About The Production
No one warned us. No one said you
are going to lose both engines at a
lower altitude than any jet in history.
"Brace, brace, brace-head down, stay down!"
Moments after takeoff from New York's LaGuardia Airport, a flock of birds
strikes US Airways flight 1549, taking out both engines at only 2800 feet and
causing an immediate, forced water landing. It is, we will learn, unprecedented.
"No one has ever trained for an incident like that," notes Tom Hanks, speaking
as the titular Captain Chesley Sullenberger in director/producer Clint
Recounting the real events that took place on that cold day in January 2009, the
film also explores their very real aftermath. The plane carried 150 passengers
and five crew members, yet not a single life was lost-not in the air, not in the
water. But as "Sully" reveals, in the days following what quickly came to be
known as the Miracle on the Hudson, the pilot with a record of proficiency,
years of experience, and calm in the face of potential catastrophe, would be
called upon repeatedly to defend his actions to the National Transportation
Safety Board (NTSB).
It was that part of the story, the one the world didn't know, that drew Eastwood
to the project. "Anybody who keeps their wits about them when things are going
wrong, who can negotiate the problems without panicking, is someone of superior
character and interesting to watch on film. But for me, the real conflict came
after, with the investigative board questioning his decisions even though he'd
saved so many lives."
"I'm not an aviator," says Hanks, "but I know you're not supposed to be able to
make a landing like that. This was a very pragmatic man who understood the
realities of what he'd done and what it meant. He will never say he's a hero,
but knowing with confidence that he could make that landing? That was a heroic
thing he did. And he paid a price for it."
That cost was exacted both during the day, when he and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles,
were being interrogated by the investigative board, and at night, when Sully was
haunted by nightmares about what could have happened-what very well might have
happened-had he turned that plane around in search of a less watery airfield.
The film, based on Sullenberger and author Jeffrey Zaslow's book Highest Duty,
also focuses largely on the untold story, the details that didn't make it into
Producer Allyn Stewart says of initial conversations with Sullenberger, "The
second Sully started to give us the details of what happened to him after the
event, I realized this was the real architecture of the movie. We found a great
screenwriter, Todd Komarnicki, to adapt the book. He's really good at getting
under the skin of a normal guy, and that's the essence of Sully; he'd be the
first one to say he's simply a man who did his job very well."
"Sully is a man who prepared his whole life to do this one impossible thing that
he didn't know he was preparing for," Komarnicki observes. "But when you meet
him, after ten minutes with the guy, you understand; you think, 'Of course he
pulled this off and no one else could have.' But the beauty of this movie is
that we're finally telling the full story. A true story that no one knows but
everyone thinks they know? What a great mystery to unfold on screen."
Producer Frank Marshall says, "After everything the world knew about Sully and
the landing, what happened to him after he became instantly famous was
fascinating. Todd's approach to the screenplay was to take a story you've heard,
like the key elements of that day, and turn it into one you haven't, giving the
audience a real feel of what it was like to be there."
Another story few people are aware of-one the director himself may have long ago
forgotten, but which connects him in a unique way with the subject matter and
its subject-came to light when working on "Sully." As a young man of 21 in the
Army, Eastwood was a passenger on a Navy plane, "catching a free flight from
Seattle down to Alameda," he relates. "It was stormy and we went down off of
Point Reyes, California, in the Pacific, and I found myself in the water,
swimming a few miles toward shore, thinking, 'Well, 21's not as long as a person
wants to live.'"
Producer, and Eastwood's longtime production manager, Tim Moore states, "What's
remarkable is that Clint remembers exactly how the landing was-that the back end
went down and they had to get out pretty fast because they thought it was going
to sink quickly, and they just started swimming. While I don't think that was a
factor in picking this film, I think the commonalities brought back a lot of
memories; it's certainly interesting that this project found its way to him."
Though he doesn't equate his experience with that of the passengers and crew on
flight 1549, it did provide a certain perspective for one preparing to direct
Sully's story. "I suppose having been in a similar situation," Eastwood
surmises, "as a pilot I would have chanced a water landing rather than go
someplace there's no runway."
"Sully was familiar with that area," the director also notes. "He knew where the
helicopter ports and ferryboats were, so he picked the right spot, where
everyone could get to them fast. It wouldn't be like being out in the middle of
the ocean; he knew somebody would see them."
"It was the least bad option," the man himself, Capt. Sullenberger, states.
Having lost thrust in both engines of the A320, he quickly determined that the
Hudson River, which runs between New Jersey and Manhattan's West Side, was their
best bet. "There was nowhere else in the entire New York Metropolitan area long
enough, wide enough, or smooth enough to land an airliner."
