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If you like Robert Zemeckis's story, you might also like:
James Cameron,
Francis Ford Coppola,
Nora Ephron,
Sally Field,
Ron Howard,
Peter Jackson,
George Lucas
and Julie Taymor

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Robert Zemeckis
Robert Zemeckis
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Robert Zemeckis Interview (page: 2 / 4)

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  Robert Zemeckis

Was there some point where you thought you could make a life out of this, and they were skeptical or even negative about it? Or did they always figure, "If he thinks he can do it, he can do it."

Robert Zemeckis: Oh no, they were extremely negative. But only in the sense that they were concerned. It was such an outrageous dream that they couldn't help but be skeptical, to protect me. When I applied to USC Film School, I didn't tell anyone right away. First of all, it was in the late 60s, so from the south side of Chicago, we thought going to California was like going to hell.

So the day that I said, "I am going to USC Film School," my father looked at me and said, "You're going to go join the circus?" That was his quote. I said, "I want to be a movie director." And he said, "You're going to go join the circus." He wasn't completely wrong about what I did join, but he didn't understand the subtlety of what I'm saying. And, of course, my mother's attitude was, you know, "Let him get it out of his system." But for my family and my friends and the world that I grew up in, this was the kind of dream that really was impossible. My parents would sit there and say, "Don't you see where you come from? You can't be a movie director." I guess maybe some of it I felt I had to do in spite of them, too.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

If they took that attitude, what was it about you, or your surroundings and friends and family that allowed you to make the dream come true?

Robert Zemeckis: I think that what allowed me to do it was just a personal passion and drive. Because, again, to protect me from being hurt, everyone I knew cautioned me not to do this, because this was something that you could not succeed at.

It was for my own good, but no one could support the idea because it was just outrageous. It would be like me saying, "I want to be President of the United States." It wasn't until I got to USC Film School that I saw the other side of the spectrum. I was finally in an environment where everybody shared the passion for this one thing, and that was fantastic.

How did you get into USC? What kind of credentials did you have to get into film school?

Robert Zemeckis: I had gotten a job in Illinois at a little commercial film house where they did little industrial films for Outboard Marine Corporation, that sort of thing. You know, outboard motors. But it was a big deal. It was real commercials, and they had crews and that kind of thing. And I was a gopher, and then I would use their editing machines. And all the money that I made that summer I used to buy raw stock for film. I mean, for processing and film. And I went off on the weekends and filmed this little story which was an illustration of a Beatles song. It was like a rock video, which is what all film students used to do: illustrate something that the Beatles wrote.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

So I made a film that summer, and I wrote an essay, and I only applied to USC. I didn't apply to UCLA. I didn't apply to NYU. It was completely irrational thinking. It was "do or die" type thinking. It didn't go with the odds at all and I didn't have a Plan B. I sent the film and all the information and the essay to USC.

I got accepted by the Film School, but I hadn't heard anything from the University. And my grades were just absolutely not good enough to get into USC. And so I got this congratulatory letter from the Film School, and about three days later it kept gnawing at me that it didn't feel right. So I called the university, and I spoke to my evaluator. And I guess she was a graduate student or something. And she said, "Oh, no, no, no. We didn't accept you. Your grades aren't good enough." And I said, "But I got this letter." And she said, "Oh, the Film School. They keep doing that. We keep telling them not to do that." And I realized at that moment that this was it, that I had to do something. So launched into this impassioned plea to accept me. I mean, I said, "Look. I'm in the Film School. How can you do this to me? I'll go to summer school," which I did, "And get some of these grades up." And all these things. And at the end of the conversation I basically talked her into it. I mean, I just have this image of some graduate student being on the end of the phone who put a little check in a box and changed the course of my life. I mean, it's a scene out of a movie.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

I'm always fascinated by what crossroads in life those places can be.

Does this lead you to the conclusion that you can pretty much do anything that you want to if you want it badly enough? Or is it much more complex?

Robert Zemeckis: Having accomplished these things, and looking at the way that they happened, it's chilling. It was the folly of a young man. It really is not very responsible behavior. It's harder to do this as you get older. When I got to film school, this was in the days before it was famous. The film school, in those days, was considered an embarrassment by the university. They were a bunch of hippies, and the industry didn't have any respect at all. The industry's collective idea was that film students can never make movies that make money, that they were a bunch of artists living in an ivory tower.

The very first day I walked in, I had a really tough camera instructor who was one of the old-school guys who came up through the Navy, which was one of the main supporters of the USC Film School. Like the Navy combat photographers, right? And he was a combat photographer who became a professor later in life. And he looked at us and said, "What are you guys doing here? There's no work." This was the first day. You know, here I am at USC, and he looks at you and it was sort of like that marine sergeant kind of teaching style. And it was like, "There's no work for you out there. Why are you wasting your time here? You think you're going to get a job?" And I remember standing there thinking, "Yeah. Well, not me, pal." And it's interesting, because in a way I realized what he was doing. He was shaking out the weak, you know? Anyone who listened to him wasn't going to be able to take the years of rejection that lie ahead.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

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This page last revised on Sep 28, 2010 22:32 EDT
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