We tend to identify Robert Zemeckis with a long list of hit films from Forrest Gump to Cast Away to Back to The Future, Romancing The Stone, Polar Express, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Beowulf and Flight. A closer look at the struggles behind almost all those films suggests why he might have found a kindred spirit in Philippe Petit, the French aerialist (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who in 1974 walked a wire strung between the North and South towers of the World Trade Center. Zemeckis opens the New York Film Festival tonight with a rendering of Petit’s highly original artistic statement, one part loving tribute to the memory of those buildings, and one part vertigo-inducing 3D that illustrates the danger of Petit’s stunt. At least figuratively, Zemeckis’ insistence on not making the same movie twice (three Back to the Futures is the exception) has meant overcoming adversity and walking a tightrope his entire career, not limited to Disney’s unceremonious shuttering of his motion capture lab ImageMovers Digital that put an end to his performance capture animated films. Disney kicked The Walk to the curb at the same time, making The Walk a lot like past Zemeckis efforts that include Gump. None of the success — the near $700 million worldwide gross, the six Oscars including Best Director and Best Picture or the chain restaurant Bubba Gump’s — were predicted when Zemeckis struggled to get the movie off the ground, when he and others waived upfront fees and got windfall paydays in success. The Walk got a lifeline from Tom Rothman, who made this his first major buy when he resuscitated TriStar. Zemeckis, in turn, adhered to a budget as tight as Petit’s wire, bringing it in at around $35 million. Rothman now runs Sony Pictures and The Walk turns out to be an awards season bright spot in a rebuilding year.
DEADLINE: What sold you on the idea that The Walk had the chance to be the most seamless marriage of storytelling and visual effects of any project you’ve done? I don’t know if you feel that way…
ZEMECKIS: Yeah. Well, I don’t know. I came upon the story by seeing it in a children’s book that had eight pages of illustrations. It was called The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, and when I started the research, I just felt that it had the possibility of being exactly what you just said, this amazing story that is full of visual spectacle, one that might allow the movie to do things that only movies can do. This is what attracted me to it. To me, it had everything that you want in a movie. It had an interesting character who’s driven, and obsessed, and passionate. It had all this caper stuff. He was an outlaw. There was suspense. And then he did this death-defying thing. And so I started developing this about 10 years ago. It was Dick Cook at Disney, who I developed it for originally.
DEADLINE: Polar Express was a famous children’s book, but it seems an odd place to discover Petit’s feat.
ZEMECKIS: When I read it, I said, wait a minute. Is this a real story? Because I don’t remember it happening the way it really happened. I somehow missed it, I guess because I was in film school and cut off from the world at the time. As the research unfolded, I just couldn’t believe what was there. I read Philippe’s book, called him, and he came out to California. We had a long dinner, and I convinced him to let me do the movie version of this. Then Dick Cook bought the rights to the story and his book, I started developing it, and then everything went to hell at Disney.
DEADLINE: Cook was ousted and your ImageMovers Digital animation factory was shuttered. What happened to The Walk?
ZEMECKIS: Well, the next thing I knew I was trying, and trying, and trying to get somebody else to make it. And then finally, gratefully, Tom Rothman had the courage to step up.
DEADLINE: A technologically groundbreaking movie, made for a price I’m told was $34.7 million. What’s not to like?
ZEMECKIS: Well, I think I can safely say that every single producer who produces a movie, and every single independent financier who finances a movie, and every single studio, they all passed on this.
DEADLINE: Was there a consensus opinion why?
ZEMECKIS: Not really. I mean, just…I don’t know. I guess, at the end of the day, it was too different. It doesn’t fit into any slot, if you know what I mean.
DEADLINE: I’ve seen movies about wire walkers and trapeze artists before, but I’ve never been so aware of the danger and the vertigo. How much of this accomplishment was possible when you started this?
ZEMECKIS: Well…you know what? This falls into the category…I’m pretty fatalistic about these things, but all that happened, everybody passing, it all was for a reason. It allowed the technology to evolve to a place where I could absolutely do the movie seamlessly and not have it cost a fortune. So if I was going to be very philosophical about this, it was all as it should be and it was probably good that we didn’t make it 10 years ago. It might have looked just as good, but it would’ve cost a lot more money.
