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Robert Zemeckis

Interview: Robert Zemeckis
Motion Picture Production

June 29, 1996
Sun Valley, Idaho

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At what point did it occur to you that you wanted to be a film director?

Robert Zemeckis: I would say it was my junior or senior year in high school. I had a passionate interest in the technique of filmmaking. I think, because of how I was raised, I always assumed that I would be some sort of technician. I just love the process and I thought, "Maybe there's a way I can be a camera man or something."

What does that have to do with the way you were raised?

Robert Zemeckis: I say that because -- and this might sound harsh -- but the truth was that in my family there was no art. I mean, there was no music, there were no books, there was no theater. I grew up in a very working class, lower middle class, blue collar life. The only thing I had that was inspirational, was television - and it actually was.

My father, my uncles, they all had eight millimeter home movie camera systems, and I was just fascinated by the splicing and the processing and that stuff. And then it was like, like I said in the seminar, when I, for the very first time, realized that my emotions were being manipulated or I was being moved that I, you know, just realized that the power of this -- it wasn't just about stunts and action and special effects, which is why I was interested in movies very early on as a kid. Horror movies, that sort of thing. And just became driven to find out about how it could, and then very quickly I realized that if you wanted to be involved in movies, if you were a director, then you could do everything.

So the leap was from focusing on the technology of it to realizing that you could be the guy in charge and use the technology for some ultimate purpose.

Robert Zemeckis: For me it's perfect, because it's the perfect blend of technology and artistry, and I love them both.

Given the background you've described, how were you able to make that jump?

Robert Zemeckis Interview Photo
Robert Zemeckis: I often wonder about that. It was a certain amount of luck and then being talented. I don't know why, but for some reason I have this ability to tell stories. The third thing was being absolutely driven to accomplish this goal. I don't know how healthy that part of it was, but I do know that's how it was. I was completely single-minded.

Were you driven at an early age to get out of the circumstances in which you first found yourself?

Robert Zemeckis: Yeah. That was it. Without wanting at the time to hurt anybody, 'cause my parents were doing the best job that they could. It was just a very quiet and private understanding that there was a bigger world out there, and I wanted out. I love this medium of filmmaking, so I just went after it.

So you weren't repudiating anybody. You weren't rebelling in a negative sense, but from somewhere came the notion that there could be a better and different life.

Robert Zemeckis: Right. I believe that knowledge came from television. I absolutely believe You hear so much about the problems with television, but I think that it saved my life. I can't imagine what would have happened if I didn't have that as a window to the world. I think my interests all bloom from the seed that that planted, as lame as it might have been in many circumstances. As an example, I found out that such a thing as a film school exists just by watching The Johnny Carson Show. That was pretty powerful.

How did that happen?

Robert Zemeckis: I was in my parents' living room, and I was watching The Johnny Carson Show as I did every night, you know? And Johnny had Jerry Lewis on as a guest. And he started his interview by saying, "So I understand you're teaching college." And Jerry Lewis said, "Yeah, I'm a visiting professor at the USC School of Cinema." And I said, "School of Cinema?" Never in my wildest -- I mean, school was about engineering and science, but cinema? I mean, literally, the thought never crossed my mind that something like this could have existed. And then, the next day I went to the library and looked up the USC School of Performing Arts and saw their curriculum. And it was just amazing how it opened my eyes.

A lot of us say the first step to a great education is to turn off the television. In your case, you're glad the television was on.

Robert Zemeckis: Obviously, television isn't an education. But I don't see any purpose in turning it off for good, either.

You also said you used your father's and your uncles' eight millimeter cameras. What made you do that? Was that because of television, too?

Robert Zemeckis: It started by wanting to learn how to set the exposure, set the focus. Then I would record family events with a home movie camera, like everybody does.

You were the guy that got to do that?

Robert Zemeckis: Oh, I wanted to do it. And everyone was happy to give that job to somebody else. And then, very, very slowly, I started to make them entertaining, putting funny title cards on, and then editing, juxtaposing faces that relatives might make to get a laugh. Then that expanded to actually telling some linear stories that had nothing to do with photographing Christmas or a wedding.

