Wednesday, October 21, 2015

For BACK TO THE FUTURE Day, my 1985 interview with Robert Zemeckis

In the celebratory spirit of this unique moment called October 21, 2015, I thought I'd reach deep back into my past and unearth the interview session I had with Robert Zemeckis, director and co-writer of Back to the Future. Appearing originally in the July 23, 1985 edition of Georgia State University's newspaper The Signal, this talk was conducted in Atlanta, GA as part of Zemeckis' press tour in support of the film that would arguably emerge as his most widely-valued contribution to the popular art of movies:

If there's one phrase applicable to Robert Zemeckis, the director of Romancing The Stone and this summer's hit Back To The Future, that phrase would be "All-American.” Donned with large spectacles, his husky form and reddish-to-blonde mop of hair, the 34-year-old director certainly looks the part. And, as for his audible self, it's not so much his nasal West Coast accent that reveals his American roots; it's what he has to say about himself and his profession.

Zemeckis' very career--and the turns it's made since his days at the University of Southern California's film school more than a decade ago--is a prime example of what some people would consider the perfect Hollywood through-line. As a kid, he confesses to being struck by some typically American influences. "War favorite movie when I was 13 years old was The Great Escape," he says. "That was the greatest movie I had ever seen. And television. You know, I grew up in front of a television set. Then, any movie with monsters in it fascinated me. I remember being six years old and making my father take me to see The Blob. I had to see that, along with all those great William Castle movies--House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts. Those were my kid movies.”  

Taking a more serious tone, Zemeckis lists weightier factors that compelled him to become a filmmaker. As far as directors go, he highly praises the influential talents of contemporaries George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Francis Coppola. But he admits to being beholden more to cinematic legends like Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, and Billy Wilder. "I think that Americans make movies better than anyone else," Zemeckis states. There exists, though, "a traumatic movie" that made him decide instantly upon his career. "I remember I was in high school and I saw Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde. Before then, I had always gone to movies and enjoyed them for the stuff that was in them. Then, all of the sudden, I was this high school sophomore and I realized what films were all about. That scene when Gene Hackman gets shot and dies right in front of was like 'Wow, someone is manipulating my emotions here!' It was very powerful; I felt terrible. I remember walking out of that movie saying 'There's something more here than just stunts and action to films. I gotta check this out!'"
Despite the fact that many consider Zemeckis' career a model success story, he would be the first to say that his has been a less-than-smooth ride to the top. He left USC in 1973 having made a series of well-received student films, one of which, Field of Honor, gathered a multitude of film festival prizes. "It was a very, very black comedy, inspired by A Clockwork Orange, a movie that was out about the time I was in school. It was very dark and people were getting killed all over the place and it was very funny.” He laughs about it now. “My wife hates it. It has won all of these awards and my wife can't stand to look at it. She says, 'I can't believe you! You are sick!' But I made it when I was a restless young man, when I didn't hold anything sacred, when I thought anything could be lampooned."

The young Zemeckis had enough confidence in the film to show it to fellow USC graduate John Milius (Red Dawn, Conan the Barbarian, Apocalypse Now). Milius liked the film so much that he asked Zemeckis and his writing partner, another USC graduate named Bob Gale, to write a screenplay for him. That screenplay ended up being the first draft for Steven Spielberg's 1941. Zemeckis remains good-humored about that film's famous drubbing at the box office. When asked if, in the future, he would like to do either a monster movie or a war movie, he cheekily replied "Well, I did write 1941. That could be considered a monster movie and a war movie." He is also genuinely protective of the $40 million Spielberg film. "I like it a lot. I'm very proud of that movie. I think it will be rediscovered someday. I mean, how can I be less than proud? Here I am responsible for writing a screenplay which puts Toshiro Mifune, Christopher Lee, and Slim Pickens all in the same scene together. Gosh, I'm very proud of that.” He can joke about it now, but it's a sensitive point that obviously stings. “Actually, I think the end situation was that the budget was reviewed more than the movie was. It wasn't some crime against nature like some of the press made it out to be."

While Spielberg was directing 1941 ("Probably something he regrets," Zemeckis adds), Zemeckis cemented a deal with Universal for which he would write (again with Bob Gale) and direct I Wanna Hold Your Hand, a sweetly raucous comedy about a carload of 1964 Jersey kids willing to do absolutely anything to get in to see The Beatles' first American appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Zemeckis' new deal insisted that Steven Spielberg overlook the project as executive producer. The film got a majority of very good notices but a minority of viewers—an extremely sad outcome for such a brilliantly funny movie. Even so, Zemeckis leapt into another vehicle almost immediately: a pitch-black 1980 comedy entitled Used Cars, starring Kurt Russell as an underhanded used car salesman cleverly navigating a bitter rivalry with another neighboring car lot controlled by Jack Warden (who plays two radically different parts in the film). Vulgar and crude, but in a lovingly agreeable way, it elicited favorable responses from the trade (especially from New Yorker critic Pauline Kael), but it too was a box-office failure.

