Roger Durling with director/producer Robert Zemeckis and writer John Gatins
Durling: Robert, when did you get involved? We’ll hear from John directly as he worked on this project for 10 years, even before 9/11 and the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’. When did you get involved with the film?
Zemeckis: I read the screenplay in February of 2011, so not that long ago.
Durling: John, you started this project before 9/11 and before the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’. You’ve been working on this project for—
Gatins: Since 1999 or 2000. I was working on a movie called Behind Enemy Lines, in Slovakia of all places, and there were naval pilots who were advisors on the film. And I’m a very nervous flyer so doing research on plane crashes was not a great thing to do. Don’t recommend it. I just had this fear and fascination with flying. I was flying a lot for work and I was flying back from Germany and there was a pilot sitting next to me who was “deadheading”, as they call it, meaning he was wearing his pilot uniform but he was just a passenger. And he started chatting with me, and I’m a very friendly guy but I just wanted this guy to shut up. I don’t understand why I don’t want to know anything about this guy. Then I thought, “Oh, he’s a pilot.” I want to think that my pilot’s got his life perfectly in order. I don’t want to think that you’re going through a terrible divorce or that your kids hate you or you’re an alcoholic. Then I thought, “Wait, what if there was a guy?” I had this writer’s moment where I wanted to create this character, this alcoholic commercial airline pilot, and put him in this crazy circumstance where he has to do a heroic piece of flying and then it gets revealed that he was loaded when he pulled it off and what would happen next. That was germ of the idea that came from my fear and mind spinning.
Durling: Robert, when you got the script, did it develop? Did it change?
Zemeckis: Screenplays, when you start physically making a movie, they always change. When I read the screenplay, I couldn’t put it down, and that’s a very rare thing that happens that I want to continue reading. I just loved the screenplay. When I read it, I couldn’t believe how bold and unique it was.
Durling: When I first met you, I told you one of the things I was most impressed with was that opening sequence, of course with the big crash, but then the moments down the hallway in the hospital corridor. This time—it is actually my third time watching the movie—it almost looks like book ends and mirror images of each other. You were writing that scene (to John) and you were directing that scene (to Robert).
Zemeckis: All these big moments were in the screenplay. We change little things as we go along. But the character was there and the character was fascinating. When I got to that scene in the stairwell, I just really fell in love with it. I thought this would be an interesting challenge. I just thought it was so bold to put that scene in the screenplay.
Durling: What was challenging about it?
Zemeckis: Well in my mind, it harkens back to ancient theater. It’s sort of a Greek chorus, where a character comes into the middle of the movie in this loopy way that states the premise of the film and then leaves and you never see them again. I was thinking, “Can we do this in a modern movie?” It was something I had never read before. When I got to that scene, I remember thinking, “I just pray that the rest of the script is as good as this” and it was. It just got better and better and better. All the big moments were there and whatever changes we made—and we made a lot of them—they were just honing it and getting everyone’s input and putting it in.
Durling: John, the main character, Denzel Washington’s character, he’s the one that’s in the plane in the crash; but the Kelly Reilly character, she’s also intercut throughout the movie and she’s also crashing like in that opening sequence. Was it your idea all along to have these two strains, like DNA?
Gatins: Yeah; the themes that swirl around in the movie—you talked about the scene in the stairwell—I think we write the strongest when we write from a place that’s personal. My best friend went through that specific form of cancer, treatment, and surgery; and he’s a survivor, thank God. That was a really intense period in my life because our families are really close. So there are all those thoughts I was thinking, like when he’s in the hospital and it just made me think of that; so I brought that character into the piece. Most recovery models suggest finding what you believe in, so there are these themes of addiction and faith. For me, there are a lot of personal things in it. I got sober when I was 25, so when I started writing this movie I was 31 and the new pair of glasses that I had given that change in my life obviously was a filter for a lot of what ended up in the script and ultimately in the movie, as well as experiences I had gone through. People often ask, “Wow, there’s a lot of religious iconography in the movie and spiritual suggestions” and some of it’s funny, some of it’s serious. I always say, “Look, I think it’s me trying to think about what I really believe”. I think there are only moments when really serious things happen that make you have to think about it. Luckily, or hopefully, we don’t have to think about it on a daily basis. A really tragic thing may happen and we think we can’t understand it and start to think of what was the reason. If you’ve heard the expression, someone said to me once, “There’s no atheist in a foxhole.” I was thinking about it in relation to this movie and I think there’s no atheist in an airplane at 30,000 feet that starts pitching all over the place. It gets real quiet. And everyone is thinking what I’m thinking which is, “Oh God, please just put us on the ground safely.” And I’m thinking, “Well do we believe in God?” “We’ll worry about that when we get there!” It’s like—I don’t know. I think that all of those themes somehow folded together in the movie.
