The Fretts on Film Interview: “Flight” Writer John Gatins
One of the cinematic year’s most amazing creative success stories is screenwriter John Gatins, whose previous scripts for sports flicks like Summer Catch and Real Steel (not to mention his acting in movies like Leprechaun 3) couldn’t have prepared us for his powerfully personal story of Flight. I spoke with Gatins about how he poured his own experiences with addiction into the harrowing but ultimately uplifting tale of an airline pilot (Denzel Washington) who goes into a personal tailspin after pulling off a miraculous crash landing.
Can you tell me how you came up with the idea for Flight? It’s kind of a crazy story because most of my life as a writer has been on assignment—you pitch yourself for jobs or you go in and try to sell an idea. This was something I just started writing in ’99 or the year 2000. So nobody knew what I was doing. I was just examining a lot of different issues in my life, and things that kind of scared me. And I had been working on a movie in Slovakia of all places that had Navy pilots in it, and I was with these military pilots and hanging out with them, and that military culture is tough. There’s a lot of drinking. It just had my head spinning. I’m a nervous flyer, so I was flying back and there was a jet-setting pilot sitting next to me. And I’m a friendly guy, and the guy was chatting me up, and I was like, ‘I just want this guy to shut up.’ I realized it was his job—in my mind I want the pilot who’s flying to JFK to take a bullet for me. I don’t want to know that his wife hates him, that he’s going through some awful divorce, his kids don’t talk to him, he’s an alcoholic or a drug addict. And I had this writer’s moment—like what if? What if there was a guy circling the drain in his personal life and he had this responsibility to be a pilot? And then I’ll add to that—put him in extraordinary situation on a plane where he has to do a heroic piece of flying. So that was the outset.
How long did it take you to get the script finished? Well, for years, I put 40 pages in a drawer because I was like, ‘Nobody will ever make that movie—it’s R-rated, it’s dark.’ But it was like my own creative Rubik’s Cube that I’d pick up and put down and toy with. So I was lucky enough to get other movies made, and I wrote myself into the opportunity to direct this movie called Dreamer for Dakota Fanning and Kurt Russell. And when I was done with that, the studio said, ‘Well, what do you want to do next? Why don’t you direct this movie? A big comedy?’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s all interesting, but I want to do this,’ and I handed them the 40 pages, and they were like, ‘Whoa.’ And that was 2004-2005, and they said, ‘Well, we’ll make a little deal with you to finish it’ and that’s when Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald came on as producers, and they helped me as I took another 18 months to finish the draft.
How did Denzel Washington and Robert Zemeckis get involved? We started to show the 2007 draft to people, and the world changed as soon as Denzel saw it. He said, ‘I’m going to play this part.’ And I had a long dinner with him and I was still trying the angle to direct the movie and he was considering it and thought he wanted a more established hand in there. And at the same time, Zemeckis read that script and heard Denzel was interested and it pushed us that step further. Zemeckis called me and said, ‘Hey, I want to talk to you about this.’ So I sat down for what was supposed to be lunch, and we sat for 6 hours in this room in his offices and just talked. And at about hour 3 he said, ‘I have to be honest—are you cool with me directing this movie because I know you’ve been trying to do it for a long time?’ And I said, ‘I can’t do it without you. It just doesn’t happen without you.’ And he said, ‘Well, I want you to come with me.’ So he invited me into the process and was incredibly collaborative and let me have a real voice in the movie, and I was in Atlanta every day on the set. Denzel had access to me, and Denzel and Bob and I did a lot of talking. You know, it was a very rare opportunity because the truth is, this movie is kind of a rare event in a way because it’s not a genre movie and it’s R-rated and for a studio to take this risk is very rare.
It’s also rare that an actor of Denzel Washington’s stature would play such a flawed, dark character. Do you think all the goodwill he’s built up with fans over the years helps him pull off the part? Yeah, I do think that, because when you see him on screen and in life—I will say this of him having spent many months with him in Atlanta—he has a presence that is just undeniable. It’s phenomenal. And that fact that that presence is coupled with an enormous talent, it’s really amazing. It’s a palpable kind of energy. It was a fascinating thing to watch him every day put the shoes on and play that part.
Denzel told you this script was ‘dangerous material. What do you think he meant by that? When I first met him, he said, ‘Listen, this script is really fascinating and complicated and obviously you did your research on plane crashes, but the other side of it—that’s obviously personal.’ And I said, ‘It is.’ And we had a very genuine conversation about it. The truth is, I got sober when I was 25, so it informed a lot of what I was thinking about when I started writing the script when I was about 31. A lot of that finds it way into the fabric of the movie. Denzel was smart enough to see we’re going to talk about addiction, God, religion vs. spirituality and the value of the truth, which I would argue is the basis of the movie—you ask at the end, ‘What is the actual value of the truth?’
Does this feel like a totally different experience for you from the other films you’ve made because it’s so personal? Yeah, it does. When I was at the New York Film Festival—I’m from New York, but most of the time when we’re involved in an event, it’s out in L.A. And I’ve worked on a lot of mainstream movies and had a great time, and I’ve done movies that my kids like. But this was very different to be in New York where my family was watching, and my mom was there—my 75-year-old Irish-Catholic mother from the Bronx!
Was she shocked by any of the scenes with sex and drugs? No, she wasn’t. I told my sisters, ‘You gotta know this movie kind of goes there.’ And my mom knew it and was okay. But yeah, for me, it was much different. My father was a New York City cop, and we’re very Irish. So for me, there was so much of that in the script, even though it doesn’t read through off the screen, but it was personal. That’s where I was at in my mid-20’s, and I’m 44 now—I’m a suburban dad.
How did your experiences in New York shape you as a writer? New York—I mean, 8 million stories. Look, I’ve had a hard time in New York, too. I was young and not very bright at times when I lived in New York. And believe me, I was the problem–not the city. As a grown man, I go back there with my wife—we have a house in upstate New York. I love New York, but it almost killed me in my 20’s. But it was more me because there’s an opportunity to get in a lot of trouble in New York in any given moment. You and I don’t need to speak anymore about that—we understand the implications.
When you were at the New York Film Festival and everyone was applauding you, did you think, ‘I’ve come a long way from Leprechaun 3?’ (Laughing) You know what, I did. We did an all-guild screening the next night and there were probably 600 people in this audience, and they had us sitting up there. I looked down at my feet and I see this piece of tape on the ground that says my name. And I looked to my right and the piece of tape says ‘Robert Zemeckis’ and I looked to my left and it says ‘Don Cheadle,’ then ‘John Goodman,’ ‘Denzel Washington,’ ‘Melissa Leo,’ and I was just staring at the ground like, ‘Where are you? Do you have any idea what you’re doing? Do you know what you’re talking about?’ I had this weird out-of-body experience. One of the publicists said to me after, ‘You answered the questions so smartly,’ and I said, ‘Oh, that’s cool, thank you.’ And she said, ‘My one suggestion is you should look up—people want to see your face.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, but I was having an existential crisis staring at my name on a piece of masking tape on the ground!’ It was a little bit of a shaker for me. I was a bit like, ‘Whoa, man. Do you really know who you are?’
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