Screenwriter John Gatins tells Jeremy Kay about his marathon struggle to write the screenplay that triggered arguably the finest performance of Denzel Washington’s career
Flight screenwriter John Gatins is a gregarious man, but he didn’t feel like chatting on one particular journey home from Germany. It was around 1999, and he had just worked on a film in Europe, where he met many Naval pilots and heard a lot of stories. He’d been poking around an idea for a movie and his mind was a hive of data and anecdotes — not good for a man like Gatins, who admits: “I was never a happy flyer and went through a rough period in early sobriety.”
But all the talk of military plane specs and acts of derring-do had honed his interest in the men and women who flew for a living. So despite his sense of unease as he boarded the US-bound plane that night, Gatins fell into conversation with the off-duty pilot beside him. And then it happened.
“I had the great writer moment and thought: ‘What if my character was in the throes of alcoholism?’” says the writer and occasional actor over lunch in Los Angeles recently. “Take that high-functioning but diseased guy and put him in a scene where he has to do this extraordinary thing. So it was a weird stew that cooked up the idea of this guy. The first 40 pages came out pretty quickly in terms of working out who else would be in his world and what he would be up against.”
After more than a decade, Gatins, whose other screenplays include Real Steel and Dreamer: Inspired By A True Story (which he also directed), has finally landed Flight on the big screen — with help from some of Hollywood’s most influential players. The result is an absorbing film for grown-ups about airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) whose single act of heroism during a mid-air emergency inadvertently casts a spotlight on his alcoholism.
“The story of the story is the story, in a way,” says Gatins, an effusive Irish-American originally from upstate New York who now lives with his family in Los Angeles. “When I started writing the script I was about 31 and we didn’t have any kids. Now we have three. I’ve done a lot of work in the in-between to support my family and have a career. For this one I didn’t have a boss. It was R-rated and dark and had this conflicted character at its heart. I never thought it would get made. It was more like a creative Rubik’s Cube.”
There are many parts to Flight. It is a soup of mystery, romance and redemption that follows Whitaker’s downward trajectory after the incident and during the build-up to a federal investigation hearing. Gatins tried not to turn the story into a straight-forward procedural or clichéd addiction drama and never lost sight of a central conundrum that is as simple and complex as this: can a man change his life by addressing his fundamental flaw?
Gatins had made Dreamer at DreamWorks SKG and developed Flight at the studio. Then-president Walter Parkes, who ran development and production with his wife and business partner Laurie MacDonald, expressed initial reservations about the dark material but recognised its quality. They helped Gatins on the first draft, which he delivered in 2007 just as DreamWorks and its distributor Paramount were about to part ways.
‘This film was dark and had conflicted character at its heart. I never thought it would get made’
Paramount kept the project and stuck with it to the end. Gatins almost put Flight together before the writers’ strike around that time, but actors were unwilling to drop their fees. He leans in. “In the version we made [which cost around $30m], [director] Bob [Zemeckis] and Denzel pushed off their fees; that’s why this thing has been like an insane fever dream. We got that cast, we shot it for 45 days in Atlanta.”
Washington read the script around 2009-2010 on the recommendation of his agent, the late Ed Limato, to whom the picture is dedicated. CAA had earlier tried to set it up with younger actors such as Heath Ledger, but Gatins knew a younger actor would not be right for the role. “There’s mileage in Whitaker and he offers pathos that you wouldn’t get in a younger guy.”
Washington called one night, out of the blue. “We had this long, amazing dinner. He said Ed Limato had given him two scripts: Safe House and Flight. He was getting on a plane to make Safe House [which would become the biggest box-office hit of Washington’s career to date] and wanted to make Flight afterwards. I was still trying to direct the movie. The planets aligned. Somebody had handed it to Zemeckis and he wanted to make it and heard that Denzel was interested.”
Production started in October 2011. Gatins was on set every day at the request of Zemeckis, who found the story so compelling that it marked his first live-action picture since Cast Away in 2000. They joined Washington in lengthy discussions about the story each day. “There’s a lot of religious iconography in the movie and some talk of spirituality,” says Gatins, a self-described lapsed Catholic. “It’s kind of about what you believe. I am Irish and very superstitious — you never see me on a plane without a bag of peanut M&Ms.
“Bob and I were talking one night about Don Cheadle’s character [attorney Hugh Lang] and how he is like the angel who got kicked out of heaven and must do what he can to get back in favour. So Cheadle flies in to start shooting and we told him we thought his character was like the Devil and without missing a beat he said he got it. We gave him a red car to amuse ourselves.”
Gatins regards Whitaker as the Messiah and Bruce Greenwood’s pilots’ union rep character as John The Baptist. The character of Nicole, played so well by British actor Kelly Reilly, is the Mary Magdalene persona — the outcast who eventually delivers Whitaker. Gatins pauses to think about Harling Mays, John Goodman’s larger-than-life drug dealer. He cannot think of a Biblical parallel but offers this: “Harling has nothing but love for Whip. Everyone else is trying to extract a tiny piece of flesh from him.”
While the writer’s personal perspective informs much of the story, he does not see himself as a poster boy for recovering alcoholics. We do not get a backstory about what led Whitaker to the bottle and neither is Gatins prepared to bare his soul about his drinking days. He has been sober since the age of 25 and doesn’t feel the need to add much more beyond that. “A lot of times people want to hear about the ‘bottom’ moment and the truth is the moment of clarity can come when you are going to pick up your child one day.”
Flight opened in the US on Nov 2 and within two weeks had cruised past $51m. “I am about to get my freedom because the story is going to the world now,” he says. “I’ve got a little bit of a lighter step.”
- 2005: screenwriter, high-school sports drama Coach Carter
- 2005: writer-director of family drama Dreamer: Inspired By A True Story
- 2008: actor (as air- traffic controller) in Eddie Murphy comedy Meet Dave
- 2011: screenwriter, Real Steel
- 2012: screenwriter, Flight