[Editor’s note: This is one of a series of Keyframe interviews with Oscar contenders. Please see the sidebar to this story for a more complete list of interviews and features. For Kevin B. Lee’s decisive take in Who Really Deserves to Win?, see the video essay series’ home page.]
You could say that Flight is new territory for John Gatins. Before he finally got the film off the ground, a journey that took twelve years from his first draft to principle photography, he was a specialist in scripting such sport-centric stories as Hard Ball, Coach Carter, and Real Steel. It was an unexpected change of course for an artist who never set out to become a writer in the first place. Gatins studied acting at Vassar, moved to Hollywood in 1990 with acting dreams, bartended to make the rent between jobs (which included such direct-to-video productions as Pumpkin Head 2 and Leprechaun 3), and drank to ease the disappointment. His first screenwriting gig came out of nowhere, but he found he had a knack for it and it led to more jobs.
While not exactly autobiographical, the roots of the drama are from Gatins’ own experiences—he was five years sober when he started writing the script—refracted through his own fear of flying and our cultural fascination with heroes and their fall from grace. He had hoped to direct the film himself (he previously directed Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story), but a drama about addiction is hardly a recipe for blockbuster success and it remained unproduced until director Robert Zemeckis and actor Denzel Washington took an interest. So Gatins reluctantly gave up his hopes of directing, but in return he saw his dream project on the big screen with one of the biggest and most respected actors in Hollywood in the lead. He also earned himself an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, his first ever nomination.
I talked to Gatins by phone in conjunction with the disc release of Flight. It was a brief discussion but we managed to cover quite a lot of territory, from the origins of the story to the way the issues in the film reverberate through the culture.
Keyframe: I’ve read that you came out to Hollywood to be an actor and ended up writing scripts. How did you start screenwriting and when did you realize it was something you’d like to do?
John Gatins: It was after years of being out here as an actor and having studied in college to be an actor and taken some dramatic literature classes at Vassar. People say you should take an acting class to people who want to direct. I was already an actor. I always liked writing but I never really considered it. Then I was playing in a poker game with some guys I had gone to Vassar with and one of them was working for a producer and said, ‘Man, you’re so funny, you should write a script. When you get broken up, I’ll pay you to write a script.’ So I called him the next day and said, ‘Yeah, I got an idea for a movie,’ so I pitched him a movie idea. I just decided to try to write it and the interesting thing was that from all the years of being an actor and reading scripts for auditions, I always say it was ‘wax on, wax off, do you know how to do karate?’ You read thousands of scripts and you know the innate form and structure of a screenplay. So I had a little bit of an instinct about how to write a movie from having been an actor. One really helped the other.
Keyframe: Most of those early films before Flight are sports dramas. How did you go from acting in Pumpkinhead 2 and Leprechaun 3 to becoming a sports drama specialist?
Gatins: Killing leprechauns is a sport too, you know. (Laughs.) It’s interesting how, just from my own experience, it seems everything in my life has bearing on the next thing in my life. They’re strange pieces of brick along the path, in a way. Starting from the time I was young, I loved sports, I played a lot of sports, I played soccer in college, I played a ton of baseball, and I actually thought at a certain time before college that I thought I was going to try to become a sportscaster. I loved the drama inherent in any sporting event. So that was part of it. When I got out here, I wrote a spec script that was a dark teen high school comedy, so it wasn’t really a sports movie, but oddly it got me the job rewriting Varsity Blues, which was a sports movie. So I did that and had a great experience doing it and that opened the door to people saying, Would you look at this sports movie or that sports movie? So I stayed in this vein of working on sports movies because I had an aptitude for it, given my background as an athlete and an actor. So all those things started to mix together to carve a little niche.
Keyframe: Flight comes from a personal place for you. Can you talk about that?
Gatins: That question is connected to the last question, which is that all the experiences that I’ve had in my life come through in my writing. Flight is born out of my fear and fascination with flying. I’m also a car person, I’m working on Need for Speed now, which is this crazy car movie with Aaron Paul. I think that any time you can combine anything that’s a passion or an interest with a movie idea, that’s a great thing. I’ve shared in interviews that I got sober when I was 25 so that was a great change in my life but it also informed the way I was thinking about a lot of things. So I think that when I started writing Flight I was probably 31 and it was definitely something that was very much… It was a new way to look at the world for me and between that and flying a lot for work at the time and being scared and fascinated with planes, it combined those two things.
Keyframe: You wrote your first draft of the script 12 years ago?
