Flight is a complex story about substance addiction, religion, morality, life and death. To help explain some of the finer points of the film, Working Author was invited to Montage Beverly Hills hotel to speak with the cast. In attendance were Denzel Washington, Bruce Greenwood, Kelly Reilly, Melissa Leo and John Goodman. Director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins also participated. It was a lively group and they were eager to share their experiences and thoughts on the film.
Flight centers on the life of Whip Whitaker (Washington) who is a commercial airline pilot who, through incredible aerobatic heroics, manages to save almost all his passengers during severe in-flight mechanical malfunctions. Unfortunately, he’s also an alcoholic and drug addict, and he was under the influence of both during this fateful flight. Since substance abuse is so prevalent in society, and a plurality of people has been touched by it, it would make sense for an actor to accept a script to bring that reality into art. Speaking for himself, Denzel Washington dismissed that idea.
“No…. When I read the material in the script, I just said, ‘Wow, this is good.’” he explained, adding that he doesn’t like to tell people what they should get out of watching a movie. “It depends on what they bring to it,” he said. “I don’t try to decide what people should get from it or why…I don’t do a part for those kinds of reasons.”
Other cast members shared their reasons for joining the project. “This is the first film I’ve made in America,” Kelly Reilly said, “I lucked out completely. To work with Denzel and Bob (Zemeckis) is beyond privilege. To play a role that is slightly complicated and nuanced as Nicole that (screenwriter) John (Gatins) created…I would have begged for the job. It was a no-brainer for me.”
For her part, Melissa Leo said, “I heard that Mr. Zemeckis wanted me to come along and I heard that I’d get to play a scene opposite of Mr. Washington, so I said, ‘Yeah, sure! In a second!’ That’s pretty much it. What I understood…was that Bob was asking me to do something that would in fact complete his film for him…. So it was a very high honor he paid in asking me to do it and I was very happy to join.”
John Goodman simply answered, “I liked the script and I like the questions that it asked.”
Regarding their characters, some of the actors had to endure emotionally demanding scenes, especially Washington and Reilly, whose characters are both addicts. Washington, however, didn’t find his role difficult at all. “You know, tough spots for me are pictures I don’t want to be on,” he said, recounting some productions where he’s counting the days left to shoot the film. “This was an adventure for me. Starting with the screenplay, the collaboration with the filmmaker, getting the chance to fly around in flight simulators…hanging upside down in a plane, playing a drunk.”
To help with her role, Reilly confessed that she sought outside help. “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, really did open up his door to me.” She talked about how Mitch showed her how to inject heroin without actually doing it. “I wanted to honor the truth of someone in that situation, and I think that was the most difficult part….”
“You should have just come to me,” Washington joked, “I could have showed you that.”
This is Robert Zemeckis’ return to directing live-action after having helmed three animated films. His last live-action movie Castaway also featured a plane crash, which isn’t a popular choice. “It’s interesting because there was a lot of discussion in my brain trust of partners and representatives about the wisdom of doing another movie with a plane crash in it. And at the end of the day, we all decided that we can’t not make something…because it happens to have a plane crash in it.” Regarding live-action, he said, “I never felt I went away. Movies are movies. Some bend light through a lens, some create moving images virtually.” While that may be so, there is also a question of timing, and Zemeckis isn’t sure he could have directed this film 10 years ago. “I’ve always said that movies are kind of like love affairs. You know, if two people come together, if they’re at the right place at the right time…it clicks. I’ve always felt I’ve clicked with screenplays; it’s the romantic in me.”
In the early minutes of the film there is an extended period of pure aeronautical terror that everyone who ever has to fly in an airplane hopes to never have to experience. As people in the entertainment industry who have to commute around the world, the Flight panel spoke about their traumatic in-flight experiences, ranging from screenwriter John Gatins being a “nervous flyer” to Bruce Greenwood’s more harrowing tale. “I’ve crashed,” he said flatly. “I’ve crashed in a Cessna 185 on floats. Ripped the wings off and sank.” He was 16-years-old, hanging upside down and trapped by his seatbelt, and the other two passengers had already escaped and were swimming to the surface. Only when the pilot realized that Greenwood was nowhere to be found did he dive back down to rescue him. “I had been pulling my seatbelt the wrong way. Just flipping, flipping, flipping the wrong side.”
Thankfully, there are the skilled men and women who keep everyday passengers from having to experience events like these. Flight, however, will place into question the trust passengers have in these people. Find out if that question is answered.
Flight opens in theaters on November 2, 2012.