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Robert Zemeckis, 'Flight' Director, On 'Back To The Future Part II' & 'Used Cars'

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Robert Zemeckis,
Robert Zemeckis, "Flight" director.

It's strange to think that we almost live in the future. At least, the future that director Robert Zemeckis and producer Bob Gale envisioned in "Back to the Future Part II." When the "Back to the Future" sequel was released in 1989, 2015 seemed so far away; now, it's right around the corner. And while we don't have flying cars just yet, Zemeckis told HuffPost Entertainment that he and Gale are batting a pretty solid .500 with their predictions for the future. (Also, fingers crossed for flying cars in three years.)

Zemeckis is doing a late round of press for "Flight," his tale of a booze-and-drug addicted commercial airline pilot (Denzel Washington), who miraculously crash lands a plane and saves most of the passengers. It's the Oscar-winning director's first live-action film since "Cast Away" in 2000, a 12-year gap that Zemeckis filled with performance-capture projects like "The Polar Express" and "Beowulf." Here, Zemeckis admits that you could make the argument cocaine played a part in saving the lives of those passengers, looks ahead to what else he might still get right in 2015 and explains why none of us should ever forget "Used Cars."

The first 30 minutes of "Flight" depict my worst nightmare.
Do you mean the plane crash?

Yes.
Oh, OK. Well, you know, you don't have to worry about it. Flying is very safe.

And you're a pilot, so that is comforting.
Right.

Speaking of, being a pilot, did you still have to bring in a lot of experts for this film? I mean, you know what you're doing up there, right?
Right. I mean, we brought in quite a few. And even before I came on board, [screenwriter] John Gatins spoke to quite a few experts to make sure he wasn't completely doing anything ridiculous. And, you know, airplanes can fly inverted. Obviously stunt planes do it because they're designed to do it, like the Blue Angels and that sort of thing. You know, airplanes can fly inverted, but they're not made to do that. They don't fly well and they won't last very long in that situation -- but, it can happen. And this was a last ditch effort and it played out very realistically from what the experts told us.

Denzel Washington is interesting for this role because no matter how many bad things he does, it's hard not to like Denzel Washington.
Yeah. You know, he's an actor who brings a lot gravitas to the part and a certain amount of swagger and charm and all of that stuff that helps.

I'm not an expert on cocaine, but is there a chance that Denzel's character, Whip Whitaker, being on cocaine gave him the balls to try a stunt like flying the plane inverted?
Well, you could interpret it that way. I mean, you could make the case that because he was a little bit loose, he was able to attempt a maneuver that a sober man wouldn't do. And that's one of the wonderful ironies, which are so many in the movie. He saved a lot of people. Yeah, we talked about that a lot when we made the movie. Like I said, one of the interesting ironies.

He got in a lot of trouble, but he probably saved a lot of lives by not being sober, in some twisted way.
In a very twisted way. It's not recommended that pilots fly their airplane while high. Just in case, you know.

This is me being selfish, but I wanted to see more of John Goodman.
Well, that's good then. We had the right amount. Because, what's interesting is that he made such a huge impact and he's only in two scenes. It's to the screenplay's credit and to his ability as an actor.

You hadn't made a live-action film since shooting "Cast Away" and "What Lies Beneath" at around the same time. Was the plan to always come back to live-action after your performance-capture animated films?
Well, no. There was no plan one way or another. You know, I was just doing what I was interested in and had no plans to not ever do live-action and no plan as to when I was going to do another live-action film. I've only ever done one thing my entire career -- which is whenever there is a screenplay I feel interested in making, I make it. And whatever type of format the film should be made in, it's the one that I make it in.

With performance-capture animation you had a lot of success directing "The Polar Express," "Beowulf" and "A Christmas Carol." You produced "Mars Needs Moms," which didn't do as well. I know you didn't direct that, but can that lead to wanting a break from that format?
No, I didn't think that at all. No, no, no. But the answer is, to me, they're all movies. Movies are movies are movies are movies. Some are live-action movies and some are animated movies. Some are performance-capture movies and some, like "Roger Rabbit," are a combination. However the moving image is generated, it's a moving image.

When you came back to do "Flight," is there a difference? Does it feel like it's been a while since "Cast Away?"
No, there's no difference. Like I said, it's all the same. All of the problems are there, just magnified in different ways. But it's all pretty much the same.

A few days ago I referenced "Used Cars" to a co-worker who's in his 20s and he had no idea what I was talking about. I did not know it was possible to not know "Used Cars."
Well, "Used Cars" is a movie that most people, my entire career, have always come up to me and said, "You know what movie of yours I really love? It's 'Used Cars.'" That movie was seen ... but, you can't really reference it to someone who is in their 20s. What the research is telling us is that they don't really see movies that are older than about five years old now, under any circumstance. But, most people have seen "Used Cars." It's a movie that never even got released in most of the country. But, for some reason, everyone got caught up with that movie.

I think it was on a constant HBO loop in the mid-1980s.
[Laughs] Right.

Anyway, that depressed me. I feel people should know that movie.
Well, I appreciate that. Yeah, I enjoy that movie, too.

I was watching Back to the Future Part II recently and it did hit me with the 2015 scenes, Wow, we almost live in the future. When you and Bob Gale were trying to predict 2015, was that a heightened version of what you thought it would be? In the '80s, flying cars in 2015 didn't seem that outlandish.
Yeah, well, you know, you can watch "2001" and get the same feeling, too. And that's the challenge and it's the problem with doing movies about the future. Most people who are "future prediction people" -- people who predict the future -- usually underestimate. Because you can only predict the future based on what you know. But, Bob and I did pretty good. So far we're batting 50 percent. So, we're doing pretty good. We're doing pretty good. We kind of even amaze ourselves when we go, "Look at that! We predicted that!" So, we're doing good. I think 50 percent is a pretty good record.

It might get better. We don't know, maybe in 2015 it will be the style to wear your jeans pockets inside out.
Yeah! There you go! Exactly. Exactly.

Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

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