We caught up with director Robert Zemeckis about his first foray into live action since 2000’s Cast Away, and does he have a special connection with plane crashes? After all, it was one of those that landed Tom Hanks on that deserted island in his last live action film! Zemeckis tells Movie Fanatic that was actually a concern and that above all, it came down to a terrific story that pushes the moral boundaries of what an audience expects from their hero.
Denzel Washington stars as an airline pilot who successfully lands a plane after a freefall and is immediately declared a hero. Upon further investigation, it is revealed that Washington’s pilot had drugs and alcohol in his system. After Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins have taken audiences on this journey, it is difficult to determine morally and personally what should happen to this character.
Zemeckis tells us in our interview that was the very reason he strapped himself in and took Flight.
Movie Fanatic: Your latest live action flick also features a plane crash. Coincidence or was it just about these are the last two stories that worked for you, Flight and Cast Away?
Robert Zemeckis: It’s interesting because there was a lot of discussion in my brain trust of partners and representatives about the wisdom of doing another movie with a plane crash in it. And at the end of the day, we all decided that we can’t not make something because it’s so rare to find a good screenplay like this because it happens to have a plane crash in it.
Movie Fanatic: Do you feel you walked away from live action to make Polar Express and others?
Robert Zemeckis: No, I never felt that I went away. Movies are movies. Movies are movies. Some bend light through a lens. Some create moving images virtually. At the end of the day, movies are movies.
Movie Fanatic: Such a morally challenging tale in Flight. Was there ever any discussion as to within this fiction world, that the Denzel Washington character could have landed that plane sober?
Robert Zemeckis: We talked a lot about a lot of things [laughs], and one of the things that Denzel and John and myself talked about was what I loved about the script was so much of the ambiguity. And that’s one of the big ambiguous questions. Then with that speech that Don Cheadle makes about how ten pilots couldn’t do it. And, of course, the part he leaves out is that they were all sober. Maybe because he was a little bit loose he was able to do something that no one who wasn’t would have done, and in that case saved a lot of lives. But I mean obviously we’re not endorsing that we think pilots should fly in that state. I don’t think any of us would want to fly in a plane like that. He did commit a felony.
Movie Fanatic: There’s a fateful scene where Denzel is challenged by a vodka bottle after he’s been sober for a while. The hotel room door next to his is open and there’s a fridge full of booze. How do you make to drink or not to drink so suspenseful?
Robert Zemeckis: I always wanted the scene to be suspenseful and I wanted it to sort of evoke that. I wanted it to have sort of an ethereal feeling. So I constructed the refrigerator so that the actual walls of the refrigerator glowed and shot all of Denzel’s performance at 64 frames so that I could dial different speeds of his movement to make it look almost surreal. But I was channeling one of my favorite directors, which is Mr. Hitchcock, and I was pulling a lot of shots out of his playbook for that scene. I just thought this idea was that the alcohol was a siren. You know, it was just calling him and calling him.
Movie Fanatic: There are varying theories why that door was open. Do you think Don Cheadle’s character had anything to do with it?
Robert Zemeckis: Well, Don always thought his character was sort of the devil [laughs]. So we had endless conversations about it, but we felt that the right choice obviously was to leave it ambiguous because stuff happens. It probably was just the housekeeper, you know. It was the housekeeper who ends up I guess saving Whip’s life at the end of the day, right?
Movie Fanatic: Why do we root for Denzel as Whip to get away with it? He is a hero after all!
Robert Zemeckis: I appreciate that you said that. It is so unique and that is exactly what attracted me to this script because it was bold and it was audacious and I loved the complexity of everything. And I loved the moral ambiguity of every character in every scene and every aspect of the script.