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Video/Q&A: Chicago native 'Flight' director Robert Zemeckis

(Lenny Gilmore / RedEye )
November 01, 2012|Matt Pais, @mattpais | RedEye movie critic

Raised in the South Side neighborhood of Roseland, 61-year-old director Robert Zemeckis hasn’t achieved much as a filmmaker.

Oh, wait: He’s only made classics like “Back to the Future,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and “Forrest Gump,” for which he won the Best Director Oscar. Opening Friday, “Flight” marks Zemeckis’ first non-motion-capture effort since 2000’s “Cast Away” and stars Denzel Washington as Whip, a pilot who performs a miraculous upside-down maneuver to save nearly everyone on a flight whose plane breaks down mid-air. The problem: Whip was drunk and high on cocaine during the flight, information a lawyer (Don Cheadle) will try to suppress but may leak anyway due to Whip’s addiction.

At the Park Hyatt, Zemeckis, who’s based in L.A. but still has a place on Lake Shore Drive, talked about his Chicago upbringing, his own extensive flying background--no, he’s never had a drink before piloting a plane—and how society’s doing compared to the predictions of the “Back to the Future” franchise. Unfortunately, he declined to try to name as many kinds of shrimp as possible, “Forrest Gump”-style.

What’s your first memory of going to the movies when you were a kid in Chicago?
I saw “The Blob.” That was the first movie I remember seeing. I was about five years old.

That’s young to see “The Blob,” no?
Yeah, I mean, in those days nobody cared about what kids saw. Certainly when you grew up south side of Chicago. It was like movies were movies.

What was your reaction?
I thought it was great. It was a triple bill. It was “The Blob,” “I Married a Teenager from Outer Space” and “Sad Sack” with Jerry Lewis.

How do you feel like your Chicago upbringing has factored into the films that you’ve made, if at all?
I don’t know. It’s a good question. I have images of death in every movie, but I think that’s more from Catholic school than [Chicago].

How come?
Because Catholicism’s all about death and dying.

So it’s not a Chicago thing.
There’s a lot of Catholicism in Chicago. I guess that’s the only thing I can think of. I can’t think of anything else that’s a Chicago influence.

You have an extensive background as a pilot yourself. How many times have you flown upside-down?
Only when you have to do it for--we have to do things called spin recovery when you intentionally put the plane in a spiral, so it’s not really upside-down but it pretty much feels like it. You have to do that every couple of years just to practice recovering from that.

What’s the scariest experience you’ve had while flying?
Losing my bags.

That’s terrifying.
It’s very terrifying, yeah. It makes you really angry, too.

Nothing while flying?
Flying’s very safe. I haven’t had any scary incidents on airplanes.

Have you or do you know anyone who’s had a drink before flying?
You mean a pilot? No, not personally. I don’t think most pilots do drink.

So you’ve never had a drink before flying?
Who, me? No, I take those rules very seriously. That’s not a good thing. The one nice thing about the way the system works is any pilot who gets pulled over for a DUI immediately will lose his pilot’s license.

Something that plays into the film is the notion that pilots are real people. Not mythic heroes; they can be flawed. In 2012, how much do people still have this perception of pilots as being incredibly powerful?
I think they do, but I think they do because of their own need to think delusionally.

What do you mean?
I think they put people who are entrusted with other people’s lives on that pedestal because it makes them feel more comfortable. I think they do the same thing with surgeons, doctors. I don’t think they do it with politicians anymore. But anyone who is entrusted with other people’s lives, people tend do to that because it’s easier to get through the day thinking that way. Even though it may not be true.

Not that this person may have gotten three hours of sleep last night.
You don’t want to think about that. Or they’re just having a really horrible day. Or a loved one’s sick or a loved one’s dying and the guy’s gotta go fly a plane. Obviously he’s not going to be concentrating. But that is reality. That happens all the time. Where a guy is going to do heart surgery who just found out that his wife was in a car accident. Stuff like that happens.

Or he’s just upset about the Bears game!
Or upset about the Bears game! There you go. Absolutely.

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