DEADLINE: Rothman made big bets before on movies like Life of Pi, but he is also a guy whose mantra is to be creatively reckless but fiscally responsible. What sacrifices did you have to make?
ZEMECKIS: The only sacrifice was one I embraced. I had to do it on a shoestring budget.
DEADLINE: You waived your upfront on Flight, which I’ve heard came in around $35 million, with Denzel Washington and that unbelievable plane crash. What about this?
ZEMECKIS: In that same range. Otherwise, there would have been no movie. What that meant was writing the screenplay down to the bone, having the schedule down to the bone, but all that was okay with me. I don’t need to indulge myself by spending a lot of money. I think there’s method in the madness of crunching the budget down because you find creative ways to solve problems, and do things actually that can improve the movie.
DEADLINE: What elements did you strip out?
ZEMECKIS: The real story is way more elaborate than the movie and there was more in the earlier drafts. But the movie doesn’t suffer because what movies are supposed to do is simplify and express the essence of what’s going on. But yeah, there were some other characters, and there were more things that Philippe did in preparing for the coup that had to be condensed. We didn’t lose anything that I feel at all bad about, or that made the film suffer. For example, in real life, he did eight crossings. In the movie, he does six. I combined some events. It all just makes the movie better, I think.
DEADLINE: I am uncomfortable with heights, and six crossings were more than enough for me because the 3D technology really puts you right there with him, 110 stories up, high above the clouds. Usually when you see someone risk their lives like Petit did, a big payday’s involved. Explain how someone could risk their life to make an artistic statement that ended with him being hauled off in handcuffs by the NYPD.
ZEMECKIS: Well, he’s kind of an anarchist. He referred to it as the artistic coup. At one point it was called the artistic crime of the century. What I loved about him was that he did it just because he had to do it. He had to pull this off. While not at this hyper level, that need for self-expression is a universal human trait. With anyone who expresses themselves creatively, whether it’s baking a cake, or singing in a choir, or writing an article, this thing happens that you can’t explain, but you have to do it. You have to get it out. You have to do this creative thing, and that’s what I definitely identified with and I think that is ultimately what touches everybody who sees the movie.
DEADLINE: Is there a parallel in your own career, where you just had to do something people told you was impossible?
ZEMECKIS: Mike, every movie I’ve ever made has been a high-wire act, always flying without a net. Always flying without a net. I mean, I know exactly what Philippe was going through. Obviously, I don’t put my physical body in jeopardy, but I understand the feeling of walking a tightrope.
DEADLINE: Like Petit, it hasn’t killed you yet. What has the risk taking allowed you do to?
ZEMECKIS: I’ve been very fortunate in that I haven’t had to make the same type of movie over and over. I’ve always been able look for things that I didn’t do before. That is what immediately gets my juices flowing, but it also fills me with anxiety and terror because, again, I’m stepping into uncharted territory on almost every movie. I get excited about the prospect of, hey, how can I present this in a way that I’ve never seen before kind of a thing? I’ve always felt that that’s the mission for a movie.
DEADLINE: You’ve broken lots of ground, from doing two Back to the Futures together, to sandwiching in What Lies Beneath between two production periods of Cast Away which you stopped halfway through so Tom Hanks could starve himself. You put Forrest Gump with Nixon and JFK and mixed animation with live action in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and now you’ve got your wire walker. Which of these was hardest?
ZEMECKIS: Hands down, Roger Rabbit was toughest. That was like making three movies simultaneously. A period film noir movie, a feature-length animated movie, and an outrageous comedy, all at the same time. So that was the one where I had the most vivid memory of saying, boy, we have really gone through the looking glass, we’re flying without a net and we have no idea where this is going to take us. That one was probably the most terrifying. After that, shooting the two Back to the Future sequels back to back, that was pretty daunting. Yeah.
DEADLINE: What about book-ending Cast Away with What Lies Beneath?
ZEMECKIS: Well, the Cast Away thing was solving that problem with Tom, and we didn’t know how else to do it. He was very right to insist that he had to physically change his body, and we’re going, how are we going to do this? The only solution I could come up with is, well, we’ll go on a hiatus, but we’ll keep the crew and justify the hiatus by making another movie. That was a courageous thing Tom did, and it was his call. I probably couldn’t get away with that kind of thing today.
