IN WELCOME TO MARWEN, ROBERT ZEMECKIS BLENDS REALITY WITH FANTASY FOR THE STORY OF HOW ART SAVED ONE MAN’S LIFE, AS JAMES WHITE DISCOVERS
Barbie dolls with machine guns? We’re in. Director Robert Zemeckis gives us the lowdown on his latest and strangest.
Robert Zemeckis has made a career out of bringing fantastical ideas to life, but he’s also shown a keen skill for more down-to-earth stories about ordinary people, even if the likes of Forrest Gump, Flight and Cast Away required some measure of effects work to bring their particular worlds to the screen.
With Welcome To Marwen, he’s back in the sort of real-life story he charted with The Walk, inspired by watching a documentary called Marwencol. Jeff malmberg’s 2010 film chronicled the art of mark hogancamp, a man, who in april 2000 was attacked by five men and left for dead outside of a bar. after nine days in a coma, he awoke to find he had no memory of his previous adult life. he had to relearn how to eat, walk and write. When his state-sponsored rehabilitative therapies ran out, mark took his recovery into his own hands. in his backyard, he created a new world entirely within his – a 1:6 scale World War ii town he named marwencol. Using doll alter-egos of his friends and family, his attackers and himself, mark enacted epic battles and recreated memories, which he captured in strikingly realistic photographs.
“the thing that i fell in love with in mark’s story was this idea that he used his art to heal, and i could completely identify with that,” Zemeckis says when SFX sits down with him to talk about the film.
While the real mark hogancamp creates still photographs of his models, Zemeckis saw something that could make a movie work outside of even the possibilities of the original documentary. one that would require all of his experience using performance capture and other effects to bring mark’s world to life. “i very quickly realised that there were these elaborate stories between his photographs, from picture a to picture b. he was articulating those in the documentary. i thought, ‘it would
be really interesting to see those adventures.’” the result blends action, comedy and pathos to follow mark’s struggles and the alternate reality he weaves for himself, filled with heroic women, cruel Nazis and his own jokey, brave stand-in, captain hogie, who must fight for his survival on a daily basis. While hogancamp’s world is mostly World War ii, he sprinkles a few fantasy elements here and there, including a scheming blue witch, Deja thoris (named for the John Carter Of Mars character). ONE MAN bANd
casting mark was crucial, and Zemeckis had only one name on his list: steve carell. so why him? “everything that i’d seen him do up to when i cast him,” Zemeckis explains of the comedian and actor who has segued into oscar-nominated dramatic performances in films The Big Short and Foxcatcher. “i needed someone who could do the emotional, dramatic side of this damaged character and then have the comedic swagger to become captain hogie, because he had to do both. it was almost like playing a split-screen twins performance.”
around carell, Zemeckis built a cast that could play both the real-life women in mark’s life and their plastic doubles. assembling Leslie mann, Janelle monáe, Walking Dead veteran merritt Wever, eiza González and Gwendoline christie, he found that carell and co took quickly to the idea of performance capture. “the thing they miss is, they don’t get to wear a costume, but they love the fact that it’s like theatre, they can act all day long and there’s no stopping. You don’t have to wait an hour and a half between 30-second performance pieces. so i’ve never had an actor say, ‘i’ll never do this again!’ they all embrace it.” Zemeckis says he finds the performance capture stage to be a great equaliser – after all, no matter where your name appears on the call sheet, no-one gets special treatment when the entire cast is in pyjama suits dotted with tracking marks.
and Zemeckis was quick to disabuse his actors that they needed to play their roles as barbies or kens. “the thing i remember telling them that they had to trust me on is that you don’t have to think about being the doll, because the image will take care of that. Just become this other personality who has this other kind of dimension to it, as a real character. We had that conversation a lot, about not doing anything to remind the audience that you’re a doll.” Yet one particular element of the dolls’ design did make for a more challenging scene than others, even though some featured extensive battle scenes or Deja’s magic powers affecting the town of marwen. “all actors are different heights, but all fashion dolls are the same height. so when i had them walking in unison with the robert Palmer music playing, each one had their own ramp for their height, so their heads and eye levels would match!” Zemeckis recalls with a chuckle.
asked if he’s worried about digital performers one day replacing humans, he seems confident that flesh-and-blood folk will still have their place in a time when animators and their cG tools can conjure up almost anything. “here’s my feeling – somebody will need to drive it. the answer to that question is, let’s look at music. We have a digital bank of equipment that can create every single sound and musical note flawlessly. We haven’t replaced a single musician. somebody’s got to bring the warmth of the human performance.”
the human side of this story is one that Zemeckis found key. and to that end, he and carell visited the real hogancamp to get his blessing on the script – written by the director and The Nightmare Before Christmas’s caroline thompson – and talk to him about his experiences. “i was very respectful of his privacy, but both steve and i have spent time with mark. he’s very much on board and anything that is sensitive to him we don’t go near. it’s interesting, and i was thinking about this, when steve and i went to talk to mark, it was more like we were interviewing him not to create the story, but to fill in the blanks for us. and that was really interesting – we were
I needed an actor who could do the emotional, dramatic side of this character
doing our mark now, so how can you shade that for us?”
Welcome To Marwen is not the sort of film you expect to be made these days. it’s an original story, features a difficult subject matter about a man overcoming adversity, and has to balance mark’s struggles with laughter and action. it might have heroes, but they don’t wear capes. it’s not based on something that has massive audience recognition. and the idea of the doll world can be a tough sell if you’re trying to convince people sitting down to watch trailers or TV ads. Zemeckis’s respected, oscarwinning reputation certainly helped nudge it along, but this is a project that still took nearly a decade to come to fruition.
“the real story is that it was made by a major motion picture studio,” admits Zemeckis. “it wasn’t a no-brainer, there was a lot of suffering and number crunching that went on to allow it to go forward!” in that time, it has also taken on an extra layer, mark’s dealings with his far-right attackers and their fictional Nazi counterparts taking on a deeper resonance in a world where such attitudes are becoming more and more popular and disturbing. if anything, marwen has grown that much timelier. “Did i see that coming?” Zemeckis ponders when we bring this up. “the answer is, of course not. i mean, i fell in love with this project eight or nine years ago. it’s astounding to me, but here we are.”
real life might be getting darker, but mark’s world allowed Zemeckis to play in a much more fantastic style than some of his other more recent work. and it even sees him indulging in a little self-reference, which isn’t something he usually employs in his films. it’s a fact that’s almost surprising given how often there are nods to some of his famous creations, including in steven spielberg’s Ready Player One. but when the story called for a time machine, the man who brought one of the most iconic examples to screens knew the direction he’d take, and it’s built out of a DeLorean.
“i didn’t know how else to represent it! We all know what a time machine looks like. it would be ridiculous to design one that no one understood what it looked like. that was my thinking; what would mark do? What would be in his mind? he was trying to build something that he’s seen in pop culture, but he’s going to make it out of the stuff he’s got lying around his house!” such things usually take approval, but we can’t imagine he had to beg the director of Back To The Future for the rights to use this one…
Welcome To Marwen is out in cinemas from 1 January.
Call them Barbie dolls and they’ll kick you in the face.
Robert Zemeckis was new to high fashion photoshoots.
David Attenborough had nothing on this.