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Back on Planet Zemeckis

Patrick Goldstein is a regular contributor to Calendar

One of Robert Zemeckis’ most vivid boyhood memories from the South Side of Chicago is of the crisp fall day in 1959 when the lowly Chicago White Sox won the American League pennant, their first title in 40 years. The city fathers were so excited that without warning, they switched on all the air-raid sirens, which blared across the city.

“I can still remember my parents and all their friends rushing out into the street, wondering what was happening,” he recalls. “It was surreal; everyone was standing around, convinced that we’d been invaded from Mars.”

Pandemonium is something that has always fascinated the 45-year-old director, who has enjoyed an enviable run of box-office success with movies satirizing the extravagant spectacle of our pop culture. Zemeckis collected a cartload of Oscars with his last film (including best director), 1994’s “Forrest Gump,” which deftly lampooned both Vietnam-era protest rallies and Me-Decade-era guru worship, showing Gump aimlessly running across America, hordes of worshipers and media in his wake.

His first film as a director, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” (1978), depicted the madcap antics of teenagers overwhelmed by Beatlemania. “1941,” the 1979 film he co-wrote for his mentor, Steven Spielberg, depicted Los Angeles in the grip of post-Pearl Harbor invasion mania. In 1988, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” which seamlessly blended animation with live action, celebrated the brash energy of Toontown, a raucous cartoon character ghetto in constant uproar.

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Of course, nothing causes an uproar like the discovery of life beyond Earth. That’s the hook for “Contact,” the new Zemeckis film that stars Jodie Foster as an astronomer who receives extraterrestrial signals from Vega, a distant star where aliens have apparently been eavesdropping on Earth, and who is sent an invitation to visit in the form of blueprints for a spaceship.

The film, which opens Friday, is loosely based on a speculative novel by the late Carl Sagan and pits Foster’s scientific zeal against the spiritual beliefs of a New Age-style religious author played by Matthew McConaughey.

Foster’s discovery provokes a whirl of media and political tumult. Everyone gets into the act, from Larry King and Jay Leno (who play themselves) to religious-right activists (their leader is played by Rob Lowe) to President Clinton, who is seen ruminating on the notion of extraterrestrial life through the magic of cleverly edited press conference footage. Pandemonium reigns: When Foster returns to her once-desolate radio telescope station deep in the New Mexico desert, it looks like a sci-fi Woodstock, surrounded by thousands of wild-eyed space fans.

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Made by Warner Bros. Pictures on a budget of nearly $90 million, “Contact” is a big-canvas drama, shot over a five-month period in Washington; Puerto Rico; New Mexico; Arizona; and various Hollywood sound stages. With its opening barely two weeks away, Zemeckis is holed up at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch, 30 miles north of San Francisco, doing sound editing and waiting for a final batch of special-effects shots.

Wearing a Hawaiian print shirt, jeans and sneakers, he’s a big, barrel-chested guy who walks with a long, loping stride, like someone hurrying in out of the snow. Right now he’s on a conference call with a team of computer graphics artists based in New Zealand whose high-tech wizardry has been slowed by a low-tech glitch: Their effects shots are stuck in U.S. Customs. Most of the effects are being handled by Sony Imageworks in Los Angeles, but with nearly 400 visual effects in the film, Zemeckis has farmed out work to half a dozen companies, including a French digital firm.

With anyone else at the helm, “Contact” would be considered a risky proposition. It’s an expensive, serious, 2 1/2-hour drama, arriving in midsummer without a major box-office drawing card. Most summer films open in more than 2,500 theaters, but Warner Bros. is releasing “Contact” in only about 1,500, hoping to add screens in its second week. Early reaction to the film has been mixed, with industry insiders questioning Warners’ decision to put the film up against a host of splashier, youth-oriented crowd-pleasers.

But Warners considers Zemeckis its ace. He even gets first billing in the film’s trailer.

“The real star of this movie is its pedigree, not only Zemeckis but a best-selling author like Carl Sagan and a great actress like Jodie Foster,” says Warners marketing chief Chris Pula. “It’s not just another space movie. It’s a thinking-man’s event film.”

