While cities like Toronto, Venice, Telluride, New York and London tend to get the most shine when it comes to the festival season, down in Georgia, the fifteen years young Savannah Film Festival is continuing to build into an enticing spot on the fall calendar. And this year they have rolled out an impressive list of screenings and guests. The Playlist spent the weekend at the still-ongoing festival, which opened with “Silver Linings Playbook” and was followed the next evening by “Flight,” with star John Goodman and writer John Gatins in attendance. They were honored with the Outstanding Achievement in Cinema Award and Spotlight Award respectively prior to the highly buzzed screening, and afterward we sat down with each of them to quickly chat about the movie.
The film follows the saga of Whip Whitaker, played by Denzel Washington, a pilot who manages a spectacular, life-saving landing during a plane crash, sparing the lives of nearly everyone on board. He’s hailed as a hero, but soon finds his life and reputation on the line when it emerges that he was drunk in the cockpit. Basically, it’s the kind of grown up drama they don’t make anymore, and for Gatins, he never really believed that it would make it in front of cameras.
“This was just an idea and a character that I really wanted to write, and a movie that I quite honestly thought would never get made. It was like my own creative Rubik’s Cube that I would pick up and squirrel around with for a while and put back in a drawer,” he said, though he enjoyed the experience of writing for himself and not for a studio or director. “I took off all the filters of, ‘It’s gotta be this,’ ‘It’s gotta be that,’ ‘It’s gotta get this structure and that structure.’ I was like, ‘Don’t worry about it, no one is ever going to make it.’ “
Indeed, over the course of a decade Gatins tinkered and toyed with it, with no pressure but his own to see it through. “I lost motivation a few times. I honestly thought it was a movie that would never get made, so that script was the kind of a thing I’d pick up and put down, and get my yas-yas out a little bit sometimes, thinking maybe I’d make it someday as a very small version of it,” he explained. “I didn’t really think it was salable. I knew that R-rated dramas were really bad business for studios, they’re not jumping out of their seat to pay money to make those movies.”
But after directing the inspirational “Dreamer,” Gatins saw a small window open up to present “Flight” to and see how it landed with suits. “…after I directed that movie, the studio was like what do you want to do next? And I said, ‘Here’s this’ and I showed them forty pages of the script and they were like ‘Whoa. That’s intense. I’m not sure we know how to make that movie, but we want to see how it ends,’ So it always had glimmers of hope.” And while Gatins ultimately didn’t get in the director’s chair himself, he certainly can’t complain about how it turned out.
Once you attract the attention of talent like Washington and a director such as Robert Zemeckis, wheels start turning pretty quickly. And soon the script crossed the desk of Goodman, who took to it immediately. “It wasn’t the character so much as the whole piece. It was unpredictable, that’s what made it so compelling to keep turning the pages, I never knew exactly what was going to happen. And I never really could figure out whether I liked the guy or not,” he said of his character Harling Mays, an enabler, supplier and friend to Whip. “And my part was kind of a no brainer, it looked like a lot of fun, [he had] no redeeming qualities. At the core of it, I think my guy and Whip love each other very much.”
Goodman also enjoyed having the chance to get a sense of how Washington and Zemeckis would work together before shooting began, and he was impressed. “It was best manifested in a two-day rehearsal read-through of the script before shooting, which was rare,” he shared. “And I was amazed watching Denzel going through three or four different versions of the script, picking up moments that count, cutting off the fat, and things that were extraneous and shaping off with [with Robert Zemeckis] a really well-tailored script, and getting it down for them.” Goodman prefers to see how lines will be delivered, and saves the performance for the camera. And as audiences will see, that approach pays off with a memorable turn.
“Flight” opens on November 2nd. The Savannah Film Festival runs until November 3rd.