Release Date: November 2, 2012
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenwriter: John Gatins
Starring: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle
MPAA Rating: R
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
In 1999, screenwriter and former actor John Gatins served as a technical advisor on a "military-themed epic" where he spent much of his time with other technical advisors, mostly naval pilots. They shared "the most insane stories" about what they had to do to land these planes on ships in the roiling seas. For the writer, who harbors a fascination and a fear of flying, these vivid stories set his imagination in motion. The pressure, the exhilaration of accomplishing these mid-air acrobatics – what kind of mindset would they have and how would they find release back in the company of mortals on earth?
So began a twelve-year odyssey that ultimately brought "Flight" to the screen. The main dramatic conflict explored in "Flight" is Whip Whitaker's inability to be truthful to himself. He is an expert in denial, even as his personal downward spiral increases exponentially. As Gatins describes it," 'Flight' is a character study about a guy really struggling with his own demons. And what should have been a typical day of work for him becomes a series of unfortunate events that leads to a disastrous occurrence on his plane. From there a larger story unfolds both personally and professionally for him. As that world continues to unfold, we watch the man in the center unravel."
Gatins extensively researched real-life air disasters. At that time, the legendary US Airways "Miracle on the Hudson" river landing accomplished by heroic pilot Sully Sullenberger, was still ten years away. However, with the help of the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) and interviews with pilots, eventually, Gatins drafted a 35-page outline of what ultimately became "Flight" – which became more than a mere disaster film when he also wove in some of his own history.
"Part of my own personal life found its way into the fabric of the screenplay. For me it was an exercise examining my own kind of issues and demons that I've had throughout my life and how they relate to this character who has a big event that happens in his life," Gatins says.
Gatins explains that part of Whip's addiction includes the lies he tells himself and the ones that other people ask him to maintain. His real crucible comes when" …the weight of those lies come to a breaking point where he's going to have to make a decision," Gatins says.
"When I read this, it was like a little bit of John's soul had been ripped out and put on the page. It was an extraordinary story that was harrowing and mesmerizing on as many levels as I'd ever read," Parkes says." And the main character, so brilliantly played by Denzel, is someone completely on top of it, heroic and dashing and yet completely vulnerable inside. I think that's something we all connect to. Ultimately, it's a story about someone coming to terms with who he really is."
MacDonald adds that even though Gatins hadn't actually finished the script at the time they first read it, the story intrigued them nonetheless.
"The first draft wasn't completed at that time but we loved the potential it had. It had complex, morally compromised characters; it played as a courtroom thriller but as the plot progresses, you realize that for Whip to win his case would be his great downfall, if he doesn't face the truth of who he is, he will be destroyed in a much more profound way. In a more universal sense, we all can relate to certain things that we don't want to face or come clean on, the lies we tell ourselves and each other. I loved the idea that you're almost rooting for a bad thing to happen to the main character because that will be the beginning of his redemption. And I'd never seen that story told," Parkes relates.
For Zemeckis, "Flight" marks the return to live-action filmmaking. The innovative director has spent the past decade directing and producing films that utilize motion capture technology and indeed Zemeckis has long been on the forefront of special and visual effects technology in films. However, strong characters with compelling emotional journeys anchor all of his films, including ‘Flight."
"What really appealed to me was how complex all the characters were – they are all sort of shaded grey. They aren't the typical ‘good guys, bad guys.' Everyone in the film is, to some degree, damaged and that becomes the dramatic engine for the piece," Zemeckis notes.
"What's also interesting about it is that the suspense in the movie comes from the uncertainty of what the characters are going to do, how they are going to respond. It's not like there's a ticking bomb or a meteor that is coming to destroy the earth. The anticipation comes from not knowing what the characters are going to do from scene to scene. It's so rare to find a screenplay that has that kind of depth and complexity. That's what compelled me. I wanted to see how this was going to resolve, what would happen to Whip's character."
Zemeckis' longtime producing partner Steve Starkey understood his attraction to the project." Bob's palette is so big, so his decision to make this movie didn't surprise me," say Starkey. The "Flight" producer, who has collaborated with his ImageMovers partner Robert Zemeckis for 25 years, notes that as a pilot himself, Zemeckis" … inherently understood the demands of that profession, and so was keenly interested in conveying a sense of reality and believability to the plane sequences in the film. However, the plane crash is primarily a device that allowed him to get to the real story. At the core it's a soul-searching story about a man's struggle to be truthful with himself. The plane crash triggers a series of events that causes him to look deep down inside of himself and discover the truth about his own character."
Contrary to most production schedules, Zemeckis shot the film sequentially so that performances could grow organically, allowing the actors and filmmakers to learn from and expand upon their characters as the film evolved. To help achieve that he invited screenwriter John Gatins to be on set daily throughout the film to consult and enhance the screenplay as changes or revelations occurred.
What didn't change was Whip. He is the quintessential anti-hero, something Zemeckis makes plain at the start of the film.
