One of the intriguing parts of the Oscar race for me is watching excellent movies, and then discovering how much adversity, disappointment and years go into them. Whether you’re even nominated, this part of awards season is a validation of the artists’ struggle, offering encouragement to others trying not to give up on their own passion projects. I’m not sure anyone in this race personifies that more than Flight scribe John Gatins. You can look at Flight and marvel at Denzel Washington’s performance or how much movie Robert Zemeckis put onscreen with only a $30 million budget. But the most compelling back story is Gatins, who wrote a script that fit no studio’s template of a make-able movie, particularly with Gatins’ insistence he direct it. Gatins became a successful writer after acting didn’t pan out. His only directing credit, Dreamer, was a family film about a broken race horse, the furthest thing from an R-rated drama about a coke-snorting drunk commercial airline pilot. It was inevitable that a decade of futility would leave Gatins feeling a bit like Ahab chasing the white whale. But here, Gatins bagged his white whale, even if the price was letting someone else be captain.
DEADLINE: Pulling a jet liner out of a dive by flying upside down seems crazy, but there is a knowing voice that informs the substance abuse struggles of Denzel Washington’s pilot. How long did you struggle with that?
GATINS: It was one of those things where you go to college, and get a mulligan for four years to go through stuff and sort things out. If after those four years the party doesn’t end, that’s when it becomes an issue. I was one of those guys who couldn’t leave the party. I moved to Los Angeles after I graduated from Vassar, and tried to sort it out for myself but just never really could. There were a few really dark years there, and some strained relationships with family and friends. I had lots of people worried about me, until I was able to…
DEADLINE: Pull out of the nosedive, so to speak.
DEADLINE: How did you come up with this movie?
GATINS: I was in Europe, working as a script doctor on Behind Enemy Lines. These naval pilots, very intense guys, told such great stories. Sobriety changed what had been a distaste for flying into a real fear, because I didn’t have a coping mechanism anymore when I was in the air. The Yankees and Mets were playing in the World Series, and I had to get back to see a game. I found myself in this plane sitting next to a pilot who just started telling me all these crazy stories and everything that was going wrong in his life. I’m pretty friendly, but sitting there on this plane, I didn’t want to know that the wife hates you and you’re going through an awful divorce and you’ve got a bad addiction, you’re an alcoholic. And then I had that “wait a second, what if?” moment. Let’s say you had this pilot with an addiction issue, and put him in a plane and there was one of those horrific perfect storm scenarios. Every pilot explained to me that in order for a plane to crash from pilot error, a really crazy series of things would have to happen because they have backup systems for every crisis. I thought, if I can put him in a situation like that, where he has to do some amazing feat of flying, and then later it’s revealed he was loaded, how would we feel about that guy and his heroic act? And what about his own self-appraisal when the media wants to hoist him up as a hero? I wanted to explore the life of this alcoholic faker, trying to convince himself he’s something that’s he’s not.
Related: OSCARS Q&A – Denzel Washington
DEADLINE: Writers must live for those “what if” moments of inspiration. But what if you write the script of your life, everybody loves it and nobody wants to make it, especially with you as its director? Isn’t that what happened?
GATINS: Well, yeah. I was making a living in this business for the first time in my life, which I had never been able to do as an actor. I started doing rewrite work and then this story came to me. I wrote 40 pages and put them in a drawer. I knew it was a dark movie with a dark lead character and that it had to be R rated. I knew right through that no one might ever make that movie. So I earned a living writing, and that was my pet project that I’d pick up and put down. Always hoping I would write my way into directing it. And then I wrote another movie where that happened, Dreamer. That was a family film and when DreamWorks wanted me to direct another movie like Dreamer, I brought out the 40 pages. Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald were transitioning out and Adam Goodman was taking over. They all read it and said, whoah, this is intense. We want to see where you go with it. They paid me to finish the script, which took 18 months. Walter and Laurie were the producers. They read a lot of drafts including the 2007 draft, the one that would eventually find its way to Denzel, years later.
DEADLINE: This might not have happened if not for Washington’s late agent, Ed Limato.
GATINS: When Denzel and I had dinner, he said that Ed left him behind two scripts. Obviously he loved Ed. He said, I’m going off to do Safe House and them I’m coming back and doing Flight.
DEADLINE: But not with you as director?
GATINS: He didn’t say that at the time, but while he was he in was South Africa making that movie, I had to step aside as the director and take on a different role to get the movie made. But really, after 10 years of nothing going right with this movie, where I had a lot of brushes with interest from actors and studios but nothing more than that, and then I get to a place where Robert Zemeckis reads my script and wants to make the movie with Denzel, what was I going to do? I get the call from his office, Bob wants to have lunch with you. I drive up to Santa Barbara for what I thought would be an hour meeting, and it was six hours. We got to hour three when he asked, are you okay with me doing this? I know you’ve been trying to make this movie yourself. I said Bob, I can’t do it without you. I said I can’t get it done; I need you. And he let me be involved in everything, from casting to scouting. He allowed me a voice in the conversation. I mean, he’s Robert Zemeckis.
DEADLINE: How crushed were you that you weren’t able to do the Sylvester Stallone Rocky thing, which in your case would have been hanging on to the script until you got to direct?
GATINS: I know that Stallone story, and to a guy like me it’s the greatest story ever told. I wish I had a set that big. Maybe I don’t, but I also believe there was a certain amount of fate here that this thing had to find its own way. I believe those expressions, about how great movies are not born, they fight their way to life, and that the only way you can get away with writing un-makeable movies is to write them so well that people can’t help but make them. But the hard truth was, we wouldn’t have gotten that money had it not been for Bob and Denzel saying we want to make the movie, together. I couldn’t point to a rule book or a manual that said, here’s how you do this, in any other configuration. I believe there was a certain amount of fate here, and I’d run out of faith that this would happen any other way.
DEADLINE: It’s not hard to imagine you feeling like Ahab chasing the white whale.
GATINS: I felt foolish many times; I really did. At a certain point, you wonder if you’re hiding behind this dream project and it’s hurting you. Part of me was thinking, this is the best project I have, and the part that needs to support a family is saying, get real. You directed one movie, go direct another. Let go. It was my wife who kept reminding me that I couldn’t let go in terms of this getting made. I look back now, and this script not only frames my career, but my life. When I started writing this movie, I didn’t have any kids. I have three now, and they’ve grown into real people. Things happened along the way. The writer’s strike, after which everything got harder. I was in New York when 9/11 happened, and it changed my whole world, even as I said to myself, this movie doesn’t get made after this.
DEADLINE: Once you let go of the directing part of the dream project, what did you learn from Zemeckis?
GATINS: So much. Can you imagine what it’s like to be able to sit at the table with Bob and his guys, as they tell stories about making Forrest Gump, Cast Away, Back to the Future? I couldn’t believe the access that I had to a guy who had so much knowledge, not just about making movies but how the movie business itself has changed and how to adapt. I jumped in his car every morning to go from the hotel to work, and we talked all the time. He gave me all kinds of advice. For all the bravado I carried when I was pushing to direct, I had to laugh about what I had done to myself, as I would watch him shoot. I would come away saying, wow, this guy really knows how to do this. I wouldn’t have thought of that. I could have done the movie, but I would have had to do it a different way.
DEADLINE: So after that apprenticeship, and seeing your dream project turn out so well, what now?
GATINS: Bob has told me, John, you’ve got to write a movie for you to direct. That’s what I want to do.