Robert Zemeckis Interview: The Walk, Modern Filmmaking

We chatted to Robert Zemeckis about his dizzying new film, The Walk, and the job of a movie director…

Now in his fifth decade of movie-making, you might assume that Robert Zemeckis’ stature as a director would make it easy to attract funding for a new project. Not so. His latest feature, The Walk, took a decade to get to cinemas, a decade during which multiple investors passed on a film they didn’t see as slotting in to a tried and tested category. Based on the true story of Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, you can see their point. Part salute to the ineffable act of artistic creation, part theme park attraction, The Walk doesn’t pigeonhole easily. But then, Zemeckis’ films rarely do.

The enforced wait turned out to be fortuitous. In that ten years, digital and 3D technology advanced to the point that Zemeckis was able to achieve his original vision for the film: recreating Petit’s stunt with such precision that audiences would feel that they were right up there with him, suspended over a thousand feet in the sky.

It’s that kind of impressive visual trickery combined with human stories, out of which Zemeckis has made a career. From weaving live-action and 2D animation together in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, to the film-within-a-film achievement of Back To The Future II, to digitally inserting Forrest Gump into the twentieth century archives, to his more recent trio of motion-capture CG features, his movies are known for being at the vanguard of special effects.

That doesn’t though, make him a slave to the new-fangled. Zemeckis is a firm believer that content dictates form. When a story demands pioneering special effects or 3D, he’s amassed the kind of expertise and collaborators to know how to achieve it. When it doesn’t, as in the case of a powerful, actor-led character study like 2012’s Flight starring Denzel Washington, he leaves well enough alone.

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And you get the sense that he wishes others would follow suit. Zemeckis is no fan of George Lucas-style back catalogue tinkering, or 3D rereleases of 2D pictures. He’s also made it clear that thanks to their contracts, any attempted remake of Back To The Future would literally have to happen over his and co-writer Bob Gale’s dead bodies.

We met with the director at a Mayfair hotel to chat about The Walk and the job of movie-making today. While we talk, a persistent chorus of political chants can be heard from outside. A demonstration on the pavement opposite has necessitated a swift room change and the windows to be slammed shut…

So, I imagine things like the protest going on outside right now is one of the reasons you like mo-cap so much?

[Laughs] Oh yeah!

Because you can exert a level of control.

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That [points outside] would ruin your whole shooting day, right, right, exactly.

Would you call The Walk a film about the drive to create art?

Yeah, the need to express yourself creatively, having that passion to accomplish a dream.

You could say it’s the only exception then to your rule about not making films that can be summed up in a single line: “A man has a dream to cross the towers, and achieves it?”

Could be, yeah.

What are the complexities of that one-line story for you?

It’s complex in that that is not a satisfying answer to exactly why. The ultimate question of The Walk is not answered, because it’s impossible to answer. I think that’s where the complexity comes in. It’s like asking a painter why he painted that painting. Philippe can’t answer why he did it. He says “I was following my dream,” well yes, that’s very admirable, we should all follow our dreams, but why did you decide to do that? Why did that become your dream? That, he can’t answer.

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It strikes me that there are parallels between Philippe’s dream and what you have to do as a director?

Yeah. Very, very, very similar. Definitely parallels. I identify completely with his unrelenting passion, completely.

The way he collects his accomplices in the film, that’s what you’ve been doing over the course of your career, collecting collaborators…

Right. You can’t do it alone. You have to have help. Philippe is kind of like a mad director where he’s [laughs] literally forcing people, in the case of Jeff, to put his life in danger to help him tighten his cables!

Have you done similar in the past?

I hope not. I don’t put people in physical danger, but you do have to inspire people. You have to inspire people to give everything they’ve got to help the project.

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And convincing them to believe in your dream in particular?

Yeah, believe in it, I guess that’s the word. Have faith in it maybe.

How easy is it to convince the money guys?

That’s very difficult and it gets harder every year, it’s very difficult.

That’s surprising. It feels as though it should get easier for you every year. That by this point, they should just hear your name and sign a check?

See, life doesn’t work that way. It gets harder because it’s a very unique art form. There’s nothing like it, it’s just really complicated and very… unique is the only way I know how to describe it. It’s an art form that costs a lot of money, it’s very expensive, so it makes for a lot of nervous people.

