FLIGHT directed by Robert Zemeckis, written by John Gatins, with Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman and Bruce Greenwood. A Paramount Pictures release. 139 minutes. Opens Friday (November 2). For venues and times, see Movies.
Robert Zemeckis is back in the real world.
After releasing What Lies Beneath and Cast Away within six months of each other in 2000, the Oscar-winning director of Forrest Gump (and perhaps more importantly, the man who made the modern American classics Back To The Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit) went into a virtual space for more than a decade, making the motion-capture features The Polar Express, Beowulf and Disney's A Christmas Carol.
Zemeckis returns to the realm of flesh and blood with Flight, a drama starring Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker, a commercial pilot who manages to land a crippled plane while heavily intoxicated. Was there any readjustment required to shoot his first live-action feature in a dozen years?
"It's like ridin' a bike," Zemeckis says cheerfully during Flight's press day, perched on a couch at the new Four Seasons.
"What I loved, and still love, about digital cinema is that you can do anything with the camera. You have no physical, earthly barriers. But then you have to really study that, because when you can do anything with a camera, where do you end up? In a strange way, doing virtual cinema immersed me in really, really thinking it through, and it all comes down to two things: character and story. The camera has to complement those two things. So when I got to Flight, it was just like an instinct: ‘Put the camera here.' I was ready."
That camera is tight on Washington's face for most of the picture, presenting him as a deeply broken man doing everything he can to fool himself into believing he's perfectly functional.
"The thing that drew me to this film is the Whip character," says Zemeckis. "He's completely dead on the inside yet functioning almost heroically. He's spiritually bankrupt - not in a religious sense, but in a human sense. He's not part of humanity, maybe. He uses chemicals to become detached, but he's really good at his job."
And in Washington he found an actor who could not only play Whip at his best and worst, but who actually changed the way Zemeckis made the movie.
"Denzel's performance, when I got into the editing room, dictated the editing," the director says with a kind of fascination.
"I realized his rhythm couldn't be tampered with; I couldn't impose a mechanical change in his performance. You know, typically you're sitting there with your editor and you can say things like, ‘Yeah, tighten that up a little bit, take the air out of that.' And all of a sudden it was ‘Wait a minute! What's wrong with this? It's not feeling right!' Whatever those breaths were - those beats between breaths or those eye-blinks or whatever - they had to stay."