Sometimes, when it comes to greenlighting a big movie in this town, it boils down to an assistant. In the case of Sully, the big-screen retelling of US Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger’s “Miracle on the Hudson” emergency landing, you can credit Clint Eastwood’s right hand Kristina Rivera. Sully producers Frank Marshall, Allyn Stewart and her partner Kipp Nelson had been shopping Todd Komarnicki’s script around, with many studios refusing to read it because they thought they already knew the story. But it was Rivera who nudged her boss to give it a shot (she is credited as co-producer). Unbeknownst to the producers, Eastwood experienced a water landing of his own off Point Reyes, CA during his days in the military. Says Marshall, “I’m sure he’s the only Hollywood director who has experienced one.”
Tell us how you tried to schedule Sully for takeoff.
Frank Marshall: I met Chesley and his wife when I originally bought the book over at Brillstein-Grey. He was represented by them. His story is one of an everyday hero, and I’m drawn to those stories about extraordinary circumstances with ordinary people.
Allyn Stewart: My partner Kipp Nelson and I have a screenplay fund whereby we develop scripts independently and package them. When I went up to meet with my old pal Frank, he said, “Take a look at this book” [Sully’s memoir Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters]. It was a delightful memoir; basically the story we all knew. Kipp and I went to meet Sully at his house, and he began to tell us: “Until six weeks ago, all of this was going to be taken away.” He told us about the NTSB investigation, and how scary and traumatizing it was; that he and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles could lose their wings. That was the architecture for a great dramatic movie; the story that nobody knew.
What made Todd Komarnicki the right screenwriter to adapt? He has an interesting resume that includes producing Elf and writing the Halle Berry thriller Perfect Stranger.
Stewart: I read a script of his called Cotton, which was based on a true story about a wrongly accused African American. I felt a palpable connection to those characters. Also, Todd pitched a unique structure for Sully. Frank, Kipp and Todd and I realized if you’re going to tell a story that’s globally known, you have to find a way in that’s unique. Given that the NTSB investigation was the most shocking part of the story, it seemed smart to intermix that with the landing of the plane and the PTSD of it all. Todd is very research-driven, and he immersed himself in the world of the NTSB world.
Marshall: We didn’t want to make the script like a documentary treatment. It needed to be nonlinear to make it interesting and Todd cracked it.
Stewart: The project became an albatross to get made because everybody thought they knew the story. We had to stand on chairs yelling at people to read the script.
Marshall: Then we thought, maybe we should go to a filmmaker. The project came up at a time when Clint had four to five scripts. He looked at the title and said, “I know that story,” but it was his assistant who advised him he didn’t and that he needed to take a look at it. That’s how it all started. It’s amazing when I look back on it: what if there wasn’t an assistant or creative executive who told their boss, “No, you don’t know the story, you need to read this”? The script Clint shot was the one we were taking around town.
Tim Moore: What clicked for Clint was that it just wasn’t about the landing, but it got him thinking about the whole idea of what Chesley went through; how he was second-guessed after being put in that position, and the nightmares. Before Sully we were looking at the Richard Jewell story during the Atlanta bombing of the Olympics. He then gave me Sully and said, “I’ve changed my mind, here’s the one.”
In a film market where it’s hard to pull off dramas on the big screen, no thanks to their renaissance on TV, what made Sully prime for the big screen?
Marshall: Recreating the landing; I’m not sure you can do that on a TV budget. We needed a big-time filmmaker and to tell the story properly, we had to recreate that landing on the Hudson.
Before Doctor Strange opened, this was the highest grossing film of the fall, and it opened on a risky date: the weekend following Labor Day. Were you surprised at the film’s success?
Marshall: Once I started seeing the movie with audiences, it was clear people needed a hopeful story. It’s not a superhero movie, nor a dark one either. It’s about people doing good. It was a rallying cry for a positive thing. The word of mouth was very good and you can never buy that.
Stewart: Our opening even surprised Warner Bros. executives Dan Fellman and Sue Kroll. They were the visionaries. I was initially terrified about the film coming out that early. Dan wanted to ensure that we had all the IMAX screens available. Clint and Dan worked together for thirty-something years and Clint has enormous faith in him.