Nationality: American. Born: Chicago, Illinois, 14 May 1951. Education: Attended Northern Illinois University; University of Southern California School of Cinema, graduated 1973. Family: Married Mary Ellen Trainor. Career: Following graduation, with Bob Gale, asked to develop material for Steven Spielberg and John Milius; also worked as cutter of advertisements, 1970s; directed his first feature, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, 1978; also worked as a writer for TV. Awards: Special Jury Award Student Academy Award, for Field of Honor, 1973; Los Angeles Film Critics Association Special Award, for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, 1988; Best Director Academy Award, Directors Guild of America Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures, Best Director-Motion Pictures Golden Globe, for Forrest Gump, 1994. Address: 1880 Century Park E., #900, Los Angeles CA 90067, U.S.A.
Films as Director:
Field of Honor (short) (+ sc)
I Wanna Hold Your Hand (+ co-sc)
Used Cars (+ co-sc)
Romancing the Stone
Back to the Future (+ co-sc)
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Back to the Future II
Back to the Future III
Death Becomes Her (+ co-pr)
The 20th Century: The Pursuit of Happiness (doc) (for TV)
What Lies Beneath; Cast Away
1941 (Spielberg) (co-sc)
Trespass (Hill) (co-sc, co-exec pr); The Public Eye (Franklin) (exec pr)
Johnny Bago (series for TV) (pr)
Demon Knight (Demon Keeper, Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight) (exec pr); W.E.I.R.D. World (for TV) (exec pr)
The Frighteners (Robert Zemeckis Presents: The Frighteners) (exec pr); Bordello of Blood (Tales from the Crypt Presents: Bordello of Blood) (exec pr)
Perversions of Science (series for TV) (exec pr)
House on Haunted Hill (Haunted Hill) (pr)
By ZEMECKIS: articles—
Interview, in Filmmakers Newsletter (Ward Hill, Massachusetts), June 1978.
Interview with A. Crystal, in Films and Filming (London), December 1985.
Interview with A. Garel, in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), November 1985.
"Back with a Future," an interview with Mark Horowitz in AmericanFilm (Los Angeles), July/August 1988.
Interview, in Time Out (London), 23 November 1988.
"Gump Becomes Him," interview with Ted Elrick in DGA Magazine (Los Angeles), February/March 1995.
On ZEMECKIS: articles—
Richardson, E. A., article in Extrapolation, vol. 29, no. 2, 1988.
Ruud, J., "Back to the Future as Quintessential Comedy," LiteratureFilm Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 2, 1991.
Weinraub, Bernard, "A Director Examines Hollywood's Reshaping," in New York Times, 14 July 1992.
Carpenter, T., "Hope I Die before I Get Old," in Premiere (New York), September 1992.
Kehr, Dave, "Who Framed 'Forrest Gump,"' in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1995.
Morgenstern, Joe, "Bob Z Can Read Your Mind," in Playboy (Chicago), August 1995.
* * *
Did Robert Zemeckis "out-Spielberg" early-career Spielberg? As it stands now Zemeckis seems close to beating his closest mentor at his own game. Still, there has been a catch to all this: Zemeckis's work has been much celebrated for its dazzling technological inventiveness, and then pretty much left at that. While his films are technically impressive, they are also more than that. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? does indeed blend animation with live action brilliantly, but that observation does not exhaust the film. Zemeckis, in all his work, also chooses narratives that work out conflicts arising from a complex dual structure, elicits a fondness for injecting his films with both a serious moral undertone and black comedy, and puts forth a carefully controlled kinetic sense that works both to hold these movies together and to keep them extraordinarily dynamic.
All Zemeckis's films present narratives in which different worlds are at odds with each other, starting with his celebrated short Field of Honor. Continuing the line, I Wanna Hold Your Hand contrasts the frustrating glimpses that the Beatle-crazed protagonists get of the group with the satisfying television representation of them on the Ed Sullivan Show. Zemeckis repeatedly returns to this narrative tension as characters' lives interact with highly mediated visions in Used Cars (politics clashes with and merges with advertising), Romancing the Stone (Kathleen Turner's onscreen adventures contrast with her romance novel ideals), Roger Rabbit (humans interact uneasily with 'toons), and Contact (which deals with issues of rationalism versus faith, and science versus religion). In the Back to the Future trilogy, the present (1985 suburban California) is contrasted to both the past and the future. Zemeckis's characters generally find the less mediated, more "real" world to be lacking but ultimately acceptable. For instance, in Romancing the Stone Michael Douglas does not meet Kathleen Turner's expectations for Jess, her ideal man, but she pines for him anyway, and in the end goes to him. Only Roger Rabbit suggests that some sort of happy compromise is possible as both types of characters walk off together toward 'Toontown at closure, though a case could be made for Future III, which combines the vistas of Ford with the optimism of Hawks.