"I don't think there's any doubt that anybody watching this movie can't be but shocked when they see the scene at the beginning of the film where Whip engages in every excess imaginable and then turns into a trusted pilot when he walks outside the door," Starkey contends." It's a shock to the system. It's a turn that nobody expects, and just makes it even greater the way Bob shot it, with a shocking sense of humor."
The harrowing flight, it turns out, is just the beginning of the journey. Through Whip Whitaker, "Flight" explores high stakes moral dilemmas. According to Gatins, "Whip is a guy who, through his own hand has been put in a compromised position, but does this miraculous piece of flying, and earns the right to control his own destiny. What it came down to for me was the question of the value of living an honest life. It's part of an element of the movie where we want to invite the audience into Whip's world to be the ‘court of public opinion' and to watch him struggle with the forces that are both trying to clear him and make him a hero. How do we judge him? By his remarkable piece of flying, or by his personal demons? "
Producer Walter Parkes adds that part of Whip's tailspin has to do with the very system that annoints him a superhero.
"There's this strange turning convention on its head in a way. Whip has done everything right – he landed the plane miraculously and saved lives. He's embraced as a hero but the problem is that he is also a victim of it. Ultimately the movie is about how to live one's life in good faith – and that means telling the truth," Parkes says.
Flight Manifest – The Cast
Academy Award® winner Denzel Washington stars in the dramatic lead role of Whip Whitaker, a deeply flawed yet remarkably skilled pilot who successfully lands a doomed plane, saving 96 of the 102 lives on board. To the media and American people, Whip is a hero. Yet his life is a mess of contradictions, vices and poor judgment. One of the most esteemed actors of his generation, Washington has convincingly portrayed police officers, detectives, lawyers, nuclear submarine officers, and train conductors. With "Flight," he adds commercial airline pilot to his resume.
"It was just so much fun watching Denzel. I mean, you can't believe what you're seeing when you're watching him perform. The genius of Denzel is when he can do something that I like to call ‘performing behind the eyes.' There are many scenes where you can just feel his misery and it's breathtaking to see. He's truly one of the greatest actors that we have working today. It was a dream come true to be able to work with him in this part," Zemeckis says.
"We were so lucky to be working with Denzel," producer Starkey adds." When you see him in character you can't imagine anybody else doing it.
Upon first reading the script, Washington immediately knew that the character and story of Whip Whitaker had all of the underpinnings of emotions and character traits that appealed to him." Before the movie fully came together," recalls John Gatins," I sat down with Denzel for two hours and he told me his reaction to the script." It struck many notes for him. He said, ‘You know, this is dangerous material,' with a kind of smile - with that kind of Denzel smile. I could tell that it really fascinated him."
Gatins notes that Washington was also very interested in his personal connection to the film." The first time I sat down with Denzel to talk about the script, he immediately went to "that" place because he's an actor who needs to know it all," Gatins says." He has a process by which he immediately zeroed in on me and said, ‘Tell me that story. I get that you did research about every plane that's ever crashed, and what could happen to the plane in our movie, but I really want to know about your personal story -- how did you come to this, and where are you at with your own disease as far as addiction is concerned.' We had a very wide-open conversation. He was amazing in that way."
Washington actually read the script long before Zemeckis was attached to the movie but was thrilled when he heard that Zemeckis was interested in directing "Flight."
"I thought he was just perfect for it – that's when the film really took off for me," Washington says.
Early in the process, Starkey asked Washington what he, as a producer, could do to help him prepare for the role of Whit Whitaker." He said the most important thing for me is learning how to be a pilot," Starkey recalls. Starkey notes that Washington wanted to work with a flight instructor and go through serious training so that portraying a pilot would become second nature, notably for the scenes that placed him in the cockpit and behind the plane's control. Starkey continues, "So we hooked him up with a pilot in Atlanta and he went into a simulator and spent many hours training so he could become well-versed in flying an aircraft. It's very believable when you listen to him communicating with the control tower, speaking with his co-pilot, and just piloting in general."
Washington also took great pains to let the pilots know that the movie wasn't an indictment of them.
"I wanted them to know that the movie was not trying to knock airlines or pilots. It's not so much about flying as it is about addiction, at least as it relates to my character. So he could work in a post office but flying a plane is the most heightened dramatic situation. But it's really about a man who has issues and he could be a filmmaker, a pilot or a plumber. The addiction and denial is the same and hopefully the recovery is too. But being a pilot is a tough, high-pressure job. You fly from LA to NY to Hong Kong, spend 24 hours there, turn around and come back and then do it again. That's hard on the body, you're alone in these hotels with strangers and your flight attendants become your family. But it could be anyone who spends that lonely night in a hotel room wrestling with demons," Washington notes.
Washington, Zemeckis and Gatins also poured through the script together, discussing, analyzing and internalizing it. It is an extremely naturalistic process that allows the team to understand the character from the inside out.
"It's not really rehearsal in the classic sense, but we got into a conference room and for hours and hours we just talked through the scenes, to ensure we were all making the same move. We ask all the key questions then, we go into the script and discuss whether a line would be better one way or the other. It allows us to get into the deep psychology of the character and understand what he is feeling at any given moment. And then a great actor like Denzel can take all that and make it happen through his extraordinary performance," Zemeckis says.
