He began cutting on the Paramount lot while we were shooting on location in Atlanta, and we would discuss the edit via computer hook-up and teleconferencing, and then he spent two weeks on location working with me, and then we all moved back to Santa Barbara. 
“I’ve always loved digital editing, and we cut on Avid, and I don’t know why we would still record moving images on a technology that’s 100 years old now. It’s crazy!”

POST: So is film dead?
ZEMECKIS: “Oh yes, for sure. But it did last a whole century. It had its day and served its purpose, but it’s gone now.”

POST: Who did the visual effects work and how many visual effects shots are there?
ZEMECKIS: “Atomic Fiction, based in Northern California and headed by Kevin Baillie, did all the effects. We had about 300 visual effects shots, ranging from very elaborate digital paintings to stuff like camera shake and wire removal and so on. I love what visual effects allow you to do, although going through the actual process of taking an idea all the way through to the finished shot can be very tedious. But it’s all good in the end. Remember the floating feather at the start of Forrest Gump? It was a great visual effects shot that looked so realistic, but you couldn’t have got a real feather to perform that way.”

POST: How important are sound and music?
ZEMECKIS: “It’s crucial, and I always give it the exact same amount of attention I give all the other areas of the film. It’s all part of a whole, and you can’t ignore the huge emotional impact that sound and music give. I’m very involved in all that, although I only come for finaling all the mixes, which were done at Skywalker. I’m not there for all the pre-mixes.”

POST: Did the film turn out the way you originally envisioned while reading the script?
ZEMECKIS: “Yes, but it’s always a process, it’s organic and always changing. So I think that as a filmmaker, you have to be open to that reality of the art form. You start with your vision, but then you have to be flexible enough to compromise and allow it in some cases to actually improve itself.”

POST: Any interest in doing a 3D film?
ZEMECKIS: “If the story lends itself to 3D, sure, but I’d never want to impose 3D on some story just for the sake of doing it. It’s got to enhance the emotional impact of the story.”

POST: What’s next? Anymore motion capture projects in your future?
ZEMECKIS: “Again, only if the right screenplay comes along that just grabs me, where I go, ‘This would make a fantastic motion capture film.’ I actually don’t have anything lined up right now, and I’ve always done it this way. I finish a film, get it released, and then sit back, take a deep breath and start looking around for an interesting idea.”

POST: What’s your view of Hollywood today? Is it sick or healthy?
ZEMECKIS: “It’s doing fine, but it’s worrying that it seems to be more extreme than ever in terms of budgets — meaning that at one end you have these huge, big-budget blockbusters and franchises, and at the other end, small-budget indies, with nothing in between. The fact is, the audience is shrinking and kids today aren’t that interested in the actual art form or history of film. 
“You’re seeing this evolution where going to a movie is becoming more of a fashion thing — to see the latest thing. That’s why films look the way they do now, more like videogames. It’s familiar, like watching someone else play a videogame. The whole future of how films get distributed is so tricky to predict now, what with all the new platforms out there.”

POST: It’s got to be disheartening as a filmmaker to know that so many kids only see movies on a smart phone or tiny screen now?
ZEMECKIS: “Yes, but the real problem is they expect it should also be free — or maybe $1. That’s not sustainable. They feel that if entertainment comes to their house, it should be free, and that devalues our art form. But you have to be hopeful about the future, even though it’s all changing so rapidly.”