Robert Zemeckis and Steve Carell Talk ‘Welcome to Marwen’
Welcome to Marwen hits theaters tomorrow, but it was actually last week that director Robert Zemeckis and star Steve Carell came through Atlanta on a press junket to promote the film. I can’t say I’ve been as excited for an interview… quite possibly ever… These two are film and television legends, and their new film is nothing short of incredible.
Welcome to Marwen is based on a true story and depicts the life of artist Mark Hogancamp (who is played brilliantly by Steve Carell). After a devastating attack, Hogancamp’s life is left in ruins. He has no memories of his life before the attack, and no one expects him to recover. However, he slowly discovers a new normal and creates a beautiful little Belgian town called Marwen. The town is, in fact, “little” and resides inside his home as well as in his yard – and its populated by dolls. These dolls consist of amazing and supportive women, as well as Captain Hogie, a World War II fighter pilot (who Hogancamp finds himself living through in the stories he tells and photos he takes). The audience is able to see Hogancamp process his emotions through this absolutely amazing art installation of Marwen, and ultimately we see him overcome some of his biggest fears.
Check out our full interview with director Robert Zemeckis and star Steve Carell below.
Steve, so, you’ve been nominated for a bunch of award-nominated movies, you were nominated for the Oscar for Fox Catcher, but you’ve not been in a big budget action movie. Do you, like Mark, ever fantasize about playing an action hero?
Steve Carell: Not really. No, I don’t think I ever have. I’ve never thought of myself in that vein or in that genre. I would do it happily. It would be fun, but no, I never … There are some movies that you think are sort of in your wheelhouse and others that you just can’t even imagine. By the same token, a movie like Fox Catcher, which is completely on the other side of the spectrum, I would never imagine being in that movie, so you never know. Never say never, I guess.
Can you guys talk a little bit about the creative choices to lend the doll world with the real world? Was that effortless, or was there any particular transition that was more challenging than other transitions with that?
Robert Zemeckis: No. There wasn’t anything more challenging, but obviously, it was something that I was thinking about a lot. The plan was to bring the audience in very literally at the beginning of the movie. And in the early parts of the movie, just make it very clear that the audience knew that we were transitioning from here to there. Then as the movie went on and the audience became more comfortable with the language of the film, to then just be cutting between it and not have to worry about it, and the audience, I think, would be immersed in the language of it, and they would understand where we were going.
Did you guys watch the documentary on him? Did it help with how you portrayed this part and how you directed the film?
Steve Carell: It was the whole impetus for me to be involved with this in the first place. I saw the documentary, I think, a few years after you did, but I couldn’t get that out of my head. I was moved by him and his story. We did meet him, and he’s exactly as you’d hope he’d be and more so. He’s a very kind guy and very generous and self-deprecating and really funny too. He has a very dry sense of humor. But short of trying to do him … When you’re portraying somebody who actually exists in the world, you don’t want them to feel like they’re a science project, that you’re examining them or trying to just see how they drink a cup of coffee.
It’s much more about trying to connect with what they went through, just what they are as a human being. The kind of essence they have.
The documentary itself is very well received within the film community and stuff, so did you guys do anything to make sure that you were doing it justice and that you weren’t just re-telling the same information?
Robert Zemeckis: Absolutely. I hope that’s what people think because we were very respectful of what the documentary was doing. What I was inspired by when I saw the documentary, obviously, Mark’s story is very moving and very heroic, but I saw that what the documentary couldn’t do that a movie could do is take us into the imagination of Mark. It became very apparent to me when I saw the documentary the first time that he has taken these photos, but in between these photos were these elaborate stories that were only in his mind. And I thought, ‘That’s what a movie can do that no other medium can do.’ So, that’s what inspired me.
Was there any aspect from the documentary where you were like, ‘Okay, we have to make sure we get this in our film because, otherwise, what’s the point of doing this film?’
Steve Carell: The fact that he likes to wear high heels, I think, was integral to the hate crime that he was a victim of. That is an element that I think was indispensable.
Robert Zemeckis: And I would say every moment that’s in the movie that is representative of the true story, I thought, was indispensable.
Robert, was the motion capture that you used in this film, was it more difficult than the animation in, say, Roger Rabbit or Polar Express, and are there any other technologies that you’d like to explore in the future?
Robert Zemeckis: Yeah, no, well … The performance capture we used in the Polar Express, that’s the first time it was ever done in a movie. Do you know that it was invented by the medical profession to study the range of human motion? And it was perfected by the golfing industry so they could design better golf clubs, and then, now we use it in movies.
Steve Carell: Wow.
Robert Zemeckis: Did you know that?
Steve Carell: No.