It was during these conversations, Washington says, that Whip began to materialize for him – an ineffable creative process that Washington embraces but doesn't like to dissect too much.
"John Gatins and Bob Zemeckis thoroughly understood this character … every now and then, that kind of collaboration works. You can have the same great people in a room with a great script and still screw it up. In this case, I think Bob fashioned a terrific film, and I was just a part of that process. There's no magic pill but I got a lot of the character work done just sitting in that room with Bob and John, working on the script," Washington says.
Producer Walter Parkes adds that part of Zemeckis' gift as a filmmaker is his ability to handle both the technical and the human aspects of the creative process.
"In one scene, he is not wearing his brace or using a cane and in the next he walks in with his brace. He puts it on when he needs it but not necessarily because of his physical problems. He's trying to save his behind. He's a great liar. He's in denial and trying to save himself through lies," Washington says
For a character as complicated and nuanced as Whip, this proved invaluable. In a way, Whip is "acting" all the time. Washington conveys Whip's consummate ability to deceive everyone, including himself, through Whip's confident charm but also via smaller but significant details. Post-crash, Whip recovers in the hospital but his injuries – or lack thereof – reveals something deeper about his personality.
"I don't ever ask an actor where he goes to get his performance. My job as director is to throttle that performance – allowing the actor to understand how happy or sad he might be at a certain moment, for example. Where the actor goes to get that emotion, that's his gift and I don't ever want to know where he goes for that stuff," Zemeckis offers.
"There is just a level of pure cinematic mastery in watching Bob work. He is completely knowledgeable in every aspect of the technology of filmmaking – there isn't a job on the set that he does not understand or couldn't do himself. And yet, when it comes to the actors, he is completely protective of their work and approach and creates a supportive and safe atmosphere for them at all times."
For a character as complicated and nuanced as Whip, this proved invaluable. In a way, Whip is "acting" all the time. Washington conveys Whip's consummate ability to deceive everyone, including himself, through Whip's confident charm but also via smaller but significant details. Post-crash, Whip recovers in the hospital but his injuries – or lack thereof – reveals something deeper about his personality.
Rising British actress Kelly Reilly is Nicole Maggen, a beautiful but troubled young Atlanta woman struggling with her own issues of substance abuse, who befriends Whip.
"She has her own personal kind of plane crash that kind of interweaves with Whip's story," Gatins notes." They meet in a fascinating way at the hospital, at a really low point in both of their lives, and that becomes the genesis of their relationship which carries us through a fair amount of the story."
The filmmakers conducted an extensive talent search and audition process to cast this emotionally charged role. Reilly, best known for numerous television and film roles in her native England and who was most recently seen opposite Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law in the blockbuster "Sherlock Holmes" series, auditioned for the role the old fashioned way.
"Finding Kelly was one of those great Hollywood stories. She knew I was casting the part and happened to be in Texas on vacation. She put herself on tape and sent it to our casting director. I saw this performance, and said, ‘Wow! Bring her in!.' I knew her from the ‘Sherlock Holmes' movies but because she's an English actress, it didn't occur to us at first. I had to meet her. And once she read with Denzel, it was clear they had such great chemistry. We all felt it, including Denzel. We never actually had to do a traditional screen test, she had such a presence and completely understood Nicole's vulnerability and quiet resolve," Zemeckis says.
"Kelly kind of stopped us all in our tracks," Starkey enthuses." We were riveted by what she did."
Parkes add that she brought a critical, intrinsic truth to the role.
"Nicole starts out as a life preserver for Whip. He thinks maybe he can't control his life but he could possibly save her. But what surprises him – and the audience – is that Kelly brought such an honesty to it – she refuses to be brought down by him, to give up on her own survival," Parkes says.
The movie and role was very much on Reilly's radar, but for her, just meeting the creative team was reward enough.
"I had been very passionate about this script for quite a few weeks. Lots of people have input into a decision like this but suddenly I was in L.A. to meet Bob. And it was an amazing day actually. I was very nervous, but I knew I was in a room full of people who I really wanted to work with because they were so professional and heartfelt and intelligent about the film and the characters. They made me feel extremely comfortable and welcome. When I walked out, I thought, well you know what, this meeting is a gift in itself. I thought it was a privilege just to experience that and if I got the job, it was a bonus. Then I got the job!" Reilly relates.
"Flight" marks Reilly's first movie to film in America and her first occasion to play an American. As such, she worked diligently with a dialect coach to perfect her Georgia accent, but it was the film's more universal themes of recovery and redemption that appealed to her. When Nicole meets Whip, she is struggling with serious drug addiction. Their chance encounter in the hospital where he is recuperating from the crash and she is recovering from an overdose ultimately puts her on a life saving path to recovery.
