When it comes to the big Hollywood brass, Denzel Washington is as decorated as they come. Pair Denzel’s star power with Robert Zemeckis’s return to live action filmmaking after 12 years of pioneering animated motion capture efforts, and you’ve got a potentially interesting, completely American cinematic outing. But the man behind the curtain, and probably the most overlooked, is John Gatins. Though it took him over a decade to get his film from a blank computer screen to every multiplex in the US, Gatins is now enjoying the commercial and, generally, critical success of his newest screenplay, Flight (2012). The film tells the story of Whip Whitaker, a depressed and alcoholic commercial airplane pilot who unbelievably saves a malfunctioning plane full of passengers by landing it upside down. However, an investigation into the crash reveals that Whip was intoxicated and mentally unstable when the plane began to go down, and the crash might be his fault. I recently sat down with Gatins on behalf of The Cine-Files at the 2012 Savannah Film Festival, where the film was screened out of competition.
KT: Flight took several years to get off the ground (pun intended).
JG: Forever. Yeah.
KT: What was the hold up?
JG: As a screenwriter, the bulk of your work comes from assignments, you know. So if a studio buys a book or someone’s life rights or already has a script or something, the development starts from them, down, and we kind of jockey for jobs. Then there’s speculative stuff. If you come up with your own material, you know, you can then write it at your own pace. And that’s what this was. I would just pick it up and put it down. It was my own little Rubik’s cube. And since I wasn’t working for the studio, because it was spec, I was on my own timeline. Also, R-rated dramas aren’t a great piece of business for studios, so it’s not like I thought this would be a big spec sale. It wasn’t aliens or superheroes, like an established franchise, you know? Also, having a boss didn’t help me. No one was saying “Where is it?” So, I would work in fits and starts.
KT: So, it was your own sort of struggle with it instead of studio interference?
JG: Yeah, but I wanted the movie to be as interesting and textured as it could be. I really did think it would probably never get made, but I wanted to finish the script because it was something more personal and an expression of the sort of things that go on in my brain. I like to think that every time you make a movie, you’ve made somebody’s favorite movie, you know? It’s an odd thing. But this one was personal.
KT: How did you originally envision the film? Indie? Hollywood? Experimental?
JG: Well, really, I didn’t have an original vision other than to create a vehicle for this character. I have a fear of flying, but I fly all the time for work. So, I was on this war movie [Behind Enemy Lines (2001)], and I would spend a lot of time with the actual pilots used for that film. They were kind of funny guys, hardcore drinkers, and a lot of them become commercial pilots, and I thought that was interesting. Then I was on a flight from Germany and I was sitting next to a guy in a commercial pilot’s uniform on his way home. He started talking to me and chatting me up. I really wanted him to stop, you know, but then I wondered, “Why is that?” and I realized it was because he was a pilot and I didn’t want to know anything about his personal life. I want to think that the guy flying my plane totally has his life together. I don’t want to think that this guy is going through a terrible divorce, or his wife hates him, or he’s an alcoholic. So that was the thought, “Wait a second. What if there was this guy?” From there I let Whip tell the story.
KT: Obviously this film’s going to draw comparisons to what happened on the Hudson River.
JG: It’s funny because I remember I was in Arizona when that happened. I was getting all these emails. Then I started reading about Sully, and I was like, guys, Sully was totally sober, straight, a great pilot. My guy is a total disaster. But it was interesting because it shined a light on something heroic that a flight crew had done so that was kind of helpful.
KT: What about the process with Robert Zemeckis?
JG: It was really great because he knew I’d been trying to direct this movie for a long time. When he read it he asked me to lunch and that lunch turned into 6 hours of us sitting around in a room talking about it. He’s a pilot so that was his fascination with it. Then he asked me if I was cool with him doing the film and I told him I couldn’t get it done without him. He invited me to Atlanta so I was there the whole time we shot and he let me have a real voice in it. So it was the best of all worlds.
KT: So, Need For Speed is going to happen.
JG: Yeah. We’re going to shoot in Georgia. Aaron Paul is in it. Such a great guy and perfect for part. We’re trying to do an edgy, 70s take on it. It won’t be as high gloss. And I’m the producer this time and helping the director who made Act of Valor. We’re really excited.
KT: A timely question. Where are you with the digital revolution?
JG: I’m a little bit old school, but I’ve shot a few movies on the REDs and all the new cams. I started out as an actor though, and I remember how it would be when that film would start clicking, how focused it would make you and everyone else. There’s only a certain amount of time on it. So there’s part of me that misses that feeling, like this is precious and every moment counts. It seems weird that now someone can say “Here’s your movie,” and hand you this little piece of plastic. I like behemoth mags and being like, that’s the movie. But, look, it’s great. Flight looks so good. It looks amazing and we shot it digital, on the Alexa.
Published December 3, 2012.
Kyle Taubken was raised in northern Mississippi, near Memphis, Tennessee. Always interested in theater, literature, and film, he began acting in high school theater before moving into film editing early in his undergrad career. Beginning in TV news, he decided to venture into narrative film, writing and directing five short films from 2008-2011 before beginning graduate school. Taubken holds a B.A. in Mass Media from Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, TN, and is pursuing an M.F.A. in Film and Television Production and an M.A. in Cinema Studies from the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, GA. He continues to write, direct, edit, and produce personal films alongside films assigned as class projects.