Robert Zemeckis: Okay. It’s way more advanced than what we did obviously from the way it looks in Polar Express. Roger Rabbit was old-fashioned, literally hand-drawn animation, not even the way they do cartoons nowadays with computers. Nowadays an artist on the computer draws a character here, and then 16 frames later, draws another, and then the computer just fills it in, but in the old-fashioned, hand-drawn days, they had to draw every single frame.
Yeah, performance capture is wonderful because you have these actors who perform the entire performance of the creature, the avatar, the doll in this case completely. The animation is kind of like acting in real slow motion. An animator … Can act through their pencil, but it takes them weeks to get from there to there where an actor can do it in three seconds. Animators are sort of repressed actors. They don’t want to get out there with their instrument, but they’re happy to do it with their pencil.
As someone that can personally not wear heels, how long did it take you to be able to walk in them and appear stable in them?
Steve Carell: I tried to appear as if, not only stable but comfortable and excited about wearing heels. Months literally. They sent me heels to my house a couple of months before we started shooting, and I practiced walking around. I started with wedges, and I moved up to three inches, four inches, up to five, six-inch stilettos. And it was excruciating. I had no idea. At first, I thought, ‘Just get me a pair of women’s shoes in my size, and I’ll be good,’ and it was not to be.
Steve Carell: I have a heightened sense of appreciation for how difficult it is. I talked to my wife about … She gave me tips. I walked around. I videotaped myself. Because it is one thing to walk in them, it’s another thing to look comfortable walking in them. Yeah, that took some time. My feet were numb for probably a month, month and a half afterward, my toes. I didn’t have any feeling for a while.
That’s my problem.
Steve Carell: I don’t, for the life of me, understand it. My calves looked great, but …
This guy is such an interesting character. Was it hard to get into his character, inside his head?
Steve Carell: Was it hard to … It was challenging because you can only assume what this person had gone through and what he’d lost. In talking to the real Mark, he not only lost his memory, but he also lost his ability to speak. He had to relearn how to walk and talk and just try to write his name. His motor skills were severely impaired, and it was a very methodical process to act on that. The point at which this film picks up his story, he’s gotten better, but he still has a long way to go and a long road ahead of him.
Incidentally, last week, I got an email from Mark. He said that his motor skills are improving to the point where he started to illustrate again.
Robert Zemeckis: Oh, great.
Steve Carell: Yeah. All of these things that he has done in real life, in the real world have been extremely helpful, not just physically but emotionally. All of that healing that he’s done through this odd, little world he created, it’s kind of miraculous. But yeah, it was definitely a challenge. I just don’t want to be cavalier about explaining how I did it because I can’t even begin to comprehend the sort of pain and suffering that this guy went through, but in meeting him, I felt like it was my responsibility to at least try to get across the kindness and uncynical nature that is pervasive in meeting him.
He’s a remarkable guy.
Steve, you’re pretty much playing two characters in this film… because you’re also Captain Hoagie. That is very vastly different from who Mark is as you just explained. Juggling both those aspects, which are kind of two extremes in the same film, how was that for you?
Steve Carell: It was fun. It was exciting to be able to do two characters that were related. There is a thread between them obviously because Captian Hoagie is this alter ego, is this more perfect version, the imagined version of Mark’s dreams. I think it’s something a lot of people can identify with because I think everyone secretly has the heroic version of themselves somewhere inside.
Like what would be the more powerful version of or the more swashbuckling or the stronger or more self-confident? He used all of those things to live through this other entity to get beyond so much of the pain and fear that he was going through. That’s something that I think the movie touches on a lot is the fact that Mark lives in fear, like perpetual fear. To use a character like that that’s so powerful and be surrounded by these women who are so powerful to ground yourself in a sense … But yeah, and it was also just fun to play a swashbuckling stud, which I don’t get to do very often.
If you had an imaginary city based around your life, what would it be like, and who would you be like?
Steve Carell: You mean Carellville?
Yes. Carellville. Can you tell me a bit about it?
Steve Carell: Well, it’s populated by me and my wife and my kids. In Carellville, we have a dog. We don’t have a dog in real life, but we have a dog in Carellville because we can’t have a real dog because my daughter’s allergic.
Large dog? Just small dog?
Steve Carell: Big dog. Probably big Golden Retriever or Bernese Mountain Dog. It would be the idealized version of that dog. It would be the perfect dog, much like Hoagie. It would be populated by things that we can’t necessarily have in our real world. My son really wants a dog, but we can’t get one, so that part of the fantasy would be for him.
Robert Zemeckis: Kind of similar to what Steve said, except probably, I would be 20 years younger in my ville. In Bobville.
With Mark’s artwork, were there certain photos that really spoke to you all that you recreated for the film or brought into the film?