Event films are a Zemeckis specialty. He has directed three movies that were No. 1 at the box office in their respective years of release (“Gump” in 1994, “Roger Rabbit” in 1988 and “Back to the Future” in 1985). His last seven films have taken in more than $2 billion in worldwide box-office grosses, a record second only to that of Spielberg, who helped get Zemeckis his first directing job and recently signed Zemeckis’ new company, ImageMovers, to a long-term production deal with DreamWorks SKG.

In fact, it seems clear that “Contact,” which languished in development hell for 15 years because of story and budget difficulties, owes its existence to Zemeckis’ box-office Midas touch. Along with Spielberg, he is one of the few commercial directors with a knack for both storytelling and special-effects wizardry.

“The story always had an emotional pulse, but it never had that electricity until Bob got involved,” says executive producer Lynda Obst, who has been involved with the project since the early 1980s. “With Bob, the movie met its maker. He’s completely visceral; he knows how to take ideas and make them wholly cinematic.”

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In the early drafts of the script, the movie opened with the camera speeding toward Earth, as if an alien radio signal were approaching from outer space. But after a meeting with Sagan, who was actively involved in the film until his death last December, Zemeckis and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (writer-director of the 1996 film “Bed of Roses”) decided to reverse the signal’s direction.

Now the film begins with the camera pulling away from Earth, past Mars and Jupiter and Saturn and faraway star fields, its retreat orchestrated by snippets of pop hits, political oratory and sports highlights, each from a progressively earlier period.

After Goldenberg scripted the scene, Zemeckis sent it to Sagan for his approval.

“He said it was a great idea to show the audience the far-reaching dimensions of the universe,” Zemeckis recalls. “And then he said, ‘I hope you know that by doing that, you’re violating every known law of physics. Plus, you can’t hear a damn thing in space because there’s no air out there.’ ”

Zemeckis’ response? “I told Carl, ‘I know you’re absolutely right. But you’ve got to remember this isn’t just about science now. This is a movie!’ ”

Standing in a tiny editing bay at Skywalker, Zemeckis studies a newly arrived effects shot. It shows Foster sprawled at the edge of a gorgeous, multicolored desert canyon, silky white clouds wafting overhead as she sifts a handful of dirt through her fingertips. The scenery is real--Zemeckis shot the scene at the Canyon de Chelly in Arizona. It’s the row of radio telescopes on the horizon that are a visual effect.

“We added those to the background so we could tie this into the previous shot of Jodie with the real radio telescopes that we shot 500 miles away,” Zemeckis explains. He grins happily, the magician eager to show off his tricks. “The clouds are ours, too.”

Like Spielberg and Lucas, Zemeckis is a filmmaker who delights in sculpting his stories with special-effects gadgetry. To him, that’s the magic of making movies:

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“I’m an illusionist; that’s my job. People keep making this assumption that now that I’ve made these big special-effects films, I must want to do a little film, with two people talking in a room. And I keep thinking, ‘Why should I restrict myself?’ I like giving an audience a lot of emotion and excitement. Truth and spectacle are not contradictory things; they can be experienced together. That’s what movies do the best.”

Not everyone agrees. Zemeckis is still puzzled by the critical backlash to “Forrest Gump,” which earned $600 million but never won the hearts of a sizable contingent of reviewers who saw it as shallow, blandly patriotic and dismissive of ‘60s counterculture values. Other critics decried the film’s computer-generated trickery--which allowed Zemeckis to believably place star Tom Hanks in various historical settings--as the sort of high-tech deception that smudges the lines between fantasy and reality.

“When people say to me, ‘What if we can no longer tell the difference between a real image and a manufactured image,’ all I can think is: ‘What’s a real image?’ ” he says. “I’m always manipulating reality. If I use a camera with a 100-millimeter lens, it creates a different image than another lens. Technology doesn’t change the story. It simply changes the way you tell it.”

As a boy in Chicago, Zemeckis soaked up films like a sponge. Every Saturday night, he sat spellbound, watching monster movies on WGN-TV’s “Shock Theater.” By high school, he had seen every TV episode the Three Stooges ever made. His father took him to war movies, and the whole family went to Tuesday bargain-night double features and drive-in pictures during the summer.