DEADLINE: What about The Walk?
ZEMECKIS: I am talking about the two movie thing. On this movie, I think I can safely say that technically, everything I’ve done in my career prepared me to make this movie. I used every type of illusion that I’ve ever done, except probably cartoon animation. There’s digital animation, there’s performance capture, but there isn’t cartoon animation. Aside from that, everything I’ve done prepared me for this one.
DEADLINE: For a visual tech savvy filmmaker like yourself, how much weight do you put on the visual potential of movies like The Walk or Flight when you are deciding whether or not to do it?
ZEMECKIS: None at all. None. I always look for the character and story. That’s the only way I know how to make the movie. If the story moves and excited me, then the next thing I think of is, how can we look at this in a way that’s exciting? How can we look at this in a way that really lends itself to spectacle? But for example, I’m never walking around thinking, how can I make a movie where there’s a plane crash in it?
DEADLINE: You have had memorable ones in Cast Away and Flight…
ZEMECKIS: Yeah, but it was never, I really want to do a plane crash. I never look at a movie like that or piece of material. It’s always story first.
DEADLINE: Ridley Scott said something similar about the importance of story, but added that he instantly sees the visual way he’ll shoot it. How long after you read John Gatins’ Flight script did you work out the look of turning a passenger jet upside down and landing in a field near a church? Or for that matter, Petit’s tightrope walk between the Twin Towers?
ZEMECKIS: It is always down the road. Flight attracted me because of the redemptive story of this guy whose life was completely out of control and what he ultimately had to do to have, for lack of a better word, a spiritual awakening. The plane crash in the first draft of the screenplay I read was just kind of roughed in. It wasn’t as elaborate as it ended up in the final movie, and that just became the idea of, hey, we actually can choreograph this, right? It has to evolve. It has to build. It has to be a crescendo, but all we know in the screenplay is he’s got to crash-land this plane. Now how do we make it really cool? The Walk was the reverse problem. When you think about what we’ll call the final ballet, the walk that Philippe did, as beautiful and as proud as I am with all those effects, and how I shot it, and how it evoked vertigo…the biggest challenge for me was this: how do I keep the audience emotionally connected to him, and how do I continue letting the audience know how he’s feeling? And that to me was the most difficult thing I did on the making of The Walk. That took the most time and thought, and it ultimately led to the device that I use in the movie of him presenting the story to the audience in the first frame. That all grew out of what was necessary for us to know what was happening with him on the wire at the end.
DEADLINE: So that was the ‘eureka’ moment, where you had him stand atop the Statue of Liberty torch to narrate the tale. When did that hit you?
ZEMECKIS: Early on, when I first started outlining the story. I thought, well, sh*t, how’s the audience going to know…because here’s the thing. Philippe would tell me the story of his adventure, and he’s a great storyteller, and I’m thinking, this is great stuff. But how do I get it on the screen? I realized I wanted this guy to tell the story, just like he’s telling it to me, over dinner. So that was an earlier eureka moment, but then it’s like, well, how do we keep this from just being something that’s dropped on the audience in the last 20 minutes of the movie, because that’ll never work, right? So you have to figure out how to weave it, throughout. Do we use an old tried and true device where he’s telling the story to a little kid or something? Is it a case of Amadeus? Is he in a confession booth? Or is it Forrest Gump, where he’s telling the story on a park bench? In this age of iChat and YouTube, and every reality TV show that everyone watches, this is the convention that everyone’s used to. Having him tell the story directly to the screen.
DEADLINE: You make the World Trade Center a character in this movie, knowing it will evoke strong emotions in everyone who sees this film. Give me a sense of how you saw this as an opportunity and a need for sensitivity?
ZEMECKIS: Well, obviously, this was an issue. But the whole idea of taking these two towers, uniting them with a cable, with Philippe dancing in the space between them, the void, as he calls it, and putting his physical body at risk…the whole thing is extremely poetic, and it’s lovely, and it’s human, and so I was immediately moved by that. Because the tragedy–as important as it is, and we can never forget–is not the only thing that happened in the history of these towers. In all the hours I spent speaking to Philippe, he always referred to the towers as these living, breathing entities. They were his partners, his co-conspirators in this adventure. That made me think that the way to do it was to present it without any editorializing. Just present them the way that they’re seen through Philippe’s point of view, and I think that was ultimately the right decision. Because we all bring our own history to this, we don’t have to comment on it, you know?
