Trevor Hogg profiles the career of visionary director Robert Zemeckis in the third of a three part feature… read part one and part two.
Adapting Winston Groom’s story of a simple-minded man who meets various historical figures from the twentieth century, while wandering in and out of the life of his childhood sweetheart, served as the basis for the ninth film by Robert Zemeckis. “The [script] writer, Eric Roth [The Insider], departed substantially from the book,” explained the director. “We flipped the two elements of the book, making the love story primary and the fantastic adventures secondary. Also, the book was cynical, and colder than the movie. In the movie, [Forrest] Gump is a completely decent character, always true to his word. He has no agenda and no opinion about anyone except Jenny, his mother, and God.”
Aided by digital effects, the title character (Tom Hanks) is able to seamlessly blend into major world events as if he were there. One of the most memorable computer generated scenes is of the rapid-fire competitive ping pong matches Gump engages in against the internationally-renowned Chinese teams.
Robert Zemeckis had nothing but admiration for Robin Wright (The Princess Bride) who portrays the tragic love interest, Jenny Curran. “Robin exudes a kind of strength and, at the same time, a vulnerability. She doesn’t bring any of her stardom to the role. You don’t look at her onscreen and think that this is Robin Wright’s interpretation of the character. She’s a real chameleon.” Explaining her role as the matriarch, Sally Field (Norma Rae) remarked, “She’s a woman who loves her son unconditionally…A lot of her dialogue sounds like slogans, and that’s just what she intends.”
A famous line in the movie has Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan) declaring, “Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” Neither did the film critics, until Forrest Gump was released in 1994. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, “[Hanks’] performance is a breathtaking balancing act between comedy and sadness, a story rich in big laughs and quiet truths.” Others were far less complimentary. Entertainment Weekly movie reviewer Owen Gordinier believed that the film “reduces the tumult of the last few decades to a virtual-reality theme park; a baby-boomer version of Disney’s America.”
There was no doubt that the voting members for the Academy Awards sided with those who found the picture to be praiseworthy. Nominated for thirteen Oscars, Forrest Gump won for Best Picture, Best Actor (Tom Hanks), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Reflecting on the momentous occasion, Robert Zemeckis declared, “I won an Academy Award when I was forty-four years old, but I paid for it with my twenties. That decade of my life from film school till thirty was nothing but work, nothing but absolute, driving work. I had no money. I had no life. I was just devouring movies and writing screenplays.”
Grossing $677 million worldwide, controversy erupted when novelist Winston Groom was denied his share of the profits; the explanation given to him by the producers was that the movie did not make any money. Interestingly, despite the monetary shortfall, both Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis earned $40 million for their involvement in the project.
Delving into the scientific fiction world created by Carl Sagan, Robert Zemeckis adapted a book that was originally intended to be a movie but instead became the novel Contact (1997). Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) finds evidence of extra-terrestrial life and is chosen to be the individual responsible for making the first contact.
“I think too often, intellectual processes are portrayed as some kind of dry, scientific things that don’t have a connection to the soul,” remarked Jodie Foster (The Accused) about her role as a scientist. “And when you’re obsessed by something, when something fascinates you, it’s wondrous. And in fact, if anything, I think she’s a zealot, so it’s actually kind of a movie about a zealot; who learns to have tolerance for other people’s zeal.”
Incorporating Kip Thorne’s study of wormhole space travel, and inspired by Dr. Jill Tarter, the head of the Project Phoenix of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program based at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, Sagan, along with his wife Ann Druyan, constructed the outline for the tale in 1979. “Carl’s and my dream,” revealed Druyan, “was to write something that would be a fictional representation of what contact would actually be like, that would convey something of the true grandeur of the universe.”
Contact went nowhere at Warner Bros. until the book edition was published in 1985 and rejuvenated the movie studio’s interest. More development troubles followed, however, as British filmmaker Roland Joffé (The Mission) left the picture in 1993 and two years later Australian director George Miller (Mad Max) was fired. Responsibility for making the big screen adaptation fell to Robert Zemeckis, who originally had rejected the offer in 1993. “The first script [for Contact] I saw was great until the last page,” recalled Zemeckis, who had chosen instead to do a biopic on escape artist Harry Houdini. “And then it had the sky open up and these angelic aliens putting on a light show and I said, ‘That’s just not going to work.’”
