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The Fretts on Film Interview: Robert Zemeckis

October 28, 2012
FLIGHT

Even though it’s not shot in 3D, Flight is Robert Zemeckis’ most three-dimensional movie in years. I spoke with the director of The Polar Express, Forrest Gump and other movies not starring Tom Hanks about his return to live action with Denzel Washington’s harrowing plane-crash saga.

You were working on motion capture films for the last decade before Flight. Did you always intend that you’d come back to a live action film?

Yeah, well, I never actually knew that I had left—I was just doing what was coming over the threshold.

So what was it about this movie that made you want to go back to live action?
I thought it was a very rare and compelling, beautifully written screenplay. It’s very seldom that you find a piece of material that’s complex and has a lot of ambiguity in it and more ambiguity, and is also dramatic and entertaining.

Did it feel different to make a movie with live action after having been away?
No, it’s all the same, all the same problems are still there. It’s like riding a bike.

So what problems did you run into on this movie?
Just the usual production problems. The one scene you have to do outside, it ends up being the coldest day in the history of Atlanta—that kind of thing. Or it’s always raining when you want it to not rain, and it’s always sunny when you hope it’s gonna rain. Very typical. You just get through it.

You’re a pilot yourself. Was that a factor in piquing your interest?
No, as a matter of fact, I had done a plane crash in Cast Away so all my partners and advisors were going, ‘Bob, can you really do another movie with a plane crash? You’re going to be known as the plane crash guy.’ And I said, ‘Well, you know, I can’t not do this piece for that reason—it’s too good.’

Have you been flying lately?
Yeah, I flew today.

Does it feel any different after making a few plane crash movies?
No. Flying is incredibly safe. I think it’s something like 1000 time safer than driving in a car. So the one thing that you do learn when you’re a pilot is you understand how safe if really is.

Is it anything like directing a movie? 
Flying an airplane is a lot of routine punctuated by moments of sheer terror so that’s sort of like making a movie, I guess.

Why did you want the screenwriter, John Gatins, on the set every day?
I asked for that after I read the script because the script was so complex and so emotional, and I just knew that I needed a creative soulmate. So the first thing I asked John was, ‘If were lucky enough to get this green lit, would you be able to get away from your family and come on location with me? Because I really need somebody there as a sounding board.’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’ So every day we actually rode back and forth to the set in the same car. Yep, he was there every minute.

What did it add having him there?
Contrary to myth—it might not be myth, it might be real—I’m very respectful to the writer. And I guess a lot of directors don’t like writers around because they get angry that they’re destroying their material or whatever. But my feeling is that none of this was written by accident. This came out of John Gatins’ heart and his soul so why would I not want that near me? So if things were shifting—very little did, but once in a while something did—I’d have someone there who could be another brain.

Was Denzel Washingotn worried about not coming off as heroic?
Well, you know, I don’t think he thinks about that. I think he’s always in service of the character. That would actually be suicidal if you signed onto a movie, but said, ‘I want to make him completely different because I want him to be more like what my ideal of a human is.’ How insane would that be to do that? That would be crazy. If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. It’s real easy.

Race is never addressed in the film–I assume the character wasn’t specifically written as African American. Is that correct?
I never had one single conversation about that with Denzel. Not one.

Kelly Reilly surprised me in this movie. What made you think to cast her as a recovering heroin addict?
Yeah, she’s fantastic. She did a great, great job. You know, what’s interesting about that is she put herself on tape and sent it in and I looked at it and said, ‘Wow, this is great.’ Because obviously there was no reason to start with an English actress, but she just nailed the character. We brought her in and she had it down. So she was cast completely and solely based on her talent.

Are you doing a remake of Yellow Submarine next?
No, I’m not gonna do that.

Do you know what you’re going to do next?
No, I don’t. I’m always afraid I’m going to react to what I just did so I always take a little bit of time.

What’s your favorite Robert Zemeckis film? Anybody remember I Wanna Hold Your Hand or Used Cars? Post a comment!

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