Academy Award winning director Robert Zemeckis was in Boston to promote his latest film Flight. Best known for Forrest Gump (the film he won the Oscar for) and the Back to the Future trilogy, Zemeckis’ new film stars Oscar winner Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Don Cheadle, Nadine Velazquez (of My Name is Earl fame) and many others. Zemeckis talked about his airplane drama, his use of music in films and much more.
One of the opening scenes of Flight is Denzel Washington’s character Whip Whitaker in full pilot uniform, sunglasses, walking down the hallway of a hotel. I asked him how many takes does it take to capture that Denzel swagger. Robert Zemeckis, “I think I maybe did 4 or 5 takes, but only because we were ramping that shot, changing the speeds, only for technical reasons. Denzel did it great every time (laughing).”
I asked him what drew him personally to the film. “The thing that I loved was the ambiguity of it all. Whenever I get a chance to read a screenplay that keeps me wanting to turn the page, that’s always a good place to start. But I love the fact that there was so much grey in Whip and all the characters, they didn’t fall off into the obvious good or bad side of the scale. They were all broken. They’re all basically human and yet the piece was very dramatic. I thought it was very unique and that’s what really drew me to it,” Zemeckis explained.
If you can’t tell from the trailers, Flight talks about addiction and has characters in different levels of addiction. On handling that aspect of the film, Zemeckis, “I think the secret or the trick was I never spoke about it in terms of addiction or substance abuse. I always felt from the beginning that the substance abuse was a symptom of the real problem with Whip which was, I don’t know what to call it, sort of an emotional bankruptcy, this disconnect from all the other humans in his life. And then of course he had to do something to euthanize the pain so he abused substances. But it wasn’t about that, it was about him. Maybe that’s why it (the film) can feel universal and not specific about addiction. It could be about anything. It could be a gambling problem. It could be shopping. Seriously it could be binging on cookies, whatever the issue would be, it seems in my mind that it’s just a symptom of what the real issue is.”
Continuing on the substance abuse storyline, Denzel Washington’s character inverts a plane to slow it down before it crashes and kills everyone on it. His character may have had a few alcoholic drinks and maybe some illegal drugs in his system that made him think that doing this would work. Zemeckis talked about how being under the influence actually saved lives in that situation. “That’s one of those ambiguous things that I love about the piece because the truth is, could you make the case that everybody that lived on that plane did because he was smashed? He broke the rules and did something that no one sober would have done. You could make that case. We don’t say it, it’s implied. You hear these stories of these guys who are obliterated drunk and they smash into a tree and they walk away from the accident. And people always say ‘How did that happen?’ Well because he was drunk and his body didn’t react and every muscle in his body didn’t tense up so he just walked away. Kinda the same thing, right?”
I asked him if there was ever a case of a plane flying inverted to save lives. “Planes have flown inverted and airliners in test flights fly inverted. An airliner can fly inverted for a short period of time and what would happen is exactly what we depict in the movie, the engines would start to fail because they aren’t made to fly upside down. No there hasn’t been a case that we’ve come across. There’s a speculation that there was an aircraft that had this exact problem that I think John (Gatins, the writer) used bits of. This plane had a broken elevator off the coast of California close to ten years ago. They didn’t have as much time as Whip did because they were much lower, but there have been some pilots that suggested that if anyone had the time to think of inverting the plane that maybe they could have done what Whip did and got right to an airport off the coast.”
With a film about an airplane crash, alcoholism, federal investigations and other difficult topics, Zemeckis was asked if there was any type of training or boot camp he had the actors do in order to prepare for their roles. “You know what I do is just this (pointing at a roomful of people discussing his film), but we do it for a long time. We just sit around and everybody does this. Some actors have notebooks and everybody likes to be involved. Even if they are only in a couple of scenes, they want to be there so everybody gets a sense of the movie I’m making. This is the process and I always have the writer with me and this is where we hash it out. I call it rehearsal (laughing).”
John Goodman is having a fantastic year for films. He’s great in Trouble with the Curve, even better in Argo and I think he could be nominated for supporting actor in this. I asked Robert Zemeckis how much of Harling is Goodman and how much is the script. “Obviously John’s performance is completely inspired by the script, but John just has this amazing gift to be able to spin it in his own way. He just puts, I don’t know, that John Goodman THING on it.”