Durling: Robert, this movie starts so big with so many spectacles and it’s dazzling and then it ends close-up on the human, on him. Not many directors can handle this range of dazzling special effects and technical wizardry and also the human aspect of the story. Can you tell us about handling both aspects?
Zemeckis: Well, I must confess, it does fly in the face of conventional wisdom to put your big action scene in the beginning of the movie and then have the end of the movie be character and emotion. It’s usually the other way around. My feeling was that it’s a character piece. Ending the movie really close on Denzel was always by design. Those were my instincts, and that’s what it’s going to be. My feeling is that the movie actually ends in great spectacle; and that spectacle is Denzel’s performance. There is a lot of cinematic spectacle in the beginning; but, there’s a lot of performance spectacle at the end. As I was making the movie, I didn’t feel that there was going to be any problem at all. The movie would continue to be compelling all the way through.
Durling: John, how much research did you have to do?
Gatins: A lot. NTSB reports are public record, so you can download them and comb through them. I talked to a couple of pilots and one in particular, who’s a very close friend of our family’s, and I was asking him about two specific crashes and he put me on to this Alaska crash, 261, which was close to here.
Durling: Port Hueneme.
Gatins: Port Hueneme, yeah. I read that report and then I had a lot of questions for him regarding that, so I borrowed from a couple of different actual incidents to try and help put on the page an event that would feel real. It was a lot of research and it was, like I said, fascinating to talk to pilots about those incidents and also about trying to characterize a pilot’s life. It was really fascinating to me.
Durling: When you wrote the screenplay, the crash was as detailed and as lengthy?
Gatins: It was actually. And that was the thing, there are a lot of bad things about writing a screenplay for 12 years; but there’s a few a good things. And one of the good things was that I was able to continue to go back and refine all of the detail. Some people would argue—myself included probably—that the script is a little over written. In truth, it was helpful as a blueprint because all of the department heads and designers had all of this insane detail to pick through and ask about. It’s the same when Bob read the script. But, I came pretty close on a lot of what I was trying to do within the plane sequence, and Bob’s a pilot, so he was able to take it that much further. We talked to technical advisors when we were in Atlanta, who were great and really helpful and helped take the tech talk and all of the parlance that much further. The research was really fascinating, and like you said, there was so much that went on. And those first 40 pages—so everything up until him waking up in the hospital—was pretty firmly in the original architecture from the first time I sat down to write it. It got more and more refined as we went. But so many things happened in the airline industry from the time that I first started writing, like you mentioned. It was interesting. Every time something came up in the aviation industry or something in the airline industry it would just pop-up and I would read about it.
Durling: That is so shocking that first scene. Not the crash itself, but the very first scene of the movie where you have this pilot drinking, doing cocaine, smoking pot, and then you have this naked beautiful gal right on your face. It’s such a picture of decadence. Tell us about directing that scene and was that always in the script?
Zemeckis: Yeah! That’s how the script started.
Gatins: That’s how the script always started.
Zemeckis: That’s how the script started. My job was just to put the camera there and present it. That was really crucial. There was a great moment, the next cut after that scene when he walks out of the room and he’s got his pilot uniform on. Unfortunately, because we have to market movies…In our very first preview of the movie when no one knew anything about the movie and it was a cold preview and he walked out of that room, the audience just screamed. Now everyone knows it’s a movie about a pilot; but the idea of him being revealed as a pilot is one of the things that happens when you live in a world and you have to market a movie.
Durling: I saw it opening weekend, and I went to a very crowded movie theater. And actually there were a lot of young people around me—it was a Saturday night—and when that scene happens and he walks out into the hallway, people cheered and went “Yeah! Uh! No!” I was horrified.
Gatins: Let me ask you this and let me ask you this. When Harling shows up at the end of the movie, did you clap? Did you cheer? (pause) What’s wrong with you people? Cheering a man committing a felony! I had the same experience. I love watching it with audiences because John Goodman does such an amazing job inhabiting that character and we love that guy! But if you put him on paper and analyze him you say, “Well, he could be a better guy.” You kind of love them.
