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Interview: Flight screenwriter John Gatins


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.”

Craig: But “R-rated” doesn’t necessarily mean a movie loaded with sex and violence. We’re just talking about movies for adults that haven’t been sanitized for 13-year-olds.

John: Right. Denzel said the other night when we were on a panel that he loved that Flight was an R-rated movie and he’s not carrying a gun or jumping off buildings. And that’s a big difference. When you think of an R-rated movie today, I think you have a certain image in your mind of what that movie is going to be. Like it’s catering to a very specific piece of the R-rated audience. Like horror movies. That’s what I think of when I think of an R rating. I think of a genre movie like that. Really violent, really scary. Our audience is older. The people going to see Flight are adults.

Craig: The success of a movie like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel shows that there’s an audience for movies about adults and aimed at adults. It’s not rated R, but it’s clearly pitched at an older audience.

John: Exactly. It’s the same with Hope Springs. It kind of quietly did pretty well. Its audience was out there and they’re patient. They don’t have to run out on opening weekend like they do for Twilight. Hopefully our movie will continue to find its way and people will talk about it. Like my mom’s book club will talk about it, or you’ll write a piece about it and people will think about it.

Craig: One of the interesting things about Flight for me was this idea that your lead character Whip Whitaker is simultaneously a hero and kind of a heel. A typical movie will stack the deck in favor of a hero’s likability, but at almost every turn you kind of undermine him. How do keep from alienating your audience?

John: I’ve got to tell you, that was my big fear. I remember showing the movie to an audience for the first time and I sat in my seat and the lights went down and I had no idea if the audience was gonna go with this guy or if they’d walk out of the theater five minutes in, but they laughed immediately. When he walks out of that hotel room, there’s a big laugh and I could see people were on it. They were buying it. They wanted to know what happened next.

At the Academy screening, someone asked Denzel what he thought about his character being a pilot with this addiction issue, and Denzel said “Gatins did the most dramatic thing. If the guy had worked at the post office, the worst thing that happens is you don’t get your mail.” By making the guy a pilot, you set up this dramatic event right at the top of the movie that makes us all lean in and wonder what’s going to happen next. And that’s what Zemeckis and I constantly challenged ourselves to do, to keep the movie always in front of the audience where they’re trying to anticipate the next move.

It’s interesting too, Zemeckis told me a story about how Alfred Hitchcock was asked why people like Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief even though he’s a jewel thief and Hitchcock apparently said that people like characters who are good at their jobs. Even if that job is to be a thief, audiences will like that guy if the guy is good at it. A certain amount of that translates for us here. I’d argue that Whip Whitaker is the best pilot in the universe. He’s better at his job than anybody. It’s proven. Don Cheadle’s character tells us that. The way he lives his personal life? Boy that’s a whole other story, but if you judge him at his job, you check every box. That’s the guy you want behind the wheel.

Craig: Plus, Whip is basically a good guy who happens to have some real problems and he does some very bad things.

John: We all want people to be heroes. We’re desperate for it. It’s great news. I remember I’d written three drafts of the script and the Sully Sullenberger thing happened and people would call me and be like, “Dude, that’s your script,” and I was like, “Yeah, if Sully was high on crack when he did it.” On the other end, there are all the conversations about Lance Armstrong. The whole community that revolves around cancer and cancer treatment, they embraced this guy like he was their guy and then to watch the epic fall that he’s had to weather through all these revelations, it’s Shakespearean. And reading about Petreaus, it’s incredible.

Craig: We seem to love to build people up just so we can see them fall on their asses. And nowadays with the internet culture, we’re privy to everyone’s every move.

John: Right. It’s like JFK. I was talking to my wife about this the other day. He was an amazing dude. He was a roguish, charming guy. He handled the Cuban missile crisis. He was a stud. And he just happened to have an affair with Marilyn Monroe. This guy was awesome, but if JFK had an iPhone, could he have resisted the temptation to do what so many others are doing today? No. So, in my mind, I picture the folklore of JFK with Camelot and the old black and white pictures in Life Magazine of him in cool sweaters and throwing the football. It’s like, “That’s JFK.” But what if I saw some shirtless photo of him that he iPhoned to Marilyn? Suddenly the guy is a clown.

Craig: Let’s get back to your script. It seems like one of the hardest things about being a screenwriter would be turning over your work to a director knowing that they’re going to do whatever they want with it. Flight was a pet project for you and one you’ve said you had an eye to directing yourself. How hard was it to let go of?

