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Capone makes an emergency landing to talk FLIGHT with director Robert Zemeckis!!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.

So when you're given a very limited amount of time with a director with a track record as solid as Robert Zemeckis, your choices are limited. As much as I would have loved to spend all of my time wit him going over his entire career, spending endless minutes covering the BACK TO THE FUTURE trilogy, FORREST GUMP, USED CARS, ROMANCING THE STONE, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?, DEATH BECOMES HER, CONTACT, CAST AWAY, or his recent commitment to stop-motion animation works like THE POLAR EXPRESS, BEOWULF and A CHRISTMAS CAROL, I'd probably end up covering maybe two of those films, running out of time, and ending up with an unusable interview.

Zemeckis' films are such a part of the film zeitgeist, we almost don't realize it. Hardly a week goes by with some reference or joke being made about FORREST GUMP; entire online communities have been built around the BACK TO THE FUTURE movies; and Zemeckis himself can't do an interview without being asked about the long-discussed ROGER RABBIT sequel (sounds like the first draft of the script is complete; I asked).

Fortunately, his latest film, FLIGHT, about a substance abusing pilot who just happens to successfully land a passenger jet in distress, is such a powerhouse success of a drama that I was able to focus primarily on it during our 15-minute chat, saving my career-spanning questions for (hopefully) another day. With FLIGHT, the 61-year-old Zemeckis arms himself with as strong a cast as he's ever had--led by Denzel Washington, in one of the most gripping roles of his career--and what some might refer to as a micro-budget (relatively speaking, for a director like Zemeckis) and made a run at R-rated, high drama the likes of which he has never attempted, and the results are astounding.

Zemeckis was in his hometown of Chicago last week where FLIGHT was the Closing Night film of the Chicago International Film Festival, and I got some time to talk with him. Please enjoy my interview with Robert Zemeckis…

Capone: Hello, sir. It’s good to meet you.

Robert Zemeckis: It’s good to meet you.

Capone: So what does it mean for you to be back here? When you come back to Chicago, what does it do for you?

RZ: Chicago? You live here?

Capone: Yeah.

RZ: Okay, so you’re not one of those guys from Texas?

Capone: From Austin? No. I just work for the guys in Texas.

RZ: Oh, okay. Well I love Chicago. It’s the Paris of America. Look at that view [He points out the window of the hotel room we're in, which offers us a gorgeous northern view of the Lake Michigan beach front].

Capone: Yeah, you’ve got a great view. Were there lessons learned and attitudes born that you were able to carry through your career? Can you tell me about some of those?

RZ: Well, growing up on the far south side of Chicago and coming from that working-poor neighborhood, it helped me navigate the shark-infested waters of Hollywood really well. That healthy cynicism that you grow up understanding, growing up in this city is really a good tool to have in Hollywood. A lot of my peers who come from privileged families don’t have that compass, and it’s a very dog-eat-dog industry, so it’s very helpful.

Capone: About the film, the question I took away from it was, "What is the truth worth these days?" It seems like it almost has no value anymore. Is it okay to give this pilot a pass, because of the lives he saved? It's a very cynical outlook on the world today.

RZ: I hear exactly what you’re saying. I find myself every single day throwing my hands up when I reach something, and my new mantra, and it’s really depressing me, is “Everything's corrupt.” Isn't that how you see it?

Capone: Oh yes.

RZ: Everything's corrupt. I mean nothing is not corrupt. Anyway, to answer “What it’s worth?”, our story poses the question in the story in very human terms. So I think everybody has to answer it for themselves, but what I think is the power of the movie is that for Whip [Denzel Washington's character], it’s life or death at the end of the day. So if it gets to the point where that’s what is at stake, then you’ve got some real serious things to think about.

Capone: First of all I love that Denzel and Don Cheadle [they first were paired in DEVIL WITH THE BLUE DRESS] are in a movie again together, and their back and forth reveals that these guys hate each other, but they need each other. I love that Cheadle plays a Chicago lawyer too, like there’s something slicker about a Chicago lawyer.

RZ: Of course. [laughs]

Capone: But they need each other, because one needs the lawyer to get off and the lawyer needs Whip to keep his winning trial record clean. Talk about that dynamic a little bit.

RZ: And that's exactly how Denzel saw it from the very beginning. He said, “I think it’s really interesting that this guy is here to do everything that is in his DNA to get me off, and I hate him.” And the same with Don. I am always fascinated by…and I understand why these attorneys work so hard to get these scumbags off; they do it because they love the system. They love the law and they hate the client. So it’s like that kind of a system; everything is so grey and ambiguous in the movie, that’s why I love it so much. It was all in the script.

Capone: How long ago were you introduced to this script?

RZ: I read it in February of 2011.

Capone: But it's a script that's been around for more than 10 years.

RZ: No, John [Gatins, screenwriter] has been writing it since 1999.

