Like Two Favorite Uncles
TCM Presents: AFI’s Master Class—The Art of Collaboration: Robert Zemeckis and Don Burgess delivers what you expect, that is, a retrospective covering the nine feature films and two television projects on which Robert Zemeckis and cinematographer Don Burgess have collaborated. It also reveals that this collaboration has occupied much of their time: since 1989, Zemeckis has only four directorial credits without Burgess.
And so it’s hardly surprising that the two men demonstrate an easy shorthand, both in their self-presentations and in their work. Seated on a stage in overstuffed lounge chairs and backed by shelves of leather-bound books, the two men make comparisons between classic films and their own, phrasing their explanations in ways that reveal their thinking and also their sourcing: “This is a Lean thing” or “This is a Kubrick shot.”
The journey from inspiration to vision can be surprising, as Zemeckis has never been tied to a single genre and his filmography is as diverse as his influences. This is especially true after his team-up with Burgess. What is the connection between Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge and the famous rainy battle long take in Zemeckis and Burgess’ Forrest Gump? What does the amazing beach attack sequence in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia have to do with the upside-down airliner scene in Flight?
We learn answers to these questions and other in this one-hour condensation of the collaborators’ AFI presentation. Warm and affable, acting like two favorite uncles in front of a room full of eager nieces and nephews, they show clips from The French Connection and The Godfather, then indicate how sequences in their own films were shaped by these influences. They remember advice they received as young artists and discuss the differences between live action directing and motion capture directing. They talk about how they manage long shots—and every precisely timed element therein—and demonstrate with a shot that turns an entire house set on its axis, developed for Forrest Gump.
Zemeckis and Burgess indulge in some DVD commentary-worthy technical observations, about their own films and those that affected their work, and move on to compare and contrast. They also assess their own films in relation to one other, noting, for instance, the differences between the plane crash in Castaway, shot so that we see mostly the cabin in which passenger Tom Hanks is panicking, versus the cockpit-centric crash in Flight, an equally harrowing maneuver piloted on-screen by Denzel Washington.
But as entertaining as the discussion can be, the format also produces constraints. Almost as soon as this comparison between two scenes turns complicated, we cut to another subject or scene. Doubtless, the AFI fellows in the live audience who asked questions experienced a more thorough presentation. Director Robert Trachtenberg had the unenviable task of compressing this presentation into less than one hour, not to mention a format similar to Inside the Actor’s Studio, and without a James Lipton to keep the exchange focused.
The result leaves us wanting more. After all, Zemeckis and Burgess’ movie have earned billions of dollars, won many awards, and featured cutting edge technologies. Their experiences and insights—not to mention examples of their work—could fill multiple hours of television.
On the other hand, it is better to be left wanting a lot more than wishing for less. This episode of AFI’s Master Class—The Art of Collaboration is a good primer for film students of all stripes. Fortunately for TCM viewers, the first airing of this episode is followed by a showing of What Lies Beneath, while the encore presentation is followed by Carnal Knowledge. Let the continuing education begin.