DEADLINE: How did you sell Joseph Gordon-Levitt on playing Petit, and how rigorous was the preparation? He looks like a young Bruce Lee, with the confidence and fluid control of his body. What was the hardest thing for him?
ZEMECKIS: Well, first of all, Joe fit the bill. He was my only, only, only, only choice for the part. He speaks perfect French, and he’s this fantastic actor who is always morphing himself physically into these characters. Then it turned out that he was a student of, and he loves the circus arts, he loves street performance art. When I presented the idea to him, he wanted to do it right away. He worked so hard. He worked his butt off because he wanted to make sure his French was perfect Parisian.
DEADLINE: What about the wire walking?
ZEMECKIS: He went into intensive wire-walking training with Philippe. Joe went and lived with Philippe, ate all his meals with Philippe and it was like a wire-walking boot camp where Philippe taught him how to do it. But the whole time, Joe was watching Philippe’s every move, and of course, like all great actors, he didn’t mimic Philippe. He took the essence of Philippe and made him his own. What is so great about what he did is, this was the first movie I ever made about a real person, and I didn’t want to offend Philippe in any way.
DEADLINE: It is easy to imagine guys like you, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott always trying to raise the bar and have those guys say, I’ve never seen that before. You raised the bar here. When is the last time you saw a movie that raised the bar for you?
ZEMECKIS: Well, it wasn’t about visual effects. I remember very distinctly seeing Oliver Stone’s JFK, and I just thought, okay, this is different. That was very inspiring, the way he mixed the media and made it all work. When I was in film school, everything inspired me. Every movie made in the ‘70s inspired me, but since I’ve been working professionally, that is the one that very profoundly made me sit up and think, okay, we can set tone stories in very different ways now.
DEADLINE: Was it the staggering amount of information Stone conveyed without bogging down the pace?
ZEMECKIS: Yeah, but also the way he would just cut to things, and you’re looking at 8 millimeter film, or at video, right in the middle of a scene, you’re just going, this is just…magnificent. It was just fantastic. I remember being very inspired.
DEADLINE: You mentioned how the whole thing with Disney went to hell. That included the performance capture animation you did for a long time. Can you verbalize what about that process made you work exclusively in that form of filmmaking?
ZEMECKIS: I got to make movies where all I did was direct the actors’ performance and didn’t have to worry for one moment about what I call the tyranny of technology. It was incredible, like I was directing black box theater. It was me, sitting on a folding chair with an actor in a volume of infrared light which was invisible, and it was all about performance, and I didn’t have to worry about him hitting his marks or worry about the camera hitting its marks. I didn’t have to worry about whether it was going to be in focus. I didn’t have to worry about the timing, and it was wonderfully liberating for both myself and the actors. Those movies were magnificent, and then to take the perfect takes of performance and bring them back to my office in Santa Barbara without having 200 people racing against the setting sun. I worked at my leisure, I could do the cinema part and perfect it as best I could. To me, it was the most glorious way to make a movie.
DEADLINE: More control than you ever had before?
ZEMECKIS: Yeah. So much control over the process, the mayhem of movie making. Yeah. I was able to step away from that.
DEADLINE: But you have overcome adversity and low expectations on Forrest Gump, Romancing The Stone, and now The Walk. Is it too much to imagine you’d get addicted to that mayhem, with exhilaration coming when you complete the wire walk without falling?
ZEMECKIS: For me, production is survival. I’m just hanging on by my fingernails. My favorite parts of the process is writing, prepping, editing. Production is…I just have to put on my flak jacket and get across the beach, you know? I’m not a guy who likes the chaos. Actually, I do everything I can to have minimal amounts of chaos and anxiety on my set. There’s enough that’s built in. I don’t thrive on that.
DEADLINE: What you just said, it seems like the opposite of what Philippe Petit went through in this movie. He endured the planning, the sneaking around to get equipment up to the top of the World Trade Center towers, rigging in the middle of the night. All to get to the elevated experience of his life, walking the wire. I would have thought that feeling would for you would come during production.
