“I would never write about a character who is not at the end of his rope.”
On Saturday I watched the movie Flight starring Denzel Washington and couldn’t help think about the last two posts I wrote quoting WME Story Editor Christopher Lockhart. Mainly because the Robert Zemeckis directed film from a script by John Gatins (Real Steal, Hardball) follows the two central concepts Lockhart hit on:
1) Writing a role that would attract a star actor (Writing Actor Bait)
2) Twisting story elements a little bit to make it fresh (Screenwriting Quote #172)
In an interview with The Root Washington said of his pilot role in Flight, “The complexity was wonderful to play…this was an adventure. Starting with the screenplay and the collaboration with the filmmaker, getting a chance to fly around in flight simulators, hanging upside down in a plane and playing a drunk.” Yes, actors the caliber of Washington pick roles partly based on the “chance to fly flight simulators.” But the character Gatins created also has layers of complexity and goes through a transformational arc.
And if you have a good grasp of basic film history you’ll notice that Gatins didn’t create a totally original story (Lockhart basically says there aren’t any), but he twisted what we’ve already seen before. We’ve seen planes crash before—Fearless, Hero, The Gray, United 93, The Flight of the Phoenix, Alive, Lost, and of course, Cast Away also directed by Zemeckis. Plane crashes are primal with built-in conflict and life or death stakes.
And we’ve seen alcoholics on-screen before—Leaving Las Vegas, The Lost Weekend, The Verdict, 28 Dyas, Barfly, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, Days of Wine and Roses, Pollack, Affliction, Tender Mercies, Crazy Heart. (Note there are quite a few Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning performances in there.) Again built-in conflict with life or death stakes.
What Gatins did was combine the plane crash with an alcoholic pilot, plus add a few lines of cocaine and the twist of a heroic act. Fresh.
It’s as if he took the headlines of the occasional pilot who is escorted off a plane because he shows up for work drunk and mashed it together with the pilot who safely landed a plane in the Hudson River saving all of the lives on board. Of course, that oversimplifies what Gatins accomplished in writing the script, but that is exactly how you start the process of making something familiar seem fresh. For the record, Gatins said he began writing Flight on spec in 1999—that’s a 13 year journey from idea to screen. It takes a little time sometimes.
“With something like Flight, I didn’t have a boss. I didn’t have a studio. It wasn’t an assignment. It wasn’t a rewrite. It wasn’t a pitch that I sold, that I had to sit down and write. There was none of that. It was literally…Interior, Hotel Room, Night…I started there. And I could go. If I am writing a sports drama, I have to limit myself. Which are movies that I love. I grew up watching them, and I have worked on a fair amount of them. Its like, they have a specific structure to an extent. You have to find your moments inside that, and be creative. You have to create those movie moments, and invest your audience in different characters, and themes, and the things that happen. But that is a specific thing. In a sports movie, you wouldn’t have a seven page monologue from the gaunt young man, who is smoking a cigarette, and you have three people close to death, and he is talking about God. That doesn’t happen. That scene doesn’t survive many movies. It just doesn’t. Its one of my favorite moments in this movie, because of the fact that we take a right turn. It serves a great purpose, because our two characters meet. But you could argue that the movie would exist without it. Or even a much shorter version of that scene. We shot it exactly as I wrote it, and there it is in the movie.”
LA Times article by Nicole Sperling
The movie Flight is also a great example of emotional screenwriting mixing a simple concept and a complex character.
Lastly, coming full circle with those Lockhart posts, I should point out that Flight was one of the last projects Washington’s agent Ed Limato gave him before he passed away. Limato’s client list at one time or another included Russell Crowe, Meryl Streep, Sylvester Stallone, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Marlon Brando—so he had a long track record of picking the right roles for his stars. Lockhart worked with Limato for more than a decade.
November 6 update: I missed in the credits where the movie Flight was dedicated to Ed Limato. Check out the link Paramount Taking Box Office Success ‘Flight’ Directly To Academy Voters; Film Is Dedicated To Ed Limato written by Pete Hammond.