How the movie 'Flight' got off the ground

As an experienced pilot who has logged about 1,600 hours in the cockpit, director Robert Zemeckis understands stalls, turbulence and dead stick landings. But when it came to making "Flight," his new movie about an alcoholic commercial airline pilot, the "Forrest Gump" filmmaker had to contend with a different set of aerodynamics: Hollywood's reluctance to clear difficult dramas for takeoff.

More than a decade in the making, "Flight" marks Zemeckis' first live-action film since 2000's "Cast Away" and an atypical wager for Paramount Pictures, which financed the film's $31-million budget. The production nearly fell apart on the eve of filming over contract terms, and screenwriter John Gatins, who first came up with "Flight's" rough outline in 1999, worried over the intervening years that the movie never would get made.

"In today's Hollywood, you can't make a movie that is about ideas and complex characters for a lot of money," Zemeckis said. "The development system destroys the possibility of ambiguity. It's just the way things have evolved. And it's very disappointing."

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The Nov. 2 release casts Washington as Whip Whitaker, an alcoholic and cocaine-addled pilot at the controls in an aviation disaster. The story hangs on this issue: Did Whip's intoxication contribute to or even cause the crash, or did his audacious flying, in which he inverts the jetliner to lessen the crash impact, save countless lives?

To get the answer, Whip must remain sober long enough to explain to investigators and lawyers (the ensemble cast includes Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood and Melissa Leo) what really happened when his plane fell from the sky. Put another way, one of the most heroic things Whip can really do is admit to his own failings.

It's an unusual topic for a studio movie — a distant echo of the long-abandoned, morally ambiguous dramas from the 1970s — and a particular outlier for a company like Paramount, which has dramatically scaled back its film output in recent years, favoring instead a handful of sequels in the "Star Trek," "G.I. Joe," "Mission: Impossible" and "Transformers" franchises.

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Yet once Paramount was satisfied with "Flight's" screenplay and budget, which saw Washington and Zemeckis forgo their usual multimillion-dollar fees, the studio left the filmmakers alone. Its faith might soon be rewarded. Early audience tracking surveys suggest strong interest in the film, and Washington has a long and fruitful history playing similarly flawed protagonists, a record that includes his Oscar-winning "Training Day," "American Gangster" and "Safe House."

"You want to have the big franchises and blockbusters that can really rule the day," said Brad Grey, chairman and chief executive of Paramount Pictures, who personally interceded to help close the "Flight" deal. "And you want to make pictures that you care about. There should always be room for movies like this."

If only it were that easy.

A break from motion-capture

For the last decade or so, Zemeckis has been making motion-capture movies, in which a live actor's movements are recorded by an array of cameras. Animators then create a computerized character based on those movements. The live-action and animation mash-up was used by James Cameron in "Avatar" and by Zemeckis in 2004's "The Polar Express," 2007's "Beowulf" and 2009's "A Christmas Carol."

Though such "mo-cap" movies, as they are known, are generally popular at the box office — "Polar Express" and "Christmas Carol" each grossed more than $300 million worldwide — the movies can cost $200 million or more and take years to make. What's more, some critics dismiss the movies for emphasizing technical wizardry over human emotion.

The wheels were starting to come off the genre, at least in Zemeckis' orbit. His mo-cap production for Disney of "Mars Needs Moms" (directed by Simon Wells) bombed in 2011, and Disney at the same time pulled the plug on Zemeckis' planned mo-cap remake of the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine."

Then the 61-year-old Zemeckis read Gatins' screenplay. "I wasn't doing anything at the time," the director said, "and I never have any predisposed things I want to do in terms of genre. I don't put out the word that I want to do a musical or something."

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By page 10 of the "Flight" script, Zemeckis was hooked. "What intrigued me the most was how everything and every character was complex — no guys wearing white hats, no guys wearing black hats," the director said. Washington, who had read the script a year earlier and agreed to star before there was even a director or a studio green light, shared Zemeckis' enthusiasm.

"I hadn't done anything like it," Washington said. "And the fact that [Gatins] made it about a pilot was absolutely the most dramatic thing he could do. If Whip had worked at the post office, it sure wouldn't have been as interesting, would it?"

The 44-year-old Gatins first hatched the film's basic idea 13 years ago, when he was flying from Frankfurt, Germany, to New York City. Gatins was seated next to an off-duty pilot, and the screenwriter couldn't figure out initially why he was so unnerved by his seatmate's occupation. And then it hit him: The pilot was an ordinary man. "I want pilots to be somebody who would take a bullet to get me to JFK," Gatins said. "And here was this guy with the potential to reveal that he wasn't a god."

