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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.

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