‘Flight’ screenwriter’s story mirrors his onscreen hero

The next time you’re on a flight and hear the announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has turned on the ‘Fasten seat belt’ sign,” you’re going to remember this film.

In the Robert Zemeckis movie “Flight,” Denzel Washington plays Whip Whitaker, an airline pilot who heroically saves the lives of nearly all of his 102 passengers and crew by expertly maneuvering his aircraft to avoid certain death and catastrophe. The audience is in on a secret, though—the pilot was under the influence of alcohol and cocaine during this feat.

“Flight” had been in the works for more than 12 years as a personal project of screenwriter John Gatins, who struggled and ultimately succeeded in overcoming his own substance abuse problems back in the ’90s. Gatins, who’s been knocking around Hollywood for more than 20 years as an actor and writer, also wrote and acted in “Real Steel,” a 2011 movie with Hugh Jackman. 


Gatins, who’s been receiving a lot of Oscar buzz for his “Flight” screenplay, appeared in person at Malibu Cinemas after industry/Malibu Film Society screenings of “Flight” last Sunday, where he fielded questions from the audience. 

Where did you get the idea for this story? 

I was working on “Behind Enemy Lines” in Slovakia and was flying back from Germany with a pilot sitting next to me deadheading [i.e., riding without flying] and chatting. I’m a very friendly guy, but I really wanted him to shut up—I didn’t really want to know anything about this guy’s life. I like to think that the guy or gal behind the cockpit door has everything in order—I don’t want to know if your kids don’t talk to you. And I had this great writer moment about ‘what if’—what if there’s a guy circling the drain with the personal issues in his life and he had this incredibly responsible pilot’s job? 

Why did it take 10 years for you to finish the screenplay? 

I started writing this movie in 1999 and in the interim, a lot of things happened in my life. Early on, I had it written up to the point where the pilot wakes up in the hospital. It’s the rest that had me picking the script up and putting it back down for the next 10 years. When I started writing this movie, we didn’t have kids, and now we have three kids. It took a long protracted period, and without a boss there was no one saying, “Where is it?” 

Where did you get such a good feel for airplanes and the airline working environment? 

I’ve done really insane research into plane accidents and talked to a lot of pilots. One of the biggest sources of pride to me was when I’d show the crash sequences to actual pilots and they’d say, “Do you fly?” 

How did this R-rated drama get made? 

After I directed “Dreamer” for DreamWorks in 2005, they said, “Why don’t you make another movie for us?” I showed them the first 40 pages of “Flight,” and they didn’t see how a guy could go from directing a family movie with Dakota Fanning to this. Plus, they wanted to know where [the story] was going to go; and I was still trying to figure that out… 

The Denzel Washington attachment was the thing that made “Flight” go. I got a phone call from Denzel, so we had dinner and he said, “I’m gonna go out and make ‘Safe House,’ and when I come back I want to make this movie.” For the 10 years that things didn’t go right with this movie, there was a moment in time where things did. Denzel’s longtime agent had given him the script. Then Zemeckis (Director of “Forrest Gump”) got the script… 

We shot the movie in 45 days for $30 million in sequence. Everything that we shot is in the movie, you won’t see deleted scenes on the DVD. [Both Washington and Zemeckis worked at reduced rates in order to get the film made.] 

What’s Denzel said about this role? 

Denzel said in a Q&A that “R-rated dramas don’t really get made, but I like being in an R-rated drama because I don’t have to shoot a gun. It’s a movie for grown-ups.” He said, “John did the most dramatic thing by making this guy an airline pilot. If he worked at the post office, it wouldn’t be that dramatic. You just wouldn’t get your mail.” 

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