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Robert Zemeckis

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Title: Robert Zemeckis  
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Subject: Flight (2012 film), Forrest Gump, Arthur Schmidt (film editor), Miloš Forman, James Cameron
Collection: 1952 Births, American Cinema Editors, American Film Directors, American Film Directors of Italian Descent, American Film Producers, American Male Screenwriters, American People of Lithuanian Descent, American Roman Catholics, American Screenwriters, American Writers of Italian Descent, Best Director Academy Award Winners, Best Director Golden Globe Winners, Directors Guild of America Award Winners, English-Language Film Directors, Fantasy Film Directors, Film Directors from Illinois, Living People, Science Fiction Film Directors, Student Academy Award Winners, University of Southern California Alumni, Usc School of Cinematic Arts Alumni, Writers from Chicago, Illinois
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Robert Zemeckis

Robert Zemeckis
Zemeckis at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.
Born Robert Lee Zemeckis
(1952-05-14) May 14, 1952
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Residence Santa Barbara, California, U.S.
Nationality American
Alma mater University of Southern California
Occupation Film director, film producer, screenwriter
Years active 1972–present
Notable work(s) Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Cast Away, The Polar Express
Spouse(s) Mary Ellen Trainor (1980–2000; divorced)
Leslie Harter (2001–present)
Children 3

Robert Lee Zemeckis[1] (born May 14, 1952)[1] is an American film director, producer and screenwriter. Zemeckis first came to public attention in the 1980s as the director and creator of the comedic time-travel Back to the Future film series, as well as the Academy Award-winning live-action/animated family comedy Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), though in the 1990s he diversified into more dramatic fare, including 1994's Forrest Gump,[2] for which he won an Academy Award for Best Director.

His films are characterized by an interest in state-of-the-art special effects, including the early use of match moving in Back to the Future Part II (1989) and the pioneering performance capture techniques seen in The Polar Express (2004), Beowulf (2007) and A Christmas Carol (2009). Though Zemeckis has often been pigeonholed as a director interested only in effects,[3] his work has been defended by several critics, including David Thomson, who wrote that "No other contemporary director has used special effects to more dramatic and narrative purpose."[4]

As of April 2014, Zemeckis was working on his next movie, entitled The Walk, a biographical film based on the life of French high-wire professional Philippe Petit, the man who tight rope walked between the World Trade Center towers in 1974.


  • Early life 1
  • USC education and early films 2
  • Breakthrough films and Forrest Gump 3
  • Work in the 2000s and interest in digital filmmaking 4
  • Personal life 5
  • Filmography 6
    • Film 6.1
    • Television 6.2
  • References 7
  • External links 8

Early life

Zemeckis was born in Chicago, Illinois,[1] the son of Rose (née Nespeca) and Alphonse Zemeckis.[5] His father was Lithuanian American and his mother was Italian American. Zemeckis grew up on the south side of the city.[6] He attended a Roman Catholic grade school.[7] Zemeckis has said "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... The only thing I had that was inspirational, was television—and it actually was."[7]

As a child, he loved television and was fascinated by his parents' 8 mm film home movie camera. Starting off by filming family events like birthdays and holidays, he gradually began producing narrative films with his friends that incorporated stop-motion work and other special effects. Along with enjoying movies, Zemeckis remained an avid TV watcher. "You hear so much about the problems with television," he said, "but I think that it saved my life." Television gave Zemeckis his first glimpse of a world outside of his blue-collar upbringing;[7] specifically, he learned of the existence of film schools on an episode of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. After seeing Bonnie and Clyde with his father and being heavily influenced by it,[3] Zemeckis decided that he wanted to go to film school. His parents disapproved of the idea, Zemeckis later said, "But only in the sense that they were concerned... for my family and my friends and the world that I grew up in, this was the kind of dream that really was impossible. My parents would sit there and say, 'Don't you see where you come from? You can't be a movie director.' I guess maybe some of it I felt I had to do in spite of them, too."[7]

