What Can We Learn From Robert Zemeckis?
[border width=”2″]Robert Zemeckis
b. May 14, 1951
- Used Cars (’80)
- Romancing the Stone (’84)
- Back to the Future (’85)
- Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (’88)
- Back to the Future II (’89)[/border]
Robert Zemeckis makes my list of top 80s directors because I love Back to the Future.
I’m a freak about this movie…and therefore, as a video producer and aspiring director, I’m a freak about Zemeckis. Also…Romancing the Stone has the first 80s-movie-chop-off-the-lady’s-heel scene between Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. Can you name the second? (Hint: It’s not a film directed by Robert Zemeckis.)
We’ll discuss here how four main styles/philosophies govern Zemeckis’ filmmaking, and what that means for us in our media production lives and careers:
Setup and Payoff
Zemeckis, as a writer and director, never makes a movie without paying tight attention to setup and payoff. What is setup and payoff exactly? Well, when extraneous, superficial detail is revealed early on and its importance isn’t revealed until later…that’s setup and payoff.
Remember, during the opening scene of Back to the Future, when Marty drops his skateboard, it rolls into a box of plutonium under the bed, and then he plugs into a massive guitar amp that blows the whole place up?
That’s all setup.
We learn later that Marty’s adeptness on the skateboard becomes key to his escaping Biff and his cronies, the plutonium is from the Iranians who cause Marty’s accidental time travel after Doc is shot, and that his guitar ability becomes the instrument which allows Marvin Berry and the Starlighters to go back on stage and finish the Enchantment Under the Sea dance so Marty’s parents can kiss, thereby saving his very existence.
What are you setting up now that can payoff later?
I desire to create high-quality, potent experiences…in video production, in song writing, in culinary preparations, in anything I do. In order to have that payoff, I have to setup the right things now. So I spend time harvesting the things that interest me, learn as much as I can, and implement new techniques, and bank on established methods that I know to be successful.
Propel Plot or Establish Character
According to Zemeckis, “the only job of a movie is to propel the plot and establish characters”.
That is, every bit of dialogue, every scene, every cut, every special or visual effect must work together to move the plot forward. Thus, there is nothing ancillary in a Zemeckis film. It is all critical to the story at hand.
What supplementary item in your brain, career, or life is not adding to your story? What scene needs to find a home on the cutting room floor?
I eliminate the things that hold me back, bring me down, or waste my time. Things like unnecessary drama, unclear communication, and unresolved conflict serve to pull me out of my story and act as red herrings.
What’s Better for my Movie?
When faced with the question of shooting on film or digitally, Zemeckis selfishly—but rightly—asks this question: What’s better for my movie?
For the sake of this post, I shall not dive into a discussion on the pros and cons of cellulose nitrate versus binary capture; it’s the question itself that deserves our focus.
While the practical emphasis of this question has no pertinence to making 80s movies (digital filmmaking wasn’t a thing until the late 80s and not really used until the late 90s), the nature of the question is brilliant—what will help me get the picture made in the way that I’m seeing it in my head? If a film camera, then great. If digital is better, then let’s do that.
What’s next for you in your voyage? What will help you take that step the way you’re seeing it in your head?
I always want to be taking one step closer to directing my next film. That perspective allows me to make strategic decisions—from financial to career to daily life.
Have the Confidence to Know When You’ve ‘Got It’
When a film is in production, nothing moves forward until the director says so. As Zemeckis says, “I mean, look, the main thing a director has to do is know when he’s ‘got’ it—having the confidence to know when you’ve got it.”
In other words, if the director isn’t sure that shot is done and done right, it’s time to shoot it again. But when you got it, don’t shoot it again. Don’t waste time. It’s time to prep for the next shot.
Not only is it a practice rooted in efficiency, it leads to successful, profitable postproduction. When all the gear is unassembled, the sets have been destroyed, and the cast and crew have gone home—when you’re left with nothing but the footage and the editing room—do you have the confidence to know that you got everything you needed? Or will you have to “fix it in post?”
Guess which one costs more.
How do you know when you’ve ‘got it?’ What process do you have in place for you to know whether a Take 2 is necessary…or not?
I am continually aware of my idealism and perfectionism. Perfectionism is a great quality for a director or producer, but it can also hinder if it’s not tamed. When I’m on set, I use those around me to help make decisions, but ultimately, I make the final call.
In my role as a father, I’m confident in the relationships I build with my kids. But when conflict arises, production stops, we analyze, we apologize, we offer forgiveness, and we do a Take 2. And then we move forward.
I’m curious to hear from you! How do these Zemeckis film styles find their way into your life? Leave a comment and let me know.