Zemeckis got the idea to go to USC film school from watching “The Tonight Show” and hearing Jerry Lewis tell Johnny Carson that he was teaching a class there. When Zemeckis arrived in the early ‘70s, the reigning film school heroes were Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. Zemeckis and classmate Bob Gale, who co-wrote and co-produced his early films, preferred James Bond, Frank Capra and the Marx Brothers. Early in his career, when reporters would ask Zemeckis to name his biggest influence, he’d say Jules White, the Three Stooges’ favorite director.

Gale has said that Zemeckis owes his fondness for showmanship and outrageous humor to coming of age in Mayor Richard Daley’s Chicago, a casually corrupt town where the citizenry was urged to vote early and often. Zemeckis says his father never paid a parking ticket; he’d get it fixed by his local alderman.

“When I came to USC, I noticed I had a different attitude,” Zemeckis recalls. “I had problems taking anything at face value. I’d always think, ‘What’s the hidden agenda here?’ ” He smiles. “It’s an attitude that’s come in very handy working in the movie business.”

Perhaps that’s what makes Zemeckis’ films different from the big-bang thrill rides that crowd the theaters each summer. He is a magician, not a demolition expert. His favorite tricks are too subtle to show up on first look.

During one sound-editing session, Zemeckis screens a scene in which Foster ducks into the back seat of a car after testifying at a congressional hearing, amazed to find thousands of onlookers assembled at the foot of the Capitol steps. Much of the crowd is augmented by computer-generated characters, but that’s not what gives Zemeckis such a big kick about the scene.

“If you want to know the thing I love doing,” he says, pointing at the screen, “it’s putting the reflection of the Capitol dome in the car window. I just love that!”

Michael Goldenberg says Zemeckis’ special-effects sequences work because they have a dramatic purpose: “Bob is always telling the story with the camera. While the rest of us are trying to puzzle things out on the printed page, Bob is thinking in four dimensions. When you’d see him thinking on the set, the ideas were just bubbling out of his eyes. You realized he was seeing the whole movie in his head.”

There’s a brief shot in “Contact” that is so baffling it takes repeated viewings on a video monitor with Zemeckis’ patient play by play to grasp how it was done. It’s a flashback scene of Foster’s character as a young girl running to an upstairs bathroom to get some medicine for her father. As she races down a long hallway, Zemeckis puts the action into slow motion, to prolong the agony of her quest. She sprints down the hall toward the camera, stretching out her hand, and pulls open the medicine cabinet, revealing a row of pills.

One second the camera’s in the hallway, the next it’s inside the medicine cabinet, the next it’s capturing the girl’s reflection in the mirror as she opens the cabinet--all in one continuous shot.

Talk about movie magic. The shot defies description.

“The storyboard guys didn’t get it right away either,” he says. “I had to act it out for them a couple of times before they understood what I wanted to do.”

Zemeckis takes it as a compliment that you need four viewings to even remotely figure out what was going on. “That’s great,” he says brightly. “If it doesn’t call attention to itself, that means we’ve done it really well. If you look at my films, you’ll see I edit less and less. It’s much more powerful to shoot something like that in all one take.”

You assume that his passion for shooting long, unedited takes is perfect evidence of the influence of computer-generated effects. “To be honest,” Zemeckis says, “I really learned that from the Marx Brothers.”

‘Contact” came to public attention as a 1985 bestseller, but Sagan’s novel actually began as a film idea. Sagan and his wife and frequent collaborator, Ann Druyan, were in Los Angeles in the early ‘80s when they got together with producer Obst, who had been their editor at the New York Times Magazine. Looking for movie ideas, Obst was taken by Sagan’s story about the human race’s first encounter with intelligent life from another planet.

Peter Guber, Obst’s then-boss at PolyGram Films, bought the treatment, touting the project with great fanfare in trade ads. But he never made the film. Guber took the project with him when he went to Warner Bros., where several scripts were commissioned. After Guber left to run Sony Pictures, then-Warner executive Lucy Fisher gave the project back to Obst, who eventually teamed up with Goldenberg, who shares screen credit with James V. Hart.