Looking back on his experience from just seven-and-a-half years ago, able to now
put things into perspective, he says, "Part of the emotional context of this
story is that it happened in a time in our history when there was worldwide
concern on several fronts: it was post-9/11, we had troops in the Middle East,
there was the '08 financial meltdown...people were worried. That this happened in
Manhattan and that we survived it, well, I think it gave people hope, even ones
who were not directly connected with the flight."
Not only did the filmmakers choose to embrace the actual surroundings in which
the event happened by shooting as much as possible in New York City, they also
sought to involve a good number of its citizens who were there that day in the
film. This not only meant reaching out to them for research purposes, by talking
about what they remember, but also recruiting many who were part of the rescue
to reenact their efforts for the cameras. Both air and water rescuers and
several Red Cross staff and volunteers returned to the "scene" to recreate their
own heroics of the day, reinforcing what Sullenberger himself has observed on
many occasions: that the positive outcome was not due just to the swift and
steady actions of one, but also the fortitude of many.
What if I did get this wrong? What if I
endangered the lives of all those passengers?
The Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger the world has come to know in recent
history began flying at the age of 14, "as soon as he was tall enough to see
outside the cockpit of the plane," quips Tom Hanks. The young pilot then
attended the United States Air Force Academy and flew fighter jets in the
service for five years, attaining the rank of captain, before taking the
controls of a commercial airliner. "The life of a professional aviator," the
actor continues. "If he tallied it up, I think he'd have something like 20,000
hours as the guy in charge of the plane. That's a lot of take-offs and landings,
a lot of looking at gauges to see if anything is wrong, and a few hairy moments
here and there in the course of a career."
But nothing like what he faced in those 208 seconds that would come to represent
the culmination of his life's experiences. Pilots work hard to prepare for any
circumstances they could face in the air, and suddenly Sully was faced with the
challenge of his career. "A flock of geese got sucked into the engines and boom!
he was essentially flying a powerless glider with 155 souls on board-his
included. It's a good thing he had those 20,000 hours of experience behind him,"
The role of Sully was one the always-in-demand Hanks couldn't turn down, despite
having to postpone a well-earned break. "Sometimes you read something that is so
stirring and at the same time so simple, such a perfect blend of behavior and
procedure," he reflects. "Now, I'm as competitive as the next actor, so I knew I
wanted at least a shot at it, even though I'd been working pretty steadily for
about six years. Sure I was beat but, not unlike a solid jolt of adrenaline,
this role, Sully, Mr. Clint Eastwood...they all came along. I felt like I couldn't
pass up a chance at playing in this great double-header at the end of this long
Although the two had never worked together before, Eastwood says, "Tom was one
of the first people we thought about for the part. But at the time he was just
finishing a picture and we didn't think we could get him. But he read the script
and liked it and made himself available. And he was terrific, a consummate pro,
and it was kind of effortless working with him."
Stewart relates, "Sully has that 'everyman' quality that I think reminded Clint
of Jimmy Stewart, and once that was in our minds we thought, 'Well, there's no
one like that but Tom Hanks.'"
The filmmakers also appreciated what Hanks brought to the shoot when the cameras
weren't rolling. Offers Eastwood, "He has a great sense of humor, so that makes
it fun. He'd be standing around waiting, sometimes in the rain, and still making
the crew laugh."
Despite his easygoing demeanor on set, Hanks admits that when playing a real
person "you're always intimidated. You say to yourself, 'I'll never sound like
him, I'll never look like him. Hopefully I can embody some aspect, capture some
part of his personality, his characteristics, his gravitas, his charm,' whomever
the person may be. And then you go to work."
The subject of Hanks' portrayal had no qualms about the actor stepping into his
shoes. "Besides the fact that they were making a movie, directed by such a
gifted storyteller as Clint Eastwood, to then have Tom Hanks playing me...it's a
dream team," says Sullenberger. "I know Tom is someone who can transform
himself, but the first time I saw a long-range shot of him in costume, with his
hair colored? Wow. It was amazing."
In fact, prior to production Sullenberger's wife, Lorrie, was most excited to
see the two men together. "When I saw Tom for the first time, it was so strange.
Then later I would find myself looking at my husband, thinking, 'His hair looks
just like Tom's...wait...Tom's looks just like Sully's!'" she laughs.
In addition to pulling off an accurate physical representation of the man, Hanks
would also be tasked with recreating the most challenging moments in Sully's
life, not just outwardly, but internally. The actor would need to convey the
pilot's rapid-fire thought processes that led to his ability to control the
seemingly uncontrollable situation with which he was faced, despite never having
trained for this exact event apart from theoretical classroom discussions.
