When it comes to American classics, few directors have a resume quite like Robert Zemeckis.
The 61-year-old Oscar winner is the man behind mass favorites such as “Used Cars,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Forrest Gump,” “Contact,” “Cast Away” and, of course, the “Back to the Future” trilogy.
For the past 12 years, Zemeckis has waylaid his massively successful live-action career to become a pioneer in the burgeoning world of motion-capture films, where he’s directed hits such as “The Polar Express,” “Beowulf” and “A Christmas Carol.”
This week, Zemeckis makes is highly anticipated return to live-action with his critically applauded drama “Flight.” The film stars Denzel Washington as an alcoholic, drug-addicted airline pilot named Whip Whitaker, who makes a miraculous emergency landing – flying the plane upside down – and saves nearly everyone on board. First hailed as a hero, Whip quickly becomes the center of controversy when it’s discovered he was drunk behind the wheel. John Goodman costars as Whip’s cocaine dealer, Bruce Greenwood appears as his union rep and Don Cheadle plays the lawyer trying to save his butt.
I recently caught up with Zemeckis, who attended a closing night screening of “Flight” at the 21st Philadelphia Film Festival, to talk about the new movie, nice guys, “Roger Rabbit” and the Flux Capacitor.
David Onda: Is the crash landing in “Flight” loosely based on any actual attempt at an upside-down landing?
Robert Zemeckis: No, I don’t think it’s completely true. I think what [screenwriter John Gatins] did, is he took some airline incidents that happened and he talked to a lot of pilots about – “Is there anything that could have happened in this situation to save this situation,” and kind of cobbled it together. So it’s completely fictional.
Onda: And what were their reactions when he asked, “Can you land a plane upside-down?”
Zemeckis: What we do in the plane is actually completely real. I mean, we don’t land the plane upside down, he just arrests the nosedive. He had to stop the nosedive as best he could. And then when he came back around, he had enough altitude to belly the plane in, to at least get it on the ground as slow as he possibly could.
Onda: When people think of miracle crash landings, they think of the “Miracle on the Hudson” incident. Did that play any role in the creation of this story?
Zemeckis: None. I think John wrote the first draft of the screenplay in 1999.
Onda: When you have a character as unlikable as Whip Whitaker, how do you get the reaction you want from an audience with an actor as likeable as Denzel?
Zermeckis: Let me ask you, because I’ve heard this a lot – what is it that you don’t like specifically?
Onda: Well, between the drug and alcohol use, I suppose it’s the overall unsavory nature of the character.
Zemeckis: Uh huh. Yeah. I get it. And you’re right. He’s really good at his job and he’s really flawed, so I think that he’s very damaged and very imperfect, which actually makes him actually very human.
Onda: “Flight” explores the concept of heroism and what it means to be a hero. Do you believe there are shades of gray to heroism?
Zemeckis: In real life, there sure are. [Whip’s] an antihero – always an interesting character. But he’s a human hero and not a movie hero. Not a white hat John Wayne movie hero, but I think that’s why you identify with him, because he’s so flawed. I love that ambiguity about the whole thing.
Onda: You also filmed this for a comparatively lower budget – just $30 million. How do you do that without compromising your vision?
Zemeckis: Well, you just can’t be unrealistic about what it is that you can accomplish for the cost. That’s really as simple as it is. You can’t expect to build a mansion on a tract house budget. But that doesn’t mean you can’t build an elegant tract house. You just have to understand the reality of the situation that you’re working in.
Onda: You tend to cast genuinely nice guys in your movies – Denzel, Tom Hanks, Michael J. Fox – is there a method to that?
Zemeckis: You don’t wanna work with a jerk, if you’re lucky enough not to work with a jerk. But I have found, in my career, that the most talented people are the nicest people. I’ve always found that [they are] the people who are the most talented or the easiest to work with, because they’re not insecure.
Onda: People are already talking about Oscars for you and Denzel – are you immune to that type of buzz?
Zemeckis: All I can say is Denzel deserves one. It’s definitely an Oscar-worthy performance.
Onda: And for you?
Zemeckis: Oh, I can’t go there. If it’s something that were to happen, it’s always an honor to be recognized by your peers.
Onda: I’m a huge “Roger Rabbit” fan. Was it bizarre when Charles Fleischer wore the giant rabbit costume on set to do Roger’s voice?
Zemeckis: Yeah. After five minutes it wasn’t, but it was very bizarre. It was something he wanted to do. I guess it improved his performance. It didn’t … [laughs] … it didn’t hurt anything. It didn’t bother anybody.
Onda: What’s the one thing you get asked the most about any of your movies?
Zemeckis: Is there going to be a sequel to “Back to the Future”? Of course not.
Onda: Besides fluxing, what does the Flux Capacitor actually do?
Zemeckis: Well, it’s that thing that makes time travel possible. I think the only guy who could actually really specifically answer that question would be Doc Brown.
“Flight” is now open in theaters everywhere. Click here to order tickets on Fandango.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.