Interview: Robert Zemeckis talks A Christmas Carol

Robert Zemeckis tells us about his take on A Christmas Carol, as we control our geek-bumps to go face to face with one of Hollywood’s most successful directors…

How many questions can you put to director Robert Zemeckis in seven minutes, given that there are several hours’ worth of posers we could happily ask the man who brought the world Back To The Future, Forrest Gump, Contact, The Polar Express, Used Cars, Beowulf, Cast Away, What Lies Beneath, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the underrated Death Becomes Her?

As he sat down to do press for his incoming take on A Christmas Carol, we managed to ask him this many…

I remember back in the late 80s reading my making of Back To The Future Part II book, and you said in there that you only wanted people to think about how you actually managed to do what you did effects-wise as they were leaving the cinema? That they wouldn’t stop and think ‘how did they do that’ until they left.

Appreciating the inroads you’ve made with performance capture, and the massive technological leaps in cinema since, is that still the case?

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Well, I think that technological tools that filmmakers use to tell stories in a perfect world need to become invisible. When it’s brand new and it’s never been seen before and you’re birthing this stuff, it’s very much on people’s minds.

I see in a very short period of time that … well, nobody ever asks me where I put my microphone. But in 1926, it was on people’s minds a lot. And I think that’s what’s going to happen, and it’s happened all through the history of cinema.

One thing that really struck me about A Christmas Carol was that, appreciating a lot of the pre-press has been about 3D, and performance capture, the use of sound in the film was excellent, almost in a back to basics way. The fact that you use silence so extensively in the film, for instance. Is sound almost the forgotten art?

Well, it’s crucial to making movies, and I don’t think that people give it its due.

I actually spend a lot of time working with my sound designers and my composer, and if you notice Alan [Silvestri]’s music, he always makes room for sound effects, so we don’t have to battle it out in the re-recording stage. But yeah, sound is incredibly important, and it always seems to be taking a back seat to the imagery.

My overriding impression of the film itself was that it wasn’t what I expected I was going to get from a Disney-branded Christmas Carol movie…

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How do you mean?

I thought I was going to get something a lot softer, a lot cuddlier. Instead, there are moments there that have a feel of a tense horror movie to them with the way that you strip Scrooge’s character right down. Was that always your ambition, to go right to the core of it?

Well yeah, my ambition was to stay true to the original piece, and I think horror is a dangerous word to use these days because it conjures up images of horror movies.

But I think what you’re responding to is very classic dramatic storytelling devices like suspense and tension. And I think that to really make the story of redemption work, for Scrooge to actually see the light, he has to be plunged into the darkness.

I’ve seen some of the photos of the film being shot, with actors working on what looks like giant graph paper. You’ve touched before on how liberating that is for actors, and you’ve obviously got one of the most improvisational actors of his generation in Jim Carrey. Just how much can you let your actors cut loose when it has to be so precise at the end?

They can cut loose totally. That’s what’s so amazing, because as long as they stay in the volume of infra-red light they have total freedom. They only have this one parameter. And it’s very liberating, it really allows them to try things and to experiment. To pace the character themselves, to pace the scene.

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And we really don’t have to think about another single thing in the day’s work other than their performance. We don’t have to think about anything else. They’re not encumbered at all by cinema technique.

You’ve got an abundance of projects you’re linked with coming up. Which one are you likely to pick?

It depends! They’re all in development. So what usually happens is that there’s always one that rises up and I have no idea which one that’s going to be. But I’m certainly excited about all of them. They’re all going to be done eventually, but I’m not sure in what order!

Finally, I have to ask this: there’s a sequence near the end of A Christmas Carol where Scrooge is hanging on the back of a carriage and sliding along. Was there a little tip of the hat to Marty McFly in there?

[Laughs] If it was, it was very subconscious!

Robert Zemeckis, thank you very much!

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