Durling: You have to explain to the audience the shooting of that plane crash sequence, which has been named by critics “the greatest plane crash sequence ever”. The stunt people had to be hanging upside down for one minute. If you could explain it to the audience…
Zemeckis: We did a lot of stunts. We built a rig that turned the actual cabin set upside down and we hung stunt people upside down and we did all that stuff and we combined it with a lot of computer generated shots as well. It’s a mixture of all the traditional tricks that we used to do the movie. The one conscience thing that I did directorially was—and it lends to the terror of the piece—was that I wanted the camera to be where Denzel was to put the audience where he is. Now we have this drama going on in the back of the cabin but it’s also following Nadine’s character, the flight attendant’s character. Keeping the crash in a character’s point of view and keeping the camera in the airplane the whole time—a couple shots were outside but mainly inside where a passenger would be—lends it to being as terrifying as it is.
Durling: All throughout the movie, there is this floating quality of the camera and a handheld following Denzel and it’s floating above him. Can you explain that?
Zemeckis: One of the first things that you do when starting a movie is having these long conversations with your cinematographer and you start to design the style of the movie. And Don Burgess and I came up with this idea that the camera would subtly reflect Denzel’s intoxicated state. Whenever Whip was sober, the camera was locked down; and when he had a little bit of a buzz on, we put the camera on a steadicam and gave it a little float; and when he was really ripped, the camera was always handheld. A camera is an emotional storytelling tool so you get this sense that camera is floating around when he’s floating around.
Durling: John, Denzel’s character, Whip, uses his cane and abuses it basically.
Gatins: It was just amazing to watch Denzel do his job because he had a system by which he calibrated the scenes for himself. He took a lot of notes. We talked a ton. He asked Bob and I a lot of questions and he had some scale—and I don’t remember if it was 1-6 or 1-7—and he calculated his level of inebriation in any scene. When you asked that question, I thought of the scene with Tamara Tunie, the woman who played Margaret, at the funeral. And he has the cane and he’s using the cane and he called it his “Uriah Heep” like “he’s coming.” Denzel had a very specific way; whether he had a strong stance or a weaker stance or if he was trying to be manipulative. That was all in the design of his approach as an actor to the character, constantly.
Zemeckis: He and I spoke about it—‘manipulation’ is the word—but he was much more specific. He said “I’m using as Whip”, this is all going to be part of the lie. This is all going to be dishonesty. Whenever Whip needs to look for sympathy he’s going to be using that cane.
Gatins: In the scene with Geraghty, the co-pilot, he taps the cane a lot.
Zemeckis: But in the scene just prior to that, he’s walking in the bar without a cane and then when he gets to the hospital he’s got this cane and he’s using it as a—well obviously it’s a crutch.
Durling: Where did you find Kelly Reilly, who’s brilliant in the movie?
Zemeckis: Well that’s a great story because my first choice was not to look for an English actress. It just wasn’t what I was thinking. One day my casting director said, “You have to look at this video I just got.” And what Kelly had done was that she got her hands on the screenplay, set up a video camera, and auditioned herself. She just did a couple of scenes and sent them to my casting director. I looked at it, and it was just great. So I said, “Fly her in. Let’s meet her.” She came in and auditioned with Denzel and she was just great, so she got the part.
Durling: John, did you ever imagine the success this movie has had? It’s been an incredible critical and financial success.
Gatins: Yeah, I knew it all along. No, in truth—my wife is here and it’s funny because I tell this story that when I started writing this movie, I didn’t have any kids. We now have three kids. And they’re big. My oldest kid is shaving…his legs, it’s weird! No, no he’s not. But no, the movie is a framework of my life and my career at the same time. And I never thought I’d finish the script. I didn’t. After year seven you’d think, “C’mon man.” I had writer friends who would say to me “C’mon man, give it up!” I had to have a job in between to support my growing life, so I did a lot of other things in the in-between. This was a thing I was writing without a boss. It wasn’t like an assignment from a studio. I hadn’t pitched it as an idea. It was just a thing I picked up and put down and said, “Man, that’s a scary movie.” I thought, “No one will ever make that movie.”I just kept writing it.
Zemeckis: Not only would no one ever make it but it’s really great that audiences have embraced this film because on paper these are the kind of movies that we’re told no one wants to see anymore.
Durling: It’s been a remarkable year. When you think about the fact—whether you like them or not—the fact that you have Flight, you have Lincoln, you have Argo, you have all these serious minded films that audiences are actually embracing instead of the big blockbusters.
Zemeckis: These are the types of films that when I was in film school these were the films—and I’m aging myself; but this reminds me of those great films of the 70s. Those great films had really complex characters and full of moral ambiguity and irony. Those were the films that I grew up on. I was grateful that I had a chance to make a movie like this.
Durling: Thank you for coming and congratulations on your film.