Denzel Washington and Robert Zemeckis Are High on <I>Flight</i>

With its potent combination of an award-winning director and star (Robert Zemeckis and Denzel Washington), a celebrated supporting cast (among them, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Bruce Greenwood and Melissa Leo), dark, emotional subject matter (alcoholism) and expertly executed spectacle (most notably a terrifying plane crash), the new drama Flight is sure to be one of the fall's leading Oscar contenders. The film, which was penned by actor/screenwriter John Gatins, casts Washington as commercial airline pilot Whip Whitaker, who manages to land his free-falling plane with a minimal loss of life. He's celebrated as a hero for his actions... until it emerges that he's got serious personal problems that may or may not have contributed to the crash. Following the film's premiere at the recently concluded New York Film Festival, the cast and crew of Flight answered questions from the press, including how the project first began and whether it cured (or contributed to) their fear of flying.

On the origins of the project
John Gatins: I wrote the first 40 pages of the script in 1999 and put it down because I figured it would never get made. It was kind of born out of what I like to call my two greatest fears: drinking myself to death and dying in a plane crash. It's obviously as much a story of recovery as it is a story about the value of the truth. It's a morality play and it kept evolving over the ten years that I wrote it. The expression that kept coming up in my mind was, "There are no atheists in a foxhole." I've often thought that I'm not sure what I believe in when it comes to God, but when I'm on a plane that's pitching severely, I find myself reaching for something.
Robert Zemeckis: What attracted me to the piece was all the moral ambiguity of every single character and almost every single scene. I approached it thinking Whip's substance abuse is a symptom of what his real problem is: having this disconnect from everybody and everything. I never felt it was a recovery movie -- I felt it was a movie about human brokenness.
Denzel Washington: It was just a great screenplay first of all. I read it and I was like, "Wow." Then my agent said Bob Zemeckis wants to make this movie and that's all it took. I didn't do much research. We had the opportunity to go in flight simulators and that was great. I just have a great job, one day I'm flying, the next driving trains. It's just fun.

On filming the plane crash
Zemeckis: The plane being inverted was always in John's screenplay and I thought that was a clever device to arrest the descent. We also spoke to aviation experts to make it as real as we possibly could. Then we designed it, pre-visualized it and did all the stuff we had to do to pull off a sequence like that. Movies have to have a certain amount of spectacle -- that's why we go to movies. Doing the effects, they're a lot of work and we had a great team of young artists. One of the reasons we were able to do the movie so inexpensively was the result of all those years of [motion capture] cinema I'd been doing. There's 300 effects shots in the movie; you hope people don't see them, but there's a lot of digital work in the film. For me, that was always in service of the characters, [because] what got me excited about this movie was dealing with these complicated characters and doing the non-effects part. That was, for me, the greatest joy.

The supporting cast on how they approached their roles
John Goodman: I think that, for me, [I thought about] the mediocrity of being a [drug] dealer. You think you're providing a service... but you're not!
Don Cheadle: I was speaking to Robert and John and I said, "What's the big idea behind this character?" And they said, "We think he's the devil." And I said, "Okay... I'll chew on that and try to figure out what it means." It was an intriguing way into the character, this lawyer who has to do what I still consider to be his job and what he owes his client. But at the end of the day he's allowing Denzel to avoid any responsibility and culpability for what he's done.
Melissa Leo: If Don was the devil, I guess I was the bearer of justice. What I knew when I looked at the script was that Robert was really asking a lot of me, so I was honored to join for a couple of days and bring it home for him.
Bruce Greenwood: For me it was about trying to desperately trust a friend who was giving you signals you just couldn't throw off. It's one of those things where you have a close friend who looks you in the eye and says, "I hear you, I'm going to keep it together" but you know in your gut that it's not going to happen.

On whether the "Miracle on the Hudson" was an inspiration for the movie
Gatins: I can tell you exactly where I was when that happened. I was in Arizona at a car show and I started getting e-mails from people saying, "Oh my God, this guy just landed a plane on the Hudson River. It's like your movie!" But when I started reading about what he did, I was like "I'm not sure you understand what I'm trying to do." Because from what I've read of Chesley Sullenberger, he's a great guy; he's married, has two daughters, lives in Northern California and did an amazing piece of flying with his crew.

On whether making the movie has changed their attitude towards flying
Cheadle: It's probably why I haven't seen it yet. I've been on 25 planes this year!
Gatins: I was a terrified flyer and I went through a really bad period at one point. But I have to fly all the time for work. I don't know a lot of people who jump up and down about getting on a plane and think it's awesome. Robert is a pilot and has planes and kept saying, "I'm going to take you up in one!" And that hasn't happened. [Laughs] I had to fly with him to locations and he constantly wanted to work on the plane. So we'd be sitting on the plane, talking about sequences and there sweating, trying to focus on the job.

On the reunion of Cheadle and Washington, seventeen years after Devil in a Blue Dress
Cheadle: Yeah... that movie was a minute ago. [Laughs] It was interesting for me, because it felt like a different take on the protection that Mouse felt for Easy. It was a similar job, trying to make sure he had his man's back. Although in this case it was pretty self-serving: to save him was to save me.
Washington: When we did Devil in a Blue Dress, I was like "I got the wrong part." The first day, I was like, "Oh man, I should have been Mouse."
Cheadle: Then Training Day came and you were like "I'm taking that." [Laughs]

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