Was the family supportive of that? Did your friends think that was a kick?

Robert Zemeckis: Yeah. They were supportive. Of course, they never in their wildest imagination thought that I would make a career of it, but they were very entertained. They were my audience. Any time there was a family gathering, I'd pull out the screen and the projector. Then it got more and more elaborate, trying to synch up sounds, which was like my biggest thing. I was really trying to figure out how to do that. And then, ultimately, making these eight millimeter productions. I started to do a lot of stop motion animation, puppet animation type things, and blowing things up with fire crackers and elaborate special effects. So they were very entertained by that.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

You've mentioned this notion of balance in your life. I see the relationship you have with your family, it's very instructive and moving to see that kind of thing. So what do you mean by balance? What do you tell young people about it?

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Robert Zemeckis: It's an important issue in my life now. You don't understand it until you get older, but I realize that this all comes at a very high price. I won an Academy award when I was 44 years old, but I paid for it with my 20s. That decade of my life from film school till 30 was nothing but work, nothing but absolute, driving work. I had no money. I had no life. I was just devouring movies and writing screen plays. I look at my good friends who are my same age and they're not as successful as I am, but I look back and I think, "They were living very exciting lives as bachelors in their 20s. They were pulling down some pretty good money." But they weren't driven and obsessed with becoming film directors.

The goal from here on is to balance my passion, because I do love it so much. It's kind of like the old saying about climbing a ladder and then realizing it's up against the wrong wall. When you make one of the biggest movies of all time and you win an Academy award, it forces you to look into the void, because it doesn't ultimately fulfill anything.

What do you see in the void?

Robert Zemeckis: A lot of work. It's a lot of work ahead. I don't want my epitaph on my gravestone to read, "He made a bunch of movies." or even "He made good movies." As much as I love my art, I would like my life to have a value beyond my art, even if it's just a thought or a feeling in my son's mind.

It sounds like you're saying you can't be a whole person and be so involved in your work that you lose your humanity.

Robert Zemeckis: I think that can definitely happen. I don't know about other walks of life, but it certainly can happen in the entertainment business.

If you allow it, you don't have to do anything for yourself. You know, if you get sick, they get you a doctor. If you need food, they will give it. If you need to get somewhere, they'll get you a car. If you need clothes, you know, they'll go buy you a pair of underwear. So, it's like the irony about that is that because of the complexity of doing the work -- and it's not done to subvert people, it's done because there's huge responsibilities and amounts of money that are involved -- but the irony is that, by nature of the job, you can be cut off from what it is that you need to do the job. I mean, how can you be a movie director if you never fly on a commercial aircraft, or if you never go into a grocery store, or if you never go into a supermarket, or if you never go to a car wash? I mean, how do you make a movie? I mean, if you're not careful, it can be very diabolical.

Does it also threaten to cut you off and damage your relationships with other people, your wife, your friends?

Robert Zemeckis: Absolutely.

Nothing's been harder on my marriage than this career. I mean, it's really, really hard. And what's interesting -- and it came to me this way -- I had a friend of mine that said, "We're sick of hearing that you're working. We all work." You know? Because, "Oh, Bob's working!" You know? But it's like, "Yeah, I'm making a 50 million dollar movie. I'm working." To me, that's going to be this intensive period of time. But then, you know, I realized everybody's working. And, it's like, "Yeah, well, we're tired of the fact that you can't have dinner with us because you're working. I mean, I work too." And another thing that happened to me once was from being defensive about it, too. I was putting my son to bed one night, and he said, "Dad, why do you work so much?" And I said, "I don't work that much." And I realized, "Jesus, what am I saying? He has no agenda. If he's saying that, obviously I've got to look at this."

I think for a lot of the early years I was immediately defensive. There's a lot of bones of broken relationships in the wake of this career.

This kind of success is expensive.

Robert Zemeckis: Yes. Absolutely. Everything that is my greatest strength is my greatest weakness.

Thanks for talking with us.

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