His storied career brimming with underdog personalities faced with extreme spectacle, director Robert Zemeckis has seemingly found his fireworks this time in the recognizable face of one man: Denzel Washington. In his just-released drama, “Flight” — which secured a fantastic opening this past weekend to the tune of $25 million — the actor plays William “Whip” Whitaker, an alcoholic airline pilot responsible for expertly crash-landing a damaged aircraft mid-flight, and it is Zemeckis' choice of cinematic focus that marks his altered approach.
“In the end, it's not a movie about anything else but one person,” said Zemeckis, who spoke to us in Los Angeles in between Q&As across town. “This guy could've very well been a school bus driver; it just turns out that an airplane is more identifiable and dramatic. Pilots are normal people, and some are probably also somewhat broken people. But no one wants to go into heart surgery knowing that your surgeon had an argument with their kid the night before. No one wants to know that the owner of a power plant just found out their mother had a stroke. So I think that's one of the interesting complexities of the piece, that we project our ideals onto these people, and we sometimes don't want to face the fact that they're human.”
In the midst of Whitaker's professional life clashing with his addiction, there also sits a larger picture of patriarchal disconnect that hovers just off-screen. Whip's deceased pilot father (Timothy Adams) is glimpsed in home video footage, and Washington's son Will (Justin Martin) harbors intense feelings toward his father's absentee behavior, all of which explode when Whip returns home, drunk. For Zemeckis, these scenes with Washington and Martin were some of the breeziest parts of the forty-five day shoot. “They're two terrific actors, first off, but it was really all in [writer John Gatins'] script. They seemed to really be able to understand and key in on that dynamic. I know that one of the things that Denzel brought up — it was his idea — was that he wanted to be really physical with the kid. I thought, 'Oh, that's good.' And then after we did take after take Justin started to really…he was really whacking him. Denzel said, 'Just tell him to act it.' [Laughs] They did great, though.”
While the film does reveal itself as an intimate character study from the opening frames, the aspect that likely brought people into theatres is the 20-minute crash scene near the beginning. Gripping and by turns surreal and meticulously sustained, it captures the audience early on and holds them. Even with his similar setpiece with Tom Hanks in “Cast Away,” Zemeckis made sure to approach “Flight” with a different goal. “They're two separate things. In 'Cast Away' it was this horrific catastrophic malfunction that no one knew the problem to, and in 'Flight,' the audience had to understand what Denzel's character did, so I directed it from two separate points of view completely.”
With such a dominating setpiece (utilizing a majority of the 300 digital shots needed overall) early on, and with the film's production budget marked at $30 million, it may seem that the creative team had to cut other effects work or scenes to make room, but Zemeckis claims that was never the case. “Well the whole thing had to fit into the budget, but we didn't cut anything for budgetary reasons that were necessary to be in the movie. As a matter of fact, we didn't cut a single scene out of the movie. We tightened them up in the editing room, but no lifts," he said. "So by really having this budget constraint, we went into the script and cut out all the fat that we could find, just to make sure we didn't shoot something that had any possibility of ending up on the cutting room floor.”
Much emphasis has also been placed on the fact that “Flight” represents Zemeckis' first R-rated effort since 1980's “Used Cars,” but for him the classification is entirely meaningless. Denzel's story is a grim one, and while Zemeckis says the actor “brings a lot of charm and goodwill to everything that he does, for the story to be redemptive it's gotta go to the dark place or it doesn't have any power. So what you're seeing is someone who is very self-destructive and alienating everyone in his life, which I never thought of throttling back at all. I went for the R-rating in 'Flight' the same way I went for the G-rating in 'Polar Express.' "
Calling the R-rating still a “necessary evil,” Zemeckis elaborated further on the state of the MPAA, a system that he has long railed against. When discussing the more relative merits of the BBFC, for example, Zemeckis replied, “I think [the US] should have a PG-13, 14, 15, 16, and 17. I really do. That's the solution, or else get rid of it altogether. Because I don't understand — it's so arbitrary how a 16-year old can't see this film.” It was also 2007's “Beowulf” — which garnered a bit of heat from the MPAA for its violence, all of which Zemeckis confirmed was put back in for the Unrated Director's Cut released on DVD — that further impressed upon the director, “Once you start to censor something, then the system collapses. Because you just don't know.”
“When I made 'Forrest Gump,' they gave it an R.” he adds. “I didn't cut anything, but we kept appealing everything. They gave it an R because some woman straddled Lt. Dan in his wheelchair, and because Jenny snorts a line of coke. So whenever you have a rule that says, 'Any on-screen depiction of drug use means an automatic R' then there's nowhere to go. They don't take everything into account. So the defense in our case was 'What about the repercussions? It's a cautionary thing, not exploitative in any way.' And they finally said, 'Oh you're right.'
Although the fate of one of Zemeckis' longest-gestating projects, a sequel to 1988's “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” has nothing to do with ratings, building up a dense and incident-filled history with Steven Spielberg and Disney instead, both Bob Hoskins' recent retirement and Disney's executive swap have kept the film's future relevant. However, Zemeckis is keeping his distance for now. “I'm not planning any sequel. All I know is there a draft for a sequel sitting at Disney [written by Peter S. Seamond and Jeffrey Price]. It's good, but I don't know what's going on, it's just a great script sitting.”
And with any return to producing horror films (“Thirteen Ghosts,” "Ghost Ship”) alongside Joel Silver a dashed prospect (“He's doing his own version of whatever Dark Castle is but we're not doing those William Castle remakes anymore.”) and the rumored Barefoot Bandit film entitled “Taking Flight” simply just that (“It's sounds like a good story,” he chuckled), it would seem Zemeckis is left without an immediate gig. However, that's exactly how the director would want it. “I try really hard not to react to what I just did, and not do what is traditional wisdom in Hollywood which is before your movie comes out you should have your next project lined up.” With the massive success of “Flight” for Paramount though, you can bet that he won't be short of potential movies to jump to next.
“Flight” is in theatres now.