Just recently, however, both I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars have acquired cult status after becoming mainstays on pay cable channels like HBO. Zemeckis finds solace in that fact. "They're both movies I'm extremely proud of. I'm really happy that they're finally getting seen now. I just wish to hell all these people that love 'em now would've loved 'em when they came out," he says. But Zemeckis is careful not to be downtrodden about his financial failures; at the same time, he's also quite adamant about the success of his films. Making quieter, little-seen films is not his ideal place in the filmmaking universe. "It's okay as long as the film don't get lost," he says. "As a writer and director, you don't want to make movies that people don't see; there's no point in that. I was hoping when I made Used Cars that it was going to be a wildly successful film. I didn't want it to be a low-profile movie."

After Used Cars, Zemeckis was out of work for three years, in what was probably a welcome respite. It was during that time that he and Gale penned three screenplays, one of which became Back To The Future. After his box-office score with last year's extremely popular Romancing The Stone, Zemeckis felt it was time to rediscover one of those scripts and bring it into production. "There was a lot of pressure—the kind I'd never felt before--about what the next move was going to be," Zemeckis says. "It has to be the right one, so Back To The Future became the obvious choice because it was a story that I had wanted to do for so many years, something I had been very passionate about."' 

The film is a crowd-pleasing romp that follows Marty McFly, (played by Michael J. Fox of NBC's Family Ties), a teenage boy living in a broken-down home with his broken-down parents (played superbly by Lea Thompson and the wonderful Crispin Glover). An apprentice to local nut case Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd), Marty assists the doctor in the testing of a time machine built, amusingly, into a DeLorean. But, when trouble strikes in the form of determined Libyan terrorists, Marty is forced to escape the scene using the newly-built vehicle. A minute flashes by, and the kid finds himself roaming the promising rural roots of his hometown, circa 1955. There, he meets up with his teenaged parents: his father is a lanky, greasy and painfully shy nerd (playd perfectly by Crispin Glover), while his mother is a popular and extremely cute schoolgirl. This wouldn't be a problem, except that Marty's future mother (in another superb supporting performance by Lea Thompson) takes a sudden romantic interest in her future son, thereby threatening Marty's very existence. It's a remarkably clever movie, written to maximum effect by Zemeckis and Gale.

Science-fiction is not one of Zemeckis' pet genres, as one familiar with Back To The Future might think. In fact, he avidly dislikes it because of its penchant to overcome and even disguise the plotline with technology and hardware. "The problem I have with science fiction is that, in predicting the future and describing other worlds, you're completely at the mercy of the writer or the filmmaker. This is his vision of what an alien is going to look like. If I agree with it, that's fine; if I don't then what? I'm left nowhere. That's why I enjoyed doing Back To The Future so much. With this story, I was locked into the past and I couldn't tamper with it." Instead of centering in on its sci-fi elements, he prefers to focus on the movie's more personable points. "What we set out to do was to make a human, fun, comedic, dramatic story and the idea of time travel was going to be used just a devise to tell that story. I think that's what helps to separate it from other time travel movies--it's not about time travel, it's about this young man's dilemma."

Zemeckis has not been fazed a bit by the press's view of his partnership with Spielberg. He says he would feel "uneasy," though, if people started thinking that Spielberg directed the film (as they have in the case of Tobe Hooper and 1982's Poltergeist). He says his collaboration with Spielberg "has been very comfortable and supportive. It's a small price to pay to be asked if I'm concerned about living in the shadow of Steven Spielberg—it's a small price to pay for what I ultimately got for that, which was the ability to make Back To The Future the best it possibly could be under the best possible conditions.” 

The filmmaker is, however, set on doing a project without Spielberg's assistance. "I think it'll be healthy for both of us." he says. He has plans to adapt the old radio program The Shadow for the screen. Even so, he knows he's at a major crossroads. "I'm really in a quandary as to where I'm at in this point in my career. That's why I want to take some time off. I don't want to get serious about making a movie for a while. All I've been doing is working and I haven't had the chance to live a little life. You know, I just want to go home and wash my car. I know it sounds ridiculous, but the idea of cleaning my garage? I mean, I'm really looking forward to those things."

When my interview with Robert Zemeckis was finally over, I hung back and asked if, in his days at USC, he ever dreamed he'd be associated with the elite of filmmaking so early in his career. He, of course, gave a true-blue American reply: "Did I dream it? Yeah, every day!"

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