"This story is also about the people you sometimes need at certain times in your life and how they can change you. And Nicole is somebody who is trying to change, but she is chained to her addiction. Whip saves her in a way. He takes her out of the world that she's in and gives her a place where she can try to heal herself. And then she also becomes very much part of AA, a program that helps people recover once they're ready to ask for some help. But she wouldn't have done that on her own. Bob had this thought that once Nicole survives her O.D., she realizes how beautiful life is and she doesn't want to be a slave to this drug. As she's trying to get back into the light, she tries to help Whip find that place too, but, he's still very embedded in his denial. As she gets better, she starts to put up a mirror to him," Reilly says.
Reilly describes Nicole as "alone and broken" before she meets Whip.
"When we meet her, she's on her own journey as an addict. Her drug of choice is heroin. We realize why later on in the film. With the loss of her mother and an alcoholic father, she just made wrong decisions, she took some bad roads, and ended up very lost," Reilly says.
Gatins describes Nicole and Whip as" … two people who are damaged - and damaged in the same way - they are immediately drawn to each other he says." Although they couldn't be more different people in their everyday lives - he's a pilot and she's a photographer junkie - it didn't matter. They're immediately swept into each other's lives.
Describing the experience of working with Denzel Washington, Reilly says it was like "being a boxer in a ring with a heavyweight champion." She continues: "He's so intense, brilliant, and heartbreaking. In nearly every scene he moved me tremendously with the truth of where he goes with his character. It's really humbling to watch somebody be that truthful to a character going on quite an ugly kind of journey."
To assist Reilly in preparing her character, the filmmakers enlisted Mitchell Riley, a local Atlanta street artist and former addict himself, who worked with her on the techniques and physical sensations inherent to shooting up heroin and familiarized her with drug paraphernalia such as syringes and spoons. They met several time prior to filming and Riley was on set to monitor the action during filming.
"The real gift he gave me," Reilly continues, "is that he talked with me about his addiction and journey into recovery. And that psychology is what was interesting for me to apply into my character, how one can pull themselves out of that emotional prison."
Acclaimed actor Don Cheadle plays Chicago-based defense attorney Hugh Lang, who is brought in to counsel Whip Whitaker on the possible criminal negligence charges he may face for his involvement in the plane crash. For Cheadle, "Flight" marks the first time he has worked alongside Denzel Washington since his own breakout co-starring performance as Mouse in Carl Franklin's 1995 crime drama "Devil in A Blue Dress."
"It comes to light during the investigation that Captain Whitaker has taken drugs and is drunk prior to the flight," says Cheadle." It comes through in the toxicology report. This is a huge deal for me as I've got to figure out some way to deal with it, to try and keep him in his job, and keep the airline solvent, and really protect everybody."
Theirs is a rocky relationship, neither man is fond of the other and the trust required between lawyer and client is tenuous at best.
"The way Denzel and I talked about their relationship is that Whip does not like Hugh and yet he is there to save Whip. For obvious reasons, Hugh feels likewise about Whip. Through their very interesting relationship, you can see into the deep psychology of Whip's character. He cannot stand the idea that this is where he is in his life, that he needs somebody like Hugh to help him. He doesn't quite understand how he got to this place and all he can do is lash out yet he needs him because he's going to save him from having to go to prison. It's a very complicated, very magnificent relationship," Zemeckis says.
It was clear to Cheadle in discussions with Zemeckis that the director wanted to explore the film's deeper meanings and to probe what is going on with Whip and each character. Cheadle explains, "My character is trying to help Whip, but he's also trying to help him avoid responsibility in a way. And that's really the struggle: me acting in the capacity of a defense attorney trying to protect him, and him trying to figure out what protection really means."
Cheadle notes also that often Whip is not the most likable character and is especially disparaging of Lang. Cheadle adds that this aspect was a critical part of Whip's psyche and emotional journey and, he says, it is a testament to Washington that he was prepared to explore the darker qualities of Whip Whitaker.
"I think when you cast somebody like Denzel in a part like this you can expect to see a real willingness on his part to go to some pretty uncomfortable places. Everyone wants to be liked, to be thought of as the good guy, but Whip's got to unleash some demons to let this happen and in the process, let the audience see the uglier side," Cheadle says.
Ultimately, Cheadle adds, Whip's travails lead to something redemptive.
"It's mostly about a person confronting who he really is, where he allows himself to be pulled under by those parts that are less buoyant, or will he fight and struggle to find some sort of a peace and release that may actually turn out to be spiritual at the end of the day?"
Award-winning veteran film and television actor John Goodman, previously appeared with Denzel Washington in the 1998 thriller "Fallen." In "Flight," Goodman stars as Whip's spirited best friend, Harling Mays, a man who is an anchor to his friend in his darkest moments." Harling is Whip's confidante, friend, and party buddy, who, despite everything else, is his great supporter," Gatins says." Despite the fact that he's a guy who maybe sells drugs and lives on the fringe of what people consider normal society, I think he's incredibly honest with, and loves, his best friend." Gatins adds that Whip's frenetic friend has a great affection for Whip and thus becomes the one person he can call in his time of need - "the guy Whip knows he can rely on."
He also becomes the character the audience can rely on for a laugh, even if his isn't the trustworthiest sort. It is a tightrope that Goodman walks with aplomb.
