Director Robert Zemeckis Takes ’Flight’ (With a Little Help From Denzel Washington)
It is a scenario we could all related to at some point in our lives. You have partied hard the night before. You wake up with an icky hangover and, worse yet, know you have a busy day. Maybe there’s a crucial meeting, maybe a delicate conversation with your boss, or God forbid, you have to drive.
In Robert Zemeckis’ "Flight," that person is William "Whip" Whitaker, a commercial pilot played by Denzel Washington. At the film’s onset, he’s seen waking in a hotel room with a woman in his bed, open beers and lines of cocaine on the night table. It’s not the most promising image of a man who is about to pilot a flight from Orlando to Atlanta, especially after he takes a few lines to stimulate his dazed state.
What happens next has to be seen to be believed: with a rookie co-pilot at his side, the jet goes into free-fall. Washington, with equal amounts of sweat, ingenuity and plain luck, levels the jet by turning it upside-down, then lands in a field with just a minimum of human loss. Media coverage turns the pilot into an instant celebrity; but there’s a rub: hospital toxicology reports reveal the high amounts of drugs and alcohol in his system.
The first half-hour of "Flight" is dedicated to the creation of this crash scene, while the second portion took us though how Whip (played by Washington in his best role since the Oscar-winning "Training Day") fights to sober up as an investigation continues that may end his career and, worse, send him to jail. It is here where the movie shifts to a darker gear and gets substance. Besides Denzel Washington, "Flight" assembles an impressive cast that includes Don Cheadle, Melissa Leo and a scene-stealing John Goodman as Washington’s ever-ready dealer.
The film also marks a return to live action filmmaking by Zemeckis in more than a decade. Coincidently, "Cast Away," his last feature, also dealt with the aftermath of a plane crash on its protagonist. Not that he wasn’t making movies, the director (best-known for the "Back to the Future" series) spent twelve years in groundbreaking work in making motion-capture films ("The Polar Express," "Beowulf" and "A Christmas Carol").
His latest work shows that he hasn’t lost his touch. Time’s Richard Corliss also credits "Flight’s" success with the collaboration between Zemeckis and Washington, "He (Zemeckis) has acutely fused two movie cultures, mainstream and indie, in a sensibility riskier than the studio norm and more muscular than the Sundance films. A canny director and a top star decided to dig deep to find the core of a compromised hero. And when they reach that center of gravity, ’Flight’ soars."
EDGE chats with Zemeckis on land about returning to live-action with the story of a flawed hero.
About the crash
EDGE: There are two very distinct parts of the movie: the very technical aspect of the plane crash, and the drama that follows. Which is more challenging to film?
Robert Zemeckis: They are both difficult in their own ways. Obviously, doing an action sequence is difficult in the mechanics of it, in just laying it out. Of course, doing scenes that are very emotional and dramatic are challenging in a different way. In this piece, I thought that they belong together. They are woven together in a very clever way.
EDGE: What was it like filming the sequences when the plane flies upside-down?
Robert Zemeckis: We have a set built that we can completely turn upside down. We filled it with stunt people and turned it upside down. Obviously, it was very time-consuming to do that. We did not want anyone to get hurt, so it took a lot of preparation and forethought.
EDGE: So the actors had to be upside down as well?
Robert Zemeckis: All the more - all of them. Everybody had to be upside down because that was the only way we could do it, the only way their hair would look right. They were all pretty game. They had no problems with it. They enjoyed it, actually.
EDGE: And they really looked scared.
Robert Zemeckis: They did not have to act that. [laughs]
Deconstructing the character
EDGE: How did you work with Denzel Washington for him to find the levels of his character?
Robert Zemeckis: We did work on his character a lot but we did it way in advance. We did it all through what we call the prep time of the movie. We start with the big global questions about the character, basically getting more and more specific about every detail about whom he is. We basically just deconstruct the character. I talk about my feelings about the character, and Denzel talks about his feelings about the character. Through that kind of long conversation, we both understand what both of us are trying to achieve. That is basically how we get it together. Then, it is all up to Denzel. He goes off and, puts it all together and shows up with the character on the day.
EDGE: Was Denzel’s character drawn from anyone specifically?
Robert Zemeckis: I think all of us, in modern society, our lives are touched by loved ones and family members who come close to this disease (of addiction) if you will. I think it is very common in that regard.
EDGE: Was that what attracted you to this material?
Robert Zemeckis: I love the complexity of Denzel’s character and the moral ambiguity of the entire piece. I thought that it is very rare to see a screenplay like that.
EDGE: In the film Washington abuses alcohol, but he seems to be functioning well enough that he figures out a way of landing the jet by turning it upside-down. Normally, most pilots would not even think about such a maneuver. Then towards the end of the film, drugs come to play in assisting Washington in a crucial scene. These instances suggest some ambiguity, even dark comedy, in dealing with issues of sobriety...
Robert Zemeckis: It is one thing that is interesting: would he have thought of this very outrageous way to descend the aircraft if there wasn’t that ambiguity about his sobriety? As far as the movie is concerned, I think it is much less about the substance abuse. I think it is basically a symptom to a much deeper issue that Denzel’s character is dealing with, which I think is much more universal for all people who go and see the film.
EDGE: "Flight" is the first live-action movie that you have done since "Cast Away." You probably have less movie-making toys to play with making this film. How was the transition back to live-action for you like?
Robert Zemeckis: For me, it was just like riding a bicycle. Making a digital movie and making a live-action movie, for me, I approach them the same. The only difference is: live-action movie has lens and a digital movie is completely virtual. Making a movie is making a movie.
"Flight" opens in theatres Nov. 2, 2012.
Watch the trailer to "Flight":