ZEMECKIS: See, for me, production is just a part of the art of the process. The moment you just described comes in watching the movie the first time with an audience. The moment I step on the wire is when the lights go down the very first time with a theater full of people who have nothing to do with the movie. That to me is…the moment of satisfaction. Being on the set, that is endless compromise. You are just always compromising your vision because that’s just the way it works. You wake up in the morning. You get in the car, and you’ve got this vision for the scene, and you got your shot list. But then you get on the set, and it’s 11 o’clock and you haven’t got your first setup yet. By five o’clock, you’re just trying to get what you can so that you can cut the scene together. And yet, ultimately it always works. Once somebody asked me what it is really like, to shoot a movie. It’s just a process of compromising artistic vision, all day long. I’m not complaining about it. It just is what it is.
DEADLINE: What’s your best memory of an audience screening, where maybe even you didn’t realize how good a film was?
ZEMECKIS: It is always thrilling and terrifying and ultimately exhilarating, and a relief when you see the movie works. The one that was the biggest shock, the one I was least expecting, and the one that was the most thrilling was the first time we ran Back to the Future. I mean, we had to pull the audience off the ceiling. They were out of their minds, when that movie ended. I’ve never…I don’t know where I…I mean, I was stunned. It was like, wow, I never expected that in a billion years.
DEADLINE: Steven Spielberg took you under his wing at a time he was the biggest hitmaker in Hollywood. How did you get that guy in your corner, and what’s the biggest thing you learned from him?
ZEMECKIS: Well, I learned a ton of things from him. I would watch everything that he would do, I’d watch him on the set, and then I’d watch how he puts that together. My technique of telling a story with the camera is a major Steven influence. He and David Lean, they’re the geniuses of that. I never asked him why he took me under his wing. But I like to think that he saw how passionate I was for the art form that we both love. The beautiful thing about our professional relationship and our friendship is we both admire and love the movies we each make, but we’re never in competition. We understand that we couldn’t make those movies. Only Steven can make Steven’s movies. I can only make my movies, but I love his movies.
DEADLINE: I am getting the impression you may have waived your upfront here and that you once again bet on yourself for a back end reward, the way you did on Flight, Forrest Gump and some others so you could keep the budget lower. What’s your rule of thumb when to take that upfront haircut?
ZEMECKIS: I’m always trying to do the movie for the best possible price. Doing expensive movies just isn’t any fun because everybody’s too hysterical. All the fun is taken out of it. So to do a movie as economically as you possibly can, is always my goal. I guess there’s a point where you realize that you would be throwing the baby out with the bath water if let’s say, someone said, hey you want to make The Walk for three million dollars? But you can get to a point where you say, yes, I can do this, and feel comfortable, just as you know the point where if you said yes, everybody would lose because it’s not enough. So you have to hold the line there.
DEADLINE: You are really telling me you accomplished all this 3D wizardy for the under $35 million price you brought in Flight at?
ZEMECKIS: Yeah, it’s in that range.
DEADLINE: Will you stay and continue to push the envelope in 3D?
ZEMECKIS: No. No. No. 3D is not…that’s putting the cart before the horse. The 3D aspect has to come from inside the movie. I would never think of making Flight in 3D, that’s just not a movie that should be done in 3D. It’s like deciding whether your movie should be color or black and white. It has to have some emotional resonance to the material, and it has to enhance the material emotionally. But the question I think you’re asking about the budget? I do think that going forward in my career, I have to be able to make movies economically if I’m going to be able to make movies that are unique, and that are about something.
DEADLINE: This is now your second movie since the motion capture animation facility was shuttered by Disney. Was there some lingering benefit from all the advancements you made doing that kind of animation?
ZEMECKIS: Well, the great thing is, the guys who were doing all my visual effects, Atomic Fiction, they were all guys who were working in my facility. These young guys, Kevin Baillie and his team, we were all making those movies there when the company folded. These guys went off and started Atomic Fiction. I’d gotten to see how incredibly talented they were, and they rose to the occasion to be able to help me pull this movie off and Flight as well, for the budgets that we made those for. So it was all good.