Robert Lee "Bob" Zemeckis (born May 14, 1952) is an Academy Award- and Golden Globe-winning American film director, producer and screenwriter. Zemeckis first came to public attention in the 1980s as the director of the comedic time-travel Back to the Future films as well as the live-action/animated film Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), though in the 1990s he diversified into more dramatic fare, including 1994's Forrest Gump, 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). Though Zemeckis has often been pigeonholed as a director only interested in effects, 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."
Zemeckis was born in Chicago, Illinois to a Lithuanian father and Italian American mother and was raised in a working-class Catholic family. Zemeckis has said that "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." As a child, Zemeckis loved television and was fascinated by his parents' 8 mm film home movie camera. Starting off by filming family events like birthdays and holidays, Zemeckis 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; 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, 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."
Zemeckis applied only to University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, and got 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. Arriving at USC that Fall, Zemeckis encountered a program that was, in his words, made up of "a bunch of hippies considered an embarrassment by the university." 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.
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." He graduated from USC in 1973.
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." Spielberg became Zemeckis' mentor and executive produced his first two films, both of which Zemeckis co-wrote with Bob Gale.
1978's I Wanna Hold Your Hand and 1980's Used Cars (starring Kurt Russell) were well-received critically, with Pauline Kael going into particular rhapsody over the latter film, but both were commercially inert. (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 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 somehow didn't translate into movies people wanted to see."
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. 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), 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.
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, the 1985 movie was wildly successful upon its release, and was followed by two sequels, released in 1989 and 1990. Before the Back to the Future sequels were released, Zemeckis directed another film, the madcap 1940s-set mystery Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which painstakingly combined traditional animation and live action; its $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."
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' first with dramatic elements, and was also his biggest commercial and critical success to date, 1994's Forrest Gump. Starring Tom Hanks in the title role, and borrowing heavily from Woody Allen's 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, falling in love, and interacting 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 around Eleanor Arroway, a scientist played by Jodie Foster, who believes she has made contact with extraterrestrial beings.
In 1999, Zemeckis donated $5 million towards the Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts at USC, a 35,000 square-foot 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 Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Of those (including Spielberg) who clung to celluloid and disparaged the idea of shooting digitally, Zemeckis said, "These guys are the same ones who have been saying that 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." 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. 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. Because Hanks' 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. Zemeckis later quipped, when asked about shooting two films back-to-back, "I wouldn't recommend it to anyone." 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 in 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."
In February 2007, Zemeckis and Walt Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook announced plans to set up a new performance capture film company devoted to CG-created, 3-D movies. The company, ImageMovers Digital, will create films using the performance capture technology, with Zemeckis expected to direct a number of the projects. Disney will distribute and market the motion pictures worldwide.
Zemeckis used the performance capture technology again in his latest film, Beowulf, which retells the Anglo-Saxon epic poem of the same name and stars 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." The film was released on November 16, 2007.
In July 2007, Variety announced that Zemeckis had written a film adaptation of Charles Dickens' 1843 story A Christmas Carol, with plans to use performance capture and release it under the aegis of ImageMovers Digital. Zemeckis wrote the screenplay with Jim Carrey in mind, and Carrey has 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. The film began production in February 2008, and will be released on November 6, 2009.
In August 2008, Movies IGN revealed in an interview with Philippe Petit that Robert Zemeckis is working with Petit to turn Petit's memoir To Reach the Clouds into a feature film.
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." In the early 1980s, Zemeckis married actress Mary Ellen Trainor, with whom he had a son, Alexander. He described the marriage as difficult to balance with filmmaking, and his relationship with Trainor eventually ended in divorce. In 2001, he married actress Leslie Harter. According to cfidarren.com, Zemeckis is an Instrument rated Private Pilot.
According to campaign donation records, Robert Zemeckis has frequently contributed to the political candidates affiliated with the Democratic Party, as well as PAC's that support the interests of aircraft owners and pilots, "family planning" interests, and a group that advocates for Hollywood women.