Joining Hanks on the flight deck, Aaron Eckhart took on the role of co-pilot
Jeff Skiles. Eckhart says he was very affected by the screenplay for "Sully."
"It was structured beautifully, because from the time they took off to the time
they hit the birds was three and a half minutes. How do you make a whole movie
about that? But it was very emotional and managed to build tension throughout
the story, showing the audience what went on for these two men who were, to the
outside world, hailed as heroes. I think it's a heroic story, with good lessons
to be learned."
To prepare for the scenes that depict those critical moments in the air,
Sullenberger had explained to them his own process at the time. His first three
thoughts-all within mere seconds-had covered disbelief, denial, and realization.
He told them that those thoughts led to three clear actions: force himself to be
calm, set clear priorities, and manage the workload, not trying to do too much,
but doing what they could to solve the problems, one by one, in the small amount
of time they had. Hanks and Eckhart would have to internalize the intellectual
elements of that progression and then show exactly how, having accepted what
they were dealing with, Sully and Skiles were able to land the plane.
What most people might be unaware of, just as these two actors were prior to the
project, is that Sully and Skiles, who worked together like a well-oiled
machine, had met for the first time just a few days before the flight-a common
occurrence considering the thousands of pilots traversing the globe at any given
time. Fortunately their training allows them to communicate effortlessly and
assist each other when there isn't time to talk everything out.
Prior to filming, Eckhart contacted Skiles as well. Recalling their
conversation, Skiles says, "We spoke for a couple of hours and he asked me a lot
of questions about being a pilot, not just why I wanted to be one but also why I
continue to do so after that day."
"Jeff told me that first and foremost, they were always in control of the
flight; they felt they could make a good landing, a controlled landing, in the
Hudson," Eckhart says. "He also talked about the effect going through that
trauma had on them afterward: stress, lack of sleep, loss of appetite,
nervousness, that sort of thing. It lasted two or three months and they got
counseling. And he's still flying today; he's a captain himself now."
Like Hanks, Eckhart was also able to strongly resemble his counterpart in both
appearance and manner. Marshall felt the production was very lucky in that
"there were two really interesting guys in the cockpit when this happened. Sully
is a more reserved, quieter guy, and Jeff Skiles is pretty funny. And Aaron
brought a sort of lightheartedness to what we see in the film is a very heavy
situation. It's nice to see the dynamic between the two real men played out by
Tom and Aaron so well."
"Tom's an extraordinary actor," Eckhart adds. "He's so in command, it's
effortless. I'd like to think working with him had an effect on me; I'd like to
learn some of his tricks."
Both men spent time in flight simulators prior to filming in order to look the
part when the cameras rolled. "We practiced with both Captain Sullenberger and
Mr. Eastwood there," Eckhart notes, offering that the actors eventually got the
hang of it well enough for their scenes. "Pilots look so relaxed; it's like home
in there for them, so we felt a responsibility to do it right. We got a good
feel for it."
"We invited Sully's participation whenever he was available," Eastwood states.
"He kindly arranged for the simulators and pilots to show Tom and Aaron exactly
how it would work. They got the cram course, but they went to town."
While tackling a persona so well known in the media was part of Hanks'
challenge, his real concern, he says, "was to embody Sully's level of experience
and expertise in the cockpit." No amount of reassurance from Sullenberger could
compare to what Hanks felt when he took the simulator's controls. "He kept
saying, 'You'll see what it's like to fly when you get in the simulator,' and
I'll tell you, it was the most lifelike experience. It feels exactly as though
you are in a plane, it requires no imagination because the physics of it-the
tilting, the motion-it's amazing."
Both actors discovered during their training that Skiles had actually handled
the take-off that day, because co-pilots have to make a scheduled number of
take-offs in order to qualify as captains. As in the film, Sullenberger took
over after the bird strike, having more hours under his belt.
Eastwood not only observed the simulations, he also filmed them so the actors
could watch and learn from their practice runs. Hanks says, "Luckily, we had the
flight plan, we knew what we were supposed to do and pushed the buttons when we
were supposed to, which we worked on a lot. It was a fun way to spend a day, but
you also got this experiential aspect of being in a real no-nonsense atmosphere,
as well as how truly short a period of time this all happened in and how many
decisions and feelings that had to have gone into it for Sully and Skiles. In
the end, Aaron and I were both eager to make sure we looked like we knew what we
were doing in order to do right by them."
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