Baby, it’s cold outside. No, I’m not trying to be a creep, I’m just explaining why I’m inside the house, catching up on a lot of old movies. After all these years, I still enjoy the Back to the Future trilogy, among other classic sci-fi movies.
When you think about the guy who made BTTF, you realize that Robert Zemeckis can teach you a lot about the art of storytelling. I decided to jot down four things that his movies taught me.
Before you say, “But Zemeckis is a filmmaker, not a storyteller!”, remember that filmmaking is storytelling, using light and sound where the rest of us use pen and paper. Before he was a director, Robert Zemeckis was a screenwriter. His ability to craft authentic stories over the past forty years and his insistence on telling stories in a unique way is why Zemeckis will always be one of my favorite directors.
So with that in mind, let’s talk about four things his movies will teach any person who wants to tell stories for a living:
As you quickly note in Zemeckis’ body of work, there’s always an interesting ‘What-if’ attached to the story. What if cartoons were real? What if a kid went back in time to meet his parents in high school? What if aliens made contact with Earth?
As you develop your stories, make sure you’re capturing a really cool ‘what-if?’ If you can do that, then you’re on your way to telling stories like Forrest Gump.
Going from the South Side of Chicago to Hollywood is no easy feat. Zemeckis came from a blue-collar background, frequently pushing through the negative feedback of friends and family. Rather than getting discouraged, Zemeckis became inspired. “I felt I had to do in spite of them,” he later related.
To get into Film School, Zemeckis had to sweet-talk the admissions registrar, attend summer school, and deal with boot camp-style film instructors. When you look at the timeline of his filmography, it’s clear that Zemeckis never rests on his laurels. He’s always looking to tell the next big story.
Start Small, Dream Big
Zemeckis got into the USC Film School after making industrial films with the Outboard Marine Corporation. Later, he wrote a number of unproduced screenplays and made flop movies like ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand.’ Lack of success didn’t dissuade him from continuing to produce. Even then, success did not arrive. He co-wrote 1941 with Bob Gale in 1979, which was considered a flop. In fact, it wasn’t until he’d been hired by Michael Douglas in 1984 to direct Romancing the Stone that Robert Zemeckis finally found the success he needed to work on a little project called ‘Back to the Future.‘
Nearly fifteen years would pass between his arrival at college in Illinois to his breakthrough as a director. That fact helped make me feel better about my own journey. Mesh isn’t out yet, and I’m feeling pretty torn about what will happen if it fails to launch. Then I remember, failure is a part of the journey, and I write a little more.
It’s about the story, always
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is one of those rare movies where the film tells the story better than the book. I should know, I’ve had a copy of ‘Who Censored Roger Rabbit,’ on my bookshelf for twenty years now. Where the book was a rather boring detective story with an original premise, Roger Rabbit manages to take the premise and talk about everything: sex, greed, and money. It satirizes Hollywood, relationships, and humanity in a unique and thrilling way. Two hours later we come back to reality at the end of the movie, having been transported somewhere else. Roger Rabbit is a triumphant film for many different reasons, and ultimately the story is the reason why.
Zemeckis has his own theory about innovations in film: “the continuum is man’s desire to tell stories around the campfire. The only thing that keeps changing is the campfire.” That certainly jibes with his major features. It also shows up in his smaller movies like ‘What Lies Beneath.’ Zemeckis is famous for using near-seamless CGI to keep the lens on the story and the characters. It’s a common technique in filmmaking today and now you know who to thank for it.
Putting It Together
After a binge of great filmmaking, you can’t help but feel inspired and also a little intimidated. Now you know how high the bar is. Now you know what you must do if you want your work to stand out. It’s scary, but it’s also inspiring.
Veterans of Hollywood often cite their challenges navigating the fuzzy, manic line between art and commerce. We’re no different, and we also will have our paths to trod. Ultimately, it’s up to you how you decide to tell your own stories. These four ideas will help serve as a guide as you do.