As an experienced pilot who has logged about 1,600 hours in the cockpit, director Robert Zemeckis understands stalls, turbulence and dead stick landings. But when it came to making Flight, his new movie about an alcoholic commercial airline pilot, the Forrest Gump filmmaker had to contend with a different set of aerodynamics: Hollywood’s reluctance to clear difficult dramas for takeoff.
More than a decade in the making, Flight marks Zemeckis’ first live-action film since 2000’s Cast Away and an atypical wager for Paramount Pictures, which financed the film’s $31-million budget. The production nearly fell apart on the eve of filming over contract terms, and screenwriter John Gatins, who first came up with Flight’s rough outline in 1999, worried over the intervening years that the movie never would get made. “In today’s Hollywood, you can’t make a movie that is about ideas and complex characters for a lot of money,” Zemeckis said. “The development system destroys the possibility of ambiguity. It’s just the way things have evolved. And it’s very disappointing.”
The Nov. 2 release casts Washington as Whip Whitaker, an alcoholic and cocaine-addled pilot at the controls in an aviation disaster. The story hangs on this issue: Did Whip’s intoxication contribute to or even cause the crash, or did his audacious flying, in which he inverts the jetliner to lessen the crash impact, save countless lives?
To get the answer, Whip must remain sober long enough to explain to investigators and lawyers (the ensemble cast includes Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood and Melissa Leo) what really happened when his plane fell from the sky. Put another way, one of the most heroic things Whip can really do is admit to his own failings.
It’s an unusual topic for a studio movie — a distant echo of the long-abandoned, morally ambiguous dramas from the 1970s — and a particular outlier for a company like Paramount, which has dramatically scaled back its film output in recent years, favouring instead a handful of sequels in the Star Trek, G.I. Joe, Mission: Impossible and Transformers franchises.
Yet once Paramount was satisfied with Flight’s screenplay and budget, which saw Washington and Zemeckis forgo their usual multimillion-dollar fees, the studio left the filmmakers alone. Its faith might soon be rewarded. Early audience tracking surveys suggest strong interest in the film, and Washington has a long and fruitful history playing similarly flawed protagonists, a record that includes his Oscar-winning Training Day, American Gangster and Safe House.
“You want to have the big franchises and blockbusters that can really rule the day,” said Brad Grey, chairman and chief executive of Paramount Pictures, who personally interceded to help close the Flight deal. “And you want to make pictures that you care about. There should always be room for movies like this.”
If only it were that easy.
For the last decade or so, Zemeckis has been making motion-capture movies, in which a live actor’s movements are recorded by an array of cameras. Animators then create a computerised character based on those movements. The live-action and animation mash-up was used by James Cameron in Avatar and by Zemeckis in 2004’s The Polar Express, 2007’s Beowulf and 2009’s A Christmas Carol.
Though such “mo-cap” movies, as they are known, are generally popular at the box office — Polar Express and Christmas Carol each grossed more than $300 million worldwide — the movies can cost $200 million or more and take years to make. What’s more, some critics dismiss the movies for emphasising technical wizardry over human emotion.
The wheels were starting to come off the genre, at least in Zemeckis’ orbit. His mo-cap production for Disney of Mars Needs Moms (directed by Simon Wells) bombed in 2011, and Disney at the same time pulled the plug on Zemeckis’ planned mo-cap remake of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.
Then the 61-year-old Zemeckis read Gatins’ screenplay. “I wasn’t doing anything at the time,” the director said, “and I never have any predisposed things I want to do in terms of genre. I don’t put out the word that I want to do a musical or something.”
By page 10 of the Flight script, Zemeckis was hooked. “What intrigued me the most was how everything and every character was complex — no guys wearing white hats, no guys wearing black hats,” the director said. Washington, who had read the script a year earlier and agreed to star before there was even a director or a studio green light, shared Zemeckis’ enthusiasm.
“I hadn’t done anything like it,” Washington said. “And the fact that (Gatins) made it about a pilot was absolutely the most dramatic thing he could do. If Whip had worked at the post office, it sure wouldn’t have been as interesting.”
The 44-year-old Gatins first hatched the film’s basic idea 13 years ago, when he was flying from Frankfurt, Germany, to New York City. Gatins was seated next to an off-duty pilot, and the screenwriter couldn’t figure out initially why he was so unnerved by his seatmate’s occupation. And then it hit him: The pilot was an ordinary man. “I want pilots to be somebody who would take a bullet to get me to JFK,” Gatins said. “And here was this guy with the potential to reveal that he wasn’t a god.”
Gatins subsequently sketched out the film’s opening act, loosely basing the opening plane crash on 2000’s Alaska Airlines disaster off the California coast, but the project went nowhere. Soon after Gatins completed writing and directing 2005’s horse-racing movie Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story, Adam Goodman, then head of production at Dreamer financier DreamWorks SKG, asked Gatins if he could “write something from (his) heart.”
Seven years ago, a movie like Flight — no superheroes, no sex jokes, no Happy Meal tie-ins — was not the economic millstone it has become today, but Gatins’ outline was a far more daunting concept than 90 per cent of any studio’s slate.
Nevertheless, Goodman, who would bring the project with him from DreamWorks to Paramount, assigned the project to producers Walter Parkes and Laurie McDonald, who spent months working with Gatins on the script, particularly its ending, which went through countless iterations and is ultimately not quite as bleak as the screenwriter once contemplated.
There were fleeting hopes about Brad Pitt or George Clooney playing the troubled aviator with Gatins behind the camera. But the movie didn’t gain momentum for a long time, and Gatins spent about two years writing the script for Real Steel. The future for Flight looked bleak. “To make an R-rated movie that’s not a genre film is very hard,” Gatins said. The film earned the restrictive rating in part for nudity and portrayals of alcohol and drug abuse.
“You can’t look at this script, absent of its elements (like casting and director) and say it’s a high priority,” Parkes said. But then Ed Limato, Washington’s late talent agent, gave his client the script in 2010.