One of the nicer surprises of the fall movie season has turned out to be Robert Zemeckis’ Flight starring Denzel Washington as an airline pilot who heroically rescues 150 passengers from certain death only to have it discovered he was loaded on booze and cocaine at the time. What follows is a genre-defying entertainment that challenges and sometimes flies in the face of an audience’s notions of right and wrong.
Flight is a passion project from screenwriter John Gatins who started his Hollywood career as an actor over two decades ago and who struggled with his own addiction issues before cleaning up and shifting his focus to writing. His highest profile credit is probably the 2011 Hugh Jackman pic Real Steel, but Gatins also wrote and directed the family sports drama Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story starring Kurt Russell and Dakota Fanning in 2005.
I recently sat down with Gatins over breakfast to talk about Flight.
Craig Kennedy: The first thing that strikes me about Flight is that it’s not really a genre movie you can fit into a specific box in an era where it seems that’s all Hollywood wants. How did you get it done?
John Gatins: I tell you, that was the struggle that I had in the 12 years I was trying to finish the script and ultimately get the movie made. You know, because I was trying to direct this movie as well and I was writing it on spec. There was no boss who was saying, “Where is it?” It was me kind of trying to sort it out and tell the story as I was writing it and it kept wanting to be a character piece. There aren’t a lot of movies where you can say “Let’s go see this movie. It’s just about this guy.” It’s never just about “this guy” it has to be a sports drama about a guy or a biography about a guy. But, having Robert Zemeckis as the director was great and having Denzel Washington in the lead was fantastic. He’s a guy who has an audience that’s faithful.
Craig: Suddenly it’s not just a character piece, it’s a Denzel Washington movie and that’s something you can sell to a studio…
John: And the fact that Bob and Denzel pushed off their salaries. That’s what made it go, the idea that we were going to make this movie for $30 million, because that was kind of an undeniable piece of business. Even though the movie wasn’t a genre movie, it fit the math. You get a Robert Zemeckis and Denzel Washington movie for $30 million. I think you could go to any studio in town and they’d buy that. Right? So, it gave us the opportunity to make the movie that we made which has a dark, complicated character right in the middle of it. It’s got issues that are not the most film friendly. You know, I can’t say to you, “Hey man, let’s look at this list of 10 addiction movies that made $100 million.” They don’t exist.
Craig: It’s a risky subject and also it’s R-rated which is something studios have been skittish about…
John: Look at a movie like Argo. I like that movie. That’s another R-rated film and they’ve done well and people have responded. It’s satisfying to them. So, I’m hoping there’s a little bit more of a turn back to R-rated adult dramas like we had in the ’70s. I’ve been on panels with all the cast and it’s interesting because a lot of people talk about it like it’s something they haven’t seen in a long time. Don Cheadle was like, “I don’t know if Kramer vs. Kramer gets made today.”