Robert Zemeckis has as varied a filmography as any director in Hollywood: “Romancing the Stone,” the “Back to the Future” trilogy, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Forrest Gump” (which won Zemeckis a best director Oscar), “Cast Away,” “The Polar Express,” “Beowulf,” “A Christmas Carol,” and now “Flight.”
In “Flight,” Denzel Washington plays an airline pilot, Whip Whitaker, who makes a successful crash landing against nearly impossible odds — odds he helped raise with his alcoholism and drug use. Will Whip triumph over his demons — or will they make him crash even harder than his plane did?
Zemeckis, 61, has been directing feature films since 1978, when he debuted with “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” On a recent visit to Boston he talked about “Flight,” the coolness of 3-D dogfights, and how much Hollywood has changed over the past 35 years.
Q. Do you like to fly?
A. I’m a pilot. I love flying.
‘It’s a Hollywood convention that you’re supposed to build your bridges in front of you before they burn them behind you, but I’ve never done it that way.’
Q. I assume then that was part of the appeal of the script for you.
A. Noooo. Not at all. You know, I did a plane crash in “Cast Away.” So that was, like, “Oh no, another plane crash.” The appeal of the script was the Whip character. Having to do another plane crash was a small price to pay.
Q. Before we get to Whip, what about the plane crash as a narrative challenge? In most other movies, something so dramatic would be the climax. Here it comes quite early.
A. The challenge was figuring out a way to have it resonate. It was certainly a concern from an intensity and pacing standpoint. Can the movie recover from something so dynamic? But spectacle is not only action, it’s also performance.
Q. Granting that “Flight” isn’t primarily an aviation movie, do you have any favorites in that genre?
A. I love World War II bomber dramas [laughs]. Those are always pretty cool. I think one of the things we need to do is a really good dogfight movie now that we have 3-D. I haven’t found a screenplay yet, but a World War II dogfight would be so cool in 3-D.
Q. “Flight” is very much a character-driven story. Your last three movies were animation. Was part of the draw that this is so much about character?
A. If you look at my entire body of work, even though they’re all different genres, different styles, the thread that might run through them all is [having] a character who has what I’d call a dramatic character arc, even if it’s a comedy. All those performance-capture digital movies you mention: Beowulf is a magnificent character; so’s Scrooge. You can’t criticize the writing of “A Christmas Carol”! And “Polar Express” is one of the most interesting movies I’ve ever made. It’s all about agnosticism. That has a giant character arc, even though the kid’s 8 years old.
Q. You mention agnosticism. Religion keeps surfacing in “Flight.” It really is a movie about redemption.
A. It is about redemption. I don’t think any specific religion has the market on that. It’s more of a human, spiritual thing, if that makes sense.
Q. How does Denzel Washington’s presence alter the movie? Not the quality of his acting, but the nature of his persona. If someone else had been Whip, how different a movie would that have been?
A. It would have been different, but that’s such an esoteric question. It’s like saying, if I’d married a different woman what would my life have been like? You get to a point when you make a movie — and it happens to me when we’re going through table readings and designing the costumes — when it is what it is. Then I start to see the movie as I go through the screenplay with those actors, portraying those characters — when it becomes inevitable.
Q. What was it about the script that most drew you?
A. Whenever I get a screenplay and I can’t figure out the ending on page 10, that’s a good sign. When I am compelled to keep reading the screenplay and can’t put it down, that’s a good sign. And those are very rare. What I found fascinating was here we have a character who’s extremely complex and has moral ambiguity. Yet it was compelling drama — compelling drama without the clichéd, potboiler dramatic devices, like knowing exactly what the agenda of the bad guy is, knowing what the agenda of the good guy is. So the drama comes from the ambiguity. That’s very rare, and I think that speaks to the brilliance of [John Gatins’s] screenplay. That’s what drew me to it.
Q. Technology is such a part of Hollywood filmmaking. That’s something that’s long been associated with you. Is it just happenstance that you’ve made so many technologically innovative movies?
A. One of the things that I guess I’m unique in believing is that they don’t have to be exclusive. You go to the movies because you want to see spectacle. Movies that have drama can also be wildly entertaining. You don’t have to have one without the other.
Q. You’re in favor of wildly entertaining.
A.[Laughs] Yeah, whatever that might be. It might be a close-up of an actor like Denzel.
Q. You’ve been directing movies for nearly 35 years now. What have been the biggest changes in the industry during that time?
A. I gotta tell you, I’m not quite sure how to define the current change. I never expected it to be so dramatic in my lifetime. I never expected it to turn completely upside down. I thought I was going to slowly drift out to pasture. I didn’t expect to see it disintegrate below my feet.
Q. When you say “it” . . .
A. Whatever the art form is and how it’s delivered and appreciated and what it’s become. It’s very different. I can’t define it. Whatever is causing the change, the industry is pretty much paralyzed. They don’t know what to make. It’s always been a business run on fear, but the fear is at a level that’s debilitating now. . . . What happened in the ’70s? That was basically part and parcel of the social revolution that happened, which was really energizing for art, fashion, design — everything. The only thing that’s changing in all culture [now] is technological. No one’s turning the world upside down in literature, design. Cars look the same. Fashion looks the same. Everything looks the same as it has for 20 years. So movies are part of that. I wonder if technology is changing so fast that that’s all anyone has time to absorb. Listen, film is gone — but it should be. It’s a hundred years old.
Q. So you don’t have any problem with that?
A. Oh God, I love digital. I love the digital cameras. I think they’re great. That would be like saying “I have no problem driving an electric car instead of a steam car.”
Q. If you were starting out today, instead of the ’70s, would the young you be as excited, less excited — or maybe doing something else?
A. I don’t know, I don’t know. When I talk to film students they’re as appreciative of the classic cinema as I was. But I think that in the ’70s and in the ’80s the entire cultural zeitgeist was excited about cinema. I’m not quite sure that the general public is as excited about the art form. Movies back in the ’70s, ’80s were important. Now the medium isn’t in the forefront of culture. So that’s the biggest change that I’m seeing. But maybe, you know, nothing lasts forever.
Q. You mentioned the business is paralyzed. You have a track record. You had Denzel Washington as a star. Did you have a hard time getting this movie made?
A. Oh God, yes.
Q. Did that surprise you?
A. No. The real story of this movie is that it was made by a Hollywood studio. Denzel and I had to waive our fees. This movie had to be made for a very, very reasonable price, which was $30 million.
Q. Wow, I would have thought that it was much more expensive than that.
A. I know, but that’s what it is.
Q. So what haven’t you done that you’d like to?
A. Haven’t done a musical! The script would have to be good, though; I’m not beating the bushes to find one. I guess I’m very restless, because I haven’t done the same type of movie over and over again.
Q. Do you have your next project lined up?
Q. Does that feel good or bad?
A. A little of both. It’s a Hollywood convention that you’re supposed to build your bridges in front of you before they burn them behind you, but I’ve never done it that way. I’m always afraid that if I plan something to do next before the latest film is done that the new thing will be just a reaction to that one.
Q. Who’d direct “The Robert Zemeckis Story”?
A. Man, I don’t know. That’s a very, very deep question I’d have to ponder [laughs]. I’ve never thought of my life as a movie. Which is probably a good thing.