"John Goodman's character is the classic enabler and also the movie's comic release. You might consider him the most dangerous character in the movie; there's a truth to him and that's where comedy comes from. And John of course, is just a great actor, who has great comic timing and great ability to ad-lib and he just knew exactly what he needed to do for this character. To me, the great irony of the character is that he is so magnetic, you just can't get enough of him, but, in the end, he's Whip's pusher. He's the devil. And you can't wait to see him on screen." Zemeckis says.
The friendship between Whip and Harling is real but also co-dependent. Harling does genuinely take care of Whip but keeps them both on a Moebius strip of addiction and denial.
"They rely on each other and understand one another. Harling is the guy who provides what Whip needs and wants, and knows when to do it, he knows how low Whip is but he doesn't judge, he just provides," Washington says.
Versatile Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood plays Whip's old friend, Charlie Anderson - a former military and commercial pilot who has known Whip since their days in the Navy and who is now the Pilot's Union rep assigned to work as Whip's contact and point person in the crash investigation of SouthJet 227. He last paired with Denzel Washington in the 2006 thriller, "Deja Vu, "
Greenwood, says that Charlie and the union he represents are not as concerned about Whip's celebrity hero status following the flight as they are in protecting their own jobs." It's a moral and ethical slippery slope," he says." Their choice is to either protect somebody who did something horribly wrong, but in exchange allow an airline to survive and two thousand people to keep their jobs, or to sacrifice this guy and let him deal with his own demons. It's tricky. It's not easy to answer."
Zemeckis calls Charlie the "everyman" of the movie.
"He's the guy who represents truth and justice and the right thing. Yet everyone around him seems to have so much more power, overwhelming what he's trying to do. His character just wants to help a good friend, someone who he knew all through his youth. They came up together in the Navy and he truly understands that Whip was put in a defective plane and still managed to save all those lives," Zemeckis says.
Screenwriter Gatins adds that Greenwood's character is "the guy who bridges the gap between Whip's former self as a younger pilot and the guy he is today. Charlie knew Whip as a younger pilot when they flew together and then had their respective careers in the airline industry as pilots. And now he is a rep for the union and is given the assignment of trying to help Whip through this [post-crash] experience." Charlie has the agenda of his employer in trying to get Whip through the process cleanly and make sure he stays the hero America wants him to be."
Greenwood had a little experience with flying and even with crashing …
"My Grandpa was an instructor and he had a Dual Control Luskim Tail Dragger so I few lessons with him. I never actually took off or landed. I just did a lot of controlled turns and descents. I've crashed in a small plane and sunk. Everyone survived but now I have a little different connotation with flying," Greenwood relates.
Prepare for Takeoff
"Flight" commenced principal photography on October 12, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia and filmed for 48 days.
As the film delves into several specialized areas of expertise – commercial aviation, and substance abuse among them – it required very specific technical advisers to help the cast and the filmmakers create scenes that would be convincing to not only general audiences, but to insiders intimately familiar with those worlds.
"A movie of this scale, with so much detail required a tremendous number of technical advisers," Starkey explains." We had a pilot who consulted on the real mechanics of flying a plane and the timing on when certain events would happen. We have an NTSB investigation, so we had an NTSB technical adviser to make sure we're accurately depicting the way they would investigate a crash. If we have other security personnel, or the FBI, all those different kinds of people are brought on to make sure we depicted everything accurately."
One of the principal flight consultants for the film was Larry Goodrich, an Atlanta-based former Air Force and commercial airline pilot who steered Denzel Washington and Brian Geraghty through flight simulator training and was on set during flight sequences to monitor the action. With Goodrich at their side, Washington and Geraghty completed flight simulator training in a six-axis full-motion flight simulator at an airline flight training center at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. There, they trained on the cockpit flight instrument panel to understand how to control the height, speed, altitude and other mechanism of the plane so operating it would become second nature while they acted. For additional practice, they also went through the programmed flight pattern of SouthJet 227's doomed flight, closely mirroring the exact sequence depicted in the film." The filmmakers wanted the actors to have an idea of what the role of a pilot truly is, how he handles himself in emergency situations, his responsibilities, and his interaction with the rest of the crew," Goodrich explains." With Denzel being the captain of the aircraft, he was very interested in learning about a pilot's main responsibilities and some of the background of work before we even get into the flight deck with the systems and instrumentations." The process began with the actors getting comfortable in their seats and familiarizing themselves with the flight instrument panel." We broke it down into little sections, and allowed them to look at flight instrument, engine instruments, the flaps, slats, speed brakes, the yoke, and then how the auto pilot works," Goodrich says." And once we went through all that, we showed them how one of the most disciplined parts of being a pilot is running everything through a checklist."
The simulator certainly helped Washington understand the mechanics of flying a plane and, well, it was fun.
"The simulator was great, it's what the pilots practice in and was incredibly helpful. I know I have great job – I got to drive trains in one movie and fly planes in the next," Washington says.
At the same time, actresses Tamara Tunie and Nadine Velazquez, who play SouthJet flight attendants, completed several courses at a state-of-the-art flight attendant training academy to learn basic flight attendant procedures and crash simulation.