USC education and early films

Zemeckis applied only to University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, and went into the Film School on the strength of an essay and a music video based on a Beatles song. Not having heard from the university itself, Zemeckis called and was told he had been rejected because of his average grades. The director gave an "impassioned plea" to the official on the other line, promising to go to summer school and improve his studies, and eventually convinced the school to accept him.[7] Arriving at USC that Fall, Zemeckis encountered a program that was, in his words, made up of "a bunch of hippies [and] considered an embarrassment by the university."[7] The classes were difficult, with professors constantly stressing how hard the movie business was. Zemeckis remembered not being much fazed by this, citing the "healthy cynicism" that had been bred into him from his Chicago upbringing.[7]

While at USC, Zemeckis developed a close friendship with the writer Bob Gale, who was also a student there. Gale later recalled, "The graduate students at USC had this veneer of intellectualism...So Bob and I gravitated toward one another because we wanted to make Hollywood movies. We weren't interested in the French New Wave. We were interested in Clint Eastwood and James Bond and Walt Disney, because that's how we grew up."[8] Zemeckis graduated from USC in 1973.[9]

As a result of winning a Student Academy Award at USC for his film, A Field of Honor, Zemeckis came to the attention of Steven Spielberg. Spielberg said, "He barged right past my secretary and sat me down and showed me this student film...and I thought it was spectacular, with police cars and a riot, all dubbed to Elmer Bernstein's score for The Great Escape."[8] Spielberg became Zemeckis's mentor and executive produced his first two films, both of which Zemeckis co-wrote with Gale. He later executive produced other Zemeckis films, including the Back to the Future trilogy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978), starring Nancy Allen, and Used Cars (1980), starring Kurt Russell, were well-received critically but were commercial failures. I Wanna Hold Your Hand was the first of several Zemeckis films to incorporate historical figures and celebrities into his movies. In the film, he used archival footage and doubles to simulate the presence of The Beatles. After the failure of his first two films, and the Spielberg-directed bomb 1941 in 1979 (for which Zemeckis and Gale had written the screenplay), the pair gained a reputation for writing "scripts that everyone thought were great [but] somehow didn't translate into movies people wanted to see."[8]

Breakthrough films and Forrest Gump

As a result of his reputation within the industry, Zemeckis had trouble finding work in the early 1980s, though he and Gale kept busy. They wrote scripts for other directors, including Car Pool for Brian De Palma and Growing Up for Spielberg; neither ended up getting made. Another Zemeckis-Gale project, about a teenager who accidentally travels back in time to the 1950s, was turned down by every major studio.[10] The director was jobless until Michael Douglas hired him in 1984 to film Romancing the Stone. A romantic adventure starring Douglas and Kathleen Turner, Romancing was expected to flop (to the point that, after viewing a rough cut of the film, the producers of the then-in-the-works Cocoon fired Zemeckis as director),[10] but the film became a sleeper hit. While working on Romancing the Stone, Zemeckis met composer Alan Silvestri, who has scored all of his subsequent pictures.

Overseeing the filming of Contact in 1997.

After Romancing, the director suddenly had the clout to direct his time-traveling screenplay, which was titled Back to the Future. Starring Michael J. Fox, Lea Thompson, and Christopher Lloyd, the 1985 film was wildly successful upon its release, and was followed by two sequels, released as Back to the Future Part II in 1989 and Back to the Future Part III in 1990. Before the Back to the Future sequels were released, Zemeckis collaborated with Disney and directed another film, the madcap 1940s-set mystery Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which painstakingly combined traditional animation and live action; its US$70 million budget made it one of the most expensive films made up to that point. The film was both a financial and critical success, and won four Academy Awards. In 1990, Zemeckis commented, when asked if he would want to make non-comedies, "I would like to be able to do everything. Just now, though, I'm too restless to do anything that's not really zany."[10]

