- Robert Lee Zemeckis
May 14, 1952 (age 68)
- Mary Ellen Trainor (1980–2000; divorced) Leslie Harter (2001–present)
Robert Lee "Bob" Zemeckis (born May 14, 1952) is an American filmmaker and screenwriter frequently credited as an innovator in visual effects. He first came to public attention in the 1980s as the director of Romancing the Stone (1984) and the science-fiction comedy Back to the Future film trilogy, as well as the live-action/animated comedy Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). In the 1990s he diversified into more dramatic fare, including 1994's Forrest Gump, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Director. The films he has directed have ranged across a wide variety of genres, for both adults and families.
His films are characterized by an interest in state-of-the-art special effects, including the early use of the insertion of computer graphics into live-action footage in Back to the Future Part II (1989), and in Forrest Gump and the pioneering performance capture techniques seen in The Polar Express (2004), Beowulf (2007) and A Christmas Carol (2009). Though Zemeckis has often been pigeonholed as a director interested only in effects, his work has been defended by several critics, including David Thomson, who wrote that "No other contemporary director has used special effects to more dramatic and narrative purpose."
Early life (1952-69)
Zemeckis was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Rosa (née Nespeca) and Alphonse Zemeckis. His father was Lithuanian American and his mother was Italian. Zemeckis grew up on the south side of the city. He attended a Roman Catholic grade school and Fenger Academy High School. Zemeckis has said "the truth was that in my family there was no art. I mean, there was no music, there were no books, there was no theater... The only thing I had that was inspirational, was television—and it actually was."
As a child, he loved television and was fascinated by his parents' 8 mm film home movie camera. Starting off by filming family events like birthdays and holidays, he gradually began producing narrative films with his friends that incorporated stop-motion work and other special effects. Along with enjoying movies, Zemeckis remained an avid TV watcher. "You hear so much about the problems with television," he said, "but I think that it saved my life." Television gave Zemeckis his first glimpse of a world outside of his blue-collar upbringing; specifically, he learned of the existence of film schools on an episode of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. After seeing Bonnie and Clyde with his father and being heavily influenced by it, Zemeckis decided that he wanted to go to film school. His parents disapproved of the idea, Zemeckis later said, "But only in the sense that they were concerned... for my family and my friends and the world that I grew up in, this was the kind of dream that really was impossible. My parents would sit there and say, 'Don't you see where you come from? You can't be a movie director.' I guess maybe some of it I felt I had to do in spite of them, too."
USC education and early films (1969-79)
Zemeckis applied only to University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, and went into the Film School on the strength of an essay and a music video based on a Beatles song. Not having heard from the university itself, Zemeckis called and was told he had been rejected because of his average grades. The director gave an "impassioned plea" to the official on the other line, promising to go to summer school and improve his studies, and eventually convinced the school to accept him. Arriving at USC that fall, Zemeckis encountered a program that was, in his words, made up of "a bunch of hippies [and] considered an embarrassment by the university." The classes were difficult, with professors constantly stressing how hard the movie business was. Zemeckis remembered not being much fazed by this, citing the "healthy cynicism" that had been bred into him from his Chicago upbringing.
While at USC, Zemeckis developed a close friendship with the writer Bob Gale, who was also a student there. Gale later recalled, "The graduate students at USC had this veneer of intellectualism...So Bob and I gravitated toward one another because we wanted to make Hollywood movies. We weren't interested in the French New Wave. We were interested in Clint Eastwood and James Bond and Walt Disney, because that's how we grew up." Zemeckis graduated from USC in 1973.