Robert Zemeckis: I’ve got a lot of his actual photos in the movie, his most famous one where the guy’s carrying the guy through the mud. Some of them … I did take his photos and then recreated them with my dolls because they looked like my actors. My favorite one is when the girls are bathing, and a Nazi is standing over them with a rifle, and they’re all like, ‘What?’ Mark took a photo just like that, but then I put my girls in there. That was fun.
Steve Carell: When Erica comes up in that scene, and she says, “Where’s my top?” “Oh, the Nazis took it.” She’s like, “Again?” I love the way she plays that too. It’s like, “Ah, Mark.”
Robert Zemeckis: “Every time I come here …”
Steve Carell: Every single time. This guy. Those Nazis. I just love the way she plays it because it’s also so accepting of him and his world. That’s kind of the spirit of him. He’s playful. He’s a really sweet, funny guy. That part of it can’t be lost. It’s not all doom and gloom. Even though it comes out of a tragedy, he’s got a really good sense of humor.
Robert Zemeckis: Right.
Steve Carell: I think it’s something that the movie tries to …
Robert Zemeckis: They all do. The conceit is set with Gwendolyn when she comes in and says, “And how’s Captain Hoagie?” “Oh, the Nazis beat him.” “Again?” It’s always like …
Steve Carell: Everybody’s sort of into the stories like a soap opera. Like, “What did I do this week?”
Robert Zemeckis: Yeah, they’re engaging him in … They all know what’s going on in his world.
Well, you see that in the documentary. Everybody that they interviewed seems like they’re just enamored with the fact that they’re in these stories.
Steve Carell: It’s an honor. It’s a badge of honor.
They’re part of his world.
Robert Zemeckis: Well, it’s an honor.
Yeah. Exactly. In fact, a couple of them say that. “I feel honored to be in his stuff.”
Robert Zemeckis: Exactly.
Steve Carell: I’m in his stuff now too. Because I told him about a story that happened to me the first time I went to the Oscars, and he then depicted it in a scene and sent me the photographs. I’m like, ‘Wow!’ Like the next week, I’m one of his characters. Fantastic.
Can you talk about the supporting cast?
Robert Zemeckis: Yeah, what a great cast. You had these … Magnificent cast … The supporting cast is Mark’s back-up, these really empowered females that are his protectors and the people who nurture him. They don’t judge him. They accept him exactly who he is. I had these great, great actresses who completely got it, and they just did such a great job. They just understood what we had to do from beginning to end. They just really stepped up. I was very fortunate because every actress I wanted, I got. I set them the script, and they just got to it, and they said, “Yeah, I want to do this.”
I was like, “Okay.” It was wonderful.
One of the things I really loved about the film was just the attention to detail of it, not just in the doll world but just the real world as well. Like Mark’s journal, for instance, that was one of the things that really drew to me. Compiling things like that together, what was that like?
Robert Zemeckis: Again, everything was inspired by the real Mark. It was this interest in … And I love the shorthand of being able to show something visually. Again, that’s something that movies can do that other art forms can’t. Rather than to try to write scenes that try to explain so many complex things, the idea that he was an illustrator allowed me to just run with that. I did this journal, which had all these … Are you referring to all those …
Those drawings …
Robert Zemeckis: … Images of self-loathing- Yeah, that just speaks volumes. It’s just boom, there. And how would you even get into … It just all of a sudden sets the table of this character. Instantly, I just loved the shorthand of that, plus the photos of him injured in the hospital. You’re there going, ‘Oh, something happened.’ I don’t know.
So, if you don’t anything about this character, I just relish being able to do things like that in a movie, just giving these general hints to the audience that, ‘Oh, something’s going on here.’
So, Steve Carell is a pretty hot commodity today. All my friends basically worship him. He’s done some things. What is it like working with him?
Robert Zemeckis: He’s like a real diva. I know …
Steve Carell: It’s true.
Robert Zemeckis: … If his coffee isn’t the exact right temperature-
Steve Carell: That’s exactly right.
Robert Zemeckis: … He just walks off, storms off the set.
Steve Carell: Has to be 94 degrees.
Robert Zemeckis: No, he’s great. You guys know. All these friends of yours who worship him know that he’s this fantastic comedic actor, and he’s a brilliant dramatic actor. For a director, he’s a dream to work with because he’ll make anything work. No matter what I ask him to do, as long as it’s within the bounds of the character that we know what it is, he’ll say, “Yeah, I’ll try that. I’ll try doing this. I’ll try doing a turn like that or this.” It’s great.
Steve Carell: Dancing in high heels.
Robert Zemeckis: Yeah.
Steve Carell: Whatever you need.
Robert Zemeckis: You going to wear those high heels today, Steve. Handsome.
