By Scott Neumyer
It took nearly ten difficult years for screenwriter John Gatins’ story of an alcoholic pilot who pulls off an impossible move to save the lives of many of his passengers but comes under scrutiny for his personal life to achieve lift off. But one phone call from Oscar-winner Denzel Washington and the support of director Robert Zemeckis finally helped get “Flight” (out on Blu-ray and DVD February 5) off the ground.
An incredibly human story about addiction, wrapped inside a miraculous action set piece, the film features a great performance from Washington, a hilarious John Goodman, and Gatins’ own Oscar-nominated screenplay.
MTV News recently spoke with Gatins to discuss the transition from acting to screenwriting, his upcoming films, and the pressure of a writer’s acceptance speech.
MTV: The first thing I have to ask is how does one go from acting in “Leprechaun 3” to writing an Oscar nominated screenplay?
JOHN GATINS: [Laughs] It is a long, dark, dark road, my friend.
MTV: I can only imagine what that road is paved with.
JG: It’s crazy. I got all these phone calls the morning of the nomination because they want to know where I was, what my reaction was, and all that kind of stuff. I just said, “Look, you’ve got to know that I’m a movie fan first. I just love movies.” So, I came out here thinking that I’d be an actor and the business has taken me in different directions. I tend to ride the horse in the direction it’s going a little bit. This is where it brought me, I guess.
MTV: “Flight” kind of grew out of your meeting with a pilot on a plane. You also played an air traffic controller in “Meet Dave”. What’s the attraction to planes and “Flight”?
JG: That’s so funny. I would never have made that connection with the air traffic controller. I don’t know, man. I think it’s part of my fear and fascination with flying, which has been a lifelong thing. I’m a big car guy. I love cars. I have a snowmobile. I have a boat. Zemeckis used to say to me, “Man, any conveyance. You like any kind of conveyance.” And I was like, “I do, except I’m really scared of some of them. Like planes, for examples.” So, of course then he offered to take me up in his plane.
We flew a bunch working on the movie, of course, and he would always want to sit next to me and work on the script and talk about the plane crash. I’m like, “Oh boy.” I would just rather get there. [Laughs]
But, yeah, I think it was born out of a little bit of my fear of flying. I was working on a movie with Naval pilots in Europe. They were really interesting guys and some of them became commercial pilots. I was flying back and sitting next to a guy who was a commercial pilot who was just deadheading back, and he started chatting with me. I was like, “God, I want this guy to be quiet. I don’t want to know anything about him.” So I was wondering why I felt that way because I’m a friendly guy. But he’s a pilot. I want to think that anyone who is piloting my plane has their life perfectly in order.
MTV: One of my favorite scenes in the film is the cigarette-smoking scene in the hospital. It’s three actors just standing around, talking, and it’s something you just don’t see in films these days. Were you surprised that the scene stayed in there in that long form and fully intact?
JG: I was, yeah. One of the great things is that I tried to direct this movie for many years and almost did a few times, and when Denzel came on we had a dinner and Zemeckis got his hands on the script and said, “I want to do this.” He called me to have lunch, which turned into six hours of he and I in a room together. He said, “Are you okay with me doing this because I know you’ve been trying to make it for years yourself?” And I said, “I can’t get it done. I need you to do it.” And then he said, “Well, come with me and do it.” So he invited me to be his partner, basically, which was amazing.
When we first started to talk about the script, the first thing he said is what you just said. He said, “We need to cast the gaunt young man. That’s the first thing we need to do.” And I said, “Really?” He said, “Why are you so surprised?” And I said, “Well, I was always afraid that scene wouldn’t survive the movie.” And he said, “It’s the whole movie.”
That was the first connection that he and I had that made us know that we see this eye line perfectly together. I feel like it’s the framework of the movie. Thematically, it’s the framework. It brings our two characters together.
MTV: “Need for Speed” is a pretty well-liked videogame. What are some of the challenges of adapting a videogame that’s not really very narratively rich?
JG: I think what’s interesting is the reverse of that, which is that I don’t know that I could have gotten involved in a videogame that had a strong narrative because I would feel like, “What is there for me to do?” But here it was a great opportunity because, like I said earlier, I’m a car freak. I’m fanatical about that stuff so, to me, it was like, “Oh, my gosh! We’ll have the opportunity to work inside this world with these supercars?” And then we had the great opportunity to come up with our own story.
We worked very closely with EA, and we still do, because they’ve been making that videogame for 17 years, so they know who they’re audience is and they know who their gamers are. We pitched the story that we loved, and they felt it folded into what the game is.
I just came from a big meeting about it today because we’re going now. We’re moments away from rolling. It’s a great young ensemble. The action in the movie is going to be amazing. The look is going to be incredible. It’s really fun.
I think it’s like a 70’s car movie. It’s like “Vanishing Point” or “Bullitt.” It’s really going to be, hopefully, a movie that’s going to make people smile. I think it’s intense.
MTV: “Real Steel” surprised a lot of people because the surface concept of robots and fighting seems silly, but it received a pretty good critical response.
JG: And that was another one that was a little bit of a hybrid. You want your movie to get out there, so you have to find the elements that can touch on the things people want to see. We had to come out swinging, literally, with the robots and then people could discover that it’s a human story. It was fun and scary and hard work at the same time.
MTV: What are some of the challenges of writing a sequel?
JG: Hard because you have to make a decision one or two ways and we’ve gone back and forth with whether we should make a second movie that’s a close cousin to the first movie, or should we change the landscape and take it international to draw a different set of dramatic parameters for the characters?
It’s been a challenge. It’s, again, a wide-open landscape, but Hugh Jackman is so good. What a lovely, awesome, amazing guy and talent.
MTV: I assume they probably want you to have him sing in the sequel now, right?
JG: It’s funny because, in the first film, we have the boy dance and I kept saying to Shawn [Levy], “Come on. Hugh is world class.” We didn’t do it, but we were always tempted to.
“Flight” will be available on Blu-ray and DVD on February 5.