The last time director Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks got together for Forrest Gump, the pair- and that film – won Oscars. Now the pair are back with Cast Away, and it is distinctly possible that Oscar won’t overlook this indelible Hollywood duo. Paul Fischer spoke to the acclaimed director in Los Angeles.
It is almost hard to imagine, watching Cast Away, the latest film from Robert Zemeckis, that its often unconventional approach is in stark contrast to many of the director’s more mainstream fare, such as Romancing the Stone and Back to the Future. Never one to rest on his laurels, Zemeckis adopts a modest approach to his work. Talking from his Universal Studios office, the Oscar winner has no idea whether Cast Away, his most philosophical and profound treatise on life, has come about at the right time in his life. “I don’t think you can design these things or plan ’em”, he says matter-of-factly. In Cast Away, which was conceived by star Tom Hanks, Chuck Noland (Hanks) is a FedEx trouble-shooter, who’s charter flight crashes near the South Pacific, and leaves him stranded alone on an island for four years. While his girlfriend (Helen Hunt) and co-workers assume he’s dead, he must give up everything that he once took for granted and learn how to survive both physically and emotionally.
From director Robert Zemeckis, Cast Away is a story of adventure and discovery surrounding one man’s will to stay alive. What separates Cast Away from much that comes out of mainstream Hollywood, is that it takes risks in terms of narrative construction, character and refusing to submit to a ‘typical’ Hollywood ending. One would imagine that the director and Hanks made a conscious effort not to make the film ‘easy’ for their audience, but on this, Zemeckis takes issue. “I don’t think it’s a difficult film for the audience. The thing that attracted us to the project, was the fact that it was different, which I think audiences are always clamouring for, and I think filmmakers are always looking for something that is unique and different. We certainly approach the audience with respect and integrity; we never want to treat the audience with contempt”.
The making of Cast Away is as fascinating a tale as the movie itself. In order for Hanks to immerse himself in his character, the film stopped production for almost a year to allow the actor to physically prepare for a character who had spent some four years on an island. During the hiatus, Zemeckis went and shot another film, What Lies Beneath, then went back to Cast Away. It must have been an intense process. Not so, the director insists. “It wasn’t a problem and was actually all pluses. It gave me a chance to look at least half of the movie with a certain amount of objectivity, which I’ve never had before. Then we were able to learn by our mistakes going back to the island. So it was much more positive than it was negative”. The kinds of mistakes he learned from the first part of the shoot, ranged from “not bringing the right equipment to not bringing the right shoes”. The island sequences were shot on location in Fiji. “That was tough, because the island we used was just not set up for filmmaking, but that was a hurdle we had to overcome”.
48-year old Zemeckis studied filmmaking at USC School of Cinema-Television, and then got his start with a job with the film-editing department at WMAQ-TV, Chicago’s NBC flagship station. After commercial work, Zemeckis and his friend and collaborator Bob Gale became assistants to Steven Spielberg. It was Spielberg who lined up Zemeckis’ first directing job, the 1977 comedy/nostalgia blend I Wanna Hold Your Hand; despite the film’s low budget, it demonstrated Zemeckis’ ability to combine credible live-action sequences with elaborate special effects devices. Spielberg next had Zemeckis and Gale work on the screenplay of 1941 (1979), which, despite its disappointing box-office returns, convinced the young director that his protégés were valuable commodities. Working again under Spielberg’s aegis, Zemeckis directed his first real financial success, Romancing the Stone (1981), a wild adventure yarn that somehow never lost sight of its sense of humour.
The director then took on Back to the Future (1984) and its two sequels, once again proving that live actors could be combined with special effects to produce spectacular results. Zemeckis further proved this when, in collaboration with Spielberg and cartoon producer Richard Williams, he directed Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), a groundbreaking combination of cartoon animation and “real” action, which went on to become one of the decade’s biggest money-makers. By the early 1990s, Zemeckis was recognized as a director of great technical skill but little personal viewpoint, something that changed with the 1994 release of Forrest Gump. Beyond its top-heavy special effects, the film was a distinctly human drama about a mildly retarded young man (Tom Hanks) who achieves professional and personal success by refusing to see anything but the good in people.
Expected to be a moderately profitable feature, Forrest Gump amazed everyone by being the top money spinner of the US summer of 1994–and one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. As an added bonus, it helped Zemeckis snag a Best Director Oscar, as well as several other awards. Yet the film’s success wasn’t without its share of controversy, but Zemeckis is dismissive of any post-Gump backlash. “You have to be fatalistic about things. You have to understand that when you make a movie that is enormously successful, critically acclaimed and wins all these awards, that you’re probably not going to do that again. You can’t let that paralyse you. The only expectation that I hope to realise, is one where I continue to do good work”. As far as responding to those, especially outside of the US, who would argue that the film remains politically naïve, Zemeckis hits out. “My one-time writing partner Bob Gale said that ‘Forrest Gump was the most cynical film I ever made.’ I don’t understand what people’s problem with the movie was, but what can you do?.
Four years later, Zemeckis has made a decidedly LESS cynical film with Cast Away, and as it deals with one man’s profound transformation, perhaps the experience of making the film transformed the director, perhaps there are distinct parallels between Hanks’ Chuck Noland and director Zemeckis. “Well obviously I’ve never been stranded on a desert island, but that’s obviously a large metaphor for what I think the universal human struggle is, so in that regard, there are parallels. I think everybody is in the same boat, so to speak”.
The film has generated Oscar buzz, but Zemeckis doesn’t care. “That stuff doesn’t interest me”. What interests this director is “getting on with the business of making movies”. And finding good scripts “which is becoming increasingly difficult. The scripts are bad because we have such bad writers., Zemeckis confesses. “But I live in hope. Audiences demand good material and so do I.”