When Todd Komarnicki first heard about Sully, his former producing partner suggested he write the script. Komarnicki took his friend’s advice and he’s glad he did. He went to a pitch meeting, pitched his heart out, was convinced he got the job. And then silence. A few months later, he was told the good news: Sully was a go.
Komarnicki had no reservations in bringing the story of the Miracle on the Hudson to the big screen. He feels it’s great to see a film tribute to a real-life hero, something Hollywood doesn’t often get right. I recently caught up with Komarnicki to talk about his story — and as it’s that time of year, we couldn’t go without mentioning Elf. Read on to see Komarnicki joke about the similarities between his Christmas favorite, Elf and Sully.
Awards Daily: What a film. Tom Hanks in this great role. The tribute to the first responders, and also how it brings people together and unite.
Todd Komarnicki: Amen. You got the message of the movie right there. I’m so happy that it hit you on that level because that was central to my desire.
AD: How did Sully begin for you?
TK: It began with an email from my former producing partner Jon Berg, the guy that I did Elf with. He’s an executive at Warner Bros. and he sent a clip from Variety saying that Sully’s book had been optioned by Frank Marshall and Alan Stuart, and he said I should write this movie.
Thank God he was right. I went after the job, it was an open writing assignment, and I pitched my heart out. I prepared my heart out, and it was extremely close to the movie script as in its layout and time structure. At the end of the pitch, Frank Marshall said he felt that I had tapped his brain, and said out loud the movie that he had imagined.
TK: I felt that rare glee where you’re pretty certain that this thing is going to fall your way. That phone call was followed by three months of silence. No, “great job”, it felt like that phone call had not happened at all. I felt a little crazy. One day out of the blue, Alan Stuart called me and said, “We talked to everyone we talked to, and the first one we heard was the one we loved best.” I had the job. I had completely put it out of my mind when it came back to me.
AD: Did you have any reluctance in wanting to tell a story that’s still so fresh?
TK: I had no reluctance at all because I was so honored to be able to tell a story that had good news at its heart. I feel that our culture has turned so dark and all our movies, even our heroes are pretty bitter about being heroes. They’re not us, they have superpowers and lift cars and destroy buildings all to save us. This was a movie that was about us, it was about us, it was about, like you said earlier, the first responders. It was about work people going about their daily lives going about their daily work putting their lives on the line to save other people at the drop of a hat. It was about excellence in Sully who had spent a whole lifetime preparing to do this miraculous thing on that January day. So, no, no reluctance, I leaped in with my whole heart.
TK: I had to memorize Sully because it’s his movie and it’s through his eyes and its subjective storytelling. I spent time with him and learned how he moved and thought. He was incredibly candid about every aspect of his life and he’s a wonderful guy. He made himself vulnerable which allowed me to tell the story of his marriage, and the business he was trying to grow, and also his PTSD after the incident was something he had not discussed in length. and he allowed me to see what he was deeply shaken by.
Control is at the center of being a great pilot, and his ability to control things led to the great resolve on that day, but afterward, he felt out of control. His reward for saving the day was to feel out of control, both internally, in his heart, in his mind and also out of control in the face of the investigation and his sudden fame. He went from a man who had everything in front of him, he knew what to do in a cockpit, he knew how to do his job, and suddenly his life is out of control. The fact that he navigated that part of it as well as he did, is equally important to me.
AD: You open with the emergency landing and then you repeat it throughout. What was the choice about opening with the plane crash?
TK: It was to show what it’s like to be inside his brain. Also, we wanted to upend everyone’s expectations. The know the event and they know the facts of the landing, but none of the other pieces had ever really been shared. To subvert expectations is the most fun thing to do in the cinema. anyway. We want people to be on the edge of their seats. We want people to try to figure out what’s going to happen next. When you light a fuse like we did with the first scene, when Sully gets up from that nightmare, we are with him from that point on. We are inside his skin and when you have Tom Hanks who is so transparent as an actor and so human, it elevates that whole experience.
AD: A lot of it is about detail, and now this is something I do all the time, I never watch the safety video. I noticed in the film that no one is paying attention. Talk about that part in the script?
TK: I put that in the script because I’ve never been on an airplane where that has not happened. I thought it was a delicious thing to underline, where on a flight where you really needed to be paying attention, no one was.
AD: That’s the thing, no one does. They’re all fiddling around, getting settled, taking photos.
TK: I’d love everyone to start by thanking the pilots and the crew because these people can save your life. They’re not just driving a taxi. These are highly trained professionals who re-train again and again, and all they care about is that they deliver you safe back to your family.
If we can turn that around and if people can thank the crew and didn’t have this lazy expectation that they’re going to be served, but be grateful for the people around us, it would transform air travel and it would be more fun to fly.
AD: Your background is as a producer, and I’m not going to not mention Elf because it’s not officially Christmas until I’ve seen Elf.
TK: That makes me so happy. That little film we made. We never knew it would stick in the public conscious. It tested really poorly. We believed in it, and it landed, oh boy! I still get the odd Christmas card from the 8-year-old seeing it for the first time and they send it to the office, or from people in college, it’s a magnet on the fridge of people’s lives. It’s all very humbling and it makes me extremely happy.
AD: I remember seeing it for the first time and that scene where he goes around the revolving doors and does that thing on the elevators, I did that when I went to Macy’s.
TK: [laughs] That’s awesome.
AD: Going back, how did that experience in any way, teach you when it came to writing Sully?
TK: Producing came out of my frustration with selling things and not having movies made. I felt I needed other opportunities to tell stories. To me, producing and developing a comedy is the same as working on a thriller. You need real characters, not just gags. you need to have an emotional core that people can connect to. So, yes, you couldn’t think of two different movies, except they have one-word titles, and are both set in New York. At the heart of it is a character who you want to follow. In Sully, you want to make sure he gets his day in court and he gets justice. In Elf, he just wants to spread light and love and you hope he wins over the city and that light wins. They both involve flying aircraft, and Santa’s sleigh does crash in Central Park. Maybe they’re more similar than I thought [laughs].
AD: Let’s talk about Sully, he doesn’t interact with his wife other than on the phone. What were you aiming to convey?
TK: I wanted to convey their sense of isolation without having him go home. In reality, this investigation lasted nine months, and it was really eighteen months when the report came out. It was really nine months, and you can’t do a movie like that with a montage to show time passing. I was joking about that. We needed to collapse time, and that was the only cheat in the film.
In that sense, I couldn’t have him go home. What happened in real life, he was a ghost in his own skin who had been transformed by this whole experience and they were adrift from each other. The love was there, but they were off, and phone calls are perfect for that. If you’re waiting for a loved one to call, and you’re waiting all day, and it never lives up to its expectations. There’s a washing machine broken, they can’t talk, or something happens to dilute the intimacy of the call. So, phone calls are great to show that people are just not connecting. Also, I had the last call be healing when she finally understands that he’s a man who was aboard a flight that almost ended in tragedy, and when she sees that, then they’re home and they’re connected, and their love story is full-circle.