Monday 11 November 2019

Robert Zemeckis: Life on the high-wire tightrope of Hollywood

Titan film-maker Robert Zemeckis has spent a lifetime pursuing the impossible, just like the subject of his latest film

Real life: Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Phillipe Petit in 'The Walk'
Real life: Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Phillipe Petit in 'The Walk'
Director Robert Zemeckis, left, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt at the New York Film Festival opening night gala premiere for The Walk (Invision/AP)

Julia Molony

There's little trace of ego about Robert Zemeckis. The writer/director behind some of the most-loved movies produced since the 1980s seems surprisingly unassuming in person, given his stature in Hollywood.

Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Romancing the Stone, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Polar Express . . . even a potted version of his filmography reads like a compilation of timeless, must-see classics of our age. Yet he brings none of the fuss or the fanfare of, say, his mentor Steven Spielberg or his contemporary George Lucas, though his impact on the industry has arguably been as great.

So for his new movie, The Walk, it goes without saying that expectations were high. There was the Zemeckis reputation to consider, but also the material for the film - a cinematic rendering of the incredible true story of high-wire walker Philippe Petit's dare-devil crossing between the Twin Towers - an audacious stunt that is etched forever in New York's cultural history, and was declared "the artistic crime of the century".

Petit, a high-wire artist from France, first dreamed of suspending a cable between the two towers and walking across, at a height of over 110 stories, when he was just 17. By the time he achieved his dream in 1974, at the age of 25, he had spent six years obsessively dedicated to that goal. With the help of six 'accomplices' he carried out endless research, breaking into the buildings several times (one of which was still under construction) and even renting a helicopter to take aerial photographs of the towers.

Zemeckis himself can relate to this kind of myopic devotion to a seemingly impossible goal. He is, after all, a man born into a blue-collar immigrant family, who succeeded in scaling the heights of Hollywood against all odds. Decades ago, he declared, "I won an Academy Award when I was 44 years old, but I paid for it with my 20s. That decade of my life from film school till 30 was nothing but work, nothing but absolute, driving work. I had no money. I had no life."

These days, he is a married man and father-of-three, and has found greater balance. However, he does say he can "relate to the obsessive drive. Making movies is a time-intensive thing. It's really labour-intensive. I can completely relate to the passion that he [Petit] had to do this and stop at nothing. Obviously I've never put myself physically in any kind of death-defying danger. But I can understand that idea of never stopping, always having to do it. Never giving up."

Zemeckis believes this feeling is universal, but few have pursued it to such spectacular effect as he. The hardest part for him, he says, was the early days, when he was "getting to the point where I could make movies. It was really terrifying because there was no guarantee that it was going to happen. And then I don't know what I would have done. I have no plan B. I've never done anything else." More recently, in fact, he has "come to the conclusion that I'm going to just have to do this. I've no choice in this matter any more, I have to make films." It's what "keeps me alive kind of thing. So I will continue until other forces stop me from doing it."

He was born in 1952 into a family of mixed Italian-Lithuanian heritage. The Walk warmly revisits continental Europe in the 1970s (the early part of the action is set in and near Paris). Despite his own European heritage, Zemeckis was not brought up among nostalgia for the old world. "You have to understand that the immigrants, my relatives, they left Europe and never looked back," he says. "They didn't like it in Europe. They didn't speak kindly of it. They found their new life in America. They called it the Old Country. There was never any waxing nostalgically about it."

As a child he was, by his own account, exposed to little culture outside of television. And yet, an instinct for and love of good story-tellling soon emerged in him. He experienced his Damascene conversion to film-making, almost out of the blue, when he was in high school. "I would go to movies to see spectacle," he says. "I loved going to war movies, science fiction movies. Anything with action in it, and I would always try and figure out, how did they do that."

But it was while watching Bonnie and Clyde that he experienced his "seminal moment. Everyone was telling me that it had this really gory machine-gunning at the end, and I thought, now, that's worthwhile. That's worthwhile to see. But then there was a scene in the movie where Gene Hackman's character gets shot and is dying and we watch him die in this field, and it's at sunrise. And I remember feeling so profoundly sad. At that moment - I think I was a freshman in high school at the time - I thought 'Wow! There's something going on here, this is really powerful. I want to find out how this is done. Who does this? Who can make this happen to me.' And then I found out, oh yes, there's a director who does this and there's a screenplay, and it's not just action. It's all this other stuff. And then I said, 'this is something that I want to do.'"

Just as Petit spent years preparing to pull off his stunt, so the Zemeckis approach to making The Walk was immersive and exhaustive. "This was a high-wire walk in every regard," he says. "It was an arduous ordeal to get the film financed and get it made. And then it was very daunting to make the film just from a storytelling point of view, because it was nothing I've ever done before. Which was exhilarating, but it was something that I had to pay a lot of attention to. I always felt from the beginning that it had the potential to be a very compelling movie, but pulling it all together - the real-life story is so very extreme, and it meanders all over the place so to focus it all together into a movie which moves along was quite challenging." In the end, the solution was "a lot of writing. You just have to write, write, write. You're just constantly honing it and honing it."

From the first, he knew he was dealing with a new frontier. "The fortunate thing was that the story itself, in real life, the way it unfolded was extremely well-paced. It's one of those stories that, if it weren't true, you wouldn't believe it. There are so many events, there are so many moments where the whole thing could have collapsed, but it didn't."

He collaborated closely with the subject himself, Philippe Petit, who, now in his 60s, lives in America. "It was actually a lovely experience," Zemeckis says. "One of the things that I love about Philippe, which allowed me to bond with him so intensely, is that he's a fantastic storyteller." The two of them spent "many, many hours over many years" together, discussing the film. He was aware of his responsibilities too. "This is the first film I've ever made about a real person. It is difficult because I don't think it's right to just make things up. But it would have been impossible to do because Philippe is still alive. He would have been completely insulted if I brought on all these new characters and all these new people into the story. So I was pretty much in a bottle, we would say."

Ultimately, however, like Petit himself, the main event - the walk - was Zemeckis's first priority. And it's something he pulls off to dizzyingly dramatic effect on-screen. "The thing that I wanted to be the most faithful to, was the actual walk itself," he says. "I wanted to present as true to what really happened, and to be able to render the feeling that he had up there when he was doing it, so that the audience could get a sense of it." 'The Walk' is in cinemas now.

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