Robert Zemeckis, the director of such favorites like Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, and Cast Away, returns to live-action for the first time in twelve years with his new film Flight. Since 2004, Zemeckis had been making motion capture films with his Imagemovers Digital Studio, including films like Beowulf, A Christmas Carol, and The Polar Express. For those also keeping track, Flight is his first R-rated movie since the 1980 film Used Cars, and his second ever. In Zemeckis' fearless new movie, Denzel Washington plays Flip, an airline pilot whose status as hero after a lifesaving crash landing is scrutinized by his own personal flaws. (Read our CIFF 2012 capsule review for Flight here.)
I sat down with Zemeckis in a roundtable interview including myself and Erik Childress of eFilmCritic to discuss Flight, his creation of the film's lead anti-hero with Washington, the bold moral ambiguity of this film, and more.
Flight opens November 2.
The Scorecard Review: This film is very outright with its presentation of a world of wavering morality. There are bold presentations of heroin, drug abuse, the creation of pornography, and there are even characters who go unpunished for their crimes. Was such a perspective on morality something that excited you or scared you about this script?
It wasn't scary. It was what it was. What I was attracted to Flight was that this was like the morally ambiguous movies that I loved coming up in the 70s. I thought it was just great — I loved the fact that all of the characters are so complex, especially Denzel's character. And then everything, and everybody, is this shade of gray, and this ambiguous, "What's really going on here?" It kind of reminded me of real life. Erik Childress: Many directors seem to celebrate similar story themes throughout careers. You yourself said "death and lightning" was a recurring visual in each of your movies. How would you tie 'Flight' into your previous work? Were you yourself conscious of wanting to explore new territory and take your audience into a different direction?
I do have images of death in this movie, and lightning. It's always there [laughs]. But I don't think about that, that's something you scholars have to do. I swear I just ... I'm sure there's a thread. The best that I could ever come up with, now that I've got this body of work, the only common thread that I can find, that weaves through anything, because I've really been attracted to all types of genres and don't do one type of movie, is that I have to have a character that has some type of arc, a character that starts at one place and goes somewhere else. I think that's basically the engine that drives all drama. It doesn't have to be the main character, like Forrest Gump, where Forrest doesn't change but everyone around him does. That's the best I can come up with. With Flight, I wasn't searching for a piece on anti-heroes, it just was something that I connected with when I read it. That's the best I can do to answer that question. But I knew immediately it was going to be a hard one to get made, because anything with irony in it or an antihero is not the coin of the realm.
TSR: Do you think it's underestimated how much adult American mainstream audiences can engage in character-driven adult films like 'Flight'?
Well, we'll see. This could be the final nail in the coffin, couldn't it? It really is nobody's fault, it's ultimately the audience, for whatever reason. Whatever the reason they basically don't care much about movies anymore, someone's going to have to figure that out. Or it's going to go one way or the other.
TSR: Is that a point of frustration for you?
For me, it's a point of sadness. I never thought I'd see it happen so dramatically in my lifetime. But, it is what it is. Nothing lasts forever.
TSR: You mention loving films from the 70s, which 'Flight' takes after in its unique ways. We're saying things are different in the current audience landscape compared to how they once were, but you still got this film made.
And that's the story — we got it made. And hopefully people will show up.
EC: 'Flight' has very intense scenes of temptation, in which we watch Washington's character fight to make the right decision. To you, what are the keys to creating the anticipation behind such a scene?
Doing a scene that's suspenseful is like telling a joke well. One of my favorite ones is in The Godfather, when they have it so beautifully set up and tell Al Pacino's character to come out of the bathroom blasting, two shots to the head. And he comes out of the bathroom, and he sits down at the table. It's such a beautiful grace note. And the trick is setting it up. What we do in Flight is build the whole movie up to that point. The audience understands the stakes, and it's like telling a joke. You have to give the audience enough information so that if you notice how a joke works, when the audience laughs, the audience hears the punchline in their brain a millisecond before the comedian says the punchline, and that is where the laughter is elicited. It's a timing ting. And if you're too far on this end, the audience is ahead of it, or it's a red herring and people don't know what you're talking about. It's all about those rhythms, which allows the stakes to be very high in the scene.
TSR: How did you work with Washington to construct this character? Does it reach a point where you let him take over? Was a lot of his character in the script?
At the end of the day, it's a very elaborate extended collaboration. For Denzel, it obviously starts with the script. Denzel is not an improvisational guy. He doesn't want to have to write the movie. It all starts with a script. We all have a lot of roundtable talks, me, Denzel, and the writer, hours before shooting, and we just put the character into therapy, basically. We deconstruct everything, starting with the big issues, taking it down to what color socks he is going to wear. We just do that for a long period of time. And then, where Denzel goes to find that is a mystery to me, and I don't want to know, but it's magnificent to watch. After that process, when he got on set, it was such a joy. All of his choices were right on. My job then is only to be the throttle. I just modulate, and keep everything where the mosaic of the piece is.
TSR: This is one of his less explosive performances. Compared to his previous performances he's not shouting so much, and his emotions are more inward. Was there any issue or extra effort to finding emotional control with this character, or with how Washington presented it?
We never even talked about it; that never came up. The only discussion we had in the slightest aspect was when he has that confrontation with his son, and he said, "I'm going to get really physical with this kid, so prepare him." And I said, "Okay, good." But it turned out to be the reverse when the kid smacked him back in the chest, and he told me, "Tell this kid to act that, he's killing me. He's breaking my fucking ribs here." But it was all good.
EC: Back in 2000 there was some negative responses to 'Cast Away' and 'What Lies Beneath' due to their trailers, which seemed to many audience members to show too much. It is interesting that the previews for 'Flight' go away from the darker elements of the character, and leave much of it obscure. Did you have a hand in making these marketing decisions? Now, audiences seem to know everything before trailers are even put together.
I was vindicated because those two movies made a lot of money, and the advertising obviously worked. Except for the internet snarking, it wasn't really an issue for anybody. This is how I think it works. A normal person goes to work on a Monday morning, and a person says, "Holy shit, I just saw this great movie!" They're at the water cooler, and the other person says, "Really? What's it about?" The first person tells the other about the movie, and the other guy goes, "Oh great, I want to go see that!" Very few people go, "Don't tell me, don't tell me!" You go to the Arclight in L.A., and that's 17 dollars to see a movie. I think people kind of want to not be too surprised. I think in the case of Flight, it was a very bold move. And the good news is that after the trailer started running in the theaters, we did some previews in the heartland of the movie. People told us what we wanted to hear, which was, "Yeah, it wasn't what I was expecting, but in a good way." I think the advertising for this movie is the exception, not the rule, that they have the courage to lead the audience to think it's going to be a satisfying movie-going experience, and not give away the score, and the audience being okay with it. It's just a different movie on every level.