‘Flight’: Screenwriter John Gatins confronts his fears

The bar at the Century Plaza Hotel is about the last place you’d think John Gatins would want to revisit. It’s where the now successful screenwriter worked when he was a much younger — and much different — person.

It was a time in his life when he was a struggling actor in the throes of a crippling addiction to drugs and alcohol. Living fast and reckless, Gatins in his early 20s was described by his friends as a “charming ne’er-do-well,” openly flirting with death.

“I just came unglued. There was a point where I thought I’d lost my mind,” the 44-year-old Gatins recalled. “You can go crazy trying to be an actor.... You have an audition on Monday, it goes great, and they want to see you on Thursday. How are you going to kill the time in between? What are you going to do?”


It’s that dark period in his life that partially inspired Gatins to write the script for “Flight,” and the Century Plaza is the place he chose to reveal a past life that he’s mostly kept secret.

The $31-million film, which opened Friday to strong reviews, follows Whip Whitaker, a commercial airline pilot with a penchant for cocaine, alcohol and flight attendants who heroically lands a broken jetliner only to have his sobriety questioned during the follow-up investigation. The film marks director Robert Zemeckis’ (“Cast Away”) return to live-action filmmaking after a 12-year absence and costars John Goodman, Don Cheadle and Kelly Reilly.

But the project is also a culmination of 12 years of effort for Gatins, who was inspired to tell the story of Washington’s pilot as a means to confront his own twin fears — flying and overdosing on drugs and alcohol. The result is a daring combination of a 30-minute heart-stopping plane crash chronicle mixed with a poignant story of addiction and redemption.

What Gatins didn’t consider during the lengthy quest to get the film made, was that reaching the finish line would reveal a new form of terror: publicly admitting his own history of drug and alcohol abuse, after almost 20 years of sobriety. Now at every screening, party or event held for the film, Gatins is questioned about the origins of his story.

Quipped Larry King at one such event: “You a pilot or an alcoholic?”

The attention is only magnified by the billboards all over town advertising the film that give equal billing to him and Zemeckis.

“It’s one of those cosmic jokes,” said Gatins, swaddled in a down jacket despite the warm October weather. “Oh yeah, that thing you’re really itchy about talking about, let’s put it out there really big this time.”

The turning point

Gatins didn’t start writing until he was 26 and newly sober. Years of slogging around Hollywood as a struggling actor had already taken their toll on the confident Vassar graduate. The answer to his boredom came from living fast and reckless.

While Gatins was hesitant to talk specifics of his addiction, his close friend Phil Pavel, general manager of Chateau Marmont, describes a man who knew no limits.

“We’d drink at the bar until it closed, stumble home, rip bong hits, do lines of cocaine, then John would vomit,” said Pavel. “It was my 20s and I would have to go to work the next day and he didn’t. I remember thinking I can’t keep going like this.”

Gatins is a great raconteur, amiable and engaging, but ask him about his issues with substance abuse and his body language shifts. He turns sideways in his chair, his shoulders slump and he stops making eye contact.

He won’t reveal his darkest days with addiction but he does remember the day he got sober. It was 1993 and Gatins was on the East Coast for a wedding. After a volatile evening that ended in a fistfight with his brother, he wound up at his parents’ house in Connecticut, only to be awakened by his mother telling him that River Phoenix had died.

“I can always tell you exactly how long River Phoenix has been dead because he died the night I got sober, oddly,” he said. “Basically, I woke up and he didn’t.”

Like many alcoholics, once Gatins got sober he chose a very simple life — working at Mickey Hargitay Plants in West Hollywood, watering foliage for stars such as Michael Douglas and Brad Pitt. It was then that he started writing. First a one-act play, then a script for his friend, who was willing to pay him $1,000 for his efforts. The screenplay about a fake teen suicide gone horribly wrong never got made, but it did get him into the right rooms, where he landed his first real writing job on the teen football movie “Varsity Blues.”

From there Gatins went on to an uncredited rewrite on “Behind Enemy Lines,” where he met a cadre of intense Navy pilots who stoked his worsening fear of flying with their tales of reckless behavior. But it was the perfectly friendly pilot who sat next to him on a flight back to New York that crystallized his idea for “Flight.”

“He started chatting with me and I just wanted him to shut up and I kept thinking why do I hate him so much,” Gatins said. “What I realized is I have a vision of a guy flying my plane. That he’s God-fearing, straight-laced. That’s the dude I want. I don’t want to know that your wife hates you. That you’ve got pill problems. That your kids haven’t talked to you in years.”

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.


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