John: You know what? Because it was such a long crazy process, and in between I made Real Steel and there were other projects along the way that kind of kept me alive… this was a thing that… you know movies oddly in my experience aren’t born, they fight their way to life. This movie fought this long battle through like the ebb and flow of an R-rated drama in the studio system. I had people in studios tell me, “Man, this script is great. I know actors will want to do that part, but look at Michael Clayton. Watch that movie” and I watched it and it was like, “Wow that’s a really cool movie, but yeah it didn’t make any money.” So, at a certain point of course I wanted it to get made, but I never thought it would. I really didn’t. So in the writing of it, I wasn’t thinking, “Hey, I’m writing the greatest spec script in the world.” I didn’t know if I’d ever finish it. I didn’t know if anyone would ever read it. So, the fact that we’re talking about it now means something miraculous happened in between that fear and what’s happening now. This project was just different in every way from the beginning.

Craig: In what way?

John: I got a phone call from Denzel and he suggested we have dinner. It’s Denzel so of course I said OK and I met with him and he said, “This is really dangerous material, but I like it. I’m going off to do Safe House, but when I come back we’ll make this movie.” And then I got a phone call from Zemeckis and he wanted to have lunch. I sat and talked with him for what turned out to be like six hours, just he and I sitting in a room, and around hour three he said, “I have to ask you a serious question. Are you OK with me doing this?” He knew I’d been trying to make the movie for a long time and I had, but I couldn’t say no. I needed him to do it. It was one of those things were everything started to line up in an interesting way and I knew it was the fate of this movie. It was really clear I had to ride the horse in the direction it was going.

And I have no regrets. I have nothing but gratitude for the people who took the risk to do it including Bob and Denzel and the studio. You know what I mean? Everybody kind of said, “Look, we’re taking pay cuts. We’re taking these months out of our lives to do this thing where we have no idea if it’s gonna work. None.” Making the movie, Zemeckis would joke. He was like, “Do you think anyone is ever gonna see this movie?” And honestly I didn’t, but I still thought it could be a great movie.

Craig: It sounds like the elements on this movie at one point just kind of lined up perfectly and you’ve been in this business long enough to know that isn’t going to happen every day.

John: I’ve said for all the things that went wrong on this movie for 10 or 11 years, there was a moment in time where everything went right. Denzel said he wanted to do it and then Bob said he wanted to do it and then Denzel said when he wanted to do it and Bob said that worked for him and we just had to go go go. We had to take that opportunity.

Craig: To what extent did having this as a side project instead of an assignment free you up to write the movie you wanted to write as opposed to a movie you could sell?

John: There was no expectation. I didn’t have a boss saying to me “Just so we’re clear, that moment at the end of the second act… it has to be like this, right?” I never had that conversation with anybody. In the process I chased a lot of rabbits down a lot of holes, but ultimately I got it to work. It’s like I’d go short distances correctly but long distances incorrectly and I’d have to come back, but once I realized that I was going to really lock in and just tell the story of this guy, I let the character tell the story. It’s like I let Whip Whitaker kind of navigate, be the narrator. But he’s kind of the great unreliable narrator because he’s loaded most of the time.

Craig: There were a number of ways you could’ve ended this movie which run the gamut from much darker to much lighter. How do you find the sweet spot where it works in a narratively satisfying way, but is also psychologically honest?

John: There was a darker ending at times where Whip just lies and I was thinking, “How can you have a true ending to the movie if he does that?” Looking at it as a piece of literature, if you have a strong beginning and strong middle, you need a strong resolution. And that didn’t feel like a strong resolution. It still begged the question of, “Well then what happens? What did you just drag me through two hours for?” It got me thinking about OJ Simpson. He’s a guy who most people believe got away with murder. Is it a greater punishment for him to have to go through life with everyone thinking that about him? It’s almost a worse fate for him. Even though everyone wanted justice and he got away with it, he’ll always have that hanging over him. Here’s another example. I’m a huge baseball fan, so look at Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens. Two amazingly successful Yankee pitchers who were caught using steroids. Pettitte admits it and he’s punished, but Clemens says he’s innocent and gets away with it. But who do people feel better about now? So, that’s all a long way of saying I felt like Flight had to be about the value of truth and that’s where I found the ending.

Craig: A few people have used your name in the same sentence as Oscar. Is that a surprise to you or is it all just a part of your master plan?

John: (laughs) Man. It’s incredibly weird. There’s nothing natural about that, honestly. I’ve been here 22 years and I’ve done most everything. I was a bartender and a valet car parker. I watered Brad Pitt’s plants. I was an actor in horror movies. I struggled along and I’ve been around it a long time. I’ve worked at Oscar parties, you know what I mean? So, to go to events now and to see people and to have people talk about a script I wrote that I thought no one would ever read… you know, it’s bizarre, but it’s great.