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. (more…)