A difficult departure
Gatins wrote the first 40 pages of the script in 1999 but put it away because it terrified him. "No one will ever make this movie," he thought. "I'm the guy who writes sports movies and feel-good stuff."
The writer was also afraid of tackling his personal demons as he wrote about his character's battles with sobriety. "[Whip Whitaker] was in the full bloom of his full bloomness. I didn't know what was going to line the other side and I didn't know how deep I wanted to go."
So he put it away and had a whole other career — writing movies such as "Coach Carter" and "Summer Catch" and directing his first feature, the 2005 family film "Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story" for DreamWorks.
When the movie was finished, rather than return to the world of commercial moviemaking he re-dedicated himself to "Flight," finishing the screenplay and trying for years to direct it himself, turning down other opportunities along the way to pursue his goal. (Gatins' wife was a voice of encouragement during that time. When another less-worthy project would come up, she would say, "You don't want to direct that movie. You wouldn't even see it in the theater.")
But in early 2011 when Zemeckis and Washington showed interest in making it together, Gatins knew it was time to give up the fight. (Washington was looking for a big director to steer the project.) It helped that Zemeckis asked the writer for permission to direct it and then requested Gatins join him in Atlanta for the duration of the shoot.
The collaboration proved very fruitful, according to the film's producer Walter Parkes. "John had a very powerful connection to the story," he said. "It's not autobiographical in any way, but it was fueled by his experiences."
Oscar buzz for Gatins' screenplay is already gathering steam. His biggest challenge moving forward is balancing all the attention with the privacy he's cultivated as a working man in Hollywood.
He must also reconcile the focus the film is putting on his disease with the anonymity portion of AA.
"It's a strange conundrum. I've never talked about it on a public level because I didn't have to, I chose not to and out of respect, I would never put myself out in front of it, which is how it feels when people talk about it," said Gatins.
"I'm always nervous for those people in the public eye. I'm nervous that they will fail."
Times staff writer John Horn contributed to this report.