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In Flight -- NYFF’s Closing Night Film -- Denzel's An Addicted Pilot Who Saves A Full Plane & Himself

bruce-greenwood-and-denzel-washingtonNobody swaggers like actor Denzel Washington -- especially as he does in Flight, Robert Zemeckis’ latest film.

Washington does his famous swaggering as Whip Whitaker, a veteran airline pilot who’s just had an all-nighter of booze, sex and drugs in an Orlando hotel room. But he pulls it together, kind of, and in shades and uniform he’s off to captain a passenger jet. Though cocky and arrogant, we know that his attitude’s all façade, fueled by cocaine and alcohol. 

On the plane Whip’s already poured vodka into his orange juice before he even gets into the cockpit. Soon the skies darken and there’s some seriously scary turbulence. The scene of the plane going down is mesmerizing and terrifying (make sure you don’t think about it on your next flight) and after some fancy maneuvers -- including flipping the plane upside down -- Whip lands the airliner in the middle of a field. 

But this is not a similar Miracle on 34th Street story like that of real pilot Chesley B. Sullenberger III, who landed his plane safely in the Hudson River, getting his 150 passengers to safety. 

In this tale, six people die during the crash landing although, as the stiff corporate lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) assigned to protect Whip says, the two flight attendants who died “don’t count.”

Flight, which closed the New York Film Festival on October 14th, has given Washington his meatiest role since his Oscar-winning turn as a bad cop in 2001’s Training Day.

At the festival press conference on that Sunday, director Zemeckis, screenwriter John Gatins and actors Cheadle, John GoodmanMelissa Leo and Bruce Greenwood talked about the film. When Washington arrived 12 minutes late, everyone clapped as he sat down with the other cast members.

When asked what drew him to play this character, he answered simply, “It was just a great screenplay first of all, just a great play. I read it and I was like wow, and then my agent said, ‘Bob Zemeckis wants to make this movie.’ Those two elements are all it took.”

As for the toughest scene for him in the film, Washington replied, “Right now,” and everyone laughed. 

“I don’t know. I don’t think of it that way,” and then he turned to the director. “Bob, what do you think?” (When it comes to the press, Washington is always cagey.)

“They were all tough. Making movies is tough,” Zemeckis added. “All I can say is, you know, watching Denzel work every day was just an absolute joy. He brought so many levels to this performance that just blew me away every day, but it was a tough…it’s a harrowing story. Every day we were dealing with a lot of dark stuff so it was draining.”

Gatins, who wrote the first 40 pages of the script in 1999 and then put it down because, as he said, “I figured it would never get made,” added that it was personal. “It was born out of what I like to say are my two greatest fears, drinking myself to death and dying in a plane crash.” 

Zemeckis, who flies and owns planes, said the script didn’t change much from the original version. “The plane being inverted was always in John’s original screenplay, and I thought that was a really clever device to arrest this descent, but then we talked to aviation experts to make it as real as we possibly could and then designed it.” 

Flight marks the veteran director’s return to live-action filmmaking after 12 years having made special-effects films like The Polar Express and Beowulf.

“Movies have to have a certain amount of spectacle. That’s why we go to movies,” he explained, “but what got me excited about this movie was dealing with these complicated characters and doing the non-effects part of this movie.”  

The movie had a 45-day shooting schedule, and he kept expenses down by utilizing what he’d learned from “all those years of all the digital cinema I’d been doing.”

The director said the main reason he wanted to make Flight was because of  “the moral ambiguity of every single character, and every single scene and the entire piece,” especially Whip, whose “substance abuse is basically a symptom of what his real problem is, and his real problem is having this disconnect from everybody and everything and sort of brokenness and to me that’s what attracted me to the piece.”

As for why it took so long for him to complete the screenplay, Gatins explained that he had problems ending it. And then there was the Sullenberger story. He was in Arizona at a car show in 2009, when he got e-mails saying, “There’s this guy who landed in the Hudson and it’s your movie.” 

Gatins told them, “I’m not sure you understand what I’m trying to do because I’ve read about Sullenberger. He’s a great guy, married with two daughters…a good guy, who did an amazing feat of flying.”  “Flight” is the polar opposite of his story.

Someone asked the cast members if the movie had changed their experiences with flying? “It’s probably why I haven’t seen it yet,” Cheadle said. “I’ve been on 25 planes this year. I don’t know if I’ll watch it tonight.” 

Gatins said, “I was a terrified flyer, even though I fly all the time for work.”

Zemeckis, who flies his own Cesna, took Gatins up in his plane, and they scouted various locations together, an experience the screenwriter didn’t exactly enjoy. “He constantly wanted to work on the plane,” Gatins said, “so we’d be sitting on plane…on this sequence…(the crash sequence) and we’re on the storm, and I’m sweating, trying to focus, trying to do a good job.”

Washington is in every frame of Flight. When asked about preparing for the role, he said, “We had the opportunity to go on a flight simulators and it was great,” he said making it sound very easy. “I mean I just have a good job. One day I’m flying, driving a train, whatever. For me it was just fun.”

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