You once described that nervousness as paralysis, saying that the industry is paralysed because it doesn’t know what it wants to do.

Well, it knows what it wants to do but what it wants to do is impossible. So that’s why it’s paralysed. It wants to be guaranteed that movies will make money and of course, the movies that make money are the ones that are never guaranteed to make money. You know that sequels and big comic book movies and cartoons are going to make money, so that’s all that they make.

Going back to when you made Forrest Gump, the success of that obviously wasn’t guaranteed. It was thought maybe that people of that sixties generation would go to see it, then maybe that Americans would go to see it, but in the end, everyone went to see it.

Right, right.

What’s changed between then and now?

First of all, movies have gotten much more expensive. Because movies have gotten so expensive, and they’re so expensive to market, that means that for a movie to break even or to make its money back, everybody has to go see the movie, and if everybody has to go see the movie then it can’t be about anything.

The four quadrants?

Well, you see, I think The Walk is a four-quadrant movie and it’s about something. There are things in The Walk that are going to create controversy but… if you make a movie that has to appeal to everyone, if you have to do something that is homogenous and safe let’s say, by definition then, the film can’t have interesting or edgy characters in it. Then it’s not a very interesting thing to watch and it just becomes a lot of action.

A film like Back To The Future, you’ve said in the past, wouldn’t get a PG rating today, because you think the audience sophistication has regressed?

Yes, yes, it has. It’s really interesting. I don’t know why, but it has. I don’t know why you can watch anything on television, yet movies have to be these kind of saccharine stories that don’t offend anybody. I don’t know why that is. Maybe because you have to pay to see them? I don’t know. You have to pay for your cable subscription though, but you can see anything on cable TV.

Subscription usually frees up cable shows creatively, but in cinema you think it restricts things?

Yeah. Well, we have this sort of tacit censorship which is the ratings system and it’s directly tied to box office, so it is censorship. Like if you make an R-rated movie, you know that only a certain amount of people are going to go see it under any circumstance.

Which is why we’re seeing 12A ratings on the new Terminator or films that would traditionally  have been a much higher rating.

Exactly. Exactly.

“Directing is compromise” seems to be sort of your interview mantra. If a director does a good job, I suppose the audience shouldn’t be able to tell where the compromises are.

Right.

So, can you tell us where they were in The Walk?

No! [Laughs] There isn’t like… I have no complaints about The Walk. I made it and I’m very happy with what happens. It’s more like small stuff. Every day you wish you had more time, you wish you could do one more set-up, you wish you could do one more take, you wish you had time to rig a special effect a little bit more elaborately. You have to always be okay to walk away from the ideal vision that you have in your mind’s eye and just be basically happy with what you’re able to pull off under the circumstances.

Otherwise you don’t get movies made?

Or you’re just in a constant state of distress because you’re not happy with everything. You have to kill your darlings, you have to do that or your movies just wallow in self-indulgence. You have to always be aware that you’re making a movie for a mass audience, and you have to have the courage to kill your darlings.

Can we talk about the narration in The Walk? You described Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a host rather than a narrator. That he doesn’t narrate it, he hosts it.

Yeah, think of a movie like Annie Hall where Woody Allen talks directly to the camera. He hosted that movie you could say.

I felt like the tone of this movie didn’t need there to be a device, like how Forrest Gump is talking to somebody on a park bench. Joseph Gordon-Levitt could just address the audience. It’s something that I think is part of everyday life in the world of Skype. Everyone’s used to information coming right at them from the camera.

You prepare and rehearse with actors a lot.

I like to, yeah.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has said he was pleasantly surprised that you would ask for input, you would start a scene by saying ‘here are the things I know about this scene, and here’s what I don’t know…’ What things don’t you know about a scene, going into it?

Well, it’s not every scene, but sometimes there are things that I need other opinions about. I should know everything about a scene and if I don’t know something about a scene, it means that there’s something not one hundred percent clear in the writing.

If I’m the screenwriter, like I was on The Walk, then I’m going to ask people to come in and help me and collaborate with me. So I would come in and say ‘I want to get this across in this scene, I’m not quite sure it’s doing it the way it’s written, what ideas do you have?’ An actor can sometimes turn a phrase or do something that can help make it work, knowing what I’m trying to accomplish.

