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January 21, 2020

Looking to the Past with an Eye to the Future

Academy award winner Robert Zemeckis returns to the 50s with HISTORY's Project Blue Book.

Paula Hendrickson
  • Aidan Gillen as Dr. J. Allen Hynek and Michael Malarkey as Captain Michael Quinn in History's Project Blue Book

    Images courtesy of Ed Araquel/HISTORY.
  • Laura Mennell as Mimi Hynek

    Images courtesy of Ed Araquel/HISTORY.
  • Neal McDonough as General James harding

    Images courtesy of Ed Araquel/HISTORY.
  • Images courtesy of Ed Araquel/HISTORY.
  • Images courtesy of Ed Araquel/HISTORY.

As the writer and director of all three Back to the Future feature films, Robert Zemeckis will forever be tied to the iconic franchise.

As well it should be. But his career extends well beyond Marty McFly's trilogy of time-traveling adventures.

The Academy Award-winner's resume also boasts titles as diverse as Contact, Cast Away, Romancing the Stone and Who Framed Roger Rabbit—as well as television series including HBO's Tales from the Crypt and the 2018 Netflix docuseries Medal of Honor—and Zemeckis currently serves as executive producer for two current mind-bending series: NBC's sci-fi mystery Manifest, and HISTORY's paranormal conspiracy thriller Project Blue Book.

No matter the medium, or whether he's writing, directing, or producing, Zemeckis excels at telling enthralling stories about memorable characters. Having worked in film and television for over four decades, his love for both formats is obvious, and it's given him a unique perspective into how much they have each changed over time.

"They've switched places. Now, if you've got really interesting characters that are edgy and sophisticated, they go to television, where it used to be the reverse—the edgy, sophisticated stuff was in the movies. Isn't that fascinating?" Zemeckis marvels.

"Television has changed in its delivery, too," he continues. "It's not like TV from the three network days. It's actually the whole world of streaming and On Demand television and being able to binge TV—all that stuff has actually created its own art form. I don't even know that it can be called 'television.' It probably should have a different name, shouldn't it?"

Zemeckis reflects briefly before continuing, "I don't know what it should be, but not 'television.' I don't even know if most people watch on what we would traditionally call a television set anymore."

Project Blue Book—starring Aiden Gillen (Game of Thrones, Peaky Blinders) and Michael Malarkey (The Vampire Diaries)—is a perfect example of what that binge-worthy new art form offers viewers, as each episode builds on the previous one. Season two starts January 21.

"I've never seen anything like it," Zemeckis says of the paranormal sci-fi series inspired by actual cases investigated by Dr. J. Allen Hynek (portrayed in the show by Gillen) for the United States Air Force back in the 1950s and 60s.

Instead of merely showcasing episodic, one-off anecdotal accounts, the series uses the cases as the basis for telling a deeper story. And almost as a reminder to viewers that the incident featured in the program they just watched, each episode concludes with actual photos, newspaper accounts, or other documentation of the real-life event that particular storyline was based on.

"It has an anthology foundation, but it's got these compelling characters that are woven in between. It's multi-layered in that respect," Zemeckis says. "And yeah, it's based on the real incidents, which just makes it that much more interesting."

It was precisely that type of complex storytelling that initially drew Zemeckis to sign on as an executive producer for Project Blue Book.

"I thought it was incredibly inspirational, the form for this series that David [O'Leary] and Sean [Jablonski] came up with—the idea of taking these Blue Book projects and weaving in this linear story about these characters that are part of those sightings or incidents. You have this series that's running on so many different levels. That's what I love. It's incredibly inspired writing," Zemeckis says.

"My favorite part of the show is that there are these cliffhangers that are written into the episodes. And I just love the dimension of the characters—they're interesting because they're from another period, but they feel completely contemporary to me."

Zemeckis was involved with Project Blue Book from the start, focusing on everything from main creative direction and casting to selecting key crew members and directors. As with any project involving supernatural elements—including his other series, Manifest—he says it's crucial to find ways to make those details visually compelling and believable for the audience.

Because Project Blue Book already has such a strong creative team in place, Zemeckis modestly refers to himself as a "lowly" executive producer.

"I look at the scripts before they're shot, and I look at the episodes as they're being finished. If there's a need for any notes, I give them. But they know what they're doing, so the show pretty much has taken on a life of its own. It's running really smoothly, everybody gets it, and everybody is making the same show. That makes my job very, very easy at this point."

Whether it's due to our culture's over-reliance on technology, the global state of political divisiveness, or a seemingly endless stream of natural disasters, viewers today seem to desire escapism. People have always been drawn to science fiction—apparently even when it's based on real events—during trying times.

That became evident during Project Blue Book's first season: It was cable's number one new drama of 2019, averaged more than 3.2 million total viewers (Live+7), and secured itself a spot among cable's top 10 overall dramas.

As the second season progresses, could Zemeckis be lured into writing or directing an episode of Project Blue Book?

"I'd probably not write one," he says. "But I'm always looking for the script that is like, 'Oh my god, I gotta [direct] this.' But to be perfectly honest, I'm proud of the show for having its own DNA with the team that's doing it—I don't know that as a director that I would be able to bring that much more to anything that's already there. It's really top notch the way it is right now."


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