François Truffaut once said that a great movie is the perfect blend of truth and spectacle. This is one of Robert Zemeckis’ favorite quotes, and as evidenced by his staggering filmography, a guiding principle in his work. From his 1984 action-comedy Romancing the Stone onward, he has displayed an virtuosic ability to craft culture-defining megahits that use cutting-edge technology to tell unforgettable stories. Comedic VFX-driven comedies like the Back to the Future films, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Death Becomes Her led to such powerfully soul-searching dramas as Forrest Gump (which won him the Oscar for Best Director), Contact, and Cast Away (which came out a few months after his deliciously sinister suspense flick, What Lies Beneath). Zemeckis’ interest in new filmmaking technology then led him on a decade-long detour into animation, and for a time, it seemed like we may have lost the visionary who so radically broadened the horizons of live-action film. But now, twelve years after his last non-animated movie, he is back with Flight.
Based on a script by John Gatins, Flight embodies the Truffaut quote as much as anything else Zemeckis has touched. But unlike some of his other films, it contains the spectacle to one stomach-churning catastrophe, then devotes the rest to the pursuit of truth. Flight is the story of Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington at his best), a commercial pilot with a serious drinking problem. But Whip is a functioning alcoholic, and his incessant drinking has never gotten in the way of his job performance. So, when an otherwise routine flight takes a disastrous turn following a major plane malfunction, Whip happens to be drunk. He also manages to land the plane so miraculously that his maneuvering cannot be recreated in a flight simulator. Whip is at first celebrated as a Sully-style hero, but when the National Transportation Safety Board launches an investigation into the incident, questions about his intoxication begin to arise.
Quite simply, Flight is the most adult film Zemeckis has ever made; if you wanted to see a 180 from the family-friendly warmth of Polar Express and A Christmas Carol, you’ve got it. In the first five minutes alone, we see full-frontal female nudity and cocaine use. A few minutes later we see a porn film set, followed by some shooting up. Charming southern simpletons and Christopher Lloyd are nowhere to be found. From there, Zemeckis launches into the most probing and uncompromising character study of his career. Whip is an infuriating and profoundly broken character, and Washington and Zemeckis aren’t afraid to make him a despicable protagonist. Enthusiastically gritty yet overtly inspirational, Flight is like no other Zemeckis film we’ve seen. Below, Spinning Platters sits down with Zemeckis to discuss the controversial content of his film, how directing can be like jerking off, and San Francisco’s recent drag homage to his most celebrated cult comedy.
When did you first become involved with this project?
I got the script in February 2011. It was handed to me by my production partner. We were producing Real Steel at the time, which was also written by John Gatins. The Flight script had been around for a lot of years. I read it and just thought it was great.
You shot the film chronologically, correct?
As much as we could. I mean, that was our goal. Obviously you can’t ever really hold yourself to it, but at least you can try.
And you had John Gatins on set throughout the shoot.
I did, yes. Every day.
Did the script evolve from shooting chronologically and with John on set?
I don’t think there was anything we shot that we had to go back and fix or eliminate, because it was pretty well laid out in the script. But I said to John, “I really want you to be with me on this movie. This was a very unique, powerful screenplay you wrote, and I’m gonna need somebody there who’s gonna be my creative soulmate so that when I’m in the heat of the moment, I’ll have somebody to say, ‘What are we doing here? Are we screwing the pooch or are we getting what we need?'” He said, “Great.” So I brought him along.
How closely were you involved with the casting?
I do all the casting. When I read it and heard Denzel was interested, I just said, “Well, he’s perfect.” Obviously he’s an amazingly great actor and I never questioned that he wouldn’t just go for this. I don’t know why! I didn’t know him before I worked with him. But I just knew, maybe based on watching Training Day and Malcolm X. I knew there’d be no vanity involved in the performance, and that he’d just go for it. And he did, more than I even imagined.
Was it helpful for your cast to shoot the scenes chronologically?
Oh yes. When you think about it, Denzel’s character is injured, and throughout the movie it becomes less of an injury. But Denzel does a very subtle thing you probably didn’t notice when you were watching: he uses his injury as a sympathy act in the movie. You see him getting out of his car and walking into a bar without a cain, but then he has the cain when he goes to visit [his co-pilot] Evans in the hospital. That was one of Denzel’s ideas. But to evoke a limp or any physical thing that evolves with time, it’s a very difficult thing to dial down without continuity. And of course it’s really crucial when you’re dealing with the emotional aspects of the characters. So any time you can give the actors a sense of continuity in how they’re dialing their performance in, it’s always helpful.
This is a film about the fallibility and flaws of human heroes. How do you view that subject?
Well, there’s movie heroes, and there’s real-life heroes. This is more about a real-life hero, meaning that he’s really good at certain things and he’s also really flawed. Everybody’s imperfect, but there are some people in situations and occupations where they are told they can’t be flawed or shouldn’t be flawed, and they have a real problem struggling with their imperfection.
While Flight may seem at first like an aviation courtroom drama, it’s ultimately much more of a case study on addiction and alcoholism. Was it always conceived that way?
This was the story. Interestingly enough, I never really saw the movie as about alcoholism. I always saw Whip’s substance abuse as a symptom of a bigger problem. He misused all these substances to get some relief from the real problem, which was his inability to be honest with himself and his necessity to be isolated from everyone in the universe. That’s what I thought it was really about. That’s what makes it more accessible to a general audience rather than just being about someone who’s struggling with addiction. He’s using, but it’s because of a reason.
So you’ve now bookended your decade of computer animation with two films prominently featuring plane crashes: this film and Cast Away, another movie that will never be in-flight entertainment. Can you talk about the different approaches you took to each one?
