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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

What do you think brought you to the point where you could have that kind of perception, to realize that this guy in authority is really just testing you and trying to shake you out?

Robert Zemeckis: Right. There is a wonderful contrast that I see in some of my contemporaries, in some of my colleagues.

There is a healthy cynicism that is bred into you when you grow up on the south side of Chicago. I mean, you know, my father never, never paid for a traffic violation. It was always fixed. That was the way life was. That kind of Mayor Daley corruption that living in this -- you understand, sort of, the real workings in a cynical sense. I talked to most of my colleagues, and I must say, being a film director, I don't want to sound -- but you have to come from a comfortable background to toy in this arena. So I think that I was very fortunate in being grounded in sort of the harsh realities of real life that helped me a lot in Hollywood.

Is this one of the keys to success then, learning to work the system?

Robert Zemeckis: That's what I did to get into USC. I'm conflicted now, because I have a ten-year-old son. I just know, intuitively, that the educational system, and the grading system, were thought up by a bunch of men in 1860. And this has very little to do with how life really works. I have this south Chicago pride in being able to say,

"Here I am, this Academy award winning film director, and never got a grade higher than a C." I mean, the truth is that I was fortunate to have teachers that inspired me along the way, which is what I believe education is. I had one teacher in the Chicago public high school -- one -- and that was the one I mentioned who inspired me to read Shakespeare. And somehow, I had a way. I mean, for me, English and English Literature was the punishment. It was horrible in high school having to go and sit in those classes until I was able, and then of course, when I got to film school, it was a fountain of inspiration. And then very quickly the struggle for grades was not even an issue. Consequently, all that I got was straight A's. It's like it all just went away.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

You talked about learning to work the system, but you're not making porno movies or something second-rate. You're making movies that win Academy Awards. There's a sense of quality and a value system that has infused your later work to a greater and greater degree. Where did that come from?

Robert Zemeckis: I think that was bred into me, growing up. It was really a very healthy, balanced system when I look back at it. I was sent to a Catholic school when I was in grade school, and I think in those days, the 50s, that was a bit more heavy. I carry a lot of emotional scars from that, but that's all changed now. The idea of having solid values, coupled with the reality of how the world and the system works, I think is ultimately pretty healthy, because you're not walking around completely naive.

Robert Zemeckis Interview Photo
I was fortunate that I did come from a stable family life. So if you only have that cynical world, but there's major dysfunction in your childhood and you're not fortunate enough to come from a strong family, that experience could easily push you another way. I jokingly say, "Maybe if I wasn't a movie director, I'd be a criminal." It's that same kind of drive, depending on how it's directed.

It's interesting that you say that. We interviewed Larry King , who said exactly the same thing about his experience growing up in Brooklyn. In fact, he named someone from his neighborhood that went to the chair.

Robert Zemeckis: The Unabomber grew up in my neighborhood. When they arrested him, I was fascinated. He grew up in Evergreen Park. I grew up in Roseland, which were like two miles away from each other. They had a picture of his house and the street that he lived on, and it was like, "That's where I grew up." It's very interesting to me. His background was also Slavic, kind of suppressing, kind of fearful, not being part of the world. That kind of isolation can push people in different directions.

What do you do next? What's left after you've reached the apex of your profession? Do you go on and top yourself in some way or do something different? What do you want to do?

Robert Zemeckis: After Forrest Gump, if I make a gigantic hit movie people are always going to say, "Well it only did fifty percent as well..." It's all downhill from here if I listen to that. The thing I find comfort in, is that...

I can very honestly and clearly say that the same passion and love that I put into Forrest Gump is exactly the same as the passion that I put into the movies that weren't successful, and I have just been fortunate. If I just keep making movies that I want to see, and that I think somebody else wants to see -- and those are the two questions that I ask myself, because I don't want to be suicidal. I mean, I don't want to make a movie that I know no one will go see. But I don't know if anyone will ever see anything. But if I think they might want to see it, if the answer to those two questions is, "yes" then you may as well make the movie.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

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