Does it change when you’re collaborating with actors who are also directors? Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, Joseph Gordon-Levitt…

…Jodie Foster, right. Working with actors who are directors is magnificent. Because they understand the art-form intimately and they know exactly how everything works. So they know how their character fits into the mosaic because they can see it through a director’s point of view.

Where an actor’s who’s never worked behind the camera, a lot of times they place too much importance on things that the director knows aren’t important. They waste a lot of energy on things that, if they had a sense of the entirety of film-making, they would know that they’re wasting a lot of energy on something that really doesn’t translate to the screen.

Can you recall specific contributions from an actor/director like Jodie Foster or Washington or Hanks, somewhere they’ve fixed a problem maybe?

Well they’ll look to you and say “So you’re just going to use that first piece of that last take, right?”, they’ll say something like that and you’d go “Yeah, that’s fine.” Something that is really, really helpful is they’re never late. Actors who are directors know how important it is for when they’re called to the set to be there and be ready because they know that it’s just self-indulgence for an actor to hold up, after everyone’s done this incredible hard work, to then not be ready to do their work when they step on the set, on their mark.

Avoiding that kind of situation must be a matter of getting the casting right. You called having to recast Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly [in Back To The Future] the worst experience of your career. Is that still the case?

I think so. I mean, a lot of people got hurt for no reason, and yeah, it was bad.

So what do you do now to avoid never having to do that again, ever having to have that conversation with an actor?

I guess that’s one place where, as a director, you can’t compromise. What I learned from that experience is that I have to have my ego in check as a director, I can’t think that I’m going to make something work that I don’t have the power to make work. If it’s not happening, I can’t then take everybody down this road without knowing, to the best of my ability, that I’ve done my job the best in casting this role, if that makes any sense?

Absolutely.

You’ve taken relatively few screenwriting credits over your career, but presumably you’ve done rewrites on all of your movies?

Oh yeah (laughs). Well, that’s what a director does. He rewrites the screenplay but he uses images. And by the way, this idea of a director [here] and a writer [here] is only created by the unions and the guilds, because we’re both just storytellers and we’re making this film as a collaborative thing. One guy uses paper to write on and another guy uses the images.

I’m respectful of writers. I think that just for doing a director’s job, you don’t deserve a writing credit. If the idea for the movie is your own, then you deserve a writing credit, like in the case of The Walk for example, but if you’re just doing your job as a director, if you’re just interpreting the scene or if in that process you find a way to improve the scene, I don’t think you deserve a writing credit for that if you’re the director. That’s part of the collaboration.

And I understand you find yourself editing less now than you used to?

Yeah. It’s just being more confident with what you’re doing and not having to control, like turning more over to the actor by editing less. Editing is trying to modulate the performance artificially rather than letting the actor set the pace and do what they have to do. It’s having the confidence to let the camera witness what’s going on and let the actor do their job and not impose your vision on it by cutting and speeding up the performance by editing.

We’re having to wrap up now and we haven’t yet talked about the wire-walk itself in the film, which is completely thrilling to watch. What, on-screen, has given you the same sensation that you’ve given us there? That thrill?

Seeing a movie like The Godfather, I just walked out of the theatre gobsmacked, it was just beyond my… it was totally inspiring, but it was inspiring because it was so beautifully made and the performances were so fantastic and it was so brilliantly written. I felt that way when I saw Jaws for the first time, I was just awed by how Steven evokes such a feeling of terror in the audience.

Why those two in particular?

They’re uniquely cinematic stories. When you see the art form of cinema being used to its fullest potential, that’s what’s really amazing and wonderful about going to the movies.

Can you cite any more recent examples than The Godfather and Jaws that achieved that same thing for you?

Sadly no [laughs], sadly no.

That’s telling!

Right.

And finally, at this point in your career, do you feel like you can relax a little, or is there a sense of time’s winged chariot at your back pushing you to make more and more movies?

I kind of feel the same as I’ve always felt. I don’t know what attracts me to a specific movie and when I’m moved to the point where I feel like, okay, this is something I need to do, I go forward and do it.

And you’re going to keep doing that?

I’m going to just keep doing that as long as they let me.

Robert Zemeckis, thank you very much!

The Walk was released for IMAX screens on Friday the 2nd of October, and comes out for general release on Friday the 9th of October.