Behind The Scenes On Flight

Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of AwardsLine.

One thing’s for certain about Flight: The Robert Zemeckis-directed drama starring Denzel Washington as an alcoholic pilot will never be a popular in-flight film. “After this movie, people are going to be waiting out on the steps for the pilot with a Breathalyzer test,” Washington recently joked in an interview.

Denzel Washington plays a pilot with a substance-abuse problem in Flight.
Denzel Washington plays a pilot with a substance-abuse problem in Flight.

Flight screenwriter John Gatins also does not recommend his story for in-flight reading. “I’ve gotten emails from people saying:, ‘Man, I made the mistake of opening your screenplay on a plane,’ ” Gatins says with a laugh. His fictional concept is not too far from recent fact: In 2009, not one, but two pilots were arrested preflight at London’s Heathrow Airport after failing Breathalyzer tests. Both planes, one American Airlines and one United, were coincidentally headed for Chicago.

That basis in reality might be why Flight is taking off at the boxoffice. In fact, it’s impossible to avoid the aviation metaphors when describing the success of this $30 million action film. With Oscar buzz for Washington’s performance and an estimated $80 million domestic boxoffice take through four weeks, it’s soaring, flying high, and taking flight simultaneously.

However, as with the occasional airport experience, Flight didn’t exactly take off on time: Gatins’ ETD for his Flight was 1999; ETA on the big screen, more than 12 years later.

Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) safely lands a jet after a catastrophic failure in Flight.
Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) safely lands a jet after a catastrophic failure in Flight.

Gatins based his tale on two of his own worst fears: Getting killed in a plane crash and dying of an overdose. After moving to L.A. and living the hard-partying life as he struggled to become an actor, Gatins, 44, says he finally got sober at age 25 and started sketching out this story at age 31. He wanted to examine the conundrum of a successful, talented man who had functioned with addiction for years but was now “circling the drain both physically and emotionally.”

Gatins also sought to explore society’s desperate need to anoint heroes but remain blind to their human faults. The screenwriter compares Washington’s smart, arrogant Whip Whitaker to bicyclist Lance Armstrong in terms of being stripped of hero status once a tragic flaw is revealed.

Besides having to work out the puzzle for himself, Gatins also quickly discovered that Hollywood was not exactly waiting for this story—part plane-crash thriller, part character study of a troubled antihero. The script stayed in his back pocket for years, partly because of his own stop-and-start struggle to put together what he calls a personal Rubik’s Cube of an idea, and partly because he knew that an adult drama about substance abuse was a tough sell. “It’s like, ‘Show me comps of addiction movies that have made $100 million,’ ” Gatins says, describing the initial reaction of film executives to the idea.

Actors, however, always responded to the textured characters, Gatins adds. “Actors always said, ‘There is a way this movie could get made if we got an ensemble of actors together that kind of moved the   needle,’” Gatins explains.

In the years since the idea began to take shape, Gatins pursued other film projects, including writing and directing 2005’s Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story, for DreamWorks. Around that same time, a partial draft of Flight was gaining traction at DreamWorks but got shoved to a back burner when Paramount acquired DreamWorks, also in 2005.

Flight came back on the radar in 2009, when Zemeckis’ producing partner, Jack Rapke, brought him the script and let the director know that Washington was interested. “So I called up Denzel and said, ‘I just read this. Are you really interested in doing this?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, are you really interested in this?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Well, let’s do it.’ ” (During this time, Gatins was also at work as one of the writers on the 2011 film Reel Steel, executive produced by Zemeckis).

Added Zemeckis:“Of course, that was fun. And then it got crazy. And then it got fun again.”

The “crazy” was coming up with a plan that would make Paramount willing to take a chance on an adult drama. In a nutshell: Keep the budget at $30 million, a tall order for a film that requires a jet to fly upside down.

“Here’s the thing: The guys who are running the studio, they love this kind of movie—we all grew up on these movies. That’s why we got into the business,” Zemeckis says. “Conventional wisdom is that people don’t generally go to see adult dramas. It’s sad that these are the hardest movies to market.

“When I approach a movie, my attitude is, I just want it to make $1 profit, then nobody gets hurt,” the director continues. “But Denzel and I realized that what we’d have to do is waive our fees and make the movie for the $30 million number that Paramount wanted. And then they basically said, ‘Go with God, and make the best movie you can.’ ”

Like Washington, Zemeckis declined to give his actual salary figure, but Washington says both artists were working at one-tenth of their usual pay for a major film. And, in term of amping up the visual sizzle while staying on budget, Zemeckis observes, “We’ve got maybe the greatest actor in the world, so that’s pretty great—you’ve got the spectacle of a Denzel performance, so that’s cool. And then what I can bring to the party is that I’ve got so many years of experience, I know a lot of great (visual effects) artists who can deliver, so I was able to bring them into the movie. That allows the movie to look a lot more expensive than it really is.”

Both the director and the writer acknowledge the movie might not have happened without the commitment of Washington, but the nuanced roles also attracted a celebrated supporting cast including Don Cheadle, John Goodman, and English actress Kelly Reilly, who portrays the vulnerable recovering addict who helps lead Whitaker to face his demons. “It’s a brave movie,” says Reilly. “They do things head on. It’s not cool or clever—there’s no vanity in it.”