In 1992, Zemeckis directed the black comedy Death Becomes Her, starring Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, and Bruce Willis. Although his next film would have some comedic elements, it was Zemeckis's first with dramatic elements, and was also his biggest commercial success to date, 1994's Forrest Gump. Starring Tom Hanks in the title role, and borrowing to some extent from Woody Allen's earlier Zelig, Forrest Gump tells the story of a man with a low I.Q., who unwittingly participates in some of the major events of the twentieth century, falls in love, and interacts with several major historical figures in the process. The film grossed $677 million worldwide and became the top grossing U.S. film of 1994; it won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Hanks as Best Actor, and Zemeckis as Best Director. In 1997, Zemeckis directed Contact, a long-gestating project based on Carl Sagan's 1985 novel of the same name. The film centers on Eleanor Arroway, a scientist played by Jodie Foster, who believes she has made contact with extraterrestrial beings.

Work in the 2000s and interest in digital filmmaking

In 1999, Zemeckis donated $5 million towards the Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts at USC, a 35,000-square-foot (3,300 m2) center that houses production stages, an immense 60-system digital editing lab, and a 50-seat screening room. When the Center opened in March 2001, Zemeckis spoke in a panel about the future of film, alongside friends LPs sound better than CDs. You can argue that until you're blue in the face, but I don't know anyone who's still buying vinyl. Film, as we have traditionally thought of it, is going to be different. But the continuum is man's desire to tell stories around the campfire. The only thing that keeps changing is the campfire."[11] The Robert Zemeckis Center currently hosts many film school classes, much of the Interactive Media Division, and Trojan Vision, USC's student television station, which has been voted the number one college television station in the country.

In 1996, Zemeckis had begun developing a project titled The Castaway with Tom Hanks and writer William Broyles, Jr.. The story, which was inspired by Robinson Crusoe, is about a man (Hanks) who becomes stranded on a desert island and undergoes a profound physical and spiritual change.[12] While working on The Castaway, Zemeckis also became attached to a Hitchcockian thriller titled What Lies Beneath, the story of a married couple experiencing an extreme case of empty nest syndrome that was based on an idea by Steven Spielberg.[13] Because Hanks's character needed to undergo a dramatic weight loss over the course of The Castaway (which was eventually retitled Cast Away), Zemeckis decided that the only way to retain the same crew while Hanks lost the weight was to shoot What Lies Beneath in between. He shot the first part of Cast Away in early 1999, and shot What Lies Beneath in fall 1999, completing work on Cast Away in early 2000.[13] Zemeckis later quipped, when asked about shooting two films back-to-back, "I wouldn't recommend it to anyone."[12] What Lies Beneath, starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, was released in July 2000 to mixed reviews, but did well at the box office, grossing over $155 million, domestically. Cast Away was released that December and grossed $233 million domestically; Hanks received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his portrayal of Chuck Noland.

In 2004, Zemeckis reteamed with Hanks and directed The Polar Express, based on the children's book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg. The Polar Express utilized the computer animation technique known as performance capture, whereby the movements of the actors are captured digitally and used as the basis for the animated characters. As the first major film to use performance capture, The Polar Express caused The New York Times to write that, "Whatever critics and audiences make of this movie, from a technical perspective it could mark a turning point in the gradual transition from an analog to a digital cinema."[14]

In February 2007, Zemeckis and Walt Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook announced plans for a new performance capture film company devoted to CG-created, 3-D movies.[15] The company, ImageMovers Digital, created films using the performance capture technology, with Zemeckis directing most of the projects and Disney distributed and marketed the motion pictures worldwide. Zemeckis used the performance capture technology again in his film, Beowulf, which retells the Anglo-Saxon epic poem of the same name and starred Ray Winstone, Angelina Jolie, and Anthony Hopkins. Hugo Award-winning science fiction writer Neil Gaiman, who co-wrote the adaptation with Roger Avary, described the film as a "cheerfully violent and strange take on the Beowulf legend."[16] The film was released on November 16, 2007, to mixed reviews.

