From director Robert Zemeckis, the biographical dramedy Welcome to Marwen tells the real life story of Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), who turns to his own artistic imagination when a devastating attack wipes away all of his memories. His creation of the mythical town of Marwen, where World War II fighter pilot Captain Hogie (the suave hero action figure version of Hogancamp) fights his enemies to protect his friends (embodied by life-like dolls inspired by the women he knows), becomes as much of a healing tool as it is a beautiful art installation.
At the film’s Los Angeles press day, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with filmmaker Robert Zemeckis to chat about making such an unusual film, the challenges of telling a story with dolls, creating the town of Marwen, the editing process, balancing the tone, the film’s female personalities, and why getting Steve Carell on board was a dream come true. He also talked about how far along they are with the development of The Witches, adapted from the Roald Dahl book.
Collider: As somebody who has made films for many years, how cool is it to find a way to tell a story in a way that we’ve never seen before, and probably will never see again?
ROBERT ZEMECKIS: Yeah, I thought it would be fun. The truth is that it’s my first experience with finding a documentary. With the Mark Hogancamp journey, this idea of the healing power of art was what really hooked me. He had all of these elaborate stories, in his mind, that were going on in his doll world, and that’s what a movie can do. They can show the audience part of this whole thing.
What were the challenges of taking on telling a story with dolls? Was it way more difficult than you expected, or was it about what you expected it would be?
ZEMECKIS: It was time consuming. It takes a lot of pre-planning, let me put it that way. You have to really figure out what you want to do. What makes the movie unique, because of the dolls, is that all of the actors had to be cast way ahead of time and they had to be scanned, and then the dolls had to be sculpted, so that their features, their expressions, and all of that had to be locked in. Then, their hair had to be designed and their faces had to be painted and their costumes had to be made. There was a long lead time. Usually, when you’re casting a movie, you can cast right down to the day before shooting, to get that last actor in there, but you can’t do that with a movie like this.
What was it like to see how the dolls would look and how they would come to life?
ZEMECKIS: That was the key thing that we wanted to do. When I say we, I’m talking about my producers, and Kevin Baillie, my visual effects supervisor. We wanted to make sure that there was no confusion in the audience’s mind as to which doll was the alter ego of which live-action actor. Of course, the solution was to have those actors perform that doll. Then, we had to capture the emotional essence and the power of that actor’s performance and make sure that it was translated to the doll avatar.
Where do those dolls live now? Do they get to go on and have a life somewhere?
ZEMECKIS: Right now, they’re in a vault, but they’re going to be on display at the ArcLight into January, in a case in the lobby. They’re one-sixth scale fashion dolls.
What was it like to create this whole town?
ZEMECKIS: It was fun. We used the real Mark Hogancamp’s town as a template, and then we made it a bit more elaborate for the movie, and put in a big square, a fountain, and all of that good stuff. And then, we punched through the wall of his trailer, which he didn’t do in real life, so that we could have characters running, inside and out.
What was it like to be able to talk to and get to know Mark Hogancamp?
ZEMECKIS: We reached out to him, and Steve and I went and had dinner and hung out with him. He’s great. He’s kind of like a movie maker. He’s got a whole different adventure going on in the world of his art, and he was excited to tell us about that. It was cool.
What was the process of editing this film like? Was it any more difficult to edit the scenes with the dolls in them, or is it pretty much the same process?
ZEMECKIS: It’s a little different because you have to put your own cameras in, so you have to go through a step before you can edit. You have to take the performance captured data, and then you have to put virtual cameras in, and then you’re given what we call a sync check that’s a bad avatar puppet version of it, and we start editing with that. And then, that gets refined, and refined, and refined.
Do you also have to be much more aware of exactly what you need, so that you don’t have to delete a bunch of scenes later?
ZEMECKIS: What you have to be aware of is to not start finishing scenes that you might cut out of the movie because then you’re literally throwing money down the drain. Unfortunately, to do a big effects movie, you have to start turning over scenes and finishing scenes to get the release date before you actually fine cut the movie. You have to do two things at once. You have to finish scenes before the movie is done, so you’ve gotta be really careful that, in the early stages, you’re turning scenes over that you are guaranteeing will pretty much be in the final movie. So, it’s more complicated.
How tricky was it to balance the tone of this really tragic, horrific story of what happened to Mark Hogancamp with the totally heartwarming story of his recovery?
ZEMECKIS: Nothing is easy when you’re making a movie, and you’re always on the razor’s edge. That’s the actual truth of movie-making. You’re always balancing the tone. You can fall off and it can be really schmaltzy and corny, or you can fall off and it could be really grotesque. You just have to go with your instincts and run the movie for people. There’s nothing you can do, if it just doesn’t work. I always thought this movie had an opportunity to be able to blend those different feelings, which you don’t see in movies much, these days. Filmmakers, for some reason, play it safe a lot. In other words, if a filmmaker is doing a drama, there’s never a comedic moment in the movie, which is not the way movies used to be. If you look at a movie like The Godfather, there’s massively humorous, funny stuff in that movie, but I don’t see it in drama anymore. I don’t know if it’s because so many people see movies in isolation now, or if maybe it’s just too much work, or it’s too scary to do that tone balance.