Matt Pais, @mattpais
RedEye movie critic
November 1, 2012
Raised in the South Side neighborhood of Roseland, 61-year-old director Robert Zemeckis hasn’t achieved much as a filmmaker.
Oh, wait: He’s only made classics like “Back to the Future,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and “Forrest Gump,” for which he won the Best Director Oscar. Opening Friday, “Flight” marks Zemeckis’ first non-motion-capture effort since 2000’s “Cast Away” and stars Denzel Washington as Whip, a pilot who performs a miraculous upside-down maneuver to save nearly everyone on a flight whose plane breaks down mid-air. The problem: Whip was drunk and high on cocaine during the flight, information a lawyer (Don Cheadle) will try to suppress but may leak anyway due to Whip’s addiction.
At the Park Hyatt, Zemeckis, who’s based in L.A. but still has a place on Lake Shore Drive, talked about his Chicago upbringing, his own extensive flying background--no, he’s never had a drink before piloting a plane—and how society’s doing compared to the predictions of the “Back to the Future” franchise. Unfortunately, he declined to try to name as many kinds of shrimp as possible, “Forrest Gump”-style.
What’s your first memory of going to the movies when you were a kid in Chicago?
I saw “The Blob.” That was the first movie I remember seeing. I was about five years old.
That’s young to see “The Blob,” no?
Yeah, I mean, in those days nobody cared about what kids saw. Certainly when you grew up south side of Chicago. It was like movies were movies.
What was your reaction?
I thought it was great. It was a triple bill. It was “The Blob,” “I Married a Teenager from Outer Space” and “Sad Sack” with Jerry Lewis.
How do you feel like your Chicago upbringing has factored into the films that you’ve made, if at all?
I don’t know. It’s a good question. I have images of death in every movie, but I think that’s more from Catholic school than [Chicago].
Because Catholicism’s all about death and dying.
So it’s not a Chicago thing.
There’s a lot of Catholicism in Chicago. I guess that’s the only thing I can think of. I can’t think of anything else that’s a Chicago influence.
You have an extensive background as a pilot yourself. How many times have you flown upside-down?
Only when you have to do it for--we have to do things called spin recovery when you intentionally put the plane in a spiral, so it’s not really upside-down but it pretty much feels like it. You have to do that every couple of years just to practice recovering from that.
What’s the scariest experience you’ve had while flying?
Losing my bags.
It’s very terrifying, yeah. It makes you really angry, too.
Nothing while flying?
Flying’s very safe. I haven’t had any scary incidents on airplanes.
Have you or do you know anyone who’s had a drink before flying?
You mean a pilot? No, not personally. I don’t think most pilots do drink.
So you’ve never had a drink before flying?
Who, me? No, I take those rules very seriously. That’s not a good thing. The one nice thing about the way the system works is any pilot who gets pulled over for a DUI immediately will lose his pilot’s license.
Something that plays into the film is the notion that pilots are real people. Not mythic heroes; they can be flawed. In 2012, how much do people still have this perception of pilots as being incredibly powerful?
I think they do, but I think they do because of their own need to think delusionally.
What do you mean?
I think they put people who are entrusted with other people’s lives on that pedestal because it makes them feel more comfortable. I think they do the same thing with surgeons, doctors. I don’t think they do it with politicians anymore. But anyone who is entrusted with other people’s lives, people tend do to that because it’s easier to get through the day thinking that way. Even though it may not be true.
Not that this person may have gotten three hours of sleep last night.
You don’t want to think about that. Or they’re just having a really horrible day. Or a loved one’s sick or a loved one’s dying and the guy’s gotta go fly a plane. Obviously he’s not going to be concentrating. But that is reality. That happens all the time. Where a guy is going to do heart surgery who just found out that his wife was in a car accident. Stuff like that happens.
Or he’s just upset about the Bears game!
Or upset about the Bears game! There you go. Absolutely.
The flight sequences in this movie look phenomenal and seem like they were very difficult to pull off. In the sense that you’ve done a lot of difficult work in the past, was this relatively easy despite the challenges, or were you ever worried you wouldn’t be able to do it?
No, it was only because we had very little money and very little time. And that was the challenge. Because it’s really time-consuming. We built a set that we could turn upside-down and we had all these stunt people hanging. And working in a small, confined set like an airplane cabin, there’s only one way in and one way out, so it had to be very meticulously thought out and planned out.
My impression is it’s very difficult to stress out or scare Denzel Washington. Was there ever a moment when he seemed stressed or scared? Is that possible?
No, no. He’s so focused and so prepared. I’ve never seen him get stressed out; if he does, he doesn’t show it.
What scares you?
What scares me? [Laughs] I’m one of those people who is in a constant state of self-centered fear. I’m always in a state of anxious fear. So I think it’s inborn.
What do you mean state of anxious fear? You’re always worried a bird will fly into your head?
No, I don’t have phobias. I’m just afraid that life is going to come. Random acts of life are going to pull the rug out from under me. It’s completely neurotic.
Where do you think that comes from?
Growing up on the South Side of Chicago. It’s that constant idea that the storm troopers are right outside the door. It’s like [securing] the hatches, the world’s going to come crashing—I think it comes from being a first-generation American and having parents who come from eastern European culture and it’s that oppressive kind of sense of fear.
If you could live any of your movies for real, which one would it be?
Probably “Roger Rabbit.”
Because don’t you think it would be cool to hang out with all these toons?
It would be. Which character would you take the place of?
