Director Robert Zemeckis, left, and actor Denzel Washington worked on… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)
As an experienced pilot who has logged about 1,600 hours in the cockpit, director Robert Zemeckis understands stalls, turbulence and dead stick landings. But when it came to making "Flight," his new movie about an alcoholic commercial airline pilot, the "Forrest Gump" filmmaker had to contend with a different set of aerodynamics: Hollywood's reluctance to clear difficult dramas for takeoff.
More than a decade in the making, "Flight" marks Zemeckis' first live-action film since 2000's "Cast Away" and an atypical wager for Paramount Pictures, which financed the film's $31-million budget. The production nearly fell apart on the eve of filming over contract terms, and screenwriter John Gatins, who first came up with "Flight's" rough outline in 1999, worried over the intervening years that the movie never would get made.
"In today's Hollywood, you can't make a movie that is about ideas and complex characters for a lot of money," Zemeckis said. "The development system destroys the possibility of ambiguity. It's just the way things have evolved. And it's very disappointing."
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The Nov. 2 release casts Washington as Whip Whitaker, an alcoholic and cocaine-addled pilot at the controls in an aviation disaster. The story hangs on this issue: Did Whip's intoxication contribute to or even cause the crash, or did his audacious flying, in which he inverts the jetliner to lessen the crash impact, save countless lives?
To get the answer, Whip must remain sober long enough to explain to investigators and lawyers (the ensemble cast includes Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood and Melissa Leo) what really happened when his plane fell from the sky. Put another way, one of the most heroic things Whip can really do is admit to his own failings.
It's an unusual topic for a studio movie — a distant echo of the long-abandoned, morally ambiguous dramas from the 1970s — and a particular outlier for a company like Paramount, which has dramatically scaled back its film output in recent years, favoring instead a handful of sequels in the "Star Trek," "G.I. Joe," "Mission: Impossible" and "Transformers" franchises.
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Yet once Paramount was satisfied with "Flight's" screenplay and budget, which saw Washington and Zemeckis forgo their usual multimillion-dollar fees, the studio left the filmmakers alone. Its faith might soon be rewarded. Early audience tracking surveys suggest strong interest in the film, and Washington has a long and fruitful history playing similarly flawed protagonists, a record that includes his Oscar-winning "Training Day," "American Gangster" and "Safe House."
"You want to have the big franchises and blockbusters that can really rule the day," said Brad Grey, chairman and chief executive of Paramount Pictures, who personally interceded to help close the "Flight" deal. "And you want to make pictures that you care about. There should always be room for movies like this."
If only it were that easy.
A break from motion-capture
For the last decade or so, Zemeckis has been making motion-capture movies, in which a live actor's movements are recorded by an array of cameras. Animators then create a computerized character based on those movements. The live-action and animation mash-up was used by James Cameron in "Avatar" and by Zemeckis in 2004's "The Polar Express," 2007's "Beowulf" and 2009's "A Christmas Carol."
Though such "mo-cap" movies, as they are known, are generally popular at the box office — "Polar Express" and "Christmas Carol" each grossed more than $300 million worldwide — the movies can cost $200 million or more and take years to make. What's more, some critics dismiss the movies for emphasizing technical wizardry over human emotion.
The wheels were starting to come off the genre, at least in Zemeckis' orbit. His mo-cap production for Disney of "Mars Needs Moms" (directed by Simon Wells) bombed in 2011, and Disney at the same time pulled the plug on Zemeckis' planned mo-cap remake of the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine."
Then the 61-year-old Zemeckis read Gatins' screenplay. "I wasn't doing anything at the time," the director said, "and I never have any predisposed things I want to do in terms of genre. I don't put out the word that I want to do a musical or something."
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By page 10 of the "Flight" script, Zemeckis was hooked. "What intrigued me the most was how everything and every character was complex — no guys wearing white hats, no guys wearing black hats," the director said. Washington, who had read the script a year earlier and agreed to star before there was even a director or a studio green light, shared Zemeckis' enthusiasm.
"I hadn't done anything like it," Washington said. "And the fact that [Gatins] made it about a pilot was absolutely the most dramatic thing he could do. If Whip had worked at the post office, it sure wouldn't have been as interesting, would it?"