Production designer Nelson Coates and his art department team were responsible for creating the film's overall visual concept. Coates, who worked with Washington on his directorial debut, "Antwone Fisher," recalls being ecstatic and riveted when he first read the script – on an airplane." Probably not the best place to read a script about a plane crash and resulting investigation," he concedes.
Coates realized that as challenging and difficult as the plane crash would be," …the more difficult aspect of this project was to create and flesh out the back history of who Whip Whitaker really is and setting those elements of his life solidly in an environment and reality that would make it believable and give it an overriding, timeless familiarity." Coates notes the Whip and Nicole's surrounding aesthetic was literally crumbling, like their lives.
"Other than the airline and the airport, there's not a lot of glossy and shiny in the film," he observes." There's lots of ‘peeling' going on so walls have things that are falling apart just in the same way our character are falling apart on certain levels." He says he wanted to stress the journey that Whip and Nicole are on together. He adds, "Whether it was the photographs in their rooms, or the colors on their walls, or just a little bit of set dressing, everything in their personal environments had to be carefully chosen. We only had a short time to explain their past history."
Coates says that crafting the film's overall design on a believable base is the chief mandate from Robert Zemeckis." When you're dealing with a plane crash and investigation, you're dealing with a manufacturer of airlines, you're dealing with airliner branding, and we wanted to make sure that those elements felt real and believable and had a plausibility factor," he states.
He notes that while the plane crash is the plot vehicle that sets the main part of the story in motion, "Ultimately," he says, "this movie is not so much a movie about a plane crash, but more about the redemption of a man who is broken and has lost his way. We showcase the transformation as he's trying to come to grips with what his decisions had wrought on other people. So we wanted to make sure that the visuals didn't get in the way of that redemption."
Visual Approach: Lensing the Film
"Flight" required a cinematographer who could seamlessly handle the film's wildly kinetic, effects-heavy plane crash sequence, but also hone in on an intimate character study and personal drama.Director of photography Don Burgess, ASC, has collaborated with Robert Zemeckis as cinematographer on all of his live-action films beginning with "Forrest Gump." "Flight" is the first film that reunites them since "Cast Away." Despite the passage of time, Burgess states, "It didn't take us long to get back in the groove!" After all these years, Burgess still finds the experience of working with Zemeckis exciting and challenging." He is truly one of the best directors working today."
Working with a budget more modest than films they had done was both challenging and liberating.
Burgess recalls, "Bob and I had an abbreviated prep; we were under the gun from the get go. We had also had a very tight shooting schedule. Every day of the schedule had to be worked and re-worked to solve all the logistical problems of complicated airplane scenes, actors availability, set construction and the most important, trying to shoot as much in continuity as possible." Understandably, over the course of a 25-year partnership, Burgess and Zemeckis have developed a synchronicity that helped the production moving at a rapid pace.
To highlight the scenes where the characters are in an altered drug-addled state, Zemeckis and Burgess decided that the camera should be "floating," accomplished via Steadicam. All other times would be filmed more traditionally, mounted on dollies, also reflecting especially Whip's state of mind.
"First we needed to talk concept and style, which comes from the journey of the main character," Burgess says." Bob wanted to use the camera as much as possible to keep the audience connected to Capt. Whitaker. When Whip is sober the camera is fairly steady and when he is intoxicated the camera tends to move to the level of his high. We varied focal length from wide to extremely wide and used different camera speeds to help the effect in those situations."
Burgess has recently embraced digital cameras, and for "Flight" he decided to utilize the RED EPIC camera, noted for its small size. This was especially useful for the plane sequences where the camera would need to have room to maneuver inside the narrow cabin.
During pre-production, Zemeckis put together a pre-visualization of the plane crash and then sat down with Burgess for a long time to discuss how they would create the illusion of a plane flying upside down, where the camera should be, the movement, whose perspective it would reflect. In those early stages, it became clear the RED EPIC was perfect for the job.
Burgess recalls, "Very early in our prep I felt we need a camera that we could use on a Steadicam, shoot hand held, shoot high speed, be small enough to fit in the cockpit of our plane and also have the 5K of resolution for our wide screen release. I felt that the RED EPIC would be the best choice and I'm very pleased with the results. We shot the entire movie with that camera. We even mounted three of them on the front of a helicopter to shoot aerial plates, which were stitched together and used at the front windscreen of our plane. There isn't one film or digital camera that can do all of that except the RED."
In-Flight Turbulence - SouthJet Flight #227
Setting the film in motion – literally - is a harrowing flight sequence that follows Captain Whip Whitaker as he successfully pilots a passenger jet through an increasingly dangerous list of flight difficulties, starting with severe turbulence and culminating with a massive mechanical failure. Moments after a successful passage through the worst of a bad weather pattern, the JR-88 (the film's fictitious plane model) passenger jet inexplicably loses it hydraulics, pitch and vertical control, and begins an uncontrolled rapid descent. To gain control of the plane, Whitaker must rely on his experience, intuition and unique skill set to attempt some very risky, unorthodox, maneuvers, including inverting the plane into a glide.