Capone: I was excited to see that you were returning to R-rated territory--the first time since USED CARS I think--but in the first 10 minutes, we realize you’re not just returning to it, you’re shot out of an R-rated cannon with this movie, with nudity, drug use, a porn set, a bit of violence. Did you set out looking for a more mature, adult subject matter?

RZ: Well it was the exact same impetus that I used to make THE POLAR EXPRESS a G-rated movie. First of all, I hate the ratings, but I have to live with them. The movie was what it was. The screenplay had to be presented. It’s not a situation where you got a movie that has two “fucks” in it in a non-sexual context, which gives you an automatic R, because you can only have one. But this wasn’t that material. This material was beyond rating. It just was what it was, and the rating is appropriate, but it wasn’t like “Let’s go make an R-rated movie.” It was just, “Let’s present the material the way it has to be presented.”

Capone: I’m wondering, this is one of the most deeply flawed characters I think you’ve ever put in the forefront of one of your films. Who are some of your favorite flawed heroes or antiheroes?

RZ: Well this movie was very much like what was the coin of the realm when I was coming up in film school with all of those great movies of the '70s, where the characters were all antiheroes, and their movies were all full of wonderful irony and moral ambiguity and complexity. That’s what I grew up loving, and this was just such a courageous screenplay, and Whip is a flawed character, but he’s also really good at his job. So he’s very good at this and he’s very flawed here, so it’s a really meaty character to work with.

Capone: What brought you to Denzel? He’s done roles where he’s played likable villains or not so nice guys. How did you guys sort of come together? Had you been thinking of working together before this?

RZ: We never knew each other personally until we did this, and when I read the script, I knew that he was interested in it. So as soon as I read it, I said “Well shit, he’s perfect for it.” I called him and said, “Are you really interested in doing this?” He said, “Yeah, are you interested in doing it?” I said, “Yeah.” So he said, “Let’s do it.” Then it became this really long, close deconstruction of everything that he and I did all the way before we started shooting. So we both were on the same page when we got on to the set on the first day.

Capone: Are you talking about major changes to the character?

RZ: Oh, no. It’s like you start with big global questions, and then you end up thinking about literally, “What color socks does this guy wear?” Somebody is going to ask you, “What color socks do I give this actor?” so you have to know. Again, you have to really know all of that stuff, and that’s really the process. Then I heard Denzel, the way he understood the character; he understood how I understood it, and so we both brought what we needed to bring on the day.

Capone: Kelly Riley is going to be a big discovery for people, even though people may recognize her from the SHERLOCK HOLMES films, but it took me a while to recognize her from that. She's incredible. Tell me about finding her.

RZ: Well that’s a real Hollywood story, seriously. I never would have thought to start looking in England for an English actress. She got her hands on the script, filmed herself doing a scene, sent it to my casting director who said “Bob, you’ve got to look at this.”

Capone: Unsolicited, or was she asked to do it?

RZ: Unsolicited. She sent it in, because she just loved the character, and I saw it, and said “Wow, get her in here.” She just nailed the character, nailed it.

Capone: What do you think it is that draws those two characters together other than just being codependent.

RZ: Oh my god, they're totally codependent, but there is one that’s healthier than the other, and that’s the good thing. And of course, it doesn’t land in Denzel’s world, but Kelly’s character understands that she can’t survive in this relationship.

Capone: Did the fact that this film was tackling such heavy subjects make it more difficult to get financing?

RZ: Oh, of course, but not the rating, because R-rated comedies are giant hits. It’s not a ratings thing; it’s the adult drama, moral ambiguity, complex character stuff that scares everybody. It’s nobody’s fault.

Capone: There isn’t really a place for it anymore.

RZ: Isn’t that sad?

Capone: Very sad, yeah.

RZ: It’s hard to sell to people nowadays. So the only way that you can do the movie is to do it for a price, and we did this for $30 million, and of course Denzel and I had to waive our fees. So that’s the only way that you can make a movie that’s a complex story in Hollywood these days. But the studio really wanted to make it, but they weren’t going to be suicidal. They said, “We love this, but we cannot risk it for more than $30 million,” and once we were able to pull that off, then they were behind the thing 100 percent, because they really liked movies like this.

Capone: I’ve got to ask about the plane crash sequence both form the inside and the outside, but the inside looks completely 100 percent practical. How did you pull that off without people passing out and getting hurt?

RZ: Well it is real, because we built the set on a gimbal that could actually turn 180 degrees, and we filled the cabin with hearty souls and stunt people, who were happy to hang upside down all day, but our safety people only let them hang upside down for a minute at a time.

Capone: Oh wow, that’s it?

RZ: Yeah, it was an arbitrary number. [laughs] The stuntmen were all like, “Really? I’m fine. Keep shooting.” But you know, it’s time consuming and it’s dangerous, and we don’t want to hurt anybody.

Capone: Were the crash visuals from the outside view a fairly sizable part of your budget?

RZ: No, I had all of these great GC artists that I had been putting together over the years. There are like 300 GC shots in the movie.

