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Oscar-nominated scribe thrilled audiences embraced 'Flight'

Published On: Feb 05 2013 05:55:31 PM CST
Updated On: Feb 06 2013 09:35:43 AM CST
Denzel Washington John Gatins

Paramount Pictures

Denzel Washington in "Flight" (inset: John Gatins).

There's no question that getting an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for "Flight" has catapulted the spirits of screenwriter John Gatins into the stratosphere; but truth be told, no matter whose name is read when the envelope is opened at the Academy Awards Feb. 24, Gatins said already feels like a winner.

After all, the odds of a writer in Hollywood of getting a screenplay made are astronomical, much less getting an Oscar nomination for one of them.

"Early on during pre-release press, people started talking about Oscar nominations, and I would say to them, 'I never even thought I'd finish the script, quite honestly,'" Gatins told me with a laugh in a recent interview. "I thought, even if I finished it, no one would read the script. Then if it did, I thought no one would see it. The fact that it actually did well at the box office and was really well-reviewed has been a new surprise in a great way."

The film, which makes its debut on DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday (Paramount Home Entertainment), chronicles the ugly personal demons of Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington, who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for the role), a veteran pilot who spectacularly lands a jetliner after it suffers catastrophic mechanical failure en route from Atlanta to Orlando.

Unbeknownst to the people who are hailing the pilot for his heroics, however, is the fact that Whip has a serious substance abuse problem and was drinking and using drugs before the flight. Despite Whip's miraculous landing, someone has to take responsibility for the six of the 102 people on-board who died, and the pilot and his confidants are doing their best to hide the truth.

The spark of the idea for "Flight" came when Gatins found himself seated next to an airline pilot during a commercial flight in 1999. Hearing about the pilot's personal travails made Gatins uneasy because he only wanted to think of pilots as people who flew with minds uncluttered by personal issues.

"Encountering this pilot on this airplane made me think about a lot of things, including my fear of flying," Gatins recalled. "So, I married all these different kinds of themes in my personal life with the pilot, who was circling the drain of his own personal life."

Gatins said he picked up and put down the pen on "Flight" for the next six years -- and it wasn't until he showed the first 40 pages of the script to DreamWorks after he finished writing and directing the 2005 family drama "Dreamer" for the studio that project began taking shape.

After all, between the germ of the idea and the completion of "Dreamer," pitching a movie that begins with a plane crash wasn't exactly the easiest thing to do in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.

"There were a couple of crucial moments in the developmental process of this movie and 9/11 was one of them," Gatins recalled. "At first I was like, 'Well, I guess this kills my airplane movie idea,' but somehow the movie kept living in a slow burn for me. The idea of it just kept nagging at me. It felt like (Whip) was such a good movie character and I think I have a really good set up to navigate this story in -- a human drama inside of an event."

Gatins was also stonewalled by the fact that in the time he was developing the picture, there weren't a whole lot of successful R-rated dramas to convince people to take a risk.

"Flight" cost a reported $31 million to make -- a pittance by today's movie budget standards -- and amazingly that budget not only secured an Oscar-winning visionary in director Robert Zemeckis, but a double Oscar-winner in Washington.

On the surface it would appear that "Flight" was an easy sell, but it wasn't until a resurgence in the last couple of years of the R-rated drama that the Gatins' screenplay gained momentum, attracted Washington, and lastly, Zemeckis.

"There weren't a lot of '70s-style movies, which I always felt 'Flight' was," Gatins recalled. "The business had turned away from them because they were tough sells, quite honestly. But then they came back when movies like 'The Fighter' and 'Black Swan' -- movies that built drama -- started to perform. But when they came back there was a new business model for them. They couldn't be big, expensive and more contained, and this movie fit that bill a little bit."

The miracle of 'Flight'
"Flight" wastes no time launching into its riveting flight sequence -- perhaps the most terrifying scene put on film all of last year -- where the jetliner takes an uncontrolled dive before Whip, unfettered, levels the plunge of the aircraft off by inverting the plane.

Gatins said he's quite aware that viewers will question the possibility of a plane flying upside down, but assures skeptics that when you're trying to tell a drama in that mirrors real life, you don't drop scenes like that into a script willy-nilly.

"There's a lot of bad aspects to writing a script over 10-12 years, but there's some good, and the good that came of it was I continued to research every airline accident that I could," Gatins said. "I talked to a lot of pilots, and continued to borrow from actual plane accidents. I would keep asking, 'Could you do this? What would you do in this instance?' I put (the scenario) through all of these truth gauntlets."

Gatins' account of the air tragedy in the film ended up being so convincing that the film's technical advisers asked if he was a pilot after they looked at script for the first time.

"I said, 'No! I'm a terrified flyer,'" Gatins exclaimed with a nervous laugh. "They asked, 'Where did you get all of this?' and I said, 'I did as much research as possibly could.' Of course, we shaped it a bit more and obviously I didn't have it 100 percent correct, but the crash was very detailed."