With the promise of artistic control as well as the right to choose the final cut of the film, Zemeckis changed his mind and subsequently hired the acting talents of Matthew McConaughey (A Time To Kill), James Woods (Ghosts of Mississippi), Tom Skerritt (The Turning Point), William Fichtner (Crash), John Hurt (The Elephant Man), Angela Bassett (Strange Days), and David Morse (The Crossing Guard).
Requiring the work of eight different visual effects companies including Weta Digital which was responsible for designing the wormhole sequence, Contact received a mixture of movie reviews, ranging from being favourablely compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey  to the not so complimentary. Rita Kempley of The Washington Post found the movie to be “a preachy debate between sanctity and science.” Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Sound and the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Drama (Jodie Foster), the movie generated more controversy than box office receipts. The American White House was upset over U.S. President Bill Clinton being digitally inserted into the picture, George Miller and Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now) filed breach of contract lawsuits, and CNN chairman, president and CEO Tom Johnson regretted the decision to allow thirteen of the news channel’s on-air staff, including Larry King and Bernard Shaw, to appear in the film which created “the impression that we’re manipulated by Time Warner.”
With the formation of Dark Castle Entertainment in 1999, Robert Zemeckis along with producers Joel Silver (Lethal Weapon) and Gilbert Adler (Valkyrie) embarked on the ambitious project of remaking the 1950s and 1960s horror films of William Castle (Thirteen Ghosts); the first picture released by the production company was House on Haunted Hill (1999), forty years after the original had graced the big screen. The cast for the film featured the acting talents of Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush (Shine), Famke Janssen (Turn the River), and Ali Larter (Final Destination).
“I got the Cast Away  project from Tom Hanks,” stated Zemeckis. “About a year or so after we finished Forrest Gump, he sent me an early draft that he and Bill Broyles had been working on. It had some amazing possibilities, but it wasn’t completely fleshed out. And there was the challenge could you actually do a movie where you didn’t have dramatic plot devices, other than the obvious one that starts everything?” The filmmaker went on to add, “It was a great set-up but it never really became a whole movie. We kept tinkering with it for years, and I went and made Contact, and Tom had a couple of other movies. But we kept getting together every couple of months or so. Then Bill had a breakthrough idea. The early drafts always had him getting rescued off the island at some point, through a fortuitous event. But then the idea came that the character would be given a choice at some point, the choice to either die on the island or try getting off. Then I could see the movie.” However, not everything was settled for the director. “Then the big problem came up, and that was Tom’s big concern: ‘How do I do this movie physically?’”
To solve the legitimate concern of his leading man, Robert Zemeckis came up with an enterprising plan which involved the cooperation of both 20th Century Fox and DreamWorks. While Tom Hanks lost the required weight and grew a beard for his time spent stranded on the deserted island, the film’s production crew was used to make another picture.
Returning to shoot the island scenes a year later, the director had to deal with another matter – the lack of dialogue. Filling the void of an onscreen companion for Tom Hanks was an inanimate object that survived the Federal Express plane crash with him. “As far as the world’s most popular volleyballs are concerned, Wilsons aren’t the ones,” deadpanned Zemeckis. “But we didn’t want to call him Fila, though we could have earned a lot of money if we had.”
When it came to discussing the theme of the picture, the filmmaker responded, “We are alone in that we are ultimately responsible for ourselves. But one of the hopeful themes in Cast Away is that we’re not made to be alone. We don’t function well as human beings when we’re in isolation. When we were researching this, we looked at documentaries about P.O.W.’s. These poor guys all tend to find solace in art of some sort. They start to draw on walls. That thing that is inside every human, that need for creative expression, ultimately becomes the main tool of their survival.”
Earning $429 million worldwide, Cast Away resulted in Tom Hanks receiving nominations for Best Actor from the Oscars, BAFTAS, Golden Globes, and the Screen Actors Guild. The MTV Movie Awards went a step further and honoured Hanks and his buddy “Wilson” with a nomination for Best Onscreen Team.