These films also ponder serious questions in an entertaining way. Used Cars, as it explores the commercialization of American politics, itself can be seen as an extended form of the joke often told in reference to Nixon: "Would you buy a used car from this man?" Even more directly, the Future films, and to a lesser extent Roger Rabbit, overtly address questions concerning the impact that the present has on the future and our responsibilities to history. While bringing up such questions so directly in genre film is fairly rare, the unsystematic treatment such issues get here is not. Christopher Lloyd in the Future trilogy illustrates this cavalier treatment well. When faced with a question of how he could risk the space-time continuum so blithely, he responds, "Oh, what the hell." Also, while he repeatedly stresses the risks to the universe occasioned by his inventions, he always fixes his time machine "one last time" and even fashions an entirely new one at the end of Future III. Zemeckis combines this interest in moral questions with an almost Buñuelian sense of humor. His use of black comedy is evident most obviously in Used Cars, which, among other things, uses a corpse as a comedy prop. Romancing the Stone, meanwhile, contains the following exchange: "Have they found her husband's body yet?" "Just the one piece." Further, the dark vision of 1985 in Future II is there at the edges of the other films in the trilogy. The porno theaters and winos that sprout in the middle film are present in the other installments in smaller numbers, often used for comedic effect, as when the same homeless person reappears again and again at different times. Even in Roger Rabbit some representations of the victims of World War II can be seen in the Terminal Bar.
Zemeckis makes use of a consistent spatial design to keep these disparate elements together. His spaces often take on readily discernible circular shapes. Chases are almost always chases around things: around the New Deal Used Car Lot, around the kitchen during the "Something's Cookin"' segment of Roger Rabbit, around the courthouse square in the Future films. Fights also usually move around objects: around a broken stick in Romancing the Stone, around a cartoon mallet in Roger Rabbit, around Biff's speeding car in Future II. These broad movements are mirrored by characters and objects in a number of other ways (Roger Rabbit's movements after taking a drink, the looping take-offs of the flying time machines). On a different level this kinetic concern mirrors the circular narrative elements mentioned above, as the characters explore other worlds and typically settle for the one with which they started. Zemeckis blends these elements to form extremely vital, extremely satisfying wholes.
Since the conclusion of the Back to the Future trilogy, Zemeckis's film output has been limited. The overall slightness of Death Becomes Her, a black comedy made memorable only by some eye-popping visual effects (and, to a lesser extent, the always watchable Meryl Streep, playing an egocentric actress), makes this film a minor credit on Zemeckis's filmography. This is especially so when contrasted to his follow-up: Forrest Gump, which upon its release was christened one of the defining movies of the baby boom generation. The film made "stupid is as stupid does" a national catchphrase, and critics and audiences raved about the film, which went on to win six Academy Awards—including one for Zemeckis as Best Director.
To be sure, Forrest Gump is an appealing film. But it also is deeply flawed. Its scenario mirrors the tumultuous events of American history from the 1960s through 1980s as reflected through the experiences of the title character (Tom Hanks). There are the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, and the murder of John Lennon; the unwinnable and mismanaged Vietnam War; anti-war protests and the 1960s counterculture; and, finally and tragically, the AIDS plague. The point of the film is that, truly, the baby boom generation is a Lost Generation. Every generation may have its own set of problems: The parents of baby boomers, for instance, contended with the Great Depression and World War II. But for those coming of age during the 1930s and 1940s, problems were clearly defined. There was no debate regarding America's declaration of war against Germany and Japan.
To its credit, Forrest Gump does get the Vietnam war right. For too long, Vietnam vets in movies were depicted as stereotypical sadists, drug abusers, and Charles Manson clones, all scapegoats for the folly of Vietnam. However, in such films as Born on the Fourth of July, Jacknife, and Forrest Gump, Vietnam vets finally were rendered with compassion and thoughtfulness. Yet Forrest Gump remains in many ways a simplistic film. Anti-war activists are depicted as onedimensional, amoral twits, and many viewers found the film to be reactionary in its political overview. The Vietnam era was a complex time. Surely those millions who came to be against the war deserve far more thoughtful and three-dimensional depictions than may be found in Forrest Gump.
Zemeckis's first post-Forrest Gump project was Contact, based on a Carl Sagan novel about a scientist-astronomer (Jody Foster) who is obsessively dedicated to the field of SETI (Search in Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). With this choice, and the manner in which Zemeckis explores the possibility that otherworldly life may indeed exist, it might be said that the Zemeckis-Spielberg "link" has come full-circle.
—Mark Walker, updated by Rob Edelman