Last week Robert Rodriguez had on filmmaker Robert Zemeckis on his excellent show The Director’s Chair. Seriously, if you love hearing filmmakers talking about their craft, this is one of the best programs (imagine Inside the Actor’s Studio for filmmakers).
Piggybacking off of that show, we’re going to take a look at Zemeckis’ first student film, “The Lift,” a film shot in black and white, much like last week’s Christopher Nolan flick “Doodlebug.”
The film is about a man going through his normal day-to-day routine until he meets his arch nemesis in the form of his apartment’s elevator. The elevator is either broken, possessed by The Devil, or maybe just hates him like your cat hates you. I don’t care if he’s cuddled up next to you right now purring his little heart out, that cat hates you and plots your demise daily.
The elevator seems to have a life of its own as it escapes him, shuts on him and sometimes traps him as he desperately tries to get to work. No matter how unpredictable the lift becomes, the man seems dead set on using it despite the hassle it causes him. Perhaps he’s trying to break it the way a trainer breaks a horse, or perhaps he’s just an idiot.
The black and white stock provides a strong level of contrast, as the film is not always lit properly. I wondered if he was using the same Kodak black and white reversal stock we used in my film school days that always managed to be overexposed or underexposed, sometimes even in the same frame. Still, Zemeckis manages to do some interesting stuff with the lighting, especially later in the film. Some of his usage of shadow seems to come right out of a film noir, with hard shadows being casted on the ground by light passing through the elevator’s grates. It kind of gives the elevator an ominous feel, further giving it a kind of sentience.
Other shots are precursors to some of Zemeckis’ later work. The opening shot of “The Lift” is a series of pans and close-ups, often focusing on appliances and clocks that furnish the main character’s apartment. Any fan of Back to the Future will recognize the similarities between its opening scene and the one seen here in “The Lift.” Either that, or Zemeckis took the DeLorean, travelled back to his film student self and told him to add the shot, forever changing the course of his life to make him the powerhouse director we know today.