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If you like Robert Zemeckis's story, you might also like:
James Cameron,
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Robert Zemeckis
Robert Zemeckis
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Robert Zemeckis Interview

Motion Picture Production

June 29, 1996
Sun Valley, Idaho

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  Robert Zemeckis

At what point did it occur to you that you wanted to be a film director?

Robert Zemeckis: I would say it was my junior or senior year in high school. I had a passionate interest in the technique of filmmaking. I think, because of how I was raised, I always assumed that I would be some sort of technician. I just love the process and I thought, "Maybe there's a way I can be a camera man or something."

What does that have to do with the way you were raised?

Robert Zemeckis: I say that because -- and this might sound harsh -- but the truth was that in my family there was no art. I mean, there was no music, there were no books, there was no theater. I grew up in a very working class, lower middle class, blue collar life. The only thing I had that was inspirational, was television - and it actually was.

My father, my uncles, they all had eight millimeter home movie camera systems, and I was just fascinated by the splicing and the processing and that stuff. And then it was like, like I said in the seminar, when I, for the very first time, realized that my emotions were being manipulated or I was being moved that I, you know, just realized that the power of this -- it wasn't just about stunts and action and special effects, which is why I was interested in movies very early on as a kid. Horror movies, that sort of thing. And just became driven to find out about how it could, and then very quickly I realized that if you wanted to be involved in movies, if you were a director, then you could do everything.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

So the leap was from focusing on the technology of it to realizing that you could be the guy in charge and use the technology for some ultimate purpose.

Robert Zemeckis: For me it's perfect, because it's the perfect blend of technology and artistry, and I love them both.

Given the background you've described, how were you able to make that jump?

Robert Zemeckis Interview Photo
Robert Zemeckis: I often wonder about that. It was a certain amount of luck and then being talented. I don't know why, but for some reason I have this ability to tell stories. The third thing was being absolutely driven to accomplish this goal. I don't know how healthy that part of it was, but I do know that's how it was. I was completely single-minded.

Were you driven at an early age to get out of the circumstances in which you first found yourself?

Robert Zemeckis: Yeah. That was it. Without wanting at the time to hurt anybody, 'cause my parents were doing the best job that they could. It was just a very quiet and private understanding that there was a bigger world out there, and I wanted out. I love this medium of filmmaking, so I just went after it.

So you weren't repudiating anybody. You weren't rebelling in a negative sense, but from somewhere came the notion that there could be a better and different life.

Robert Zemeckis: Right. I believe that knowledge came from television. I absolutely believe You hear so much about the problems with television, but I think that it saved my life. I can't imagine what would have happened if I didn't have that as a window to the world. I think my interests all bloom from the seed that that planted, as lame as it might have been in many circumstances. As an example, I found out that such a thing as a film school exists just by watching The Johnny Carson Show. That was pretty powerful.

How did that happen?

Robert Zemeckis: I was in my parents' living room, and I was watching The Johnny Carson Show as I did every night, you know? And Johnny had Jerry Lewis on as a guest. And he started his interview by saying, "So I understand you're teaching college." And Jerry Lewis said, "Yeah, I'm a visiting professor at the USC School of Cinema." And I said, "School of Cinema?" Never in my wildest -- I mean, school was about engineering and science, but cinema? I mean, literally, the thought never crossed my mind that something like this could have existed. And then, the next day I went to the library and looked up the USC School of Performing Arts and saw their curriculum. And it was just amazing how it opened my eyes.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

A lot of us say the first step to a great education is to turn off the television. In your case, you're glad the television was on.

Robert Zemeckis: Obviously, television isn't an education. But I don't see any purpose in turning it off for good, either.

You also said you used your father's and your uncles' eight millimeter cameras. What made you do that? Was that because of television, too?

Robert Zemeckis: It started by wanting to learn how to set the exposure, set the focus. Then I would record family events with a home movie camera, like everybody does.

You were the guy that got to do that?

Robert Zemeckis: Oh, I wanted to do it. And everyone was happy to give that job to somebody else. And then, very, very slowly, I started to make them entertaining, putting funny title cards on, and then editing, juxtaposing faces that relatives might make to get a laugh. Then that expanded to actually telling some linear stories that had nothing to do with photographing Christmas or a wedding.

Was the family supportive of that? Did your friends think that was a kick?

Robert Zemeckis: Yeah. They were supportive. Of course, they never in their wildest imagination thought that I would make a career of it, but they were very entertained. They were my audience.

Any time there was a family gathering, I'd pull out the screen and the projector. Then it got more and more elaborate, trying to synch up sounds, which was like my biggest thing. I was really trying to figure out how to do that. And then, ultimately, making these eight millimeter productions. I started to do a lot of stop motion animation, puppet animation type things, and blowing things up with fire crackers and elaborate special effects. So they were very entertained by that.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

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