As a result of winning a Student Academy Award at USC for his film, A Field of Honor, Zemeckis came to the attention of Steven Spielberg. Spielberg said, "He barged right past my secretary and sat me down and showed me this student film...and I thought it was spectacular, with police cars and a riot, all dubbed to Elmer Bernstein's score for The Great Escape." Spielberg became Zemeckis's mentor and executive produced his first two films, both of which Zemeckis co-wrote with Gale. He later executive produced other Zemeckis films, including the Back to the Future trilogy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978), starring Nancy Allen, and Used Cars (1980), starring Kurt Russell, were well-received critically but were commercial failures. I Wanna Hold Your Hand was the first of several Zemeckis films to incorporate historical figures and celebrities into his movies. In the film, he used archival footage and doubles to simulate the presence of The Beatles. After the failure of his first two films, and the Spielberg-directed bomb 1941 in 1979 (for which Zemeckis and Gale had written the screenplay), the pair gained a reputation for writing "scripts that everyone thought were great [but] somehow didn't translate into movies people wanted to see."
Breakthrough films and Forrest Gump (1980-97)
As a result of his reputation within the industry, Zemeckis had trouble finding work in the early 1980s, though he and Gale kept busy. They wrote scripts for other directors, including Car Pool for Brian De Palma and Growing Up for Spielberg; neither ended up getting made. Another Zemeckis-Gale project, about a teenager who accidentally travels back in time to the 1950s, was turned down by every major studio. The director was jobless until Michael Douglas hired him in 1984 to film Romancing the Stone. A romantic adventure starring Douglas and Kathleen Turner, Romancing was expected to flop (to the point that, after viewing a rough cut of the film, the producers of the then-in-the-works Cocoon fired Zemeckis as director), but the film became a sleeper hit. While working on Romancing the Stone, Zemeckis met composer Alan Silvestri, who has scored all of his subsequent pictures.
After Romancing, the director suddenly had the clout to direct his time-traveling screenplay, which was titled Back to the Future. Starring Michael J. Fox, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, and Christopher Lloyd, the 1985 film was wildly successful upon its release, and was followed by two sequels, released as Back to the Future Part II in 1989 and Back to the Future Part III in 1990. Before the Back to the Future sequels were released, Zemeckis collaborated with Disney and directed another film, the madcap 1940s-set mystery Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which painstakingly combined traditional animation and live action; its US$70 million budget made it one of the most expensive films made up to that point. The film was both a financial and critical success, and won three Academy Awards. In 1990, Zemeckis commented, when asked if he would want to make non-comedies, "I would like to be able to do everything. Just now, though, I'm too restless to do anything that's not really zany."
In 1992, Zemeckis directed the black comedy Death Becomes Her, starring Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis. Although his next film would have some comedic elements, it was Zemeckis's first with dramatic elements, and was also his biggest commercial success to date, Forrest Gump (1994). Starring Tom Hanks in the title role, and borrowing to some extent from Woody Allen's earlier Zelig, Forrest Gump tells the story of a man with a low I.Q., who unwittingly participates in some of the major events of the twentieth century, falls in love, and interacts with several major historical figures in the process. The film grossed $677 million worldwide and became the top grossing U.S. film of 1994; it won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (for Hanks) and Best Director (for Zemeckis). In 1997, Zemeckis directed Contact, a long-gestating project based on Carl Sagan's 1985 novel of the same name. The film centers on Eleanor Arroway, a scientist played by Jodie Foster, who believes she has made contact with extraterrestrial beings.
Zemeckis has said that, for a long time, he sacrificed his personal life in favor of a career. "I won an Academy Award when I was 44 years old," he explained, "but I paid for it with my 20s. That decade of my life from film school till 30 was nothing but work, nothing but absolute, driving work. I had no money. I had no life." In the early 1980s, Zemeckis married actress Mary Ellen Trainor, with whom he had a son, Alexander Francis. He described the marriage as difficult to balance with filmmaking, and his relationship with Trainor eventually ended in divorce. On December 4, 2001, he married actress Leslie Harter, with whom he has two children.
Zemeckis is a private pilot who has logged approximately 1,600 hours of flight time as of October 2012. He flies a Cirrus SR20, known for having a parachute that safely lowers the plane to the ground in case of an emergency.
According to campaign donation records, Zemeckis has frequently contributed to political candidates affiliated with the Democratic Party, as well as PACs that support the interests of aircraft owners and pilots, family planning interests, and a group that advocates for Hollywood women.