A lot of people in my inner circle were concerned. “Gee, you’re gonna do another plane crash? You’re gonna be known as the plane crash guy!” And I said, “Yeah, but this is just a coincidence. I can’t let this screenplay get away for just that reason, and if I have to do another plane crash, I will.” It would be very, very silly to not do it for that reason. Having said that, they’re very different. The one in Cast Away is just this catastrophic, horrible thing. No one really know what happened; it’s just BOOM! and all this shit happens. In Flight, it’s all about the pilot and him trying to stop the crash from happening. There are two different dramatic things going on, so that’s how I approached it. The one in Cast Away is just supposed to be terrifying because nobody know what the hell is going on and suddenly you’re in the water. In this one, we know everything that’s going on and what he’s gonna do.
Flight is about a group of characters all looking for answers, both big and small, about what happened. How important to you was this theme of the search for truth?
It was vital. It was the essence of the movie. None of this happens by accident. What I mean is… You’re a writer, and one of the horrible things about your job is nothing gets written by accident. You can’t just hit a bunch of keys and get something brilliant. Nothing’s written by accident and it’s all planned. A lot of the time it might be deeply subconscious, especially in screenwriting. But that was very apparent, that everybody had their quest for the truth, whatever that truth is. And, of course, it’s all symbolized by Whip, who is incapable of self-truth or self-honesty. It’s all really deep themes, woven together in an elegant way.
Is this your first R-rated film?
It’s my second. The first was Used Cars (1980).
Ah, yes. Did you always envision this is as a hard-R adult drama? Did you ever consider editing it down to a more box office-friendly PG-13?
I went for the R just like in Polar Express I went for the G. [laughs] I gotta be true to the material.
This is one of the most adult-targeted films you’ve ever made. Was there any hesitation that younger audiences wouldn’t be able to connect with it?
I was a film geek growing up and then I went to film school. I loved watching stories about experiences I hadn’t experienced. It wasn’t like, “If I can’t personally relate to every aspect of this movie I refuse to see it!” I actually loved being educated that way and feeling those things. I felt like I wasn’t being talked down to. But I think anyone who survives to the age of 16 has got some emotional miles on them; I don’t think you have to have calendar miles. I think if you have some emotional miles on you, you’ll see this movie and relate to it.
Arguably the most provocative aspect of Flight is that, due to Whip’s dependency on alcohol, the fact that he was drinking shortly before the plane malfunctioned may have actually helped him land it. Do you have a viewpoint on that?
It’s one of the delicious moral ambiguities of the whole thing. We’ve all heard these stories about guys who are completely shit-faced drunk, they smash their car into a tree, and they just walk away! And the cops say, “It’s because he was loose. He didn’t tense up. He didn’t have enough reaction time to tense every muscle in his body before impact, so he just rolled with the impact and was able to walk away from the accident.” It’s an interesting question, the fact that he may have saved all these people because he was looped. I just love that stuff. I don’t have an answer for you, but it’s certainly thought-provoking. [laughs]
Do you consider yourself a perfectionist when it comes to your films? How do you know when to stop editing?
Well, I’m pretty much a perfectionist. However, there’s this great expression that we have in Hollywood. I heard it on my first movie in the dubbing stage; it was a great old veteran dubbing mixer who said, “It’s perfect enough.” [laughs] So that’s my motto: it’s perfect enough. That’s actually one of the key jobs of a director: knowing when you need to do it again and when you’re moving on. And that’s why they pay you the big bucks, because you just have to know whether you have it or not. It’s one of the hardest things. Along that line, you also have to be careful in the editing room because you can get self-destructive. You can start to hate your own material and start destroying things because you’re just too close to it.
I always wish I could be hypnotized. I wish I could finish the movie, be hypnotized for two hours, get a hypnotic suggestion that I know nothing about the movie, watch it, write my notes down, then be taken out of the hypnosis. Wouldn’t that be great? And the last thing I’ll say about this is this: around movie four or five, I would be pretty hard on my actors. I’d beat them up, make them do 25 or 30 takes. And then I realized that was just me jerking off. I mean, there’s no reason to make them suffer just so they’ll hit that light and mark perfectly. Not that somebody like Denzel would stand for that. [laughs] So you just have to go perfect enough.
Finally, I have a local interest question. I don’t know if anyone has mentioned this to you, but 1,300 people recently attended a Peaches Christ-hosted screening of Death Becomes Her at the Castro Theatre.
What? I had not heard! What kind of screening was it?
Well, it was a 20th-anniversary screening, and there was a big theatrical pre-show where drag queens acted out a stage version of the film.
[laughs] Wow! How cool! I didn’t know about that, but I’m really excited! Why do you think it was such a big event?
That movie has aged incredibly well! It’s still so funny, and the topic of wealthy women finding new ways of extending their youth has only become more culturally relevant since then. It has a huge cult following.
Yeah, it really does.
It was such a huge success that Peaches Christ wants to do it again next year. She also asked me to formally invite you to be her guest of honor at the big event.
Wow. Do I have to dress up?
I’m sure you can dress however you’d like.
Well, I’ll tell you what: you know who else you should bring to this? David Koepp, who wrote the screenplay. It all started with him.
That’s so awesome. Is there video of this anywhere?
I’m sure there’s probably something on YouTube.
Because I’d love to see these guys [mimes the shovel battle] putting on this show.
Have you seen the YouTube video that shows how to simulate the hole-in-the-stomach effect using two iPads?
What a great idea! Now that’s a good use of the iPad.
Flight is now playing nationwide.