The crash of SouthJet flight 227 bound from Orlando to Atlanta isn't the scariest thing in the drama "Flight," director Robert Zemeckis' first live-action film since 2000's "Cast Away" -- which featured a pretty harrowing plane crash itself. The scariest thing is that the boozing, cocaine-using, utterly self-righteous pilot at the heart of the movie, opening Friday, feels perfectly comfortable with FWI -- flying while intoxicated.
"It wasn't his drunkenness that caused this to happen," Zemeckis says by phone from Los Angeles -- "this" being the storm and the mechanical failure that forces Denzel Washington's Capt. "Whip" Whitaker to ditch in a field, using a daredevil maneuver that saves all but six on the doomed flight. "His drunkenness may well have saved everybody," the director says. "You know, he was loose -- which is one of those wonderful ambiguities that made me love the screenplay."
Co-star John Goodman -- who knows something about alcoholism and says with humble pride that his own "is something I came to terms with five years ago, and with daily grace I'm still sober" -- isn't so sure. "Whip also might not have taken off in that storm" had the captain not been drinking and snorting cocaine that morning, clouding his judgment, and it may have been the storm's turbulence and lightning that caused the malfunction. "I don't know and I may not be quoting the party line here," says Goodman, also calling from Los Angeles, "but that's what it looked like to me: He didn't have to take off."
And that's the crux of the movie: Is it possible to reconcile one's personal failings with one's responsibilities? Can you both "play hard and work hard," as the cliche goes, or do you have to make a choice? Hollywood is filled with flawed heroes -- redemption being one of the pre-eminent themes of American moviemaking -- who must learn to recognize their flaw in order to overcome it. But it's rare to have a hero who sees the flaw just fine and not only doesn't consider it a flaw but gets offended if anyone else does -- even if it's the attorney (Don Cheadle) fighting to keep a National Transportation Safety Board inquiry from learning Whip's blood-alcohol level and sending the pilot to prison.
"There is," says Zemeckis, "a great deal of moral ambiguity" in the script by John Gatins, whose previous film, "Real Steel," Zemeckis helped produce. "I found the characters very complex, which you don't see very often. Most scripts in Hollywood," he says, "aren't very good."
That's actually hard to imagine, being they're the product of professional writers who make their living doing it, and after this is suggested, Zemeckis amends himself. "The reason this screenplay is so good," he explains, "is that it came from a singular passion on the part of the writer, and it wasn't put through the system, which is story-by-committee. That's what destroys most good ideas in Hollywood. You know the Hollywood-executive joke, right? 'How many Hollywood development executives does it take to change a lightbulb?'" No, how many? "'Does it have to be a lightbulb?'"
Zemeckis himself may have been asking, "Does it have to be live-action?" for the past dozen years, during which he directed and produced three films -- "The Polar Express" (2004), "Beowulf" (2007) and "A Christmas Carol" (2009) -- shot entirely with motion-capture, in which an actor's expressions and movements in a studio are digitized and animated.
And though the first and last of his "mo-cap" trio were hits, the Zemeckis-produced "Mars Needs Moms," directed by Simon Wells, tanked in 2011. Afterward, Disney canceled the director's planned motion-capture remake of "Yellow Submarine."
So though he's been a producer or an executive producer on nearly a dozen live-action films since "Cast Away," Zemeckis -- who famously directly the "Back to the Future" trilogy (1985-90) and whose "Forrest Gump" (1994) won Best Picture, Best Director and four other Academy Awards -- returned to live-action on a relatively modest budget.
The film -- featuring Goodman as Whip's affable drug dealer, Kelly Reilly, a recovering heroin user with whom Whip bonds, and Oscar-winning Melissa Leo ("The Fighter") as the lead NTSB investigator -- was shot in Atlanta in 48 filming days from Oct. 12 to Dec. 16, 2011, including at the venerable St. Joseph's Hospital. The aftermath of the computer-generated plane crash was filmed at Green Valley Farms in nearby Covington, Ga.
And for Goodman, at least, non-Hollywood antihero Whip Whitaker's own crash-and-burn felt as real as the film's non-Hollywood locations. "If you look at the character, look at what happens to him, look at what he goes through, I don't think there's any romanticizing at all" about the hard-partying pilot. "He's struggling with a disease. The things that I've been thinking about over the last five years...," he says, his voice trailing off. "It rang very true."
Melissa Leo takes on smaller roles
Melissa Leo -- who spent summers in the East End hamlet of Springs with her father, Arnold, longtime secretary of the East Hampton Baymen's Association -- says that despite winning the supporting actress Oscar for 2010's "The Fighter," she's not above doing a one-day role like that of NTSB investigator Ellen Block in "Flight."
"First of all," she says, "I'll bust the myth and tell you that the roles being offered to me are supporting roles, by and large, and not big." And in this case "being in a film that Robert Zemeckis is directing and Denzel Washington is starring in and that's going to get worldwide distribution was probably a wise career move on my part. But in my heart of hearts, the opportunity to work with those two men -- and Mr. Zemeckis was offering me this role, trusting me with a scene that, if it doesn't work, the movie doesn't work -- I truly saw the honor he was paying me."
As for her dad, she says, "He's still out there and still does work with the Baymen's Association -- not quite as closely as he used to when he was actually still out there on the water, but he is still involved."
Leo, 52, has finished filming a slew of upcoming features, including "Something in the Water"; "The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman," as Shia LaBeouf's mother; "The Angriest Man in Brooklyn" and "The Butler," in each of which, coincidentally, she plays the wife of Robin Williams' character; and director Antoine Fuqua's "Olympus Has Fallen," in which she plays the U.S. secretary of defense. She was scheduled to begin shooting "I Fought the Law" last weekend and will do the indie "Prisoners" this winter.