In July 2007, Variety announced that Zemeckis had written a screenplay for A Christmas Carol, based on Charles Dickens' 1843 short story of the same name, with plans to use performance capture and release it under the aegis of ImageMovers Digital. Zemeckis wrote the script with Jim Carrey in mind, and Carrey agreed to play a multitude of roles in the film, including Ebenezer Scrooge as a young, middle-aged, and old man, and the three ghosts who haunt Scrooge.[17] The film began production in February 2008, and was released on November 6, 2009, again to mixed reviews.[18] Actor Gary Oldman also appeared in the film.[19]

In August 2008, Movies IGN revealed in an interview with Philippe Petit that Zemeckis is working with Petit to turn Petit's memoir To Reach the Clouds into a feature film.[20] Robert Zemeckis was either seriously considered to, or attached to direct the 2005 version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Zemeckis is an avid supporter of 3-D Digital Cinema, and has stated that, starting with the 3-D presentations of Beowulf, all of his future films will be done in 3-D using digital motion capture. He has reportedly backed away from that statement and said that the decision to use 3-D will be on a film-by-film basis.

On August 19, 2009, it was reported that Zemeckis and his company were in talks with Apple Corps Ltd to remake the animated film Yellow Submarine in 3-D once again utilizing performance capture. However, on March 12, 2010, with Zemeckis' biggest Disney ally gone, former chairman Dick Cook, and amid drastic cost-cutting by the new management team, Disney announced that it was ending its relationship with ImageMovers Digital.[21] The studio's final film, 2011's Zemeckis-produced Mars Needs Moms, was a box office failure. Zemeckis made his return to live-action filmmaking with Flight, a 2012 drama for Paramount, starring Denzel Washington.

On January 31, 2014, it was announced that a stage musical adaptation of Zemeckis's first Back to the Future film was in production.[22] The show, which will be co-written by original writers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, is expected to be performed in 2015, on the 30th anniversary year of the film.[23] According to Gale, the musical will be "true to the spirit of the film without being a slavish remake".[24]

Personal life

Zemeckis with wife Leslie Harter, at the French premiere of Flight, January 2013.

Zemeckis has said that, for a long time, he sacrificed his personal life in favor of a career. "I won an Academy Award when I was 44 years old," he explained, "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."[7] In the early 1980s, Zemeckis married actress Mary Ellen Trainor, with whom he had a son, Alexander Francis.[1] He described the marriage as difficult to balance with filmmaking,[7] and his relationship with Trainor eventually ended in divorce.[1] On December 4, 2001, he married actress Leslie Harter,[1] with whom he has two children.[5]

Zemeckis is a private pilot who has logged approximately 1,600 hours of flight time as of October 2012.[25] He flies a Cirrus SR20, known for having a parachute that safely lowers the plane to the ground in case of an emergency.[26]

According to campaign donation records, Zemeckis has frequently contributed to political candidates affiliated with the Democratic Party, as well as PACs that support the interests of aircraft owners and pilots, family planning interests, and a group that advocates for Hollywood women.[27]



Year Title Director Producer Writer Notes
1978 I Wanna Hold Your Hand Yes Yes
1979 1941 Yes
1980 Used Cars Yes Yes
1984 Romancing the Stone Yes
1985 Back to the Future Yes Yes
1988 Who Framed Roger Rabbit Yes
1989 Back to the Future Part II Yes Yes
1990 Back to the Future Part III Yes Yes
1992 Death Becomes Her Yes Yes
1994 Forrest Gump Yes
1996 The Frighteners Yes
1997 Contact Yes Yes
1999 House on Haunted Hill Yes
Robert Zemeckis on Smoking, Drinking and Drugging in the 20th Century: The Pursuit of Happiness Yes Documentary[28]
2000 What Lies Beneath Yes Yes
Cast Away Yes Yes
2001 Thir13en Ghosts Yes
2002 Ghost Ship Yes
2003 Matchstick Men Yes
Gothika Yes
2004 The Polar Express Yes Yes Yes
2005 House of Wax Yes
2006 Monster House Yes
2007 The Reaping Yes
Beowulf Yes Yes
Return to House on Haunted Hill Yes
2009 A Christmas Carol Yes Yes Yes
2010 Behind the Burly Q Yes
2011 Mars Needs Moms Yes
Real Steel Yes
2012 Flight Yes Yes
Bound by Flesh Yes Documentary
2015 The Walk Yes Yes Yes


