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Director of ‘Flight’ navigates into live-action film again with Denzel Washington

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Director Robert Zemeckis has spent the better part of the past decade making 3-D animated films such as “A Christmas Carol” and “The Polar Express,” but he’s making his return into more grownup films with a vengeance.

Zemeckis’ latest film, “Flight,” which opens Friday, is one of his more recent live-action films since 2000’s “Cast Away.” But the director says it doesn’t feel like anything has changed.

“Movies are movies. The only difference between making a live-action movie and a digital movie is that you’re bending light through a lens. Everything else is the same,” said Zemeckis in a press conference call.

“Flight” tells the story of Whip Whitaker, played by Denzel Washington, an airline pilot who becomes a national hero after saving
a flight from crashing. But an investigation into the malfunctions of the crash reveals Whitaker’s troubling struggle with alcohol.

Zemeckis, who also directed “Forrest Gump” and the “Back to the Future” trilogy, said what brought him back to live-action filmmaking was “Flight’s” script, which was written by John Gatins, who also wrote the screenplays for “Coach Carter” and “Real Steel.”

“The script was magnificent, and it was a screenplay that in no way, shape or form should be done digitally,” Zemeckis said. “The images were captured digitally, but there were no digital avatars involved. So it was all based on the screenplay.”

Gatins said some of the script’s themes reflected his own struggles as a former alcoholic. He got sober when he was 25 and started writing the screenplay six years later, in 1999.

“I started writing the script at 31, so I was still thinking about all that stuff,” Gatins said in a phone press conference call. “Alcohol …
was one of my fears, along with flying, and I thought there was a connection between alcohol and flying.”

What makes a movie great, Zemeckis said, are compelling characters, and Whitaker is what Zemeckis called an “imperfect hero.”

“Most people are imperfect, and perfect heroes … are very, very troubled humans,” Zemeckis said. “And I think that I’m drawn to those characters because those characters lend themselves to the most drama and we can all relate to them because everyone’s imperfect.”

Gatins agreed Whitaker’s dark past makes him a gripping, yet confusing, character.

“We ask you really early on to commit to this somewhat unreliable narrator because he’s f—– up a lot of the time in the movie,” Gatins said. “So people are saying, ‘Can I root for this guy?’ He’s heroic but he’s got a lot of darkness so he holds your intrigue but … you’ve got to check your score card and figure out where you’re standing.”

Zemeckis said Washington was his “first and only choice” for the role of Whitaker.

“He is pretty much one of the best actors who is alive today in the world, and I just felt that he was an actor who brought all the sort of power and the ability to reach down into his most inner self to pull this performance off,” Zemeckis said.

Directing a movie that required knowledge of aircrafts was no stretch for Zemeckis, who has a background as a pilot.

“I, myself, am an instrument-rated pilot, so I’m familiar with a lot of it,” Zemeckis said. “I think if you are familiar at all with the world of aviation, you will find that everything in the flying parts of the movie are very accurately depicted.”

Some scenes in “Flight,” such as the pivotal one where Whitaker miraculously lands the malfunctioning airplane, also required Zemeckis’ knowledge and experience using special effects.

“There’s a scene where you have to actually invert the whole aircraft,” Zemeckis said. “That was the trickiest to do both from a
cinema standpoint and from a physical standpoint because we had to weld the airplane cabin on a gimble and turn all the passengers upside-down.”

The film was made for $31 million, but Gatins said scenes like the one where Whitaker lands the plane prove Zemeckis’ digital skills can stand up to an underwhelming budget.

“It’s the most insane sequence you’re going to see in the movie,” Gatins said. “It was phenomenal to watch (Zemeckis) film it. You’re just sweating watching this piece of the movie … and that totally speaks to the digital cinema Robert had been doing for the past 10 years.”

Gatins said he was thrilled Zemeckis wanted to direct “Flight,”especially after Gatins had been trying to get the movie made on his
own for 10 years.

“(Zemeckis) was a great, open collaborator,” Gatins said. “He was egoless and … let me have access to the actors in the movie. It was rare and with all the things that went wrong with me trying to make this movie, it turned out really well.”

After spending the past decade directing and producing family-friendly films, Zemeckis said it’s nice to be back in R-rated territory.

“Oh, it’s always good to get that family film stink off of you,” Zemeckis said. “But there’s no agenda for me. It’s always based on the
screenplay. I mean, the screenplay has got some very adult and rough stuff in it, and you know, that’s what the story is, so that’s the
story that I had to make.”

Gatins said he tried to write a script that would surprise people and go beyond the audience’s expectations.

“I think it’s a movie that surprises people and that’s always fun,” Gatins said. “It’s funny and it’s got a conflicted, complicated
character and Denzel has an insane performance you have to see.”

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