In modern times and in modern dollars, the most successful director of them all is, of course, Steven Spielberg. From “Jaws” to “Jurassic Park,” his films have grossed well in excess of $4.5 billion at the box office here and abroad, and in many cases are still doing business. Even “Schindler’s List,” never expected to be a big moneymaker, did about $96 million in this country and $220 million abroad to date.
In the rarefied category of billion-dollar directors, it is a matter of some curiosity as to who places second. At the moment, it would appear to be 42-year-old Robert Zemeckis, whose “Forrest Gump” is about to pass $300 million at the domestic box office alone. His films, including “Romancing the Stone,” all three installments of “Back to the Future,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “Death Becomes Her,” have done upward of $1.5 billion thus far, and “Gump” has miles to go before it sleeps.
Running a close race with Zemeckis is Ivan Reitman of “Ghostbusters” fame. Daily Variety has estimated the business that his films have done at $1.3 billion (it has not yet compiled an estimate on Zemeckis). But Reitman’s “Junior” looks to be off to a soft start while “Gump,” likely to have a new thrust from Academy Award nominations and other honors, is already a major hit.
Ironically, Zemeckis, from his new home in Montecito, recently said his career looked to be over before it had really begun.
“I’d made two films before I shot ‘Romancing the Stone.’ I made ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ and ‘Used Cars,’ and they were both box-office flops. I’d spent a year developing ‘Cocoon.’ Then I got fired because of ‘Romancing the Stone.’ When I showed Fox the finished ‘Stone,’ they thought it was a disaster. Not the Zanucks, but the studio. They were all very nervous in those days, and ‘Cocoon’ was budgeted at $15 million. They said, ‘We can’t give this guy another movie to make!’ So they fired me.”
“Romancing the Stone” turned out to be a very large success. Had it not been, Zemeckis says, its failure, plus the fact that he had already been fired from “Cocoon,” would have meant his career was indeed over.
“It’s this tradition in the industry that some filmmakers are lucky, and some are unlucky. It’s what they told Michael Douglas when he wanted me to direct ‘Stone': ‘But his films don’t make money.’ To his everlasting credit, Michael said, ‘Yeah, but look at the style of “Used Cars.” That’s what I want.’ It’s the idea that the director can control the box office, which nobody can.”
As it was, Zemeckis went from “Romancing the Stone” to his string of successes. By another irony, Zemeckis may have been sought for “Forrest Gump” because of his skill at merging live action and animation in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” At one stage of the script, “Forrest Gump” was to include a lot of animation. It was later thrown out, though several scenes of special effects, which blend historical footage with newly shot film, remain.
“I enjoy using special effects,” he says. “Part of the spectacle of film is illusion, and illusion is more and more part of the spectacle. But you can’t let it get in the way of the story. When you think about it, the close-up is about as strong an image as you can have.”
The extraordinary sequences in which Tom Hanks as Gump is seen in newsreels with JFK and other historic figures have aroused wide comment, suggesting that seeing is no longer being able to believe. The implications fascinate Zemeckis, too.
“If a political candidate had enough money and wanted to put himself in newsreels with heads of state he’s never met, he could do it,” Zemeckis said. “It would be dangerous because he could be exposed, but it can be done.”
The larger question, being explored by the Artists Rights Foundation, which Zemeckis supports, is that of who owns and controls a movie’s images. “Say in 20 years a guy who wants to sell canned ham asks to use a piece of Tom’s performance in ‘Gump’ in a commercial. Does Tom have a say in that? The director, the writer, the staff, the people who had a hand in the look, the haircut, the wardrobe, the performance? Do I have a say?”
Zemeckis thinks it conceivable that stage acting that led to film acting may evolve again into what he calls digital acting. In the same way a soprano can dub a better high C onto her recording of an aria, an actor could stockpile some of his better line deliveries into a kind of computer-banking system.
“An actor will be able to say, ‘Gee, I wish I hadn’t done that little thing with my mouth; I’d like to be able to do what I did in my last movie,’ and I think you’ll be able to go back to his computer bank and change it.”
“Forrest Gump” was delayed in the making, not only because of script problems but also because of its presumed similarity to “Rain Man.” It never stopped seeming risky.
“You have to give Sherry Lansing credit, because for what we were going to have to spend on ‘Gump,’ it made no sense,” Zemeckis said. “How would you promote it? There were no exploitative elements you could put in a flashy trailer. There was no tie-in to McDonald’s. We had Tom Hanks--but that was everything.”
The movie has been variously interpreted as a metaphor for America at mid-century, or an America in need of lobotomizing. But Zemeckis says, “My reaction when I first read the script was very emotional and had nothing to do with all the intellectual stuff, although it was obviously there. It was risky, because Gump could become grotesque, or you could slip over into the saccharine and the maudlin.
“I was never really certain until we began to screen the film whether the portrayal of Gump, and his strange accent, was going to work for audiences. To Tom’s enormous credit, he pulled it off.”
Zemeckis met Bob Gale, his frequent script collaborator, at USC film school; they wrote the ill-fated “1941" for Spielberg. Now, off his successes, Zemeckis has clout, and he finds it a boon but also a challenge.
“It allows you to take time off, and that’s important, because you live in such a rarefied atmosphere when you’re directing a movie. You’re not in the real world. All you have to do is direct, and everybody around you all day is telling you how great you are. My wife kids me about that all the time,” Zemeckis says.
The burden of clout is to choose the right projects. “I’ve read some good scripts since ‘Gump’ came out, but I’m still frazzled. If you find a script with a flaw in it, you think, ‘The last thing I’m ready to do is roll up my sleeves and get in a room with a writer and start shaking this screenplay out.’ You need a break.”