'Flight' Screenwriter John Gatins Shares How The Denzel Washington Pic Took Off
Though a Paramount release, Flight did not take the trajectory of a typical studio concept plucked from an internal idea bin. Screenwriter John Gatins began working on what would become the feature starring Denzel Washington and directed by Robert Zemekis earlier last decade on his own. While still new to Hollywood, Gatins, who first hit the scene as a writer on sports pics including Summer Catch and Hard Ball, sobered up. He took that experience and his fear of flying, to quietly craft the story that would evolve into Flight.
The film, which debuted at the New York Film Festival in the fall and debuted in theaters in early November has cashed in with nearly $91 million at the domestic box office on a relatively modest budget - at least for Hollywood with a big star - of $31 million. On the Awards Circuit the film has won some attention including a Golden Globe nomination for Denzel Washington for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Drama and he may well be on the road to a nomination for Best Actor next month when the Oscar nominations are revealed. Gatins has also received some attention including Best Original Screenplay by the Broadcast Film Critics Association and a nomination from the Image Awards.
Flight's plane crash makes for good imagery in a trailer, but it really serves as a set-up for one man's personal struggle with addiction and denial, which forms the crux of Flight. Washington plays pilot Whip Whitaker, who successfully guides a plane that experiences a mid-air mishap to the ground, saving nearly everyone on board. He's hailed for his heroism by the media, but what eventually percolates to the surface during the investigation is missing on-board alcohol and a cover-up that Captain Whitaker, was in fact, legally drunk. Whitaker is a master at concealing his insatiable drinking and cocaine use and as media attention continues to follow him, he deflects what is clearly a hastening descent in his personal life.
M.L. caught up with screenwriter John Gatins about what prompted him to start writing Flight who shared the turbulence his script encountered on the way to the big screen. He shares how he segued his way into "the business" after graduating from Vassar and facing his own fears of flying while making the movie.
When I first saw footage of Flight before seeing the film at the New York Film Festival, I wondered if it would be a straight-up plane crash story or if there was more to it. Obviously there is much much more to it and was curious how this came about. Was there a personal element to it?
I got sober when I was 25 and that was part of it. I think I was 31 when I started writing [Flight] and I did it for me really, I didn't have a boss. I wrote it on spec and I honestly didn't think it was a movie that would ever get made. I'm a scared flyer, but was flying a lot for work and shooting in Europe.
It's a personal project I'd pick up and put down and then kept working in my normal life, trying to feed my family. It was after I wrote and directed Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story for DreamWorks that they then asked me what I wanted to do next and then I said, "Well, let me show you what I have been working on and I gave them the first 40 pages of this script and they went, 'Woah.'"
Around when was this?
This was around 2004 - 2005. And they thought this was pretty heavy-duty considering I had just finished doing this PG-13 movie for them and has a very complicated central character. And it was also at a time in the business when these kinds of stories weren't just jumping off shelves onto the screens. R-rated grown-up dramas just became anathema. People kept saying that audiences just don't' want to see these movies.
But clearly you kept going…
Yeah, it was a hard time for it and I was trying to also direct the movie. So Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald came on as producers with me and I continued to work on the script and I finally had a version that we could sneak to a few people in 2007. The script had some big agents respond to it and they said there was some great talent that may be interested in [the starring role], but then the writers strike came along.
There were so many things happening to go against this movie, but then it all changed when Denzel Washington got his hand on the script and he wanted to meet me. He told me he wanted a bigger director than me to handle this, which was understandable I guess… Some big actors only have a few guys or gals they want to work with.
Then Robert Zemeckis got a hold of the script around the same time and those two connected and then the three of us connected. For everything that had gone wrong for so many years there was a moment in time when everything went right. Bob wanted to be very collaborative with me when making the movie. He said to come to Atlanta and I got to really be there and have a creative voice in it and it really was the best of all possible worlds.
Talk about how you three collaborated. Did the script evolve much while you were working with Washington and Zemekis?
It was kind of great. Before this, I had only known Denzel as his characters, I had never met him. His characters have this intense presence and in life he also has this presence. He does his homework man - he really does his homework. He was really with the 2007 draft he first received, but with every new draft there was, we kept him in the loop.
He's a guy who definitely started to carry that pain around. He was putting on those shoes so to speak to play the part almost immediately. It was great because for a lot of people this is a small movie, it's a $30 million movie that we shot over 45 days all on location. It was a bit like making the school play at times, we all rolled up our sleeves to get this done. It was a small ensemble of actors and a small filmmaking crew. So there's something very intimate about it.
Denzel has gone out of his way to give credit to the script. And it's been really nice for me honestly since I did work so long on the movie and he recognized that. What's on the screen isn't much different than what's in that '07 draft. Bob did some really smart things making me focus on the point of view.
Did that '07 script portray Denzel's character as so focused despite his dependencies? I'll tell you what really struck me about the story was how functional he was at least on the outside. Of course things are going south on the inside, but after the crash he receives notoriety and credit for saving lives and despite being in various states of inebriation all the time, he is able to handle himself in such a remarkable way at least publicly.
I'll tell you a story. my guilty pleasure is the New York Post and one day while doing the domestic junket out here I was reading Page 2 and there was this whole article about this huge rock star Cardiologist in New York who was being sued by his two ex-wives and, among a lot of things, they both alleged that he was high on cocaine all the time and that he failed four drug tests at the hospital and was high 24/7.
