Trevor Hogg profiles the career of visionary director Robert Zemeckis in the first of a three part feature…
“In my family there was no art,” revealed Chicago-born filmmaker Robert Zemeckis. “There was no music, there were no books, there was no theatre. 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.” Another thing the young Zemeckis found himself drawn towards was the 8 m.m. home movie camera systems owned by his father and his uncles; he became fascinated with the ability of cinema to manipulate his emotions. “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 my biggest thing. I was really trying to figure out how to do that, and then, ultimately, making these 8 m.m. 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.”
“I would say it was my junior year in high school,” reflected the director on when he made his fateful career decision. “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 loved the process and I thought, ‘Maybe there’s a way I can be a cameraman or something.’”
Watching The Johnny Carson Show, Robert Zemeckis learned about the University of Southern California School of Cinema; guest Jerry Lewis (The King of Comedy) talked about serving as a visiting professor at the academic institution. Hoping to make his dream of attending the program a reality, the aspiring filmmaker landed a job at a small commercial film house which made industrial pictures for companies such as the Outboard Marine Corporation. Pooling together his summer earnings, Zemeckis created his first production. “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.”
Next for the teenager was deciding where he was going to submit his post-secondary education application. “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, all the information, and the essay to USC.” With the receipt of his acceptance letter from the Film School, Zemeckis’s gamble had paid off, but he had yet to hear from the university; he called USC and spoke to his evaluator who informed him, “We didn’t accept you. Your grades aren’t good enough.” In an act of desperation, the director pleaded his case over the telephone, and with a promise to go to summer school, he was able to obtain admittance. “I was finally in an environment where everybody shared the passion for this one thing, and that was fantastic.”
Life on campus was not free of conflict. “The film school, in those days, was considered to be an embarrassment to 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.” While attending classes, Zemeckis developed a close friendship with fellow student and writer, Bob Gale (Trespass) who remarked, “[We] gravitated toward one another because we wanted to make Hollywood movies. We weren’t interested in the French New Wave. We were interested in Clint Eastwood (Dirty Harry) and James Bond and Walt Disney because that’s how we grew up.”
A Field of Honor (1973) won both the Student Academy Award at USC, as well as the attention of a renowned director. “He barraged right past my secretary and sat me down and showed me his student film,” recalled Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) of the first time he met Zemeckis. “I thought it was spectacular, with police cars and a riot, all dubbed to Elmer Bernstein’s score for The Great Escape (1963).
Co-written with Bob Gale and supported by Spielberg, who promised studio executives he would step in if the young director floundered, Robert Zemeckis produced his debut feature film, I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978). Three diehard Beatles fans played by Nancy Allen (Dressed to Kill), Wendie Jo Sperber (Bachelor Party), and Theresa Saldana (Raging Bull) travel to The Ed Sullivan Theatre in an attempt to meet their music idols. Making use of archive footage and body doubles, the rookie filmmaker recreated the British band’s famous television performance. The soundtrack for the comedy featured seventeen original Beatles recordings and received a praiseworthy review from The New York Times that stated, “The whole film sparkles with boisterous lunacy.” All indications were that the picture would be a commercial success, but it proved to be a financial flop. “One of my great memories is going to the preview,” said Zemeckis. “I didn’t know what to expect [but] the audience went wild. They were laughing and cheering. It was just great. Then we learned a really sad lesson…just because a movie worked with a preview audience didn’t mean anyone [else] wanted to see it.”
Teaming with Bob Gale once again, Robert Zemeckis co-wrote 1941 (1979); even with Steven Spielberg behind the camera, the WWII comedy proved to be as wayward as the Japanese submarine which surfaces in the picture. The two former USC classmates were gaining a reputation for composing “scripts that everyone thought were great [but] somehow didn’t translate into movies people wanted to see.”
Used Cars released in 1980 only furthered the stigma attached to writing duo. When the owner of a struggling used car lot dies, a slick salesman played by Kurt Russell (Silkwood) intervenes with a series of outrageous consumer schemes to prevent the property from falling into the hands of the dead businessman’s ruthless younger brother. Upon learning that the role of the younger sibling had yet to be cast, Jack Warden (Heaven Can Wait) offered to perform both parts, which he subsequently performed in the movie. Marketed with the tagline “Like new, great looking and fully loaded with laughs,” the dark satire, which was shot at an actual car dealership developed a cult following in spite of being a commercial failure.
Rescuing the jobless Robert Zemeckis was producer and actor Michael Douglas (Wall Street) who hired him to helm Romancing the Stone (1984). Written by Malibu waitress Diane Thomas five years before the similarly themed Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), the movie starred Douglas as an American rogue in Columbia who crosses paths with a romance novelist (played by Kathleen Turner) who is trying to rescue her kidnapped sister. “I remember terrible arguments [with Robert Zemeckis] during Romancing,” recollected Turner (Body Heat). “He’s a film school grad, fascinated by cameras and effects. I never felt he knew what I was having to do to adjust my acting to some of his damn cameras – sometimes he puts you in ridiculous postures. I’d say, ‘This is not helping me! This is not the way I like to work, thank you!’”.
Expecting the movie to be a financial flop after screening a rough cut, the producers for Cocoon (1985) fired Zemeckis from the project; their decision turned out to be misguided. The mixture of romance, comedy, action, and adventure proved to be the right tonic, reversing the previous box office misfortunes for the filmmaker; grossing over $86 million worldwide, the picture became the only major hit for 20th Century Fox in 1984.
Buoyed by his new found commercial success, the director set about producing a teenage time-traveling tale which would transport him and television actor Michael J. Fox (Casualties of War) into the realm of Hollywood stardom.
Read part two.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.