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November 6, 2009

Forrest Gump director concocts 3-D Carol characters

It’s likely that at some point in your life, you have fallen in love with a film directed by Robert Zemeckis. With such pop culture staples as Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Forrest Gump under his belt, Zemeckis has become something of an icon in the film industry. A week ago, the Chicago Maroon took part in a conference call with the director, who was kind enough to explain his fascination with the 3-D format and how it contributes to the storytelling in his newest film, A Christmas Carol, along with how Dickens’ original novella struck him as the greatest time-traveling tale. Due to the number of reporters taking part in the conference call, Disney asked us to submit our questions for Zemeckis beforehand, which were read to him during the call by a moderator.

Moderator: First question—and this came in from a lot of different schools—what inspired you to follow up Beowulf with A Christmas Carol?

Robert Zemeckis: Well, when I was doing Beowulf, I realized that this is a great form to reintroduce classic stories in a new way, to a new generation of moviegoers. Because what you can do is, you can create a version of the story which is visually modern, and many of these classic stories have great spectacle in them, which makes them, in a strange way, difficult to do for the big screen, so they’re sort of relegated to Masterpiece Theater. And that sort of thing. So you get a chance to really, in the case with Christmas Carol, to realize the story in the very spectacular and surreal way that Dickens wrote it. So anyway, it’s obviously a very familiar title and it’s a great story to be told in cinema. And all those things sort of added up and the idea came, and I thought, “Well, why not give this a try?”

M: Okay. This one is from Northwestern University: A Christmas Carol is a timeless story. How do you balance the dual problem of adhering to a very traditional story, but also creating a piece that is fresh, new, and exciting?

RZ: Well, of course that was the challenge. And that was the reason that we did it. We just attacked that problem head-on and said, “Okay, we’re going to be extremely true to the underlying material, and we’re not going to tinker with it too much.” Although we do a little bit. We provide some action at the end to get Scrooge from place to place. But we were gonna distill this down to making sure all the elements which, as the person who asked the question said very astutely, the fact that it’s a timeless story is rooted in Scrooge’s character; in his character changes, in his character development, and his story of redemption. So we gotta be true to that. The other thing that I did, which made everybody very nervous at the studio, but I don’t think it could work in any other possible way, is that I had everybody speaking in the language of the time, the way Dickens wrote it. Which I think is beautiful. So we kept all that. And we basically kept the tone that Dickens wrote in the original piece.

M: Do you want to explain how Jim Carrey uses different dialects for his different characters?

RZ: Yes. Well, first, there’s also dialects as well. But when I said the language I meant the way, you know, the Old English kind of Victorian, Edwardian English that the novel was written in. But yes, Jim also, for each of the ghosts that he portrays, he came up with a different dialect. You know, the Ghost of Christmas Past is Irish. The Ghost of Christmas Present is sort of Scottish. Scrooge is the Queen’s English.

M: Is there anything in the Dickens story that you think has been overlooked by past filmmakers that you highlight in your version of the story?

RZ: For some reason, past versions of the story have not delved into the idea that Dickens had great tension and great suspense in the story, the way he wrote it. And that seems to have been watered down through all these other versions. And that kind of feeling of foreboding, that feeling of dread that you have in the first half of that story, I think has been missing a lot. So I thought that that was really important. Because you have to understand that Scrooge basically has this wild nightmare. That’s what happens to him. You know, I really feel very strongly that you have to have the dark before you can have the light. And that’s something I wanted to really present in the way I think Dickens wrote it. And the other thing that is amazing about Dickens that I hadn’t realized before, until I started adapting this, is how cinematically he wrote. He wrote very filmically, a hundred years before the invention of movies. It’s really amazing when you read his work. He writes in scenes.

M: This is from the University of Arizona: How do you view Scrooge? Is he a good man who needs to discover his past humanity, or is he a fundamentally bad-natured man who needs to learn to be decent?

RZ: Well, that’s a great question. And also has a lot to do with the question you just asked me. Of course he’s a man who was abused. And he’s filled with fear. And the way he protects himself from having to feel that fear is, misguidedly, feeling that he needs to collect material things to guard against—there’s a line in the novel, we have it in the movie, where Belle says, “You fear the world too much, Ebenezer.” And that, I think, is key to his character when he goes back in time. So what he needs to basically do is he needs to have this sort of—I’m going to use this term very loosely—spiritual awakening. Which is to understand that those childhood fears, which have been basically pounded into him, he can deal with, and he can go on, and he can alter the course of his life. That’s a universal story. So no, to answer your question specifically, he’s not a bad man. He’s just a man who doesn’t know what to do with his—how should I say this?—his scarred past. And I think that’s why it’s such a timeless story and why it’s such a great story, and why we all can relate to that character so well.

