Steve Carell & Robert Zemeckis – Welcome to Marwen

January 30, 2019 by  
Filed under Interviews

It’s seems like it has been a natural transition for actor Steve Carell to jump around genres—from comedy to drama and back—over the last few years. Best known in his early career for his role on the hit TV comedy series “The Office” and movies like “Anchorman” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” Carell has also shown audiences his serious side in projects like “Beautiful Boy” and “Foxcatcher,” the latter of which earned him an Academy Award nomination in 2014.

Combining comedy and drama, too, has been something Carell has been successful doing in films like “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Dan in Real Life” and “Vice” where he portrays former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in writer/director Adam McKay’s political satire on former VP Dick Cheney.

In his newest film, “Welcome to Marwen,” by Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump”), Carell is once again given the opportunity to mix comedy and drama (and some action sequences, too) with the true story of Mark Hogancamp, a New York man who, after a vicious attack leaves him brain damaged, finds comfort in interacting with a doll-sized, WWII-era town (and its action-figure residents) he builds in his backyard. Through this recreation, Mark is able to create a whole new world where he is the hero of his own story and uses the hobby as a way to heal.

During a sit-down interview with me, Carell and Zemeckis talked about what makes a film like “Welcome to Marwen” special and why Carell was the perfect actor for this touching story.

Steve, when you heard about Mark’s story, what resonated with you the most about what he had gone through and what he was doing with his life?

Steve Carell: What resonated with me the most was his sense of decency—the fact that he endured so much suffering and pain and that he was able to keep a sense of human kindness and generosity to his spirit. That, to me, was the sign of an exemplary human being. He’s like that in person. We went up and met him and I’ve stayed in touch with him since. He’s just a good, decent guy.

I know you had the chance to meet Mark. What was it like going into that backyard and seeing the town for yourself?

SC: Well, his whole house is very similar to the house that is depicted in the film. It’s a magical place. I won’t lie. He has such a fertile imagination. It’s all there. It’s surrounding him. It’s a world that he lives in and that he uses as a way of healing himself. At the same time, he is also very aware of how other people perceive it. It’s not like he’s just in this world and has no context for how odd it may seem to other people. He has a really good sense of humor about it.

Robert, what was it about Mark’s story did you feel lend itself to create this sort of hybrid live-action/animated film?

Robert Zemeckis: First of all, it was a heartwarming and heartfelt story about this guy who suffered this tragic incident and healed himself. That’s what appealed to me the most. There’s this whole story that goes on inside our hero’s mind where he’s got this adventure going on in this “doll world.” I thought it lent itself to being able to expand his story into something that could be a pretty interesting and compelling feature movie.

You hadn’t done an animation since “A Christmas Carol,” so did it feel good to go back to that?

RZ: Well, animation isn’t really the right word. Animation is where a bunch of artists create a character. We used performance capture. That means the actors who are playing the live-action characters and have a doll in the movie, their performance is what drives the doll. It’s a more sophisticated performance capture than what I did in the Polar Express days.

Has technology since “The Polar Express” blown you away?

RZ: Digital cinema is all based on computer power—horse power. So, it’s getting more and more sophisticated every moment.

SC: The two of us, actually, right now are performance captured.

RZ: We’re not really here.

SC: No, we’re not here. We’re still back in Los Angeles, but that’s how real this seems. It’s really good.

So, what was it like seeing your rendered character for the first time?

SC: How could you not love to see yourself depicted as a really studly doll? It was fantastic.

Robert, can you brag on Steve a little?

SC: Yeah, can you? Come on!

Why did you choose him for this role? What did he bring to the table?

RZ: Well, he brought a few things to the table.

SC: (Laughs)

RZ: He’s a magnificent comedy actor and a fantastic dramatic actor.

SC: Humanitarian. Kindness. I love animals.

RZ: And he’s got this kind of everyman quality. He fit the bill perfectly. I knew he could do both—the swagger and the fun of the doll and the empathy and bring the emotional power to the human character.

SC: It’s mostly about my swagger. I walk into a room and you just see the swagger.

Steve, everyone knew you for your comedic roles when you started off. Then, you came into drama and got an Oscar nomination for Foxcatcher. Has that been a seamless transition? How did that work for you as an actor?

