Flight is likely to land several Oscar nominations and is certainly a lock for Denzel Washington for Best Actor as alcoholic commercial airline pilot Whip Whitaker. The director is Robert Zemeckis who hasn’t made an “adult” movie since 2000’s “Cast Away,” and is a strong Oscar candidate as well. When these key figures came to Los Angeles for a press conference to discuss the film, the room of journalists asked a lot of lofty questions as well as some elemental ones, too.
“I think it’s just the material,” Washington answered on how he chooses a movie, but said it was also a promise to a longtime colleague. “When I read the script, I just said WOW this is good! The last two scripts my agent, the late Ed Limato, gave me were ‘Flight’ and ‘Safe House.’ Just a promise I made to him.” How about audience expectations? “Hey, I don’t like waving the flag to try to figure it out. It’s like when people ask, ‘Well, what do you want people to get from this movie?’ I say, ‘Well, it depends upon what they bring to it.’ So I don’t try to decide what people should get from it or why. I don’t do a part for those kinds of reasons.” Audience reaction should be left to each individual, I think he is getting at.
For Zemeckis, he’s been working with stop-motion animation for several films in a row (“The Polar Express,” “Beowulf,” “A Christmas Carol”). Asked straight about why a live action now, the straight answer is dodged. “You know, my feeling is that I’ve always said that movies are kind of like love affairs,” Zemeckis said. “You know, like two people come together, and if they’re at the right place at the right time, it clicks. That’s how I’ve always felt that I’ve connected with screenplays. It’s the romantic in me.” Dodged, but ultimately we get the gist.
The director continued, “I loved the moral ambiguity of every character in every scene and every aspect of the script. And when I got to the stairwell scene on about page forty, I said, ‘Man, that is bold.’ I said, ‘Can we actually do that?’ So that’s when he had me. John had me.” Honestly, to me, the stairwell scene was protracted, plodding and self-serving. Washington meets Kelly Reilly, but a third hospital patient jabbers on relentlessly. I will have to watch “Flight” again to attempt to see why the scene was necessary.
Perhaps such divergent scenes and dialogue was attractive to the outside talent. “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage, and I guess,” Washington said. “You know, it’s very rare … I read a lot of scripts. First of all, you felt like you read it in fourteen minutes because you’re turning the page so fast you can’t wait to see what is going to happen. And this was one of those scripts, and I had to have it. I had to be a part of it. You know, and it was a process for us once I got involved, and working with different people. But it was on the page. The guts, the pain, the tears.”
In the film Whitaker saves a load of passengers after the plane’s engines blow out, resulting in a nosedive. He is drunk and stoned while operating this plane. “One of the things that Denzel and John and myself talked about was what I loved about the script was so much of the ambiguity,” Zemeckis said. “That speech Don Cheadle makes about how ten pilots couldn’t have landed the plane. Of course, the part he leaves out is that the test pilots were all sober. And that is just one of those things that we did talk about. But I mean obviously we’re not endorsing that we think pilots should fly in that state. I don’t think any of us would want to fly in a plane like that.”
At that point, the press junket mutated into a series of embarrassing questions. One journalist remarked that Denzel seemed to have brought elements from his “Malcolm X” performance twenty years ago into his role of Whip Whitaker. Washington cracked, “Wasn’t I like 13-years old when I made that movie?”
Washington then was asked about what he dreams about in mornings right before he wakes up every day. I was surprised that he entertained the question. “I have a flying dream. I’ve had it for most of my life, and somehow I always end up near the city and I go underneath bridges like there are like these low bridges that they will either be over a train or like the [PH] Conrail trains or water, a small body of water. I work my way down, and I’d stay under them. Then I would have the other part of the dream it would be this takeoff forever, and I would like, ‘Oh, I’ve got stay below the street wires.’ And then I’m starting to go back up, but then, you know, I’ve got to get back below the wires. I don’t know what it means.”
Zemeckis is asked about not flying, but on the plane crash. “Cast Away” at the point when it came out twelve years ago featured cinema’s most fearsome, white knuckle plane crash. It’s not like he made “Flight” so he could make another terrible, but awesome crash. Right?
“It’s interesting,” Zemeckis explained, “Because there was a lot of discussion in my brain trust of partners and representatives about the wisdom of doing another movie with a plane crash in it. And at the end of the day, we all decided that no we can’t not make something because of that. It’s so rare to find a good screenplay like this to come along. It happens to have a plane crash in it… it’s the wrong way to worry.”
Maneuvering pre-crash, the bizarre sequence finds Whitaker inverting the plane briefly before touching ground. A skeptical journalist challenged Zemeckis on whether a plane could really stay in the air while inverted. “Oh, yeah, but then what they said to us, ‘But the engines wouldn’t last more than a minute or two.’” Added: “It’s public record that on the very first maiden flight of a 707, the test pilot, without telling anybody, inverted the plane.”
At the other end of the movie, Whitaker spends time in a hotel the night before he is supposed to testify to vindicate his actions. The alcoholic, drug addicted Whitaker finds a vodka bottle and places it untouched atop a fridge. We wonder if he will crack it open.
“I always wanted the scene to be suspenseful,” Zemeckis said. “I wanted it to have that like sort of an ethereal feeling. So I constructed the refrigerator so that the actual walls of the refrigerator glowed and shot all of Denzel’s performance at sixty-four frames so that I could dial different speeds of his movement to make it look almost surreal, if you will. But I was channeling one of my favorite directors, which is Mr. Hitchcock, and I was pulling a lot of shots out of his playbook for that scene.”
Was the filming especially challenging and difficult for Washington. The actor replies, “You know, tough spots for me are pictures I don’t want to be on. When the people say, ‘What’s the hardest part of a movie?’ You know, if you’re on a movie and it’s like the third day and you go, ‘How many days have we been shooting?’ ‘Like three.’ ‘How many more have we got to go?’ ‘117!’
Washington continues, “That’s a tough movie for me, a bad movie that shoots forever. But ‘Flight’ was an adventure. First of all, starting with the screenplay and the collaboration with the filmmaker, and getting the chance to fly around in flight simulators, these MD-80 flight simulators, hanging upside down in the plane, playing a drunk. You know, it was all fun – although I wouldn’t say it was easy.” I get the impression that Denzel likes the flattery and the accompanying Oscar talk. In this case, he deserves the nomination. Read review here.