Gatins: I guess I should say that I started writing it then, and I picked it up and put it down. It kind of scared me, honestly, for a lot of reasons. One, it was very personal, as you said. But I also thought, This is an R-rated drama with a really complicated, mostly at times unlikable character in the middle. And I thought I’m not really sure anybody would make this movie. Certainly I never thought a studio could embrace it, and the idea of making it outside of the studio system was really unknowable to me because I’d never done it. I’d been a guy who’d done genre movies, sports movies, things that studios knew very well how to do, and this one I thought, Gee, I really don’t know how to do this.
Keyframe: The film also has this interesting perspective on our fascination with heroes, and the way we build them up and then look for ways to tear them down and get angry with them when they disappoint us.
Gatins: Exactly. And what ‘s interesting is that we’ve been talking about this movie—thankfully, people have been asking about this movie for a long time, and by a long time I mean starting at the end of the summer as we were ramping up for the movie’s release—and as we’ve started asking about that exact thing, I kept saying to people, As a sports fan I’m fascinated with Lance Armstrong. His story is epic. It’s Shakespearean. He’s the guy we all desperately want to be, the guy we have in our mind who beat cancer and motivated a world to support him, and then the onion keeps getting peeled and that sport is not anything like anyone thought it was, apparently, and he’s right in the eye of the storm of it. And I kept thinking, What’s going to happen to him? And it’s interesting that now he’s made a very big turn. And he was a guy who many people consider a hero on such a grand scale because of LiveStrong and because of what he was in fighting cancer. So I guess I’m agreeing with you. And that goes for anybody else that we try to prop up as, This is a heroic person who did this heroic thing, and then people can’t help but continue to dig because they want to know everything. Or they want to flip it and say, He’s not really or she’s not really a hero. It’s like there was something else is at work, or it was engineered. That’s the other thing. Like the Manti Te’o thing, right? As a sports fan, of course I watch Sports Center, and that’s the lead story on Sports Center every night? Really? The kid’s just a really talented football player, it’s like this whole thing of an Internet hoax and was he Catfished or did they do it to make it seem like he was a more heroic hero? It’s really amazing.
Keyframe: Another real-life hero ricochets off the film. The script was written long before Captain ‘Sully’ Sullenberger landed his plane in the Hudson River. Did the real-life event prompt you to change anything in your script? Did it bring any attention to your work?
Gatins: I’ll tell you what was interesting. When I started writing in 1999, 2000, 9/11 happened in 2001, and I had a moment of, Well, I’ll never make my movie. Because I felt that it was such an enormous event that shook us all to the ground and still ripples, I feel, and the airline industry changed. And I was like, That’s too touchy, it’s too sensitive, nobody wants to see a plane again ever, in my mind at least, and that felt like it resounded for a while. So there was that event, and then any time there was any kind of incident with a plane, it was always kind of like the one executive who had seen the script would say, ‘Hey, this is interesting, people are fascinated with planes, it could work, you could make it.’ And I remember I was in Arizona the day that Sully and that crew landed that plane in the Hudson and I got a couple of emails from people who were like, ‘Isn’t this kind of like the movie you’re trying to do?’ And I was saying to people, ‘It is. If Sully was high on crack when he did that, it would be just like my movie.’ (Laughs.) It didn’t affect any of the rewrites because by that point the script was already ‘done’ done; I had a script that was already eighty-five percent of what ultimately was in the movie. I was done basically at that point.
Keyframe: Why the airplane as a metaphor?
Gatins: It’s an interesting thing. Every time you get on an airplane you’re taking a leap of faith, to a certain extent. I don’t know that the layman, myself being the layman, really understands how airplanes do what they do. You’re going to tell me that a fifty-ton piece of metal is going to go eight miles above the earth with me in it and we’re going to go 600 miles an hour and that’s okay? And I’m going to trust that whoever is behind that cockpit door is going to take care of us, and we’re going to get where we’re supposed to get? It’s a funny leap of faith because… If we were in a car I could help you, I know how to drive a car if something happened to you, but I don’t know how to fly a plane, so I think we all go to this funny place. You know the expression, ‘There are no atheists in a foxhole.’ I’ve said, I don’t think there are many atheists in an airplane at 30,000 feet that starts pitching all over the place in a storm. Everyone tends to get quiet. I always thought, What are people thinking? Because I’m thinking, Oh God, please just put us on the ground safely, and then I have the thought, Do I even believe in God? I’ll worry about it when I get there. Because I think we don’t have to think about what we truly believe about things until we’re in extreme situations that we have no control over. Like when someone gets gravely sick. So there’s the invention of the gaunt young man in the stairwell scene [of Flight] that people love to talk about. That leads to the question that you just asked, which is how did the plane become a metaphor for a lot of things? Like us having faith in people or no faith in people, or believing in karma, or did the universe have a plan for what was going to happen?