After a detour into animation, “Forrest Gump” director Robert Zemeckis returns to live-action film with “Flight,” which starts with a plane crash but centers more on personal rather than airborne crises.
Denzel Washington stars as a pilot who becomes a national hero for managing to crash-land a malfunctioning jet but faces another harrowing descent when alcohol and cocaine are discovered in his system.
The movie, being released in North America this weekend, took more than 10 years to come together from a screenplay by John Gatins, whose previous credits include “Real Steel” (2011) and 2008’s “Dreamer.”
It took all of the A-list actor and director’s Hollywood heft — and cuts in pay — to bring it to the screen.
Washington plays Whip, a commercial airline pilot whose skills and sang-froid help him save almost all of his plane’s passengers and crew after it goes into a steep dive due to a technical problem.
But the media and popular adulation his achievement triggers come down to earth with a thud when lab results reveal his addictions, while he falls in love with a young drug addict who is also battling to get clean.
“Their substance abuse is the symptom of deeper problems,” Zemeckis told reporters. “They were that way because they have deeper issues. They were using the chemicals, but it could have been anything: food, gambling, work.
“They just feel this sort of void,” he added as he presented the film in Beverly Hills.
Washington agreed, saying that in preparing for the role he didn’t focus on his character’s alcoholism.
“I didn’t really want to get too much into the AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) side of it, or try to be an alcoholic because he didn’t think he was alcoholic,” the actor said.
“I was a guy who drank. In my mind, he’s like anyone who has one drink a week. He doesn’t realize how far he’s gone.”
Screenwriter Gatins said the movie was partly autobiographical.
“I got sober when I was 25, so when I started writing the script I was probably 30 or 31. All those themes of alcoholism and addiction were kind of like in my whole life,” he said.
“And I’m a nervous flyer,” he told AFP.
From its opening scene combining full-frontal nudity and lines of cocaine, it is clear that “Flight” differs from most big Hollywood studio movies, aimed squarely at selling tickets with superheros or romantic comedies.
It is reminiscent of the 1970s, “that glorious period where people made really .. tough movies to watch, that forced you to sit there, because they took their time sometimes,” said Gatins.
“The business has changed and they want the biggest number of people to be able to go to see a movie.
“We didn’t have a lot of money to do this movie. We needed Bob and Denzel to sign up to do this movie and kind of waive their fees. So many things had to happen and go right for this kind of movie to get made.”
Nor does “Flight” fit into a specific genre.
“At some point I had the idea of making the investigation a bigger part of the movie. But could I do that but still be faithful to his point of view?” the writer asked.
“I kept getting rid of some of that stuff and focusing more on just his story, his journey.”
For Zemeckis, who won best director Oscar for “Forrest Gump” in 1995 and whose films include the “Back to the Future” series and 2000’s “Cast Away” starring Tom Hanks, the film marks a return to live action after animated movies including “The Polar Express” in 2004 and 2009’s “A Christmas Carol.”
Apart from the virtuoso crash scene in “Flight,” the tone of the movie is personal and intimate, with flashes of humor.
“Humor is very important. I have this approach to movie-making that movies should be entertaining. That’s what you go to the movies for,” he said.
“It can be a very, very dark and serious and complex subject, but I don’t think it has to be exclusive or devoid of any humor or any action or any suspense.”