For Zemeckis, Flight marks his first return to live-action cinema in 12 years after directing and producing films that use motion-capture technology, including The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol. He thinks too much has been made of this fact. “Making movies never really feels good, it’s always a lot of hard work,” he says. “But doing a live-action movie after not doing a live-action movie for a couple years, it didn’t matter. It’s kind of like riding a bicycle—it all came rushing back.”

For his part, Gatins hopes that Flight helps take the stigma off serious adult dramas when it comes to boxoffice potential. “That’s what the conversation has been like—will there be a turn back to these sorts of films, like the great cinema of the ’70s?” he says. “We were helped by True Grit and Black Swan and The Fighter—movies that had tougher issues at their core. This is a grownup drama.”

Q&A: Denzel Washington On Flight

Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of AwardsLine.

With a lean, mean budget of $30 million, Flight is an action film that could not afford a big movie star like Denzel Washington. Then again, this morally ambivalent character study of an alcoholic pilot flying under the influence couldn’t afford not to have a big movie star like Denzel Washington if it had a shot at getting made at all. Washington, 57, sat down with AwardsLine to talk about how and why he got involved, and how the numbers added up to make the role of troubled Captain Whip Whitaker a gamble worth taking.

AWARDSLINE: Industry observers have said this film wouldn’t have been made without you. It has so many of what Hollywood would call negatives—it’s both an action film and a character study, and that character is not a straight-up hero, he’s an alcoholic.

DENZEL WASHINGTON: It was not a struggle to get it made, but the studio wanted to do it for a price, and we ended up with (about) $28 million, and (director) Robert Zemeckis made it look like $100 million, especially the plane sequence. So he and I threw our money back in the pot, took a tenth of our salaries.


WASHINGTON: It’s a tenth of my salary. You do the math.

[Ed. note: According to industry trade sources, Washington’s salary in recent years for several major Hollywood releases was $20 million].

AWARDSLINE: Does that come off the back end at some point?

WASHINGTON: Let’s hope so. (Laughs). I keep hearing the buzz from people who say, “Man, I want to see that.”

AWARDSLINE: Your agent, the late Ed Limato, brought you the script, right?

WASHINGTON: I don’t know how long it had been kicking around before it came to me. It must have been somewhere in 2009. He brought me two scripts: He brought me Safe House first (and said), “These are two very different films,” and I agreed we should do Safe House first. This was a real change of pace.

AWARDSLINE: Why did you want to do it?

WASHINGTON: The script. As simple as that. Good scripts are hard to find, and this was one that was not a black-and-white kind of story. There was a lot of gray in there.

AWARDSLINE: There are character actors, and there are movie stars. I think it’s fair to say you are the latter. Did you worry that playing such an unattractive, raw character would tarnish your image?

WASHINGTON: (Laughs). I get that—“Denzel, don’t do that!” I remember we were doing (August Wilson’s drama) Fences on Broadway a couple of years ago, and we were doing a scene where my character is discussing with his friend that he’s seeing another girl, and he’s like, “Man, you’d better tell your wife!” And (in a later scene) I say to her, “There’s something I’ve got to tell you,” and the audience is expecting him to say, “I’ve got another girl,” and instead he says, “I’m going to be somebody’s daddy,” and somebody yelled out, “Oh, Denzel, thank you, sweetheart!” It’s a play, and she’s saying, “Oooh, Denzel!”

AWARDSLINE:  Did Ed Limato have those same concerns for you?

WASHINGTON: I said to him: “What do you think about it?” And he said, “You know, all that drinking and drugging!” And I said, “Ed, it’s a good story.” I’m not afraid of (the movie audience) saying, “Oh, Denzel!” And if they do, I won’t be there anyway. That’s what it’s all about for me. Especially in the last 10 years I’ve started really opening up, doing what I want to do—some small films, the stage.

AWARDSLINE:  Are movies in the $30 million range a dying breed?

WASHINGTON: What I think has changed a bit is maybe five or six years ago they might have given us a $50 million, $60 million budget, or more, but nowadays the studios are tightening their belts, and they knew it was a project we wanted to do. And I think they were smart, they said, “Look, we don’t want to spend more than, whatever it was, $28 million, $30 million.” And neither of us wanted to walk away from it, so we did it.

AWARDSLINE: It must be nice to prove you can make a commercial movie for that.

WASHINGTON: And there’s a market for it, I believe. And the actors, at least the big actors, will have to make a decision: Do you want to cut your fee and do something good, or are you just in it for the ($20 million salary)? And then also there’s the agent side of it, they are not exactly looking for the smaller films, they’re looking for big payouts, too, because they get 10%. Nobody wants 10% of nothing.

AWARDSLINE: For someone who already has a couple of Oscars, is it still exciting to contemplate that this might be an Academy-nominated role?

WASHINGTON: I try not to think about that ahead of time. You just try to do the best work you can, and then you get the movie out there, and we’ve been hearing good things. But you never know, you don’t want to get too high, and you don’t want to get too low.

AWARDSLINE:  What’s it like doing an Oscar campaign? Is it fun to talk about the film?

Washington: Not after the 395th interview.

AWARDSLINE:  I hope this is 394.

WASHINGTON: (Laughs). You are 392. You’re fine. But look, it’s part of the job, too. I want people to see it.