It fig­ures

Robert Ze­meckis pushes bound­aries with Wel­come to Mar­wen

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY TARA BRADY

Robert Ze­meckis chuck­les. “I’ve been asked that ques­tion by just about ev­ery jour­nal­ist I’ve met.” Not for the first time– not even for the first time to­day – Ze­meckis, who di­rected

Back to the Fu­ture and its two se­quels, is in­sis­tent that the film will never be re­made or re­vis­ited dur­ing his life­time.

“That ques­tion will fol­low me my whole life,” says the Os­car-win­ning di­rec­tor of Back to the Fu­ture, Cast Away and For­rest Gump.

“But I un­der­stand what the au­di­ence is say­ing. They’re say­ing we love these movies so much we’d like to see more. And I ap­pre­ci­ate that. It’s won­der­ful. But they haven’t thought it through. All the ac­tors are 35 years older. The men­tal­ity of the 1980s is no longer part of our con­scious­ness. So we wont be able to make the movie with the same spirit or the same en­ergy. Ev­ery­one would ul­ti­mately be dis­ap­pointed.”

At 66, with 19 fea­ture films to his credit, Ze­meckis is ac­cus­tomed to the cut and thrust of the stu­dio sys­tem. The tril­ogy that will not be re­booted was passed over by Dis­ney back in the day, be­cause stu­dio ex­ec­u­tives were un­nerved by the in­ces­tu­ous sub­plot be­tween Marty McFly and his mother. That stu­dio was not alone.

“You know stu­dio con­ver­sa­tions,” he says. “They worry about ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing.”

I can only imag­ine the chats he had to get

Wel­come to Mar­wen past the gate­keep­ers.

Ze­meckis had missed the open­ing cred­its and min­utes on a 2010 PBS broad­cast of Jeff Malm­berg’s doc­u­men­tary Mar­wen­col, but, even late to the party, he was com­pletely trans­fixed. He called Univer­sal Pic­tures chair­man Donna Langley the very next day, hop­ing to se­cure rights to the story. Mar­wen­col,

which has sub­se­quently won dozens of awards, chron­i­cles the strange, artis­tic life of Mark Ho­gan­camp.

On April 8th, 2000, five men al­most beat Ho­gan­camp to death out­side a bar upon learn­ing that he was a cross-dresser. Af­ter nine days in a coma and 40 days in the hos­pi­tal, he was dis­charged with brain dam­age that left him with no mem­o­ries of his mar­riage, his army ser­vice, or how to eat. Un­able to af­ford ther­apy, Ho­gan­camp found so­lace in build­ing a 1/6-scale sec­ond World War-era Bel­gian town in his back­yard and pop­u­lat­ing it with dolls rep­re­sent­ing him­self, his friends, and his at­tack­ers.

“The thing that at­tracted me to the project was this no­tion of the heal­ing power of art,” says Ze­meckis. “The fact that Mark was com­pelled to cre­ate these pho­to­graphs. I loved how hope­ful that was. Then I thought, well, there are these elab­o­rate sto­ries that are only in Mark’s mind hap­pen­ing in the doll world that he can cap­ture only in pho­to­graphs. I thought now that is how we make this into a movie if we can present what’s hap­pen­ing in the doll world to the au­di­ence.”

Ze­meckis’s fea­ture casts Steve Carell in the cen­tral role with an im­pres­sive fe­male cast – in­clud­ing Les­lie Mann, Diane Kruger, Janelle Monáe, Eiza González, and Gwen­do­line Christie – as Ho­gan­camp’s skimpily-clad re­sis­tance move­ment.

Ze­meckis, Carell and the pro­duc­tion team were care­ful to main­tain an eth­i­cal ap­proach to their sub­ject, who has af­ter all, ex­pe­ri­enced a life-chang­ing head in­jury.

“It’s in­ter­est­ing,” says Ze­meckis. “Be­cause Mark was ex­tremely re­spect­ful of my process. He was amaz­ing to work with. He un­der­stood that this is all go­ing to be drama­tised and fic­tion­alised. It’s loosely based on his life and what hap­pened, of course. He thought the screen­play was fan­tas­tic, and then Steve and I went and spent time with him and hung out. Steve was study­ing him quite a bit.”

The di­rec­tor in­sists the ac­tors did the heavy lift­ing when it came to the phys­i­cal re­stric­tions of doll joints. But there’s a great deal of ground­break­ing tech specs on dis­play none­the­less.

Ze­meckis has, of course, al­ways been a show­man. Just think of his lit­er­ally dizzy­ing 3D drama­ti­sa­tion of Philippe Pe­tit’s 1974 high-wire cross­ing be­tween the North and South Tow­ers

of the World Trade Cen­ter in The Walk. Or the ground­break­ing FX cat­fight be­tween Meryl Streep and Is­abella Ros­sellini in Death Be­comes

Her. Or the pi­o­neer­ing mo­tion-cap­ture ex­per­i­men­ta­tion of The Po­lar Ex­press, Be­owulf, and A Christ­mas Carol.

