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Denzel Washington’s movie ‘Flight’ brings director back to live action

Denzel Washingtis Whip Whitaker FLIGHT  from Paramount Pictures. F-04264R

Denzel Washington is Whip Whitaker in FLIGHT, from Paramount Pictures. F-04264R

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Updated: November 29, 2012 6:18AM

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — South Side native Robert Zemeckis laughed as he was asked about his much-anticipated return to directing live action with “Flight” (opening Friday).

“You know,” he said, “considering how much I’ve been asked about it, people must think that I have forgotten how to direct people without using stop-action technology!”

The Oscar-winning director of “Forrest Gump” — who also counts such acclaimed movies as “Cast Away,” “Death Becomes Her” and the “Back to the Future” films among his “live action” accomplishments — merely nodded and smiled when reminded of that old adage of not forgetting how to ride a bike.

Is it something you simply don’t forget?

“You don’t forget, but every film is a new adventure, a new journey, and something that I learn new things each time. … Clearly, in recent years, I’ve been very intrigued by the opportunities digital filmmaking presents, and that’s why I loved doing [the computer-animated] ‘The Polar Express,’ ‘Beowulf’ and ‘A Christmas Carol,’ ” he said.

Zemeckis has been closely associated with the latest developments in motion capture and other forms of digital production.

In 2001, the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema-Television opened the Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts, the nation’s first and only fully digital training center that focuses on the technological advances in non-linear production.

Yet, since Zemeckis’ last truly live-action movie was “Cast Away,” starring his “Forrest Gump” star Tom Hanks, the director admitted, “I was very ready and very excited to return to more traditional filmmaking.

“When I read the script for ‘Flight,’ I immediately knew that was the film I wanted to do.”

Denzel Washington, who plays the lead in the movie — a talented pilot named Whip Whitaker who denies his addiction problems until forced to face his issues following a catastrophic plane crash — had a similar reaction to screenwriter John Gatins’ script.

“Plus getting the chance to work with Bob Zemeckis made it all the more sweet,” Washington said.

Unlike Gatins — who harbors both a fear of flying and a fascination with it — Washington laughingly said he would “have no problem being flown by Zemeckis, piloting his own private plane.”

The director joked that he has frequently asked Gatins, “who has a great love of all kinds of motorized conveyances — including some amazing cars — to come fly with me. … But he just won’t do it.”

Gatins confirmed that was true, “but never say never. I’m sure I’ll do it someday.”

A combination of factors drew Zemeckis to Gatins’ “Flight” script. “I love complex characters who are placed in stories that involve compelling emotional journeys,” said Zemeckis.

“Whip Whitaker fits that description perfectly. He’s a terrific pilot and basically a good man, but someone who has done some pretty bad things — mostly by not being truthful to the people in his life, but most importantly not being truthful to himself. … He’s a guy with a very bad case of denial — on so many levels. That’s what gets him into such a terrible mess, and it’s intriguing to watch how he attempts to extract himself from that mess.”

Zemeckis also liked how Gatins created a number of characters — including the troubled, drug-addicted Nicole (English actress Kelly Reilly, in her first outing playing an American) — “who are just as damaged as Whip.”

The director was drawn to the story arc of “Flight,” in that “I really don’t think the audience knows how it’s all going to come out — until the very end of the movie. There are so many twists and turns. … It’s what adds a sense of suspense that I believe is essential.”

Being a pilot himself gave Zemeckis a deeper understanding of the “Flight” material. “For one thing, one of the toughest parts of flying is being able to fly the plane and talk on the radio [to the air traffic controllers]. That can be a tough learning curve,” said Zemeckis with a smile.

“It also helped to know my way around a cockpit when it came to directing the crucial scenes on the plane when it got into trouble.

“But for much of the movie, we were telling a story about people with big problems and in emotional crises. That part required much different skills and understanding of the human condition.”

Zemeckis felt was important to shoot the picture in sequential order — something quite rare on a film set.

“I felt it was important in order for Denzel and the other actors to feel the journey their characters would have felt as the story unfolded. Especially when it comes to dealing with addition issues, I felt that was important.”

As for achieving his long-promised dream of making a movie in his hometown, Zemeckis insisted, “It is something I really want to do. You have to believe me. I am always looking for a script that I could make in Chicago.

“I know it’s going to happen. I just have to find the right project.”

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