M: Here’s a question from Northwestern University: How do you see the 3-D aspect as aiding in the telling of the story?

RZ: Well, it aids in the telling of the story in that we have created—aiding in the telling of the story in the intellectual sense, obviously the images don’t do that, and even an old black-and-white movie isn’t going to do that. But aiding in telling the story from an emotional standpoint, the 3-D is a storytelling element, just like the music is. So, you know, you have the underlying intellectual material that is what Mr. Dickens wrote. And then you embellish it with performance and you embellish it with music and you embellish it with color and you embellish it now with an immersive 3-D image. So what that does for the audience is it just gives them another emotional handle on the story and presents it in an emotional way. So what we’ve been able to do is really immerse the audience in Dickensian London.

M: Question from College Times in Phoenix: How involved were you in the casting process? Was Jim Carrey always someone who was high on the list?

RZ: Obviously I cast every single actor in the movie. And when I write I try not to think very hard of an actor, because I don’t want to start writing in the voice of a specific actor. So I just think of characters as shadows as I’m writing. But when I finished, Jim was my first and only choice, because I knew that you needed someone who had a magnificent sense of humor and a great ability to do drama, to make Scrooge as mean as Dickens actually wrote him, and as we adapted him in the screenplay. And then I felt that I got a great actor who can do any kind of character. So it was a logical extension then, in my mind. Let’s say Scrooge is having this nightmare: These ghosts would be an extension of his alter ego. They would be his alter ego. So there can be some of Scrooge in the ghosts. So I said to Jim, “Hey, why don’t you do all the ghosts?” And he said, “Oh man, I love that idea.” And the challenge there, of course, was that he had to do scenes with himself. But he’s such a great actor it wasn’t a problem. So that was the casting process.

M: This is from Diablo Valley College: What was the process like when Jim or someone else in the movie had to play a scene against themselves?

RZ: What you do is you put in a stand-in actor. Cary Elwes, who is a great actor in his own right, was gracious enough to volunteer to be on the receiving end of Jim when we did all the scenes. So when Jim was Scrooge, Cary was a ghost. When Jim was a ghost, Cary would do Scrooge. And having a really great actor who was able to watch Jim and basically memorize the way he was doing one or the other side of a character, and bringing it back in the timing that we needed, was really crucial. And it was great because Jim, when he was playing Scrooge, would say, “Now listen, I’m thinking I’m going to do this, this, this, this, and this.” And Cary would do his version of it and Jim would react as Scrooge. Then Jim would go back and do the ghost and Cary would do that reaction as Scrooge and it turned out to be, in my opinion, it’s a tour-de-force performance.

M: Next question comes from Oklahoma State: As a director, how do you get your actors comfortable working with the technology necessary to make a film like Christmas Carol?

RZ: First of all, you walk them through it very thoroughly and you walk them through it very extensively. Slowly and thoroughly. And you explain as much as you can. And it’s really interesting, no matter how much I try to explain it to them, it’s impossible until they do it. The thing that weirds them out the most is having to put the leotard on. But then what happens, and this has happened and you can look at the list of actors that I have worked with in this process: Tom Hanks, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, Gary Oldman, Jim Carrey—great actors. What happens, and why they all immediately fall in love with it after the first hour of working in this process, is they very quickly understand it’s all about performance. And so they just get this wonderful revelation and they’re like, “This is just about my performance here. My performance is everything here. I don’t have to fumble with a costume. I don’t have to hide behind a costume. I don’t hide behind a beard. I don’t have makeup. It’s all pure.” It’s like doing blackbox theater: minimal props, no sets, no lighting, no costume, and you create scenes. And that’s what we do. And the other thing they love about it is they get to act all day long. It’s not chopped up.

M: This question is from the University of Chicago: You have mentioned that A Christmas Carol is perhaps one of the greatest time travel stories ever. My generation probably considers Back to the Future to be one of the greatest time travel stories ever. What is it about time travel that appeals to you in the stories that you tell?

RZ: You’ll notice that in the three Back to the Futures, there is a lot of influence of A Christmas Carol when you look at them. I think I actually have scenes—I think they’re in the second one, and a little of the third—where characters actually confront their gravestones and things like that, and they see what’s going to happen to them. I think Back to the Future 2 has the most Christmas Carol in it, which I think is one of my most interesting movies. So yes, I know that A Christmas Carol was the first time travel story I ever read, when I was seven or eight, I think. So A Christmas Carol very heavily influenced the Back to the Future movies. As did The Time Machine. Back to the Future uses the H. G. Wells version of time travel, which is you travel through time and not space. So A Christmas Carol and also It’s a Wonderful Life were all a big influence on the Back to the Future movies.