If you are into classic rock, the film has an amazing soundtrack with artists like Lou Reed and The Rolling Stones (especially the use of their Sympathy for the Devil that John Goodman kills with). About the film’s music, “It’s not contemporary obviously, but it just felt right. There’s just something about all those songs, they just had the right emotional feel for this story. Some of them I knew I was going to do. I knew I wanted ‘Feeling Alright’ at the beginning of the movie. That’s it. All the rest came in post production. No I think I wanted ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ for John Goodman‘s entrance. Those were the two that I knew I wanted.”
Don Cheadle’s character is a lawyer that at the beginning you think isn’t a good guy. He clashes with Denzel’s Whip, but by the end you are actually rooting for the lawyer and his tactics. I asked Robert how he got the audience to root for a lawyer of all people. “I think he’s a fascinating character. Is he good guy or is he the Devil incarnate? I don’t know. It depends on what side of the coin you’re looking at. Because the truth of the matter is, if he actually did do his job perfectly, Denzel’s character may not live for another day and he may kill a whole bunch of other people on another airplane. And all these people in the scumbag airline who didn’t do the maintenance on the plane all get off. Is he a good guy? It’s very, very grey. He’s just doing his job which is pretty poignant. I’m hoping that this is a rare experience where you keep talking about the movie. I think the worst thing that can happen to a movie is that everyone comes out of it and goes ‘Alright where do we eat?’ and never give it another thought.”
Mr. Zemeckis is a pilot himself and was asked if that had anything to do with picking this project. Zemeckis, “It only helped in trying to make sure everything we did was realistic, but it didn’t inspire me to make the movie.”
This is his first live action film in years and only his second R-rated movie ever. Asked if that was important to him in choosing this project or any other project or if he just simply picks work on script content and what it‘s like to have a younger generation of movie goers who only know him for films like The Polar Express. “It’s simply a matter of script content although I wouldn’t recommend making a $200 million R-rated movie. I wouldn’t recommend that to anyone (laughing). I don’t ever say I want to do a movie rated this or that. I always just do what the script suggests. (On the younger generation seeing a live action film of his) Hopefully they are going to like it. Now what will happen is there will be all this fury on the internet that I’ve forsaken performance capture (laughing).”
On what he was excited shooting in his return to live action. “You know I’m never excited to shoot anything (laughing). That’s the hardest part. That’s just surviving, getting through the day. No, I really wanted to realize this screenplay. I really wanted to see if I could pull off some of these scenes that were magnificent that John wrote. That’s what I really wanted to do. My producer partner Jack Rapke read this and said ‘Boy I think you should read this.’ I read it and said ‘Wow, this is really cool.’ So that’s how I found the screenplay. It’s unique. It flies in the face of convention. You put the big action scene in the beginning of the movie and naturally I was concerned about how could the movie survive that, emotionally. But what ultimately happens is that that’s great spectacle, but in my opinion, Denzel’s performance is even better spectacle. I think that’s why it’s a satisfying film to watch. Yeah that was great, but there’s also other great stuff that’s really compelling to watch.”
The award winning director talked about how he makes movies, if he’s a by the script type of guy or if there’s some freedom for the actors. “I always come to the set with a plan and I have it pretty well worked out. But then I’m flexible. Sometimes an actor will say ‘I kinda prefer to be sitting than standing’ and I’m cool with that unless you can’t be sitting to get a hand on the gun, if it’s a plot point like that. If it really doesn’t matter to me and they are more comfortable, I’ll shoot it however it helps them out. A lot of times the cameraman will say ‘Gee if we stage this scene over here we can look out this window’ I’ll say ‘Well that’s cool.’ So I’m pretty flexible.”
When I mentioned to people I was interviewing Robert Zemeckis, many listed their favorite movies and how his films influenced their lives or in their careers as filmmakers themselves. I asked Robert if there were any filmmakers of today that he can notice his influence on and how it feels to be such an influence. “No. (laughing) Maybe I should start looking. I still think of myself as 16 years old so I don’t consider myself in that way. Of course if they did steal from me, they’d be stealing from guys like David Lean and Hitchcock. It wouldn’t be my stuff anyway. I take that (people using his visual style) as an homage, but I haven’t really paid attention to that. But I will, I’ll start now.”
Flight opens on November 2nd. Follow me at www.Twitter.com/Murraymaker