“He knocked it out of the park,” Obst says. “He gave Ellie [Jodie Foster’s character] real depth and emotional reality, and he made Palmer Joss [played by McConaughey] into a credible man of faith who could also be a love interest, sort of a sexy Billy Graham.”

Director George Miller, of “Road Warrior” fame, spent several years working on the project before parting company after a dispute with Warner Bros. over the film’s budget. The studio then approached Zemeckis, whose box-office clout soothed studio fears about the film’s high costs.

With so many close associations between Zemeckis and Spielberg, it seems inevitable that reviewers will compare “Contact” with “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (especially since there’s an “E.T.” joke in the film). But Zemeckis insists that he didn’t worry about venturing onto Spielberg turf.

“One of the things that makes our friendship so healthy is that we enjoy each other’s movies without ever feeling competitive about it. I couldn’t make ‘E.T.’ or ‘Schindler’s List,’ and I suspect that Steven wouldn’t ever want to do something like ‘Roger Rabbit.’ ”

Foster says her biggest fear was that Zemeckis would be more involved with his high-tech machinery than his actors.

“But what I didn’t expect was that he was so good with people,” she says. “Even though the movie was big and very complicated, working with Bob was a simple, intimate experience. He’s the kind of director who’s really good about sharing ideas and letting you participate in the whole process.”

Even before Zemeckis signed on, it was evident that Foster was the perfect choice to play a brainy, driven astronomer.

“Frankly, I was just obsessed by the story,” she says. “You just don’t find many scripts that work so well on both an emotional and intellectual level. It was great to find a story that showed how much passion scientists can have. To me, that’s what makes Ellie such a fascinating character, that in the end she finds her head through her heart.”

Although Sagan was seriously ill by the time “Contact” went into production, he spent considerable time with the filmmakers, helping with script revisions and fighting to preserve the story’s scientific authenticity. He visited the set both in Los Angeles and in Washington, entertaining the cast with an impromptu astronomy lecture.

“Carl always wanted people to share his wonder and awe of the universe,” Goldenberg says. “Even when I was doing rewrites on the set, I’d run everything by him. He knew more than just the science; he knew the politics of science and the politics of politics. The real tribute to Carl is that even his fiction turned out to be true. Wormhole physics is now a respected field of study. But it got its start when Carl was writing ‘Contact’ and he called up the world’s greatest physicists and asked them, ‘I’m trying to get this girl in my story to Vega, but how do I get her there?’ ”

Zemeckis says he and Sagan had long debates, with Sagan always lobbying for scientific authenticity.

“In the end, Carl would say, ‘It’s your movie, but I’m going to be looking over your shoulder, riding you all the way down to the wire.’ ”

With “Contact” now on its way to the theaters, most directors would have a crowd of studio executives looking over their shoulders, worrying whether a serious 2 1/2-hour drama has enough sizzle to keep pace with its summer film competition. Zemeckis is shrewd enough to realize that the creative freedom he earned with “Forrest Gump” cuts both ways. It means he has to discipline himself. That’s a kind of self-restraint few directors have exercised when given complete control.

“In my early days I’d get these nutty memos from the studio, saying I had to cut $2 million out of the movie before they’d make it,” Zemeckis recalls. “It was crazy, but in a way it helped sharpen your work, because it made you think, ‘Why am I spending this extra money? Could I make the film without it?’ It’s good that you don’t have to debate anyone, but the bad news is that you have to put the movie under an internal microscope, because it’s all up to you.”

In the end, Zemeckis hopes that moviegoers will share his fascination with a story, whether it’s about a dimwitted young man on a park bench or an astronomer obsessed with discovering life on another world.

“What would really happen on Earth if aliens suddenly contacted us?” he asks. “That’s what intrigued me--it was such a departure from the typical alien invasion movie. To me, the whole idea of exploring the universe is having the opportunity to learn more about ourselves.

“I still wish there was a chance in my lifetime of having a space shuttle that would take people to the moon. But for me, the real thrill wouldn’t be looking at the moon up close or seeing other planets. I’d be excited because I’d want to look back at the Earth.”


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