Denzel Washington & Robert Zemeckis Interview For ‘Flight’
In this mystery thriller, Academy Award winner Denzel Washington stars as Whip Whitaker, a seasoned airline pilot who miraculously crash-lands his plane after a mid-air catastrophe, saving nearly every soul on board. After the crash, Whip is hailed as a hero, but as more is learned, more questions than answers arise as to who or what was really at fault, and what really happened on that plane? Also featuring the likes of John Goodman, Don Cheadle, James Badge Dale, Melissa Leo, Kelly Reilly, Tamara Tunie, Garcelle Beauvais and Bruce Greenwood, ‘Flight’ marks director Zemeckis’ (Back to the Future trilogy, The Polar Express, Forrest Gump, Cast Away) first live-action film in over a decade. ‘Flight’ arrives in cinemas November 2nd in the US and Febuary 1st, 2013 in the UK.
In ‘Flight’ you play this deeply flawed, yet remarkably skilled pilot. Alongside the emotional aspect of the character, how was the preparation process for playing a pilot? And with Whip Whitaker, I can imagine his job as a pilot, what that entails pressure wise, heightens his issues?
Denzel Washington: Yeah. Whip Whitaker, he’s an airplane pilot who has dependency issues. He’s an excellent pilot but he’s spiralling out of control – literally and figuratively! Going into the film I wanted to know that the movie was not trying to knock airlines or pilots. It’s not so much about flying as it is about addiction, at least as it relates to my character. So he could work in a post office but flying a plane is the most heightened dramatic situation. But it’s really about a man who has issues and he could be a filmmaker, a pilot or a plumber. The addiction and denial is the same and hopefully the recovery is too. But being a pilot is a tough, high-pressure job. You fly from LA to NY to Hong Kong, spend 24 hours there, turn around and come back and then do it again. That’s hard on the body, you’re alone in these hotels with strangers and your flight attendants become your family. But it could be anyone who spends that lonely night in a hotel room wrestling with demons.
You got to practise flying on a simulator to help you understand the mechanics of flying a plane. Then you also got to film in a giant gimbal for the crash scene….
Denzel Washington: The simulator was great, it’s what the pilots practice in and was incredibly helpful. I know I have a great job – I get to drive trains in one movie and fly planes in the next (laughs). And the crash scene, we had a whole big gimbal thing, we were really upside down, everything was flying around. Robert didn’t just want to do it with the camera, just twisting the camera. They built this giant thing that turned this whole plane upside down. That really informs your performance, really informs it!
The crash sequence in ‘Flight’ is without a doubt one of the most dramatic and harrowing scenes I’ve seen on film in a long time. How was that to film and put together?
Robert Zemeckis: That was definitely the toughest scene. That involved a lot of logistics, a lot of special effects, a lot of stunt people. We had to have the plane upside down, we built the entire plane cabin on a gimbal, the cockpit on a gimbal. It was on vibraters and shakers, it was a very complicated scene. Hanging about 50 people upside down, that’s time consuming and scary to do (laughs). We actually hung everyone upside-down by their seat belts. I think the safety advisors said we could hang people that way for a minute. So we shot everything we could in 60 seconds and then we had to turn everybody right side up again. Then we would turn the plane upside-down again and do it all over.
Your films are known for strong characters with compelling emotional journeys. What was it about the script of ‘Flight’ that interested you?
Robert Zemeckis: The screenplay for ‘Flight’ was great, I couldn’t stop turning the page when I read it. What’s interesting about it is that the suspense comes from the question of, “What are these characters going to do, how they are going to respond to what’s happening?” That uncertainty. It’s not like there’s a ticking bomb or a meteor that is coming to destroy the earth. The anticipation comes from not knowing what the characters are going to do from scene to scene. It’s so rare to find a screenplay that has that kind of depth and complexity. That’s what compelled me. I wanted to see how this was going to resolve, what would happen to Whip.
With ‘Flight’ marking Robert’s return to live-action filmmaking, how did you find the experience of working with him?
Denzel Washington: He’s just good, you know (laughs)? He just has that gift, he really has the gift of storytelling on both a grand scale and on an intimate scale as well. He makes it pretty seamless. I mean, I never felt like an actor caught up in a highly technical film by any stretch of the imagination. He really cares about his actors and about getting the best performance with them. And I’m amazed with what Robert done in 35 days, we only shot for 25 days. He made that movie look huge. Obviously he did a great plane crash scene in ‘Cast Away,’ and probably just that scene alone took 35 days with that movie (laughs).
How was it for you working with and witnessing Denzel Washington performance, playing this meaty, complex character?
Robert Zemeckis: He’s perfect because he’s such a huge talent. He’s got such an ability to bring such a gravitas to his performance. His performance in ‘Flight’ is very intense and very focused. Obviously it’s a character he’s never played before, but I think what we see from Denzel is the moral ambiguity that he plays, and his ability to be a character that’s obviously in serious emotional pain. He’s covering that with all of his bravado and arrogance. I think that’s what makes the performance so interesting to watch. And I think the movie is very suspenseful because I think the audience isn’t quite sure what will happen to Denzel’s character. His inner turmoil is what creates all the suspense in this piece. You’re kind of wondering where he’s going to fall off in this very human and very real drama.
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