Interview - Zemeckis


Norman Spencer (Ford) and Claire Spencer (Pfeiffer)

Director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Contact) discusses his new supernatural thriller

by Judy Sloane

  Selected from Starburst #268

In 1998, director Robert Zemeckis, along with producers Steve Starkey and Jack Rapke, started their own production company, ImageMovers. During their initial meetings to discuss the type of material they wanted to pursue, Zemeckis voiced his desire to make a Suspense genre movie… it only took two years to fulfil his wishes. The director was approached by his 'good friend', Steven Spielberg, who presented him with the screenplay for the creepy thriller, What Lies Beneath. "I'd been a big fan of these types of movies," says Zemeckis. "But it always depended on the right one coming along. I think suspense and cinema are really made for each other. I mean, there are certainly very suspenseful books and stage plays, but I don't think anything can manipulate time and place and storytelling techniques the way a movie can. I've always wanted to try my hand at directing something really terrifying and mysterious. Steven Spielberg had an idea for a ghost story, and Sarah Kernochan wrote something, which I never read. Then Clack Gregg came on to rewrite it, and that's what I ended up reading."

What Lies Beneath tells the sinister tale of Dr Norman Spencer (Harrison Ford) and his wife Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer), who, after their daughter moves out of their house to attend college, are faced with a new occupant… the mysterious ghost of a young woman who seems, for some inexplicable reason, determined to wreak revengeful havoc on the couple. But, as with every thriller, nothing is as it seems, as Zemeckis notes, "If you really dissect the film, I think there are things, like all wonderful mysteries in life, that you can see that contradict the statement that it was definitely a ghost … because maybe it isn't one."

Casting Ford

Harrison Ford was Zemeckis's first and only choice for Norman. "He brings a kind of 'Rock of Gibraltar' strength to the screen," the director acknowledges. "To me, he's the definition of absolute stardom. And Michelle is truly gifted. She's completely believable as this vulnerable woman, and at the same time conveys great inner strength. Along with her acting ability, she brings incredible beauty and a powerful screen presence to the role. You can't take your eyes off her."

An interesting predicament arises when you cast superstars, as Zemeckis relates, "You never know if [there will be chemistry between them] because, with two giant stars, you can't screen test them. I had a pretty good hunch, but even when you're there on the day you don't know, because screen chemistry only exists in two dimensions, and screen presence only exists in two dimensions. I was very fortunate with Harrison and Michelle."

Admitting that while he was making this movie he felt like he was "standing on Hitchcock's shoulders", Zemeckis conferred with the visual effects supervisor, Rob Legato, to discuss his strategy. "In approaching this film, I told Rob to try to imagine what Alfred Hitchcock would have done if he'd lived in the digital age and had access to computer graphics. What might he have done? We had a ball experimenting with different types of effects, but I'm hoping that 90% of them are invisible."

The director confesses that, while he admires Hitchcock, he's acutely aware that this is a new generation of film-making. "Audiences today are very hip and savvy to the conventions of the genre, so you have to go beyond them. You can't do what the masters like Hitchcock were able to do, because the audience would be 20 minutes ahead of the plot. That's the greatest challenge, because I think the enjoyment of movies like this comes from not knowing what to expect."

One of Zemeckis's biggest obstacles while filming was to make the Spencers' home transform into a house of horrors. "When you see the house in the sunlight it looks like the perfect dream home," says the director. "But then you start to make the shadows long and drop the camera to a lower angle, and the house is suddenly ominous and uninviting. Everything in the movie had to work on two layers. Depending on how you look at something, it can be beautiful or an instrument of terror, which is one of the great devices for a scary movie."

Starburst #268This is just an excerpt.

For the full four-page interview, read on by getting Starburst #268

Images © Fox / Dreamworks SKG

Feature © Visual Imagination 2000. Not for reproduction