Flight marks the first pairing of Academy Award winners Denzel Washington and director Robert Zemeckis, who returns to live-action dramatic storytelling after a decade of success on the forefront of directing and producing movies utilizing motion capture technology. The screenplay by John Gatins centers on Captain Whip Whitaker (Washington) who miraculously crash lands his plane after a mid-air catastrophe, saving nearly everyone on board, but then becomes the target of a follow-up investigation that raises troubling questions about what really happened. Flight also stars John Goodman, Don Cheadle, Melissa Leo, Kelly Reilly, and Bruce Greenwood.
At the film’s recent press day, Washington, Zemeckis, Gatins, Goodman, Leo, Reilly, and Greenwood discussed making the dramatic thriller, what drew them to the project, the attraction and challenges of portraying complex, morally ambiguous characters, setting up a pivotal scene that pays homage to Hitchcock, and writing a suspenseful script that invites the audience to ride along with virtually every character while deciding which one to root for. Greenwood also shared his own harrowing tale of a real-life air travel experience he will never forget, and Washington revealed his recurring dream about flying and reminisced about the 20th anniversary of Malcolm X.
Question: Denzel, any actor would want to play something so brilliantly written as this role. Was the attraction also personal in the sense that everybody has known people whose lives have been destroyed by addiction?
DENZEL WASHINGTON: No. I think it was just the material. When I read the script, I just said “Wow, this is good.” The last two scripts my agent, the late Ed Limato, gave me were Safe House and Flight. That was part of it, too. It was a promise I made to him. I don’t like waving the flag and trying to figure it out. It’s like when people say “What do you want people to get from this movie?” I say, “Well, it depends on what they bring to it.” I don’t try to decide what people should get from it or why. I don’t do a part for those kinds of reasons.
Denzel, in the process of creating the character, did you ever think he would have been able to land the plane if he had not been flying on booze and cocaine, which is a big part of him being a functioning addict?
WASHINGTON: (to Zemeckis) We talked about this, Bob. You felt that?
ROBERT ZEMECKIS: Yeah, we felt that. We talked a lot about a lot of things, and one of the things that Denzel and John (screenwriter John Gatins) and myself talked about was what I loved about the script. There was so much of the ambiguity, and that’s one of the big, ambiguous questions, and then that speech that Don Cheadle makes about how ten pilots couldn’t do it. And, of course, the part he leaves out is that they were all sober. That is one of those things that we did talk about. Maybe because he was little bit loose, he was able to do something that no one who wasn’t would have done, and in that case, he saved a lot of lives. Obviously, we’re not endorsing that. We don’t think pilots should fly in that state. I don’t think any of us would like to fly in a plane like that.
Mr. Zemeckis, you’ve spent quite a while on the frontiers of technology and technique. Why did you choose this film specifically to make the return to live action filmmaking?
ZEMECKIS: It’s interesting because there was a lot of discussion in my brain trust of partners and representatives about the wisdom of doing another movie with a plane crash in it. At the end of the day, we all decided that we can’t *not* make something just because it happens to have a plane crash in it. It’s so rare to find a good screenplay like this that comes along. That would be the wrong way, to worry about possibly having to field a question such as that is the last thing on my mind. In regard to returning to live action, I never felt that I went away. Movies are movies. Some bend light through a lens. Some create moving images virtually. At the end of the day, movies are movies.
For all of you, this is a very revealing, mature type of movie. Had this project come to you maybe ten or fifteen years ago, do you think your grasp of these complex characters would have been the same?
MELISSA LEO: I don’t know that I could have done this ten years ago. I don’t know if I would have felt comfortable in her. I wouldn’t have felt official enough. There’s something about my age that helped me with [the character of] Ellen.
ZEMECKIS: I haven’t thought about that. I’ll have to think about that. I’ve always said that movies are kind of like love affairs. Two people come together, and if they’re at the right place at the right time and it’s the right situation, it clicks. I’ve always felt that I’ve connected with screenplays. It’s the romantic in me.
You had to go places in this film that I’m certain were uncomfortable for you. What helped you get through those really tough places and bring it the way you brought it?
WASHINGTON: Tough spots for me are pictures I don’t want to be on. People ask “What was the hardest part of the movie?” If you’re on a movie and it’s like the third day and you’re going “How many days have we been shooting?” “Three.” “How many more have we got to go?” “117.” (laughs) That’s a tough movie for me, but this was an adventure. First of all, like I said, starting with the screenplay in collaboration with the filmmaker, getting the chance to fly around in these MD-80 flight simulators, hanging upside down in a plane, playing a drunk. I’m not going to say it was easy. Maybe a painful scene – I don’t know if it’s painful – but this scene when I go to my ex-wife’s house and get into this wrestling match with my son. You know, I’ve gotten into wrestling matches with my son in not quite the same circumstance, but it’s just raw. Your nerves are raw. So that sticks out.