And you think this is the guy you put your life into and he's blazing on drugs. I mean, it's remarkable and there's this parallel to [Denzel's character] Whip Whitaker who is so high yet functioning and walks this tight rope.
Instinctively he's the best guy to fly that plane, impaired or not. That's what helped to create that weird conflicted ambiguity in the plane because you're thinking, 'Am I rooting for this character or not?' If I was on the plane and he saved me and I knew he was the only one who could do that, I'd think I wouldn't care what his mind was all about at that moment.
I think that functionality almost made it more difficult for his character to come to terms with the addictions he was facing…
They say for most people to want to make a change they have to hit a bottom in their life. For a guy like that to be able to do heart surgeries successfully or a guy to successfully fly a jet, then people continue to skate along in life. People often don't change unless they have to. That happens sometimes when people wake up in handcuffs, or in a hospital or in a psych ward and they say, 'what happened?' It's like, well all that managing you were doing with all these issues - it ran out. Your ability to pull it off and manage it just quit on you.
And he's an amazing dude that Whip Whitaker, he can do almost anything.
Was there a progression in his personality from the original scripts to the final version? Was that functionality fully there?
That functionality was always there because I felt that's the thing that makes us conflicted. I always watch war movies and I would always think that if I was in a war, I'd have to drink every day with that constant drum of anxiety because I don't know how I'd get through that experience of knowing someone is constantly trying to kill me. The men and women overseas right now, I just don't know how they deal with that. I think pills or booze would calm my brain…
But I think it would have been so easy to go down that path of Whip just being crazed…
Yeah, yeah yeah… There are so many people who function at such a high level of - work hard, play hard. You see them Monday through Friday and then you catch that person on the weekend and you're like, "Whoa!"
How did you work in the mechanics of the crash? You must've had to research past incidents...
Oh man that was crazy, that was crazy because I'm a nervous flyer. Those NTSB records are public record and they're pretty dense but also equally fascinating. I also spoke to a lot of pilots and they pointed me toward different incidents.
That must've been encouraging experience helping you to overcome being nervous flyer [laughs].
It was miserable [laughs] but fascinating at the same time. Denzel said something really funny when we were on a panel and they asked him what he thought about Whip being a pilot as opposed to something else and he said, 'It's the most dramatic choice John could've made. If he worked at the post office, it wouldn't have been that big of a deal. You wouldn't have gotten your mail. That's different from being in a plane at 30,000 feet that's dropping. But the research was fascinating. You can read the black boxes and some of them are very dramatic.
Zemeckis is also a pilot and flies so he has a complete understanding. He loves to fly, but I hate to fly. While we were flying to Atlanta and back he'd be like, 'Let's work.' We'd literally be working on the script while on the flight talking about a plane crashing while we're on the plane. That math is never good for me [laughs].
Was the crash in the film based on an actual accident?
There are a couple of accidents that it was based on. But there was a crash off Oxnard, CA in 2000. A pilot told me to look at that and it was fascinating. Air traffic control asked them to take the plane out over [Santa Monica Bay] so as to limit collateral damage on the ground. And they did fly it inverted but they put the plane back over and lost control. It was an un-flyable plane, it wasn't their fault. They did an amazing job. And this pilot said that had they known what was really wrong with the plane, they might have known their only recourse was to keep it inverted and descend. It was really rough.
Is writing one of your first passions? You were a drama major and you mentioned that you did many things including acting when you first moved to California…
I think I've always been a storyteller. I'm Irish and we like to tell stories and I come from a family of storytellers and in storytelling there's an element of performance in it. Arguing for 'air-time' at big family events requires that performance. So being the youngest of four I felt I had to perform.
My first instinct then was that I wanted to be an actor, but when I was at Vassar, it was great because it's very academic. I read so many plays, which gave me a great foundation which I didn't realize until I had to access that as a writer. Writing was 'easier' because you just write by yourself. It's not easy, but you don't need permission. The first script I wrote I wrote on a legal pad, I didn't even have a computer.
What was your big entrée when you first arrived in California that kept you going or encouraged you to maintain that path?
I had friends from Vassar who were starting to work in the biz. We were in our mid 20s and we got together for a poker game and this guy said to me, "You're so funny man you should write a script. I'll pay you to write this script once you get broke enough." So the next day I contacted him and said, "I think I'm broke enough." And he paid me $1,000 - $500 to start and $500 to finish - to write this crazy script about a kid in high school who fakes his own suicide. And that script was sold to Disney and it started it all off.
It started my whole career. It was Smells Like Teen Suicide. It was great, it got me into a lot of rooms. People wanted to meet that guy who wrote that dark, dark teen comedy.
What other genres would you like to tackle that you haven't yet?
Great question... I want to do a big comedy. It's funny when I started out, even though Smells Like Teen Suicide was a dark movie, it was a dark comedy reaching for a laugh. Then I got into doing sports movies and was on that road for awhile and there's comedy in that too. And actually, there's a good amount of comedy in Flight. Yeah, I'd like to go for a big comedy at some point.
I've made a family movie, sports movies and perhaps a sort of sic-fi movie. Flight is mostly an adult like grown-up drama. Denzel said, "Look it's an R-rated movie and there are no guns. It's different. We don't make these movies anymore."
But, I have an idea to write a high school movie because I'm about to have a teenager who is going into high school. I feel like I have one more young voice movie in me, so we'll see...