Steve Carell: That’s another scene. That thing that … I loved it. That just cracked me up. Like doing it, you feel like such an idiot because we’re both … dancing in the moment, like a scene like that, the two of us are in these weird gray Lycra performance-
Steve Carell: Onesies. And we look … We have sensors all over us and these weird helmets, and we’re acting all cool, and then you see the film, and she looks great, and I’m like this studly guy that’s not even close to who I really am. I don’t know. It’s so funny to watch.
For me, I found this movie to be so sweet and have such a positive message. I’m curious for each of you what you’re hoping that families or individuals that see this, specifically during the holidays, take away from it?
Robert Zemeckis: Well, exactly what you said. It’s hopeful. That’s what I think it is. It’s one of those movies that’s heartbreaking and heart-warming at the same time, and why not? It’s thought-provoking and entertaining, sad and funny. It’s kind of like, for me, everything that I like to see in a movie.
For you, Steve?
Steve Carell: I think of Mark as someone who lives on the fringe. I feel like this movie itself does in its own way because it’s odd. It doesn’t really fall into a category. It’s not something that’s easily explained, but all those things can be said about Mark. You can’t really classify him. He’s an artist.
Robert Zemeckis: Non-conformist.
Steve Carell: He’s a non-conformist. I think the film itself reflects the person that I see there. I think that that message of acceptance and taking a chance on something that you might not quite get from the external presentation, but that if you dig a little deeper, you can find something kind of beautiful. That’s how I feel about Mark.
Talk a little bit more about the challenges of having to work with the CGI outfit and everything else that where you got to basically use your mind and make what’s going on in the scene.
Steve Carell: A lot of it, I relied on Bob to explain what was going on around us. There was a crude version of playback, of what we could see in our avatars, so we could get a glimpse of what this world might look like in a very primitive way, not refined at all. Those things, coupled with our imaginations, is what we used.
Robert Zemeckis: The thing that I chuckle at is the fact that these actors always have this giant imagination. It is in every movie that they do. If you’ve ever been on a movie set, have you ever seen how an actor does his close-up? It’s always like, ‘Okay, the most emotional moment in the movie that this actor’s going to perform, and now we got to do the close-up,’ and it is crazy and bizarre because the director says, “Now look at this piece of tape on this matte box,” and, “Who am I doing the scene with?” “Oh, you’re doing the scene with her, and she’s way back there behind all those other …” You can hear her voice and all these crew members with their bellies hanging out, and like I said, we’re all standing there. Right there.
And the actor’s got to do this moment. It’s crazy. Right? In any movie, it’s always crazy.
Steve Carell: It is.
Robert Zemeckis: So, obviously, you have to go to an imaginary place to do that.
Steve Carell: Yeah, even if you’re not in the realm of performance capture. A lot of times you’re just imagining there’s something else there.
Robert Zemeckis: It’s making movies. It’s all fake.
Steve Carell: There’s the headline for you.
Robert Zemeckis: It is!
Steve Carell: That’s how you’re starting the article.
Robert Zemeckis: It is. It is. It’s all …
Steve Carell: It’s all fake. It’s just pretending.
I did love all the imagination. This movie really did take me back to my childhood, playing with GI Joes and that kind of stuff. I’m curious to know, what was the one toy from your guys’ childhood that activated your imagination?
Robert Zemeckis: I never had a … I’m too old for action figures. I missed that one. My sister had Barbie dolls. I remember that, but I don’t know. I don’t think action did … I don’t think they did the GI Joe until like the mid-sixties… But for people who are younger than me, that’s a big part of their life that they had those action figures, and they had all that cool gear, and all those vehicles and stuff that they could put them in. So, it was definitely a thing. I don’t… What about you?
Steve Carell: Have you ever … I’m sure you’ve heard of this. It’s an action figure called Major Matt Mason.
Robert Zemeckis: I know that.
Mike: Yes, yes, I have one.
Robert Zemeckis: You know who owns the rights to that? Tom Hanks.
Steve Carell: I loved Major Matt Mason. And we had a space station, and you could put him on basically a piece of fishing line, and he’d zoom across over to a tree.
And there was an alien also?
Steve Carell: We had the land rover with the big … It was …
Robert Zemeckis: I think he was a space hero.
Steve Carell: One of my … Pete Segal, we talked about how much we loved Major Matt Mason, and he got me a Major Matt Mason doll at Wrap that I have on my shelf. That was, yeah, that was mine.
That could be your next movie with Tom Hanks.
Steve Carell: Maybe with Tom Hanks.
Robert Zemeckis: No, but I don’t know. I have to do it with Steve. So …
Steve Carell: I could go from Hoagie to Major Mason.
Steve Carell: Totally. Maybe Hanks and I can play counterparts. He can be Major Matt, and I can be whoever his sidekick was.
Be sure to catch Welcome to Marwen in theaters December 21, 2018!