SC: I didn’t really have an agenda behind it. I just wanted to do good things and be a part of movies and TV shows that illicit a response—whether it’s making people laugh or making people feel something. It’s been fun. Seamless? I don’t know. I just roll with it. I’m just thankful every day that I get to do this stuff.

You’ve been an action figure before. You can go out and buy Gru (his character in the “Despicable Me” franchise). You can buy a Brick toy (his character in “Anchorman”).

SC: Yeah, I’m sure there is a bobble head out there.

Which of your other characters in your career would you like to see become an action figure? Do you think it would be fun to play with a Donald Rumsfeld doll?

SC: (Laughs) Yeah, or maybe my character from “Foxcatcher.” the “Foxcatcher” action figure. I doubt that’s going to be a big Christmas seller.

Or “Little Miss Sunshine.”

SC: Sure, you could do the whole cast and have the VW bus. [Mark] was definitely my favorite because I get to play this alter ego. From Mark’s perspective, it’s the idealized version of who he would be in the world, and that’s kind of exciting. I think a lot of people would love to see that—to visualize that. It’s something that everybody does—imagine themselves in this kind of heightened state. So, [Mark], by far, is my favorite.

The Walk

October 9, 2015 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis (“Flight”)
Written by: Robert Zemeckis (“The Polar Express”) and Christopher Browne (“Operation Barn Owl”)

In 1974, a French high-wire artist named Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) snuck onto the construction site of the World Trade Center towers, hung a cable between them and performed an illegal high-wire act 1,350 feet above New York City streets. It was an astonishing feat, and was the subject of a documentary called “Man on Wire,” which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2009. With that kind of inherent drama, it’s surprising that director Robert Zemeckis couldn’t manufacture any in his biographical film “The Walk.”

Putting on a French accent and some blue contact lenses, Gordon-Levitt does his part and gives a solid, but rather unspectacular performance. It’s the most grounded performance of the bunch and other than an underutilized Ben Kingsley, is one of the few characters with any nuance at all. The others feel like unpolished archetypes that only serve narrative purpose, including a really bad interpretation of some unreliable stoners.

The tone of “The Walk” is by far its most troublesome aspect. The opening act of the film feels like rejected Disney material, complete with a lame meet-cute and imagery so stereotypically French that all it was missing was someone riding a bicycle with a basket full of baguettes. The film then switches gears and becomes more of a generic caper, which only pushes more towards silliness. There is, of course, some seriousness involved in the wire act itself, but the film feels overly family friendly, light, and tame.

The tone is also unfortunate because Petit is not established as a particularly talented or even competent wirewalker. In fact, much of the set-up of the film shows Petit clumsily falling for comedic effect, or struggling. It’s difficult to see him as a man with an incredible gift to pull off an amazing stunt when the guy is made to look like he couldn’t balance himself on a sidewalk. Other than the obvious point of safety, nothing ever really feels at stake.

While Zemeckis was incredibly successful in creating a visceral visual experience by using 3D to create a sense of depth and heights, “The Walk” has little else that is redeeming. Its goofy tone that shifts into drama during the walk itself does a terrible job of setting the table and even the wire-walking scenes, while visually impressive, are repetitive and anti-climactic. It’s a shame that a film about a tightrope walker could lack so much balance.

Flight

November 2, 2012 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis (“Cast Away”)
Written by: John Gatins (“Real Steel”)

Though the circumstances differ a bit, merely hearing the plot of “Flight” will remind people of pilot “Sully” Sullenberger’s miraculous plane landing in the Hudson River in which he was able to spare the lives of all 155 passengers in 2009. Factor in that the film’s main character is not-so-subtly named “Whip” Whitaker and it becomes clear that inspiration is often found straight from the headlines. More than just a new starring vehicle for Denzel “Wash” Washington, “Flight” also marks the return to live-action for director Robert Zemeckis after a 12-year stint in the world of motion-capture animation. It’s a comeback that leaves a lot to be desired.