Capone: Wow. That’s considerable for something like this.

RZ: I know.

Capone: I must ask at least one question about your legacy. There have been quite a few time travel movies this year.

RZ: What’s the other one besides LOOPER?

Capone: In the last year, there was one called SAFETY NOT GARUANTEED; another called SOUND OF MY VOICE. Both were really small movies. Even MEN IN BLACK 3 had a time-travel element to it. But LOOPER writer-director Rian Johnson talked about how he borrowed elements from BACK TO THE FUTURE for the rules of time travel, and then added things that I've never seen used before.

RZ: How cool. Well I used H.G. Wells. [laughs] You travel through time, not through space. It’s a very simple thing. I stuck with H.G. Wells.

Capone: He did a great job with doing the science-fiction, but also the human drama. Did you see LOOPER?

RZ: I have not, but I haven’t seen anything lately. I will see it, of course.

Capone: It was great to meet you. Thank you so much.

RZ: Thank you so much.

-- Steve Prokopy
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Readers Talkback
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  • Oct. 31, 2012, 9:02 a.m. CST


    by Michael


  • Oct. 31, 2012, 9:03 a.m. CST

    That. Felt. Good.

    by Michael

    Can't wait to see this flick.

  • Oct. 31, 2012, 9:06 a.m. CST

    if you post first, you are a certifiable bell-end.

    by dalcross

    And stick to the live action Bob, that works fir you.

  • Oct. 31, 2012, 9:43 a.m. CST

    Do you mean motion-capture animation?


    Pretty sure none of those films you mentioned in the beginning of the article are stop-motion animation.

  • Oct. 31, 2012, 9:49 a.m. CST

    They waived their fees?

    by ScorpioRising

    Do they get something if the movie makes over a certain amount?

  • Bob Z was THE reason I attended the closing night, and I still intended to see 'Flight' when it came out (I've only missed one Zemeckis film in theaters, and that's 'Death Becomes Her.' Been seeing them all theatrically since 'Roger Rabbit'). Like you, I'd love to pick his brain regarding all his different films. i also feel that he's one of the more underrated directors out there. All the biggies (including Tim Burton) have at lest 3 dozen biographies, but Bob only has 1, and it's a POS (I skimmed it, and noted a few glaring errors). Maybe that should be my life goal to get me off my butt: write a decent biography on Robert Zemeckis.

  • Oct. 31, 2012, 10:03 a.m. CST

    You should have started the interview with...

    by Ricardo

    ... "So. How does it feel to make a real fucking MOVIE with PEOPLE again? Or do you want go to back to your computer dolls?"

  • Oct. 31, 2012, 10:30 a.m. CST


    by Logan_1973

    Motion Capture DOES involve working with real people on set. Get educated on the making of Avatar, King Kong, Lord of the Rings, Rise of the Planet of the Apes before jumping to uneducated, foolish conclusions.

  • Oct. 31, 2012, 11:20 a.m. CST


    by ciroslive

  • Oct. 31, 2012, 11:49 a.m. CST

    ricarleite4 - stfu

    by Kamaji

    Let's see YOU make a movie with real people in it.

  • Oct. 31, 2012, 12:05 p.m. CST

    To me one of the greatest cinematic losses of the last decade

    by Samuel Fulmer

    Was Zemeckis spending almost the entire decade making mo-cap crap. I'm glad he's back in live action, I commend the guy for actually getting back to a smaller budget and waiving his usual fees (hint Hint Michael Mann whose last two films were well over 100 mil, and sure didnt' look like it), and I can't wait to see this.

  • Oct. 31, 2012, 3:22 p.m. CST

    How did John Goodman and Melissa Leo become involved in this film?

    by tangcameo

    Since I first saw the trailer and saw them, plus one other actor I've seen in Homicide and The Wire (the judge McNulty tells about Avon Barksdale in the very first episode), I've wondered if David Simon has a hand in this movie.

  • Oct. 31, 2012, 6:05 p.m. CST

    by MikeTheSpike

    Could it be? Might Roger Rabbit 2 actually happen?

  • Oct. 31, 2012, 7:49 p.m. CST

    Always wanted to see a Zemeckis star wars film ...

    by Doctor Bumhole

    Disney, are you cunts reading this?

  • Oct. 31, 2012, 10:01 p.m. CST

    Great interview Capone

    by t_allen

    The fact Zemeckis was able to keep costs down and with a cast like that shows he is one of those great directors that doesn't squander the resources given. I like how you both went over the rating system, which sucks ass IMO, and how it relates to story and not so much getting tickets sold.

  • Nov. 1, 2012, 10:12 a.m. CST

    Ms Reilly is in this?! SOLD.

    by Robert Evans

    Loved her in Mrs. Henderson Presents. and its always nice to have a live action Zemeckis back.

  • Nov. 1, 2012, 10:12 a.m. CST

    when can we get a decent DEATH BECOMES HER release?

    by Robert Evans