Robert Zemeckis is a director who has long been part of Hollywood’s vanguard—pioneering new technology with films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and The Polar Express, winning Oscars for Forrest Gump, shooting the sequels to his Back to the Future franchise back-to-back. But his new film Allied feels like a major blast from the industry’s past. It’s a romantic World War II thriller featuring two glamorous stars (Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard) who play spies who fall in love on a mission in Casablanca. The couple move to London to get married, at which point Max (Pitt) begins to worry that Marianne (Cotillard) is a double agent.
Allied is a fun, tense, good-looking film—but it’s a surprisingly grown-up period piece for a time when studios are looking to please the broadest demographics possible. “I’m very concerned that we don’t make movies that are original anymore,” Zemeckis said in an interview with The Atlantic that touched on his interest in portraying 1940s London with authenticity and his fears about Hollywood’s future as a storytelling industry. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
David Sims: What drew you to this project?
Robert Zemeckis: I thought it was a beautifully written romantic thriller. I can only use a cliché—the characters jumped off the page.
Sims: Did you immediately have actors in mind for these very big, very Old Hollywood roles?
Zemeckis: When I read it, Brad was already hovering around it. But in my feeling, Marion was the only actress who could play this—she was just obvious, obvious for the part.
Sims: You’ve made 18 films in your career over all kinds of genres, but is this your first straightforwardly romantic film?
Zemeckis: I think it is—certainly, it’s the only romantic thriller I’ve done. We never wanted to lose sight of what was important in the screenplay. If there was one bit of direction I gave both actors, it was, “You guys have to always be madly in love.” It all comes down to that one universal theme, that’s really what this is all about.
Sims: But the film does switch modes halfway through; it switches locations from Casablanca to London. How did you denote that move from thriller to a more romantic drama?
Zemeckis: We created a different mood, a different color scheme for what Casablanca was going to be, versus what war-torn London was going to be. It all grows out of the dark turn that the story's taking as well.
Sims: Were there World War II films that you wanted to avoid, or keep in mind, as visual hallmarks? Clichés you thought about going in?
Zemeckis: The thing for me was, I didn’t want to cut to Big Ben. I didn’t want to cut to Big Ben with a barrage of balloons floating around it in the sky. You know, the obvious things that you try to avoid. We looked at a lot of footage, historic footage, of London in the middle of the war. We wanted to know how many cars would be in the streets, things like that, and we had the Imperial War Museum working as our technical advisors.
Sims: The city feels so empty in the film, and there’s a haunting quality to the bombed-out houses and empty streets. But there were all these other details that leapt out to me—like the air force pilots taking amphetamines before they take off, or a party that’s hosted by Marion’s character that is very bohemian and free-spirited.
Zemeckis: [The Allied screenwriter] Steven Knight was very adamant about including that, and of course our research proved him right. People were living very fatalistic lives in London. It was wild, it was bohemian, everybody was having sex, everybody was doing massive amounts of cocaine. Because they didn’t know if they were going to die that night, if a bomb would have their name on it.
Sims: No one in the film seems remotely scandalized by what’s going on.
Zemeckis: And you don’t expect that, because you think the English are so proper and buttoned-down. But in wartime London, everyone was going for it.
Sims: You said fatalistic, and that speaks to the film’s overall story. Did you think of these characters as being tinged with doom?
Zemeckis: The thing that makes love stories work, in my opinion, in movies and novels and country & western songs, is the feeling of longing. We have to evoke that feeling of longing, that painful feeling, and that’s what we as humans understand as love. No one can actually define love, but you attempt to, and the closest you can get is longing. And that itself has a melancholy to it. You can say dread, or doom—it’s that feeling we all feel when we fall in love with someone, we have this horrible, fearful feeling that maybe we will never have that person in our life.
Sims: Or even if you do, that there could be some tragedy in the future.
Zemeckis: Exactly, I mean, if you really want to get existential about it, all love affairs will always end in horrible pain.
Sims: It’s interesting, because your last film [2015’s The Walk] was very joyful, a very upbeat celebration of life through the character of Philippe Petit. Were you surprised that you turned toward something darker for your next project?
Zemeckis: Well, Francois Truffaut said every filmmaker’s decision to make a film is always a reaction to the film he just made. I don’t do that consciously, but there may be something in that.
Sims: We don’t see enough of this kind of movie in theaters right now—a straightforward, old-fashioned piece of storytelling.
Zemeckis: Even more importantly, that it’s an original story and not a pre-sold title. You’re 100 percent right when you say you don’t see movies like this.
Sims: Is that something you worry about?
Zemeckis: I’m very concerned that we don’t make movies that are original anymore.
Sims: Obviously Hollywood market forces are such a hard thing to govern, and there’s no easy way to fix these things, but what do you think is a good solution, a way to guide things in the future?
Zemeckis: I think the only thing filmmakers can do is try to make good movies, and make them as long as they allow us to keep making them. But at the end of the day it is a business, and if audiences don’t care, there’s nothing we can do. It’ll just go away, I guess.