KELLY REILLY: I did consult a wonderful guy called Mitch in Atlanta who helped me understand the inner life of a heroin addict as much as one can without experiencing it. He really did open up his story to me. There was a technical side of it as well. He taught me how to inject heroin without injecting heroin, absolutely the entire process of how somebody would do that. I wanted to honor the truth of somebody in that situation, and I think that was probably the most difficult part without having ever experienced that.
WASHINGTON: (joking) You should’ve just come to me. I could’ve showed you.
REILLY: You can’t joke at things like this I was told.
Denzel, if something happened in your real life and someone died on a plane that you loved, would you agree with the punishment that your character received? Do you think he deserved a prison term?
WASHINGTON: I believed he deserved more prison time. There’s a scene earlier on when Don Cheadle’s character says “Twenty years is four manslaughters and you can get 4 to 20 years on each one of them.” So, and I mentioned this to Bob (Zemeckis), I actually felt that the number was too low. I thought he should have got at least 20 years.
Even though it wasn’t his fault that the plane malfunctioned?
ZEMECKIS: But he did commit a felony. You can’t fly an airplane drunk. John might want to talk to this, because it was all in the screenplay, and he spoke to giant groups of lawyers about it.
JOHN GATINS: I really appreciate your question because my intention was always to have people walking into the final turn of the movie thinking “Wait a second, let me just do my own personal score card here. What am I rooting for? Do I feel like this guy earned this pass or do I feel like he needs to be punished?” I had an argument with my mother about it actually, because I had to proofread the script at one point, and she said to me “He should go to jail for the rest of his life.” And I said “Yeah, but he didn’t make the plane fall apart.” So I made that argument. I said “Look. He committed a felony. He definitely did. You can’t be high on cocaine and fly a commercial airliner. I get that. So he should be punished for that. But, he didn’t kill people on a plane.” I had a conversation with lawyers about that, too. They said “Well, you know, if he was in a state and this thing happened, you can tie those two events together to a certain extent.”
There were a lot of conversations about how that punishment would be ultimately meted out, but I wanted it to be ambiguous. I wanted it to be a conversation, because for me, it’s ultimately about what is the value of the truth. I had an argument with a unit publicist on the movie who said to me “If he knew he was facing five years in jail, of course he’d tell the truth. But if he thought he was facing life in prison, of course he’d lie.” I said “Really? I can’t say what I would do, but I’d like to think in my mind that I might be a guy who would value the truth over that.” Because if he lies, what’s his life going to be? He can walk around the rest of the 28 to 30 years he’s going to have on the planet as a guy who’s got that hanging over him. But let’s say he goes to prison, maybe he has some great life incarcerated where he helps people. He makes some turn and has some value in his life that’s all based and sprung from him actually having told the truth. So it became this argument about what exactly is the value of the truth? Should he lie just because he can? Should he convince himself he earned the pass? I don’t know.
WASHINGTON: How many years do you think he should have gotten?
I was really torn. I didn’t know if he should get 5 or 20 years or if he should just have his license taken away, because to me, it was not his fault the plane was crashing, even though he was high as a kite.
GATINS: I’m right with you. What’s interesting too is to point out the fact that Melissa’s character was there to extract the truth from him. She’s not there to mete out punishment because it’s an investigation. The NTSB has to determine what are the probable causes of that crash. That’s why Cheadle’s character is trying to say it was an Act of God. Acts of God are like volcanic ash that gets into the atmosphere and stalls jet airline engines, which has happened, or a tsunami or a lightning strike. That’s an Act of God. So, if he can get on there that the storm was so severe that it damaged the plane, that’s an Act of God. That wasn’t his fault. That’s not the manufacturer’s fault. They have to put them in rank order of what brought the plane down. He’s trying to push for an Act of God, that the storm was freakish and really severe. They’re trying to figure out what were the things that really brought the plane down. She’s not there to punish him. She’s there to say “This is what happened in the air.”
Do you think it might have been more interesting if Denzel’s character had delivered his testimony ‘straight’ in that scene at the end, rather than under the influence of coke and booze?