The other picture shot while the production of Cast Away was temporarily shutdown was a supernatural thriller which saw Harrison Ford (Witness) give a rare performance as a murderous villain. “What Lies Beneath  was all style,” declared Zemeckis. “Especially in the last act of that movie, where the camera is snaking in and out of windows, going underneath cars. I said to the effects guys, ‘If [Alfred] Hitchcock had the computer, what would he do? Let’s try to do that.’ What’s fun about genre pictures, like What Lies Beneath, for a director is that they’re supposed to have that operatic thing going on, so you can shoot in mirrors, put the camera real low, see the ceiling in every shot.”
Claire Spencer (Michelle Pfeiffer) becomes possessed by the spirit of a young woman killed by her renowned scientist husband Norman Spencer (Ford). “This woman starts out as a blind, fragile being who wasn’t always that way,” explained Pfeiffer (The Fabulous Baker Boys) as to her attraction to the role, “but came to be that way so she could exist in the environment that she created and continued to live in as a lie. Ultimately she is like the phoenix that rises from the ashes. She rises from the lake and in the end she’s braver, stronger and a more independent woman. I liked that character and hadn’t done the genre before, and I really wanted to work with Bob Zemeckis. I want to make good movies and he makes good movies, so in the end I thought it would be something I could be proud of, which I am.”
Unlike Cast Away, What Lies Beneath failed to receive any major award nominations, however, it went on to gross $291 million worldwide.
Leaving behind the adult subject matter for an acclaimed children’s tale about a young boy who rediscovers the spirit of Christmas on a magical train ride to the North Pole, Robert Zemeckis made The Polar Express (2004) his next project. “One of the conditions that author Chris Van Allsburg put on the sale of the rights to us was that he didn’t want it to be an animated cartoon,” revealed the director. “At the same time I didn’t think it should be done as a live-action movie because all the charm of the beautiful illustrations that were in the book would be lost and I think they are so much a part of the emotion of the story. I basically presented the dilemma to Ken Ralston at Sony Imageworks and asked how we [could] turn these Van Allsburg paintings into movie paintings. That’s when he came up with this process of doing it “virtual”, using motion capture.”
Following the advice of Ralston, a new love affair was born for the technically-minded filmmaker. “I think I was the most relaxed and the least compromising I’ve ever had to be on a movie because I could get the camera where I wanted it to be without being limited by the physical world.” Once again relying on the talents of Tom Hanks, Zemeckis had him play five different roles from the train conductor to Santa Claus. “The wonderful thing about working with actors, of course, is that they give you those wonderful moments you could never imagine – that’s what’s great about [performance capture]. But you’re not going to luck into a beautiful sunset – you’re going to paint one in.”
Hindering the technological achievement of the picture was the “dead eye syndrome” which gave the characters a soulless appearance; not helping the situation were the mixed movie reviews but neither of these two drawbacks diminished the enthusiasm of theatre audiences. Generating $305 million in worldwide box office receipts, The Polar Express was released in two versions with the IMAX 3-D format outpacing its traditional 2-D counterpart 14 to 1. Nominated for Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, and Best Original Song at the Academy Awards, the IMAX 3-D edition of the movie has become a Christmas tradition being re-released each year since 2006.
“Beowulf  is a timeless, epic tale of heroism and triumph,” answered Robert Zemeckis when asked why he chose to adapt the ancient Old English poem, set in sixth century Denmark, for the big screen. “Digital rendering will allow us to depict this incredible story in ways we would never dare to imagine.”
Helping King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) of the Danes, Beowulf (Ray Winstone) slays the monster Grendel (Crispin Glover) and his mother (Angelina Jolie). Later when his own kingdom is terrorized by a dragon seeking to reclaim its pillaged treasure, Beowulf battles the creature with fatal consequences.
“I had to do a lot of training for the film,” remarked Winstone (Sexy Beast). “I had to watch my diet and press up – a lot of press-ups…People say it is very much like theatre, but I found it like the ultimate cinema without cuts. You were there and you played the scene out.” There was another aspect of the motion capture process that the actor enjoyed. “I loved the speed of it. There was no time to sit around. You actually cracked on with a scene and your energy levels were kept up.” Anthony Hopkins (The Remains of the Day) on the other hand had a harder time adjusting to the technology which required him to wear seventy-eight body markers. “It was confusing at first because we had to do these weird gestures, stand up, pull faces, and all that. I wasn’t quite sure what the purpose was.”