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Gatins subsequently sketched out the film's opening act, loosely basing the opening plane crash on 2000's Alaska Airlines disaster off the California coast, but the project went nowhere. Soon after Gatins completed writing and directing 2005's horse-racing movie "Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story," Adam Goodman, then head of production at "Dreamer" financier DreamWorks SKG, asked Gatins if he could "write something from [his] heart."

Seven years ago, a movie like "Flight" — no superheroes, no sex jokes, no Happy Meal tie-ins — was not the economic millstone it has become today, but Gatins' outline was a far more daunting concept than 90% of any studio's slate.

Nevertheless, Goodman, who would bring the project with him from DreamWorks to Paramount, assigned the project to producers Walter Parkes and Laurie McDonald, who spent months working with Gatins on the script, particularly its ending, which went through countless iterations and is ultimately not quite as bleak as the screenwriter once contemplated.

There were fleeting hopes about Brad Pitt or George Clooney playing the troubled aviator with Gatins behind the camera. But the movie didn't really gain any momentum for a long time, and Gatins eventually spent about two years writing the script for "Real Steel." The future for "Flight" looked bleak. "To make an R-rated movie that's not a genre film is very hard," Gatins said. The film earned the restrictive rating in part for nudity and portrayals of alcohol and drug abuse.

"You can't look at this script, absent of its elements [like casting and director] and say it's a high priority," Parkes said. But then Ed Limato, Washington's late talent agent, gave his client the script in 2010.

Yet even with Washington committed, "Flight" didn't immediately take off. The actor met with Gatins but made it clear after the get-together that he wanted someone more experienced to direct him. Before too much time passed, Zemeckis picked up the script. "Flight" wasn't quite airborne, but it was starting to taxi.

Keeping filming costs down

As a filmmaker well-versed in how Hollywood normally shuns this kind of ambiguity, Zemeckis knew it would still be tough to get "Flight" financed, even with Washington aboard.

"The big challenge," said Paramount production president Goodman, "was how to make it for a price." The studio considered bringing in a financing partner and wanted to see how the movie would sell in foreign markets before it made its final commitment, a slightly unusual step to calm executive nerves. By Zemeckis' calculation, the $31-million budget was his least-expensive movie (in inflation-adjusted dollars) since 1980's "Used Cars."

Zemeckis said his costly mo-cap productions gave him the tools to shoot "Flight" quickly and cheaply, especially in staging the plane crash, for which he used digital artists from his computer-animated movies to coordinate visual effects. Furthermore, mo-cap movies involve the preparatory step of laying out the film in rough animation — a pre-visualization practice that gave Zemeckis' department heads a clear understanding of how each shot would look and could be executed efficiently.

To keep costs down further, the production filmed for 45 days in and around Atlanta, taking advantage of generous Georgia rebates.

Yet those are technical and bookkeeping tricks. Would Zemeckis be able to work with actors on real sets, where he could no longer fly his cameras (as he did in "A Christmas Carol") through the middle of a wreath or reanimate a character's movements months after filming ended?

The director said that returning to live action wasn't unnatural: "It's like riding a bicycle." And he said that just because he had limitless possibilities on a mo-cap set — a world that exists in an artificial, 3-D realm, allowing infinite staging opportunities — didn't mean he was paralyzed when he was constrained by the laws of physics.

"I was never frustrated by what shots I couldn't get, because I was prepared for reality," Zemeckis said. What's more, working with his actors for as much as eight hours a day on the computer animated movies, as opposed to a few minutes here and there on a live-action shoot, prepared him well for live action. "I was ready to rock and roll," the director said. "It was like I had been doing theater workshops for 10 years."

Washington said he was excited when Zemeckis signed on. "This is a personal story for a lot of people involved in the film," Washington said. In addition to training with real pilots to master their demeanor at the controls and on the radio, Washington listened to a fair share of cockpit voice recordings from crashes, including the remarkably calm deportment of Chesley Sullenberger, who landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River in New York in early 2009.

In some ways, Sullenberger's astonishing flying gave Paramount more confidence in the movie, which hadn't started filming at the time. "What if," Paramount's Goodman said, " Capt. Sully was wasted?"

Of course he wasn't, but that thought reinforced Gatins' original creative epiphany. And now, 13 years later, "Flight" is finally airborne.

john.horn@latimes.com

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