GATINS: I’d be curious to hear what these guys say. I think that there was a certain amount of us trying to keep the movie in front of the audience a little bit. I’ve watched this movie with an audience a bunch and one of the greatest moments is when John Goodman appears. You’re like “Wait. Really? They did this?” He’s walking down a hallway, and we all know he has a bagful of cocaine in that knapsack, and people are cheering. I’ve been in theaters where people are cheering at the fact that you’ve got John Goodman who is about to deliver a huge bag of cocaine to Denzel Washington. I sat there in the theater, and I’m two hours into this, and people are cheering for that. I’m very curious where we’re going now, because we’ve just thrown the cards up in the air again. It’s like “Okay, let’s do this now.”
So, I don’t know. In a world of recovery, people talk about moments of clarity. That moment of clarity can come in the state he was in when he walked into that hearing or maybe in a sober moment. I think maybe I veer towards the dramatic moment of us thinking like he’s really hard to guess at that point. We’ve seen his performance throughout the movie and we don’t really know what he’s going to do next. For me, that was the dramatic choice. He was more unpredictable in that moment. If he went in there stone straight, I probably would have been more sure that he would go the way he went.
LEO: I think also Ellen Block would have been a little less sure of her supposition of what had happened if he came in straight.
ZEMECKIS: I agree.
LEO: I think it helps her argument to no end that he’s all screwed up.
This movie also speaks to society’s need for heroes to the extent that they’ll turn a blind eye. Whether you’re a sports figure or a star or a celebrity, do you think it’s harder to deal with some of these things because people will lay out an escape path for you?
WASHINGTON: Yes, and I think everybody was covering their own behinds is what it was – the pilots, the airlines. So, I don’t know if it was so much they thought he was such a great hero as it was they needed him to be one in order to fulfill their agenda.
GATINS: There’s a famous cyclist that’s going through this in his life right now with a lot of these issues, and everyone wants really hard for him to be the guy they want him to be. I think he’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders now trying to sort all that out.
WASHINGTON: And they’ve wanted him to be the hero they’ve wanted him to be for 10 years.
The airline sequence was harrowing, even from the safety of the movie theater. Has anybody had this kind of experience traveling in the air where they literally thought this could be it?
GATINS: I’m a really nervous flyer, and there’ve been times in my life where it’s gotten worse, and that was part of where this story came from, my fear of being on a plane. I fly all the time. It’s better now actually. I have periods where it’s not a big deal. Right now, it’s all fine and I’ll let you know. I’ve been on some crummy flights. I’ve never done 360.
BRUCE GREENWOOD: I’ve crashed. I crashed in a Cessna 185 on floats. It ripped the wings off and sank. There were three of us that were hanging upside down from our seatbelts. The first thing that went through my mind was the other two got out and swam to the surface. I was 16 years old and I was swinging upside down in my seatbelt going “Maybe I should just die like a man, but if I yell, I could live. Why am I having this conversation with myself?” (laughs) I started going “My seatbelt, my seatbelt, my seatbelt!” The pilot, who was a friend’s dad, got to the surface, realized I wasn’t there, dove back in, opened the door, and the plane filled with water. He grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and pulled me through the seatbelt, and we swam to the surface and sat on the wing that was floating. I had been pulling my seatbelt the wrong way.
WASHINGTON: Oh, tightening it.
GREENWOOD: It was bent and I kept flipping it, but it was the wrong side. So I’m familiar with it, although I wasn’t on a plane in this movie.
Denzel, in the hospital scene, when the tears were rolling down your face, what state of mind were you in?
WASHINGTON: Again, these questions are hard for me because I don’t analyze what I’m doing. I’m not sitting outside of myself watching myself. He was injured. He was disoriented. He was getting bits and pieces of what had happened to him. I almost feel the state of mind doesn’t set in until everybody’s gone, and the last person walks out, and I forget what I said. “Dammit!” That was the beginning of it for me. Everything else was just taking in information – what happened, who’s gone, who’s fault. Did we get hit by another plane? More practical things like that.
I woke up this morning and thought about all the great movies you’ve been in, and I wondered, what do you think about when you’re dreaming?
WASHINGTON: (laughs) Thank you! I have a flying dream. I’ve had it for most of my life. Somehow I always end up near the city and I go underneath bridges. There are these low bridges that are like…they’ll either be over a train like the Conrail trains or water, a small body of water…and I would just work my way down and I’d stay under them. Then, the other part of the dream, I would take off forever, and I’d be like “Oh, I’ve got to stay below the street wires.” I’d start to go back up, but then I’d have to get back below the wires. I don’t know what it means. I have no idea what it means.
John GOODMAN: (laughs) I have that dream about hot dogs chasing donuts through the Lincoln Tunnel.
