Marion Cotillard and Brad Pitt star in Robert Zemeckis' latest film, 'Allied.'
Robert Zemeckis started his career by winning the Student Academy Award at USC for his student film, A Field of Honor. He reached the pinnacle of his career by winning the Academy Award for Best Director for Forrest Gump.
His latest film is Allied. In 1942 North Africa, Canadian intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) meets French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) on a secret mission behind enemy lines. The couple reunites in London and get married, eventually having a child together. Their relationship is strong and normal but becomes threatened by the brink of war, as Vatan is presented with the possibility that Beausejour is a sleeper spy working for the Germans. Vatan is then placed under considerable pressure to kill Beausejour himself or to be executed for failing to obey orders. Convinced of her innocence, he sets out on a very dangerous mission to clear her name.
Zemeckis breaks down the Allied synopsis. “It’s absolutely a story of betrayal. That’s a universal theme of this film. It’s about how we react when we find out people aren’t really who they say they are. It’s complicated in a world of spies and espionage because people aren’t who they say they are. It’s complicated by the fact that you’re always aware the enemy is listening.”
He then elaborates on the tone of the film. “The movie has a large, sweeping, romantic feel in the beginning. When we start the film in Casablanca, we wanted it to evoke the Casablanca that we know from the movie Casablanca. It was the French Riviera of Africa. It was very elegant and stylish. It was populated by the Vichy French. It had all the sophistication that you would have found on the French Riviera in that era. That’s how we presented it in the film.”
Sure, a great director and cinematographer can create a romantic feel with sweeping camera work. On the other hand, no matter how great a director or cinematographer might be, you can’t create a romantic feel if your leads don’t have the chemistry for the audience to buy into.
“One of the things that a director is always praying for when he’s making a movie that’s a romance is that there’s chemistry between your leads. I was grateful to see that there was fantastic chemistry between Brad and Marion from the beginning. They had that movie star spark that happens. When they’re playing their characters, they truly gave us what we want from an emotional standpoint. I was very fortunate that they had this great chemistry.”
Zemeckis is more known for his directing prowess but he’s also a successful writer. Before his directing career took off, he wrote scripts for other directors including Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg. Before he became a brand, his script for Back to the Future was turned down by every major studio. We all know how that turned out however. Though he didn’t write the Allied screenplay, Zemeckis is well aware that the tone of a film starts with the script.
“The screenplay evoked a tone for war torn London. It was really interesting because London was in the midst of being bombed daily, but life went on. In spite of nightly air raids, people carried on. That was their slogan: Carry On. We wanted that war was always there – either in the background or the forefront. It’s kind of fatalistic in how people acted and how London actually looked. People in London did everything they could to maintain their lifestyle. They did everything they could to make life bearable under the circumstances. That’s what we tried to do in both the design of London and its environs. We wanted to make it look as normal as possible but with these machines of war in the background.”
We have all seen plenty of movies that are just special effects with some actors and a threadbare plot thrown in. With films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Death Becomes Her and The Polar Express, Zemeckis is sometimes unfairly pigeon holed as a “special effects” guy. Film historian David Thomson has been named by several influential film scholars as the “greatest living film critic.” Thomson himself said about Zemeckis, “No other contemporary director has used special effects to more dramatic and narrative purpose.”
Zemeckis explains that “visual effects are at a point now that you can do absolutely everything. It’s great when you do a period movie and you have to create parts of a city that are destroyed by bombs. We used visual effects very effectively for what we call set extensions. [A painted representation of a scene, usually on glass or a landscape or set within a film. This allows film makers to create an illusion of an environment or an extension of the set that may be expensive to build or impossible to visit.] We just had to build the building fronts and facades and paint the rest of it on there. It was a fantastic tool to allow us to create a scope that wouldn’t exist otherwise. No one could afford to build what we portrayed in the movie if we didn’t have the digital tools.”
The reason why Zemeckis received such high praise from no less an authority as Thomson could perhaps be that he sees special effects as more than just a filmmaking tool.
“I always look at production design as a character. It always starts with the screenplay. The design of this movie had to evoke a couple of things. It had to evoke the period. The movie is a romance at its core. The production design was done with the eye toward the romantic. When we depict Casablanca, it’s done in a romantic way. When we depict London, even though it’s war torn London, it still has a feeling of romance about it. The production design has its own emotion. It’s an outgrowth of the characters. It’s totally accurate for the period. It evokes this emotional feeling. When your production design can do that, the audience isn’t aware of it but they can feel it. That’s the luxury you have when you have a great production designer like I had with Gary on this film.”
As with special effects, Zemeckis feels that cinematography is another character unto itself.
“The camera is also an emotional thing. I had long conversations with Don Burgess, my Director of Photography. We talked about how we had to use the camera and lenses to evoke as much emotion as possible. The most specific thing we did was – as the events of the story start to close in on the characters – evoke a feeling of claustrophobia. We laid out the movie so the lenses we were using were getting longer and longer as the story was getting more claustrophobic. It’s very subtle, but hopefully audiences will feel that the images are becoming more claustrophobic.”
Many filmmakers have a regular group of collaborators. Thelma Schoonmaker has edited all of Martin Scorsese’s films since Raging Bull. Composer John Williams started working with Steven Spielberg in 1974 and has scored most of Spielberg’s films since. Emmy-winning composer Alan Silvestri, as usual, composed the music for Allied.
“Choosing Alan was a no brainer. He’s scored all of my films since Romancing the Stone. Whenever you develop a relationship with a key person of your creative team, that’s as close as mine is with Alan, you create this shorthand. I can’t imagine making a film with another composer. I talk to him like he’s an actor. I don’t talk to him about music because I know nothing about music. I talk to him about how I think the scene should be feeling and what emotions I think the scene should evoke.”
Emotions seem to be the common thread in Zemeckis’ filmmaking approach. From the special effects to the cinematography to the music, he hopes to create a film that will move audiences will feel on an emotional, and not just visceral, level.
“The thing I love about making movies more than anything is to move audiences emotionally. When you have a story that’s as powerful as this one, you have a great opportunity to do that. This type of story is perfect for a filmmaker like me because, hopefully, I like to make audiences feel and relate to the story. It takes a screenplay and it takes a cast to give the tools to the director to be able to accomplish that.”
Allied opens in theaters November 23rd.