Year Film Notes
1989–1996 Tales from the Crypt Executive producer


  1. ^ a b c d e f "Robert Zemeckis profile at". Retrieved October 20, 2012. 
  2. ^ Gleiberman, Owen (July 15, 1994). "Movie Review: Forrest Gump".  
  3. ^ a b Kehr, Dave (December 17, 2000). Cast Away' Director Defies Categorizing"'".  
  4. ^ Robert Zemeckis profile, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson (2002 ed.); ISBN 0-375-70940-1, pp. 958-59.
  5. ^ a b "Rose Zemeckis Obituary".  
  6. ^ Kunk, Deborah J. (June 26, 1988). "The Man Who Framed Roger Rabbit".  
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Robert Zemeckis interview". Academy of Achievement: A Museum of Living History, 1996-06-29. p. [1]. Retrieved January 22, 2007. 
  8. ^ a b c Shone, Tom. Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Summer. New York: Free Press, 2004. ISBN 0-7432-3568-1 p. 123-125.
  9. ^ Notable Alumni, USC School of Cinematic Arts.
  10. ^ a b c Horowitz, Mark. "Back with a Future", American Film, July/August 1988. pp. 32-35.
  11. ^ Hayes, Dade, and Dana Harris. "Helmers mull digital around state-of-art campfire," Variety, 2001-03-05; accessed 2014-08-27.
  12. ^ a b Fall Movie Preview: December, Entertainment Weekly, 2000-08-18; retrieved 2007-09-11.
  13. ^ a b Petrikin, Chris. "Pairing for Zemeckis: Fox, DW near to sharing next two projects", Variety, 1998-10-14; retrieved 2007-09-11.
  14. ^ Kehr, Dave (October 24, 2004). "FILM: The Face That Launched A Thousand Chips".  
  15. ^ Staff (February 5, 2007). "Disney, "Polar Express" director in animation deal".  
  16. ^ Goldstein, Hilary (July 21, 2006). "Comic-Con 2006: Neil Gaiman's Future Movies". Retrieved January 13, 2007. 
  17. ^ Fleming, Michael. "Jim Carrey set for 'Christmas Carol': Zemeckis directing Dickens adaptation", Variety, July 6, 2007; retrieved September 11, 2007.
  18. ^ McClintock, Pamela (February 7, 2008). "Studios rush to fill '09 schedule". Variety. 
  19. ^ ‘A Christmas CarolGary Oldman To Play Three Roles in Robert Zemeckis' ,; accessed August 27, 2014.
  20. ^ Aftab, Kaleem "Man on Wire Q&A"
  21. ^ "Disney to Close Zemeckis' ImageMovers Digital Studio". AWN. 
  22. ^ Back to the Future musical announced
  23. ^ "Back to the Future: 80s movie gets musical makeover".  
  24. ^ "Back to the Future: stage musical version of 80s classic film to hit London's West End".  
  25. ^ Horn, John (October 20, 2012). "How the movie 'Flight' got off the ground".  
  26. ^ "Director Robert Zemeckis comes back to live-action for Flight=October 31, 2012". 
  27. ^ Robert Zemeckis profile,; accessed August 27, 2014.
  28. ^ Meisler, Andy (August 29, 1999). "TELEVISION/RADIO; Getting Down to What Makes America High". The New York Times. Retrieved May 7, 2012. 

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