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Flight Path
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.

Gatins had just finished the film Dreamer, in 2006, which Producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald worked on as Studio Chiefs at DreamWorks. He gave Parkes and MacDonald 40 pages of the screenplay to read. Says Parkes, "It was unfinished and raw, but it was as gripping a forty pages as either of us had ever read. The main character, ultimately so brilliantly played by Denzel, is someone completely on top of it, heroic and dashing and yet completely vulnerable inside."

MacDonald adds that even though Gatins hadn't actually finished the script at the time they first read it, the story intrigued them nonetheless. "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." Parkes adds, "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."

What followed was eighteen months of intense development, which resulted in a draft in late 2007 which is the basis of the film that was subsequently produced. "Movies as special as Flight often take the longest time to get to the screen," says Parkes. "It was ultimately about attracting the right elements, which is why everything changed when Denzel read the script in 2009 and committed."

Now the search was on for a director. In the summer of 2010, when the film of Gatins' screenplay, "Real Steel" was in production in Detroit, one of that film's producers, ImageMovers' Jack Rapke, read the draft of "Flight" and thought it was a project that his ImageMovers colleague, Robert Zemeckis, might be interested in directing. The story captivated all of them and Gatins' 12-year writing project finally became a movie.

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.

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