Screenwriter Gatins says that the sequence in the script came from an actual accident he learned about in his research.
"A professional pilot I consulted pointed me towards a past incident in which the wing on a plane's tail snapped and was in a fixed position that pitched its' nose down. They tried everything to right the plane and at one point had to invert it and flew upside down. They knew that their only shot of landing the plane would have to be a stable inverted flight, and then descend the plane close enough to the ground. Then they could turn the plane over and take their chances by bellying the plane on the ground, which is what Whip does in our movie."
Pre-visualized and meticulously planned in pre-production, the frightening sequence required the combined talents of the film's special and visual effects and stunt teams, along with some creative camerawork, utilizing the latest in film technology.
First came the plane itself. Coates worked with Robert Zemeckis for several months, developing an identity for the plane - everything from its logo to its in-flight magazine, seatbacks, to its unique cockpit. His team modified several existing aircraft to create the SouthJet plane depicted in the film. Coates explains, "We wanted to it feel very familiar and yet, because of the nature and sensitive subject matter of the story, we needed to have our own manufacturer, our own airline company."
Many of the practical airline sets - the jet way, the cockpit, galley, and passenger cabin segments of the film's jet - were erected on multiple platforms and motion based rigs on Stage 5 at Atlanta's EUE/Screen Gems soundstage complex. To make the plane unique to the film's fictitious SouthJet Air Company, Coates created a custom jet influenced by several planes typically used in regional airlines, such as the MD-80 and 737 series. For much of the sequence, the plane was situated on air mattresses that could simulate the high frequency rocking motion of turbulence. Each corner of the SFX-rigged air mattress featured three-foot springs that could extend or contract to move the plane up or down, side to side, or port to starboard, controlled by the special effects technicians operating the rig. Meanwhile, cinematographer Don Burgess and his team used a wide array of camera cranes, mounting heads and other special equipment to film these technically complicated scenes: a Technocrane, Felix Crane, Libra Head, mini head, and a 360 roll cage, among others.
For the portion of the flight in which Whitaker inverts the plane 180 degrees so he can gain some control, the cabin segment of the plane was positioned inside a "rotisserie rig" – a term the filmmakers used due to its functional resemblance to the rotating cooking device - a circular ring that could spin the cabin 360 degrees. The custom-designed rig, had to be strong and secure enough to hold the 11,500-pound weight of that section of plane and its passengers. With the aircraft fit into steel rings and rollers, the film's special effects technicians were able to control a section of the plane and actually roll it around and invert it. Since the rotisserie rig couldn't handle the weight of a full-length, fully loaded plane, the cabin segments were filmed in two 14-row sections, each with 25 passengers per segment, and then married by the visual effects team to create the extended entirety of the plane interior." We custom designed the three hundred and sixty degree roll-over rig to achieve the plane flipping upside down and all that action that takes place while the plane is inverted," says award-winning special effects supervisor and longtime Zemeckis team member Michal Lantieri.
The effects supervisor and his team had to design the rigs to support the weight of the plane - the cabin section of which was fashioned from an MD-80 airplane weighing 7800 pounds – in addition to the weight of the passengers. The design of the revolving rig also required that the cabin be open on both ends to allow for a camera crane to flow in and out while the cabin rolled around it.
During the days of inverted plane filming, the passengers – mostly stunt personnel – were fully inverted many times for up to two minutes per take. Charlie Croughwell, the film's stunt coordinator, compares filming of the flight sequences to "a roller coaster ride." He states: "We had to find people that could handle a roller coaster ride for eight hours each day, who could handle being upside down all day long, day in and day out - and make it exciting." Since the flight is a short regional trip from Orlando to Atlanta, it was essential to the believability for the stunt personnel to look like regular people." The biggest challenge was that Bob Zemeckis did not want stunt guys that looked like your standard stunt people," he adds." They should be just a wide variety of people that look like they just came from Disney World."
The professional stunt personnel were not the only ones who endured the inverted plane sequences. Croughwell notes that Denzel Washington did too." Denzel is great – he wanted to do his own stuff," says Croughwell." He doesn't want to have someone else in there doing his stunts, and it's great that he approaches it from that point-of-view. Obviously if we felt something was going to be too dangerous for him we would talk with him about it and work through it, but he was a trooper."
To make sure his ordinary-looking ensemble of stunt people could endure the days of filming, Croughwell and his team conducted several pre-filming safety tests." We tested with people hanging upside down to see the lengths of time that was safely possible, and to note the effects that hanging upside down can cause," he explains." All the blood rushes to your brain. And after sitting on a plane for eight hours, there are all kinds of circulation issues you have to deal with. So we had to deal with all those physical issues."
Suspending actors, stunt people and sets in gravity-defying positions while also placing cameras and equipment was a tricky bit of choreography that had to be accomplished in lightning speed. Preparation on every level became more vital than usual.
