September 27, 2016

“Flight” screenwriter John Gatins on Denzel Washington and his fear of flying – OSCARS


By Sean O’Connell
Hollywoodnews.com: A major Oscar player for Paramount, Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” opened to positive reviews (76% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) and a healthy weekend take of $24.9 million.

The number was incredibly steady for Zemeckis, who returned to live-action for the first time since “Cast Away,” and carried under his arm a riveting performance by Denzel Washington in service of a commanding script credited to John Gatins.

Audiences might have been surprised by the depth of “Flight.” Largely advertised as a plane-crash thriller – piggybacking off Zemeckis’ equally gripping crash shots from “Cast Away” – the awards-friendly drama is far more interested in the moral fiber of the pilot who landed the damaged commercial airliner, Whip Whitaker (Washington), a struggling alcoholic. Look beyond Washington’s career-topping turn, though, and you’ll find plenty of dark material to explore in Gatins’ script, which is where I started a recent conversation with the “Flight” writer. Here’s John Gatins:

I love the film. It really caught me off guard, though I imagine you are hearing that from a lot of people.

I actually just read Roger Ebert’s really interesting commentary on the film. He’d already given the film a rave review, which was really cool and interesting, But he’s just written a really interesting piece that’s an analysis of Whip’s character that was incredible – really moving, really interesting. It has been nice. There are a lot of columnists and movie writers tackling thoughtful and thought-provoking pieces about the movie, which is always fun.

That’s funny. I wanted to start with that, because it’s always refreshing speaking with someone after their movie has come out. So often, it’s before, and people aren’t sure how it’s going to play. The marketing campaign did an interesting job of hiding the film’s true emotional intent. Are you happy with the way the picture was received? In what direction is the conversation swinging?

People’s immediate reaction … I’ve actually spoken to a number of critics and film writers who’ve told me that they’ve seen the movie twice. On a second viewing, they start focusing on a lot of different elements. Denzel’s performance is so amazing that it’s the thing that really resonates with you [the first time through]. You think about him, and you think about his character. I think on a second viewing, people begin thinking about the themes of the movie – fear, and what do I still believe in when I’m placed in a life-threatening situation.

It has become an interesting discussion of those topics. And it has been fun to sneak around the Internet and read talkbacks where people are talking passionately about everything from Bernoulli’s Principle of Flight versus the question of breathalyzing pilots before they get on planes. It’s crazy! [Laughs]

I braced for some backlash in the days following your opening because of the way the trailers hide the meat of the character study behind the plane-crash effects. That hasn’t happened, but were you thinking about that? Were you prepared?

I think we were. What we knew the entire time is that we were not making a movie with genre handles on it. It did seem like younger bloggers were speculating, “Oh, I think it’s a supernatural thing. I think he’s been dead the whole time!” [Laughs] And I was like, “You’re not probably wrong in assuming that.” As you say, when you see the Paramount logo on it, you think “Flight” is going to be a spectacle. It’s going to be big.

But we had to sell it by saying there was going to be some kind of a mystery to the way the story plays out, and it seemed to have gotten people in.

Having seen the film with a preview audience, there were three or four moments where you absolutely had the crowd in your pocket. You could have heard a pin drop as we waited to see in what direction the film would turn, if ever so slightly.

I appreciate that you said that, and it absolutely was part of the design. When Bob Zemeckis and I started collaborating, he would say that we’re always trying to keep the movie in front of the audience at every turn. It was our mandate to each other. Let’s make sure that the audience has the kind of moments like you just described, where they think, “I’m not really sure where we’re going, and I’m not really sure where I want us to go.” By the final turn in the movie, I wanted people to check their personal scorecard and go, “Wait a minute, time out. Am I rooting for this guy or not?”

That has been a fun thing. I’ve been sneaking around with my wife all weekend and popping into theaters because I love to watch certain scenes. The fact that people cheer when Harling Mays (John Goodman) returns with a sack full of cocaine … [Laughs] … I want people to go, “What movie am I watching?”

I’d love to talk about how the plane-crash sequence looked on the page. It’s a jaw-dropping sequence, but how detailed was your description of it?

As a scared flier, I actually did a ton of research on place accidents. NTSB reports are public record. You can download them and read them at your leisure, and they are kind of boring at times – they’re a little dense – but they’re also incredibly gripping and emotional at times. I because further fascinated, and was able to extrapolate from real events, and talk to a lot of pilots who would point me at different accidents and say, “You should look at this or that.” So by the time Bob and Denzel saw the script, it was the best that a non-pro could do, I’d say. It was pretty close.

Did the research cure you of your fear of flying?

You know, people ask me that a lot. All I can say is that my fear of flying … I read stats on people’s fears, and the one stat I kept running into is that 1/3 of people have an acute fear of flying. A real, real fear of flying. I don’t know a lot of people who jump up and down about flying, who say, “Hey, I can’t wait to get on a commercial jet this weekend!” It’s a very odd thing. I have to fly a lot, and sometimes it’s no big deal. Other times, I’m really uncomfortable. I’d say that overall, the movie might have made me feel a little bit better because the truth is, pilots and flight crews are really well trained. It’s still the safest way to travel, even though the physics don’t add up for me. It feels unnatural to be going 600 mph, seven miles above the Earth.

Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” is in theaters.

Read more of our exclusive Awards coverage:
Our “Silver Linings Playbook” review
Ben Affleck tells us about “Argo” and the possibility of more Dennis Lehane stories
Bryan Cranston calls “Argo” his “proudest moment in motion pictures.”
Helen Hunt opens up about on-screen nudity for “The Sessions”
Amy Adams lends strength to “The Master”
“Arbitrage” director Nicholas Jarecki on Richard Gere and the Oscar race.
Producer Harvey Weinstein

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About Sean O'Connell

Sean O'Connell is a nationally recognized film critic. His reviews have been published in print ('The Washington Post,' 'USA Today') and online (AMC FilmCritic.com, MSN's Citysearch) since 1996. He's a weekly contributor to several national radio programs. He is a longstanding member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS), and the Southeastern Film Critics View all articles by Sean O'Connell Association (SEFCA).

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