When a flight piloted by “Whip” Whitaker (Washington) loses control midair, Whip must make dangerous maneuvers to try to save everyone on board. Though the plane crashes, he is able to save a majority of the crew and passengers. When he wakes up, however, he finds an investigation open that reveals drugs and alcohol were found in his system. Along the way, Whip develops a very unique and close relationship with a heroin addict named Nicole (Kelly Reilly)

Considering the talent both behind and in front of the camera, it is staggering just how much of “Flight” doesn’t work. The performance by Washington is solid, but ultimately a little unsatisfying when he isn’t playing drunk. Perhaps the best member of the cast is Don Cheadle, who plays Whip’s defense attorney. One of the biggest problems with “Flight” comes in the form of script and tone issues. At times, the film tries to be “edgy” and dark with its humor. It ultimately misfires. Structurally speaking, Zemeckis spends far too much time on average-written storylines that are uninteresting, often to the point of becoming completely painstaking. Even the cinematography and camera movements are boring and stale.

Though “Flight” is quite strong in its portrayal of Whip’s alcoholism, Zemeckis and company completely dropped the ball with Nicole, who is apparently the most successful recovering heroin addict of all time. There are scenes of the torment that Whip must go through battling with the temptations to drink and scenes that portray how non-functioning he becomes when he drinks too much. And with Nicole? Other than her initial hospitalization for an overdose there are no temptations, no struggles and no withdrawal symptoms. She essentially quits heroin cold turkey. Impressive.

Perhaps the most distressing thing about “Flight” is that the core relationship of the film is woefully unsuccessful. Nicole is introduced to the film in such a disconnected way that it ultimately has nowhere to go as the film moves forward. From that point on Zemeckis force-feeds the relationship between Whip and Nicole to the audience. Not only does it not make sense, it is completely ineffective in registering any type of emotion.

Like the fabled plane in the film, “Flight” has problems almost immediately after it takes off and ultimately crashes and burns. The end result is a flaming pile of wreckage that ironically wouldn’t even be entertaining on an airplane ride. Though the premise of the film is admittedly interesting, “Flight” makes every subsequent turn a wrong one and occasionally nose-dives into excruciatingly bad cinema. One wishes that Zemeckis wouldn’t have been on auto-pilot for his long-awaited return to live-action.

A Christmas Carol

November 6, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis (“The Polar Express”)
Written by: Robert Zemeckis (“The Polar Express”)

After dozens and dozens of retellings of the classic 19th century Charles Dickens story “A Christmas Carol” over the past century, you might think there would be nothing left to gain from another go-around with the timeless text. How many different ways can you say “Bah-Humbug” anyway?

But in Robert Zemeckis’ latest animated version, the director behind such films as “Forrest Gump” and “Cast Away” has created a brand new vision that’s much darker and visually pleasing than anything that has come before. Add to that an assortment of lively voice performances by Jim Carrey (“Horton Hears a Who!”) and “A Christmas Carol” is a holiday treat despite its emotional shortcomings.

While the film doesn’t hammer home the true importance of family or make a character like Tiny Tim a target for pity like others have done in the past, Zemeckis’ “Carol” still has an ace in its stocking. His name is Ebenezer Scrooge and the penny-pincher is grouchier than ever. The iconic Christmas character, who has been portrayed numerous times before, gets his first transformation into motion capture animation, the process Zemeckis used in his last two films “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf.”

In case you’ve somehow never heard the tale before, Scrooge, a bitter old miser living in London, is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley. Marley, who drags around weights and chains to signify the miserable life he once led, informs Scrooge that he will be haunted by three ghosts who will take him on separate journeys through his past, present, and future. The supernatural experience is supposed to reveal the true meaning of Christmas to Scrooge. It’s a life lesson that he could truly use. Not only does he snarl at the idea of paying his employee Bob Cratchit (Gary Oldman) for personal time off for the holidays, he’d rather get frostbite on his beaky nose than spend time with his only nephew Fred (Colin Firth).

Carrey’s turn as Scrooge might not rise to the performances of actors including George C. Scott or Alastair Sim in their respected versions, but Zemeckis gives his character a bit more free range to be sillier and brasher than his usual personality traits allow him. Carry never overdoes it with his voice work either, which is crucial to Scrooge as an introvert. His gangly frame, much like Carrey himself, is more surreal because of the amazing attention to detail in the character’s face. The 3-D spectacle attached to the film only enhances the experience.

The animated film, however, might be a bit too intense for little ones. While Zemeckis unintentionally made “The Polar Express” frightening with his demon-looking elves at the end of the movie, he is well aware of the dark tone that hovers over “A Christmas Carol.” Depending on your own level of comfort for nightmarish imagery in your holiday movies, this one might trigger tears for some kids (then again, so does Santa Claus at the shopping mall).