For both star and director, Gatins's script was appealing in its complexity and refusal to coddle the audience. "You know, my feeling is that I’ve always said that movies are kind of like love affairs," Zemeckis said. "You know, like two people come together, and if they’re at the right place at the right time, it clicks. That’s how I’ve always felt that I’ve connected with screenplays. It’s the romantic in me."
Asked what specifically drew him to the material, the director answered, "I appreciate what you said about it being so unique and that is exactly what attracted me to this script because it was bold and it was audacious and I loved the complexity of everything. And I loved the moral ambiguity of every character in every scene and every aspect of the script. And when I got to the stairwell scene on about page forty, I said, 'Man, that is bold.' I said, 'Can we actually do that?' So that’s when he had me. John had me."
"I think it’s just the material," Washington answered when asked about his connection to the film. "When I read the material, the script and I just said wow this is good. My agent, the late Ed Limato, the last two scripts he gave me were Flight and Safe House. Safe House and Flight, and that was a part of it, too. Just a promise I made to him. But I don’t like waving the flag and trying to figure out. It’s like when people say, 'Well, what do you want people to get from this movie?' I say, 'Well, it depends upon what they bring to it.' So 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."
"If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage, and I guess," he continued. 'You know, it’s very rare … I read not a ton of scripts, but I read a lot of scripts and you read one. First of all, you felt like you read it in fourteen minutes because you’re turning the page so fast you can’t wait to see what is going to happen. And this was one of those scripts, and I had to have it. I had to be a part of it. You know, and it was a process for us once I got involved, and working with different people. But it was on the page, the guts, the pain, the tears."
As soon as Whip Whitaker is introduced, it's clear that he's a protagonist about which an audience will feel conflicted. Throughout Flight, the film opts not to offer easy answers about the character and his situation, and that was a defining element of the approach, Zemeckis said. "One of the things that Denzel and John and myself talked about was what I loved about the script was so much of the ambiguity. And that’s one of the big ambiguous questions. Then with that speech that Don Cheadle makes about how ten pilots couldn’t do it. And, of course, the part he leaves out is that they were all sober. And that is just one of those things that we did talk about. Well, maybe because he was a little bit loose he was able to do something that no one who wasn’t would have done, and in that case saved a lot of lives. But I mean obviously we’re not endorsing that we think pilots should fly in that state. I don’t think any of us would want to fly in a plane like that."
The act of flying plays to aspirations and primal fears, and is a frequently-cited recurring dream. Washington himself has flying dreams of his own, but like Flight, they're ambiguous, as he explained, "I have a flying dream. I’ve had it for most of my life, and somehow I always end up near the city and I go underneath bridges like there are like these low bridges that they will either be over a train or like the [PH] Conrail trains or water, a small body of water. And I would just work my way down, and I’d stay under them. Then I would have the other part of the dream it would be this takeoff forever, and I would like, 'Oh, I’ve got stay below the street wires.' And then I’m starting to go back up, but then, you know, I’ve got to get back below the wires. I don’t know what it means. I have no idea about what it means."
The inciting incident, the mechanical failure and crash landing, is a setpiece that is classic Zemeckis, a combination of old school suspense and the director's skill in utilizing cutting edge visual effects technology. His last live-action feature, Cast Away, also featured a very effective plane crash, a coincidence that has been remarked upon at length already.
"It’s interesting," Zemeckis explained, "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 no we can’t not make something because it’s so rare to find a good screenplay like this to come along. Because it happens to have a plane crash in it, so that would be the wrong way to worry about possibly having a field a question such as that is like the last thing on my mind."
That sequence finds Whitaker inverting the plane briefly before touching down, providing the striking visual of a commercial airliner flying upside down just above the ground. Gatins and Zemeckis ensured that, despite the outrageousness of such a sight, it is technically possible, as the director said, "Then John, when we were really crunching it down, we were talking to other experts and they would say, 'Well, yeah, you know, I mean – as a matter of fact, it’s public record that on the very first maiden flight of a 707, the test pilot, without telling anybody, inverted the plane.'"
Asked by an incredulous journalist if the plane could stay in the air while inverted, Zemeckis replied, "Oh, yeah, but then what they said to us, 'But the engines wouldn’t last more than a minute or two.'"
While that sequence is obviously suspenseful and unique, there are several scenes in the film that ratchet up the tension and effectively thrill without the benefit of visual effects or an airliner plummeting thousands of feet. One scene that has already earned effusive praise finds the alcoholic, drug addicted Whitaker simply placing a bottle vodka atop a fridge in his hotel room.
"I always wanted the scene to be suspenseful," Zemeckis said. "And I wanted it to sort of evoke that, I don’t know. I wanted it to have that like sort of an ethereal feeling. So I constructed the refrigerator so that the actual walls of the refrigerator glowed and shot all of Denzel’s performance at sixty-four frames so that I could dial different speeds of his movement to make it look almost surreal, if you will. But I was channeling one of my favorite directors, which is Mr. Hitchcock, and I was pulling a lot of shots out of his playbook for that scene. So, yeah, I just thought this idea was that the alcohol was a siren. You know, it was just calling him and calling him."
Two-time Oscar-winner Washington plays a challenging character with Whip Whitaker, but when asked whether or not the production was especially grueling, the actor replied, "You know, tough spots for me are pictures I don’t want to be on. When the people say, 'What’s the hardest part of a movie?' You know, if you’re on a movie and it’s like the third day and you go, 'How many days have we been shooting?' 'Like three.' 'How many more have we got to go?' '117.' That’s a tough movie for me, but this was an adventure. I mean, first of all, like I said starting with the screenplay and the collaboration with the filmmaker, and getting the chance to fly around in flight simulators, these MD-80 flight simulators, hanging upside down in the plane, playing a drunk. You know, it was all – I wouldn’t say it was easy."
Zemeckis has not made a live-action feature since 2000's Cast Away. The last ten years have seen him directing exclusively the motion-capture movies The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol. His work on those films helped pave the way for the technology's maturation and use in films like Avatar and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. While audiences are eager to view Flight as a return to form for Zemeckis, the director himself has a broader view, saying, "I never felt that I went away. Movies are movies. Movies are movies. Some bend light through a lens. Some create moving images virtually. At the end of the day, movies are movies."
Flight arrives in theaters nationwide this Friday, November 20th.