Mr. Goodman, you turned in a wonderful performance in this film. Can you talk about what inspired your character?
GOODMAN: Everything was pretty much in the script. I’d like to say that I spent hours in a room by myself painstakingly constructing this thing, but everything was there. There was this really needy guy who carries this 7-Eleven around with him in his bag and has a lot of friends. Thank you.
There’s a scene in the hotel room with the vodka bottle on top of the fridge. Did you know at the outset how you were going to shoot that?
ZEMECKIS: Yes. I always wanted the scene to be suspenseful and I wanted it to evoke that ethereal feeling. I constructed the refrigerator so that the actual walls of the refrigerator glowed and shot all of Denzel’s performance at 64 frames so that I could dial different speeds of his movement to make it look almost surreal, if you will. I was channeling one of my favorite directors, which is Mr. Hitchcock, and I was pulling a lot of shots out of his playbook for that scene. I just thought the idea was that the alcohol was a siren and it was calling him and calling him.
WASHINGTON: We had actually talked, I think all three of us, at one time. I don’t even know if you wrote it out.
GATINS: I did.
WASHINGTON: A whole montage where he’s over here and…
GATINS: The boozy ballet is what we called it.
ZEMECKIS: Oh, the boozy ballet.
WASHINGTON: That’s right. The boozy ballet.
GATINS: And that was the thing. I always thought, no, this will be the moment we’ll see this and we’ll witness this. And Bob and Denzel were both like, no, you know what, there’s another approach and Bob was like “It’s better. You’ll see.” He was trying to explain it to me, and I was like I don’t really get it, but okay. When I watch it in the movie, it’s so awesome. People in the movie just react. I always look around at the audience, and I watch them because it’s so jarring. To not see it leads you more, like now the movie’s ahead of the audience again, because you’re like “What happened?” And then, you see Bruce (Greenwood) and Don (Cheadle) walking down the hallway, and you’re like “Wait a second. What happened?” It’s such a nice, great stroke.
GOODMAN: I like when the refrigerator kicks on.
GATINS: Yeah. It’s like the sound comes on.
ZEMECKIS: I don’t know if you remember or not, but we also had long discussions about whether the actual grab of the bottle was going to end up in the final movie or not, because it’s like we had the option to go, but when I finally put the scene together, it just felt perfect, that “boom,” and then, I cut to the elevator opening.
Why did you decide not to play the hotel room scene as if he were set up?
ZEMECKIS: We talked about this, but who was it? Was it Don Cheadle who left that door open? Was it God that left that door open?
GATINS: I wish Cheadle were here so he could talk about being the devil.
ZEMECKIS: Yes, because Don always thought his character was sort of the devil. We had endless conversations about it, but we felt the right choice obviously was to leave it ambiguous because stuff happens. It probably was just the housekeeper who ends up saving Whip’s life at the end of the day when you play the whole thing out.
For John and Bob, in the film, when the flaps froze, we see Denzel’s character flip the plane over to stabilize it, and then once it’s stabilized, he flips it back over to a glide. Can a plane actually do a maneuver like that and did you research that?
GATINS: Yes. I called a pilot who was a friend of the family’s and I said I’m writing this story about an alcoholic commercial airline pilot. I was looking at a bunch of accidents, because these NTSB reports are public record so you can comb through them. They’re pretty dense but some of it gets really fascinating, especially if it’s a plane where the crew fought this incident for a period of time. There were a couple that I was looking at. And then, he pointed me to an incident that happened off the coast of California where a similar thing happened, where the elevator got fixed into a position and they lost control of the plane, and they fought it and regained it. At one point, they flew the plane inverted for a minute. In the pilot conversation which you can read, the one pilot says to the other, “At least upside down we’re flying.”
They could sense they were actually in flight upside down. My friend explained it to me, “We study these accidents because if we ever get into those situations, we want to know what’s going on.” He’s saying to the other pilot, “I need speed. I need brakes.” And the co-pilot responds, “I can’t reach.” It means they’re hanging upside down and his harness wasn’t tight, so his feet can’t reach these pedals because they’re inverted. My friend told me it’s hard because it’s like Monday morning quarterbacking as pilots. If they’d known what exactly was wrong with the plane, they would have known that their only recourse was to try to descend it inverted and then take their chance to turn it over. That was the inspiration for me to say let me see if I can incorporate that into what we’re doing.
ZEMECKIS: And then, John and I, when we were really crunching it down, we were talking to other experts and they would say “Well yeah.” As a matter of fact, it’s public record that on the very first maiden flight of a 707, the test pilot, without telling anybody, inverted the plane.
