Flight marks the first live action movie Robert Zemeckis has directed since the year 2000, when he made What Lies Beneath and Cast Away. But moreover, it is that rare film which Hollywood never seems to greenlight enough of these days: a difficult drama with complex (and potentially unlikable) characters.
It says a lot that Zemeckis and Denzel Washington, who stars as airline pilot Whip Whitaker, could get a movie like this made today when studios are typically more interested in the next big franchise to exploit.
The movie follows Captain Whitaker as the plane he flies suddenly goes into a dive. Somehow, he ends up landing it in a field and saving just about everybody on board. An investigation into the crash soon follows however, and Whitaker is discovered to have had alcohol in his system while flying.
The movie’s trailers and TV ads have suggested that Flight is a mystery about whether this pilot was at fault or not, but those who have seen it can see that it is a morally ambiguous tale about a man who has yet to be honest with himself about who he is.
Paramount Pictures recently held a press conference on Flight at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills. In attendance was Zemeckis, Washington, Kelly Reilly, John Gatins (who wrote the screenplay), Bruce Greenwood, Melissa Leo and John Goodman.
Check out what everyone had to say below but be warned, this article does contain spoilers.
We Got This Covered: Denzel, anyone would want to play a role as brilliantly written as this one, but I wonder for you if the attraction was also personal in the sense that everybody’s known people whose lives have been destroyed by addiction. Did you feel like you were doing something positive in your portrayal of this character?
Denzel Washington: No, I think it’s just having read the script and saying “wow this is good.” My agent, the late Ed Limato, the last two scripts he gave me were Flight and Safe House and that was part of the promise I made to him.
People say, what do you want audiences to get from this movie? I say it depends on what they bring to it. So I don’t try to decide what people should get from it. I don’t do a part for those kinds of reasons.
We Got This Covered: Mr. Zemeckis did you ever think that Denzel’s character would have been able to land that plane if he was not high on booze and cocaine?
Robert Zemeckis: Denzel and I talked a lot about that, and one of the things I loved about the script was so much of the ambiguity and that’s one of the most ambiguous questions. There was that speech Don Cheadle made of how ten pilots couldn’t land the plane the way Denzel’s character did, and they were all sober. And we thought that maybe because the pilot was a little bit loose he was able to do something that no one who wasn’t would have done and in that case saved a lot of lives. But obviously we’re not endorsing that pilots should fly in that state as I don’t think any of us would want to fly in a plane like that.
We Got This Covered: Mr. Zemeckis, what was it about this film that brought you back into the realm of live action movies?
Robert Zemeckis: I never felt that I went away from that. Movies are movies and some bend light through a lens, some create moving images virtually, but at the end of the day movies are movies.
We Got This Covered: Had this picture come to you all ten or fifteen years ago, would your grasp of these complex characters been the same?
Bruce Greenwood: Yes.
Melissa Leo: I don’t know if I could have played Ellen Brock ten or more years ago. I don’t know if I would have felt comfortable or official enough. I think there was something about my age now that helped me in playing Ellen.
Robert Zemeckis: I hadn’t thought about that and I’ll have to think about that. I’ve always said that movies are kind of like love affairs where two people come together and if they’re at the right place at the right time then it just clicks. I have always connected with screenplays that way, and I guess it’s just the romantic in me.
We Got This Covered: You all had to go places that were certainly uncomfortable for you. What helped you get through those tough places in this film?
Denzel Washington: A painful scene for me was when I go to my ex-wife’s house and get into this wrestling match with my son. I’ve gotten into wrestling matches with my own son but not under the same circumstances. My nerves got really raw doing that scene.
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, and he really did open up his story to me. There was a technical side of it as well as he taught me how to inject heroin without really injecting heroin. I wanted to honor the truth of somebody in that situation, and I think that was the most difficult part without ever having experienced that.
We Got This Covered: I know some were conflicted at the movie’s end over the prison term Denzel’s character got. If something like this happened to someone you love in your own life, do you think the person responsible deserves some serious prison time?
Denzel Washington: I believe he deserved more prison time. I even told Bob that I thought the number of years was too low. I thought he should have gotten at least twenty years.
John Gatins: 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 scorecard 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 because I had her proofread the script at one point, and she said Denzel’s character should go to jail for the rest of his life. And I said to her “yeah but he didn’t make the plane fall apart.” Look, he definitely committed a felony. You can’t be high on cocaine and fly a commercial airline, I get that. He should be punished for that but he didn’t kill anybody.
I wanted it to be ambiguous and I wanted it to be about the conversation because to me it’s ultimately about what is the value of the truth.
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