It’s im­pos­si­ble not to see some kind of anal­ogy be­tween Ho­gan­camp’s dolls and the di­rec­tors’ own fancier film­mak­ing tool­box.

“I think you can draw that anal­ogy,” he nods. “Maybe that’s why I could un­der­stand him so well. “

Shoe fetish

The film must be the only project re­leased by a ma­jor stu­dio dur­ing this year’s awards sea­son to fea­ture a trans­ves­tite porn-fan with a shoe fetish as the hero.

“It was al­ways my in­ten­tion that the char­ac­ter was hu­man,” says Ze­meckis. “He’s lonely and im­per­fect. It’s a dan­ger­ous thing to try to ho­mogenise ev­ery­thing. I think that you have to have a cer­tain un­der­stand­ing that peo­ple are peo­ple. The truth is if you’re go­ing to do a story that’s ho­moge­nous and it’s a story that ev­ery­one will be happy with, by def­i­ni­tion it can’t be about any­thing.” He smiles: “How sad is that?” Quite sad, but it is rather the way of things. No one would look upon Hol­ly­wood’s con­tem­po­rary out­put and say it wasn’t ho­moge­nous.

“What are we say­ing?” he says. “Are we say­ing that we’ll have car­toons and we’ll have su­per­hero movies and that’ll be the cin­ema ex­pe­ri­ence, and ev­ery­thing else will be on tele­vi­sion, which means that ev­ery­one has to see ev­ery­thing in soli­tude? My an­swer is: let’s just do new ideas,. Let’s do things that are in­ter­est­ing.”

He re­spects and ad­mires the space Net­flix has cre­ated for long­form projects but is wor­ried that the stream­ing giant can dou­ble as what he calls movie in­surance.

“You can say we’ll watch 10 min­utes of this one and then if we’re not hooked we’ll turn it off and watch this one for an­other 10 min­utes. That’s our movie night. That’s fine for the au­di­ence be­cause it gives them all the con­trol. But it’s sad for the film­maker. I would find it strange not know­ing how many peo­ple have seen the movie.”

He’s equally unim­pressed by the new vogue for din­ner-theatre cin­ema: “The seats are all far away from each other and you can’t hear any­body laugh­ing at a joke or any­thing. Movies are a col­lec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence. There’s a power of be­ing in an au­di­ence. It would be sad if that van­ished.”

Re­act­ing with an au­di­ence is how Robert Ze­meckis got into movies. Grow­ing up in a blue-col­lar house­hold in Chicago, he had not been ex­posed to a great deal of cin­ema when a cer­tain coun­ter­cul­tural clas­sic grabbed his at­ten­tion.

“The ex­pe­ri­ence that was the most pro­found for me was see­ing Bon­nie and Clyde as a teen,” he re­calls. “That’s when I started to pay at­ten­tion. That’s when I no­ticed that my emo­tions were be­ing ma­nip­u­lated by this film. And that’s when I de­cided to find out how does this work? Oh, so there is a writer and a di­rec­tor.”

His fa­ther, a Lithua­nian-Amer­i­can wood­worker, was hor­ri­fied when Robert en­rolled in film school. “My fa­ther’s ex­act quote was: are you telling me my son is go­ing to go join the cir­cus?”

He laughs: “But when I started to make some money, then my fam­ily were okay with it.”

That did not hap­pen overnight, Hav­ing won a Stu­dent Academy Award at USC for his film A

Field of Honor, Ze­meckis was cham­pi­oned by Steven Spiel­berg, but his first two fea­tures, I

Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978), star­ring Nancy Allen, and Used Cars (1980), star­ring Kurt Rus­sell, were crit­i­cal hits and com­mer­cial flops.

A project he cre­ated with Bob Gale, about a teenager who ac­ci­den­tally trav­els back in time to the 1950s, was turned down by ev­ery stu­dio. Still, those early fail­ures im­pressed Michael Dou­glas, who hired him in 1984 to film Ro­manc­ing the Stone. When that be­came a sleeper hit, the stu­dios started pay­ing at­ten­tion.

In­ter­est­ingly, he doubts that any of the films that made his name, in­clud­ing Back to the

Fu­ture and Cast Away, would be made now. “They wouldn’t hap­pen, I couldn’t make Cast

Away now. They’d say go make it for five mil­lion dol­lars with Tom Hanks. But they wouldn’t make it on the scale it was made now. That would be way too ter­ri­fy­ing. Movies like

Wel­come to Mar­wen are an aber­ra­tion. The mir­a­cle of Wel­come to Mar­wen is that it was made by a ma­jor stu­dio. Which is a heavy re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

Hap­pily, that’s a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity he in­tends to re­main wed­ded to.

“I still think I still have my best movie in me some­where. I sin­cerely don’t know if I’ve done my best work yet or not.”

He shakes his head: “Isn’t that funny at this age?”

PHO­TO­GRAPH: UNIVER­SAL PIC­TURES

Left: Steve Carell as artist and pho­tog­ra­pher Mark Ho­gan­camp in Wel­come toMar­wen. Right: di­rec­tor Robert Ze­meckis. Be­low: Carell’s avatar is con­soled by Janelle Monáe’s.

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