And it still flew?
ZEMECKIS: Oh yeah, and then what they said to us was that the engines wouldn’t last more than a minute or two.
GATINS: They don’t have these oil pumps that will cool the engine when it’s inverted like that, not like F-16s and F-22s and Navy jets that can fly like that for days. They’re built to do those maneuvers. He said you could fly it like that for a period of time but it would get so hot that they would go on fire. In a situation like that, you could fly for 15 or 20 minutes. That’s why you see those engines go on fire, and Evans is saying “We’ve got a fire,” and Whip is saying “Put it out.” And you see them douse them.
Denzel, you’ve played some nuanced characters throughout your career with your character in this being one of the best. There were aspects of Whip that reminded me of a character you played 20 years ago, Malcolm X.
WASHINGTON: Really?! Wow, this is great.
Because it is the twentieth anniversary of that film next month, would you talk about some of your fondest memories of playing that character and how that informed other characters you played from that point on?
WASHINGTON: Wow, it’s 20 years. The first time landing in Africa was in 1986. I was doing a film called Cry Freedom. The first time landing in Egypt was on Malcolm X and I think it was 1991 or 1992. It was just a powerful feeling being able to move around with the people, and I never felt threatened or anything like that. Wow, that was 20 years ago. (Joking) I was 12 when I made that movie. (Laughs) But I didn’t think about that film at all as related to this film.
Well he had an addiction problem for a little bit.
WASHINGTON: Who? Malcolm?
WASHINGTON: Oh, okay.
For all of you, this movie is so different from everything that’s out. Obviously the script is strong, but was there something specific in the project that made you want to do this?
GREENWOOD: I think one of the things that drew me was, first of all, working with Denzel and Bob, of course, but there is so much ethical and moral ambiguity in the movie that it gives everybody, the viewer, a chance to decide who they’re going to assign themselves to and how long will they hang with that person. So you get to ride along with virtually every character while they make choices that you’re invited to buy into or not.
REILLY: This is the first film I’ve made in America. I mean, I lucked out massively. To work with Denzel and Bob was beyond a privilege. To play a role which was so complicated and nuanced as Nicole that John had created, I begged for this role. It was a no brainer really for me.
GATINS: Without these two guys (referring to Washington and Zemeckis), the movie doesn’t get made, honestly. The risk that Paramount took to support it…I didn’t write it thinking it would ever get made at a certain point. It was my own personal creative Rubik’s cube that I would pick up through the 10 years that I was working on it. I work on assignment sometimes, and the studio is very clear about this is where we want the movie to start and this is where we want it to end. This was not that. I didn’t have a boss. I just wrote this story that was fascinating in my head and I let the story tell itself. I never fight with my wife but I fought with her about this project because I would say every couple of years “I’m going to go direct this studio movie,” and she’d say “Why would you do that?” I’d say “Why wouldn’t I?” and she’d say “You’ve got this beautiful script that everyone loves.” “But no one will make it with me. So I can’t get it done.” Nothing ever went right with this project until these two guys, and it was amazing that Bob was so collaborative and said “I want you to help. I want you to be there.” So he let me be with them the whole time. It’s very rare. In my experience, this is the only time.
LEO: Well I heard that Mr. Zemeckis wanted me to come along and that I would get to play a scene opposite Mr. Washington. So I said, “Yes, sure, in a second.” That’s pretty much it. What I understood once I’d been given the script and read it was that Bob was asking me to do something that would, in fact, complete his film for him. Without this scene working, does the end of the movie really work for him? So it was a very high honor he paid in asking me to do it, and I very happily joined.
GOODMAN: I liked the script and I liked the questions that it asked everybody: what would you do in this situation?
WASHINGTON: If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage. It’s very rare. I read a ton of scripts. I read a lot of scripts, and you read one, and first of all, you felt like you read it in 14 minutes, because you’re turning the pages so fast you can’t wait to see what’s going to happen. And this was one of those scripts. I had to have it. I had to be a part of it. There was a process for us once I got involved and working with different people. But, it was on the page – the guts, the pain and the tears. It was like a Eugene O’Neill play. The tears were on the page.
ZEMECKIS: I appreciate what you said about it being so unique, and that is exactly what attracted me to the script, because it was bold and it was audacious. I loved the complexity of everything, and I loved the moral ambiguity of every character and every scene and every aspect of the script. When I got to the stairwell scene, on about page 40, I said, “Man, that is bold. Can we actually do that?” So that’s when he had me. John had me.