Two sets of animators where used, one being responsible for the facial expressions and the other for the body movements. Other members of the cast included John Malkovich (In the Line of Fire), Robin Wright, Alison Lohman (White Oleander), Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges), and Sebastian Roché (The Last of the Mohicans).
Although Justin Chang acknowledged in his Variety review that the “dead eye syndrome” of its predecessor had been fixed, the film critic went on to take issue with the director of the picture, “Zemeckis prioritizes spectacle over human engagement in his reliance on a medium that allows for enormous range and fluidity in its visual effects, yet reduces his characters to 3-D automatons.” Richard Corliss of Time Magazine had a different opinion; he believed that the “effects scenes look more real, more integrated into the visual fabric, because they meet the trace-over live-action elements halfway. It all suggests that this kind of moviemaking is more than a stunt. By imagining the past so vividly, Zemeckis and his team prove that character capture has a future.”
Ranked number one at the box offices in the United States and Canada during its opening weekend, Beowulf went on to gross $196 million worldwide.
Asked if he would ever return to live-action filmmaking, Robert Zemeckis replied, “I’m really committed to getting this art form off the ground but of course I would, and I’m never going to say never to anything, but right now I want to make sure that we get this out there so that younger filmmakers have these absolutely breathtaking tools that they can use.”
For his third effort utilizing the motion capture technology, the director focused on adapting A Christmas Carol (2009), the literary classic by Charles Dickens. “I think that one of the things I found very interesting about the story, which I read when I was very young and I’ve seen most of the versions that have been made, was that the descriptive imagery that Mr. Dickens put into his writing was never truly realized in the way I think he might have imagined it. We’ve never had the tools do such a large rendition or landscape of it. Even the characters, I think, are very stylized in an interesting way – they’re a bit surreal in the way they’re described.” In explaining his depiction of the seminal creations that serve as the spiritual guides for the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, Robert Zemeckis talked about one in particular, “What I did with the Ghost of Christmas Future [Yet to Come] was to keep him as a shadow. He’s actually a shadow cast by Scrooge. That’s the one spirit that doesn’t take Scrooge by the hand and fly him into different areas of his past or his present. Scrooge had to get himself to these different places, so I used the device of the phantom hearse to chase him through London.”
Treating the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come as “an extension of his [Scrooge’s] alter ego,” Zemeckis had a Canadian actor perform all four roles. “This is the true genius talent of Jim Carrey [Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind],” marveled the moviemaker, “there was never a situation where he was immersed in just the one character. He was bouncing between these accents…three or four a day, and every ten or twenty minutes and he never faltered, ever. It was an amazing thing to see.” Featured alongside Carrey in the film are actors Robin Wright, Colin Firth (Girl with a Pearl Earring), Bob Hoskins, Cary Elwes (Kiss the Girls), and Gary Oldman (Prick Up Your Ears).
Addressing the overall look of the picture and his motive for making it, Robert Zemeckis stated, “I think that one of the great things that we can do in the digital cinema is represent the classics in a way that is more accessible to a modern audience. For example, I consider this to be a graphic novel version of Christmas Carol.”
As with the previous pictures by Robert Zemeckis, film critics remain divided. A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times, “[A Christmas Carol] remains among the most moving works of holiday literature and Mr. Zemeckis has remained true to its finest sentiments. He is an innovator, but his traditionalism is what makes the movie work.” Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter was far less enamored, “Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol is, in its essence, a product reel, a showy, exuberant demonstration of the glories of motion capture, computer animation and 3-D technology. On that level, it’s a wow. On any emotional level, it’s as cold as Marley’s Ghost.” Thus far moviegoers have warmed to the tale to the tune of $256 million worldwide.
Not planning to give up on the motion capture technology anytime soon, Robert Zemeckis intends to remake the psychedelic, animated tale Yellow Submarine (1968) and to produce the long-rumoured sequel to Who Framed Roger Rabbit; if all goes well, both pictures are tentatively set to be released in 2012.
Acknowledging that not all of his films have found a receptive audience, a reflective Zemeckis remarked, “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.”
Read the screenplay for Forrest Gump, and be sure check out the trailer for A Christmas Carol.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.