Oh, no, I thought you meant me being in there. I have to be a character? I would never want to be any of the characters in my movies.
We only have three years to develop flying cars and automatic dog walkers. What are our chances?
I don’t know, but I know you’re talking about the predictions that were made in “Back to the Future II.” We’re batting 50/50.
What’s something you’re proud of that came true?
Flat-panel TV screens, junk faxes, the list is actually pretty good. 3-D, holograms.
What has been your reaction? Do you throw your fist in the air when that stuff is developed, like, “Told you!”?
We don’t have to do that, there are websites. We have fan sites that track all that constantly. Every time there’s a new invention—hoverboards, a guy invented a real hoverboeard.
Is there a certain sense of pride that comes from being able to tell the future?
Well, wait a minute, we’re only batting 50/50.
That’s pretty good!
Yeah, it is. Most movies don’t hit it that well. Most movies underestimate the future. That’s the problem with predicting the future. You always underestimate it.
How much money do you have on the Cubs to win it in 2015?
I don’t know, I’m one of those people who doesn’t think the Cubs can ever win the World Series. It’s almost become their identity.
That would be really sad. Are you a Sox fan, being from the South Side?
I’m both. Now that I live in California, I’m both. [Laughs]
When you lived here?
Oh here, yeah, I’d be a Sox fan. If I lived on the South Side, absolutely.
When that movie came out, the prediction of 2015 seemed safe …
I know, now it’s creeping up. Now I guess that movie will be quaint, won’t it? It will be, “Oh, look at that, they thought the Cubs were going to win.”
But wouldn’t it be great if we hit it? Wouldn’t that be a story?
I will thank you infinitely.
And not only that we’ll sell a lot of DVDs too, so it would be good.
How many times in the last several years have you been approached with, “Let’s rejuvenate ‘Back to the Future! Let’s get a new Marty McFly …”?
You mean, from actual people or the fans?
Well, the fans always ask about it. But we’re not going to do another “Back to the Future.”
No industry people have ever kicked that around?
No, no. … I think what’s cool about “Back to the Future” is that it’s this historical document of the culture, a snapshot of the culture that exists in the time and that’s what gives it its charm.
When fans suggest a new one, do they want to start over or have another movie with Michael J. Fox?
I think what it is it’s a way for fans to express their appreciation for the movie. It’s like they want to go on another adventure with these characters, they love ‘em so much. So I think in their mind’s eye they’re seeing Michael J. Fox as being 20-something instead of in his 40s. They’re not making that leap.
How will you be able to talk Bob Hoskins out of retirement for the “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” sequel?
I might be able to convince him—I don’t think he would come out to do the lead. We have a really good script for that by the way, sitting at Disney. But I think I could convince him to come out for a couple of scenes, work for a couple of days, have his presence around, that’d be fun.
What if you told him you were going to be in it?
That I was going to be in it? No, that wouldn’t impress him at all. [Laughs]
So that’s finished?
There’s a sequel script that’s really good that’s finished. We’re waiting for all the Disney executive shuffle to settle down to see if they’re going to do it or not.
You’ve done so much with performance-capture technology, with varying opinions about some of those films. When you look back at the early stuff like “The Polar Express,” what do you think about? Do you ever wish anything was different or have any regrets how they turned out?
No, not at all. Like I said earlier about “Back to the Future,” I think you make movies in the time that you make ’em with the technology that you have with the abilities that you have. That’s how they live and that’s how they are in the universe. I’m not one of those people that believes in going back and changing things because you can. When I finish a movie it’s done.
So we won’t have retrofitted 3-D versions …
No, I can’t stand that.
That makes two of us. People have debated the eyes on some of those movies. Was there ever a time when you looked at it and said, “I wish this looked different?” Or you just said, “It is what it is”?
It is what it is. “The Polar Express” is an incredibly successful movie. Every Christmas it’s reissued in IMAX and it makes a million dollars.
If you were to make a movie in Chicago, is there anything in particular you’d want it to be about?
No, I just want something that would feel right to be in the city. I wouldn’t want to come to Chicago and have to make it look like New York. Or I wouldn’t want to have to come to Chicago and have it look like Los Angeles. If I came to Chicago to do a movie, I’d like it to be set in Chicago.
Have you ever shot here?
As someone who came from here, do you want to have that happen at some point?
Yeah, but that’s always putting the cart before the horse. I only want to come and shoot here if I’ve got a story that belongs here.
I thought your remake of “Yellow Submarine” was off, but the press notes say it’s on.
No, it’s off. Does it say that in the press notes?
Ah, I should read those. [Laughs] No, that’s off. I’m not going to do a remake.
Was that disappointing?
Well, it would have been really cool but at the end of the day I don’t know how many movies I have left in me, so I probably shouldn’t waste a lot of years doing a remake.
Is there anything you still want to do?
I don’t really think about it. Well, I want to do this Philippe Petit thing. I want to do this 3-D movie where he walks between the twin towers. Which I thought would be really cool. That’s something I’d really like to do. It’s a really beautiful story.
Was there ever even a 1 percent thought of doing a performance-capture version of “Flight”?
Of course not. Not for one split second.
His favorite Chicago restaurant: The Pump Room. ““I love [the new design]. I think it’s great. The food’s great too. The menu’s always seasonal so I get whatever the new dish is.”
Guilty pleasure movie: “I’ve always been a fan of great B horror movies. I’ve always been a fan of the William Castle movies and the Hammer films from England and all that stuff.”
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
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