In “Flight,” Robert Zemeckis makes a return to the world of live-action filmmaking with the story of Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), a pilot who performs a heroic task in engaging in risky aerial manuevers to save a crashing plane. But the morality is not that simple, as Whitaker saves one hundred lives while inebriated. However, misconception has dogged the project since its inception, and screenwriter John Gatins was on hand during the New York Film Festival screening to clarify that the story is not based on the 2009 crash where a plane was preserved by controversial pilot Chealsey “Sully” Sullenberger.
Gatins recounts, “I was in Arizona during a car show and I got emails from people who were like, ‘oh my God, this guy lands a plane and it’s just like your script,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t think you understand what I’m trying to do!” The screenplay, in the works since 1999, is actually based on Gatins’ very primal fears. “It was kind of borne out of my two greatest fears, which were drinking myself to death and dying in a plane crash,” Gatins says.
Though substance abuse is at the heart of the picture, Zemeckis wanted not to get bogged down in making addiction a monster. “I approached it thinking that Whip’s substance abuse is basically a symptom of what his real problem is, having this disconnect from everybody and everything, and this sort of brokeness,” Zemeckis says. “I never felt that it was a recovery movie, it was about human brokeness, if that’s a term. For me it was very clear that these characters had to be presented very honestly.”
Washington signed on after a dry read of the script, revealing, “It was just a great screenplay. And my agent said Bob Zemeckis wants to do this film, so those two elements, that’s all it took.” Paramount essentially gave cast and crew free reign, which resulted in a smooth forty-five day shoot. However, emotionally, the story had its own intriguing dark alleys and concepts.
“I talked to a lot of pilots, and I would say, I’m trying to write this story about an alcoholic commercial airline pilot,” Gatins recalls. “And I got the same response. There’d be a pause and they’d say, yeah, I knew a guy. A lot of these guys come from a military culture, and that’s a heavy drinking culture. They pointed me in the direction of several airline accidents, and they tried to make some things as believable as possible.”
Adds Zemeckis, “We had a lot of professionals who helped us in making the movie. We previewed the movie in a lot of places over the summer, and we got comments on comment cards, and we got quite a few of them saying, I’ve been in the airline business for years, thank you for making this movie.” While many have found the initial tactic, which involves the airplane shifting upside down in midair, a little extreme, Zemeckis considered it vital to stay true to the logistics of the scenario. “We spoke to aviation experts and tried to make it as real as we could,” he says. He credits his experience working with mo-cap the last few years in capturing the flight sequence effects. “One of the reasons we were able to do this movie so inexpensively was basically a result of all the digital cinema I’ve been doing,” Zemeckis admits. “So I have all these great young artists who were able to [put it together]. There are 300 [digital] shots in this movie. Hopefully you don’t see them, but there’s a lot of digital work in this film.”
There’s a darkness at the core of the film, however, due to Whitaker’s complex character relationships. In John Goodman‘s bombastic drug hook-up, he has a sadistic enabler, and Goodman clearly knows where he stands with this character, claiming, “You sell some cheap drinks and you think you’re providing a service. And you’re not!” Meanwhile, a helpful colleague played by Bruce Greenwood points to the fallability of his friendship with Whitaker, as Greenwood says, “For me it was about desperately wanting to trust a friend who was giving you signals that he cannot pull it off.”
As Whitaker’s lawyer, Don Cheadle came away with his own very particular view of who his character represented. “I was speaking to Robert and I said, so what’s the big idea behind this character?” remembers Cheadle. “And he said, well we think he’s the devil. So I thought that was intriguing, this lawyer who has to do what I consider to be his job, what he owes this client. But at the end of the day he’s trying to keep Denzel avoiding his responsibility.”
That ambiguity was the key to the script, claims Gatins. He says of Whitaker, “He’s a guy that you want to like. As I was working on the script and thinking where it should land story-wise, I wanted it to come into the last turn of the script thinking, I’m not sure what I’m rooting for. This guy did this amazing thing and saved all these lives. Did he earn this pass, even though he did committ a felony by being high and drunk on the plane? On the flipside, you could have had Brian Geraghty‘s [copilot] character flying that plane, straight as an arrow, and he couldn’t have done what Whip did. So I wanted to create that dilemma for audiences who say, if he lies, I’m not sure if I feel good or bad about that.”
Clarifies Zemeckis, “I think we can expect that we won’t be seeing the movie in-flight, though.”
“Flight” opens November 2nd.