"We actually hung everyone upside-down by their seatbelts. I think the safety advisors said we could hang people that way for a minute. So we shot everything we could in 60 seconds and then we had to turn everybody right side up again. Then we would turn the plane upside-down again and do it all over. Everything had to be done in pieces and of course we didn't want to hurt anybody. Those sequences were very complicated and the Pre-Vis was essential so we knew where to to put the cameras and what we were looking for. And we really studied what would be the best angles to give the illusion of the plane turning upside down and, and diving. We needed to give that illusion the plane dropping through the sky with a camera inside the cockpit. A lot of that is camera work to make it look exciting. And hanging people upside down a minute at a time," Zemeckis says.
Flight Pattern: The Locations
The film's biggest set piece and the one most daunting to create, was the crash landing site of SouthJet flight #227, a southeast regional flight from Orlando to Atlanta, that is forced to make a landing attempt at a bean field two miles from Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. At the private Green Valley Farms located along a quiet stretch of Highway 278 in the city of Covington, production designer Nelson Coates and his team of art directors and construction personnel constructed a crash site for the doomed flight.
This location is also where, 10 days after the crash, Whip and his lawyer, Hugh Lang, standing upon a scaffolding platform, survey the devastation left by the craft. The location and the dramatic scene Whip encounters is a pivotal moment for him on so many levels.
Coates notes that Atlanta is so developed that there were not many spaces anywhere in close proximity to where the crash is supposed to have taken place – two miles from the main airport." We had to look further afield," Coates recalls.
The crash site called for an area that had some fields where the plane could touch down and a bluff where the production design crew could erect a 47-foot high turn-of-the-century gothic-style Pentecostal Church, the steeple of which the plane knocks over during its descent. On an empty field below, they placed the broken fuselage and other pieces of aircraft in a smoldering heap nearby. Location manager Eric Hooge first encountered what would become the crash site location after driving in a 35-mile perimeter in the rural outskirts of Atlanta." That bluff also gave us a way to show the audience from up high what the plane looked like," producer Steve Starkey explains. Starkey notes that the crash site is the single largest set piece of any of the films he's produced.
Earlier in production, an aerial crew shot all the pre-crash plate shots at the location that the editor and visual effects team would utilize to complete the crash landing sequence as the plane makes its final approach.
Another Atlanta-adjacent rural location was the Whitaker Farm, the property that Whip Whitaker inherited from his father, William Whitaker, Sr. - where he ran the Whitaker Crop Dusting Company. The home, the place Whip retreats to after being hounded by the media, was filmed at the private Hall's Flying Ranch, a 250 acre farm in an unincorporated rural area near the small city of Hampton, Georgia, 35 miles south of Atlanta, adjacent to the famed Atlanta Motor Speedway. Whip stays at the farm after leaving the hospital rather than return to his Atlanta house where the media has decamped.
Coates says that Whip Whitaker's backstory heavily influenced the choice of that location." Early on, Bob thought that as a character choice, that Whip's father should have been in the Tuskegee Airmen – and that would put him in the South, and maybe for years after he was in the Air Force he had a crop dusting business outside of Atlanta. So we needed to find a farmhouse that came with a grassy air strip and a barn or hangar of sorts." The tree-lined farm they found, surrounded by cattle ranches and horse stables, was previously the site of a family business that used to offer private flight training, and featured a barn-like hangar built to hold a small plane, and a 2150 foot grassy landing strip – all that was uncannily parallel to the script. However, since the location didn't have a suitable home to double as the Whitaker family compound, Coates and his design team built the exterior of one the properties. Coates says, "We couldn't find all three requirements in the same place in a certain zone around Atlanta, so we ended up building the farm house; we shaped it so we'd have the porch, have the enveloping ‘V' of the house so you feel cozy when you're out on the porch exposed." The porch faced the plane hangar and airstrip, which was done, Coates says, to "always keep the focus on the fact that airplanes had been an important and big portion part of the young Whip's life growing up."
In keeping with Zemeckis' desire for authenticity, hospital scenes were filmed in the former critical care wing of St. Joseph's Hospital, Atlanta's oldest and most distinguished hospital, located in Atlanta's Peachwood-Dunwoody neighborhood.
While there were real practical advantages to film in Atlanta – tax credits, locations that fit the story and/or production needs to tell that tale, Zemeckis points out that Atlanta also played itself, as opposed to doubling for any other city.
"The movie feels perfectly set in Atlanta. It's not like we had to go to there and make it look like New York. We set it there because it is one of those American cities that has an airline culture and it just felt like the perfect American city for this movie," Zemeckis says.
It is also a municipality set squarely in the Bible Belt so the crash landing outside a Pentecostal Church appealed to Zemeckis' sense of irony.
Ultimately, "Flight" combines several Zemeckis touchstones – advanced film technology, big, compelling characters on life changing journeys, themes of recovery and discovery – or, as he puts it:
"My thinking is this: There's a wonderful quote by Francois Truffaut which I subscribe to … he said that a movie that works is the perfect blend of truth and spectacle. And whenever I can find a screenplay that has both of those aspects, those are movies that I gravitate to—and I think ‘Flight' is that kind of movie. I mean it's a hopeful, redemptive human story that's wrapped in this very dramatic and intense spectacle. And to me that's what movies are all about," Zemeckis says.