Denzel Washington's character maneuvers his way out of disaster in ''Flight.'' But just when you think he's got God as his co-pilot, it turns out he has plenty of demons, too. Inside Robert Zemeckis' gripping new drama about the road to redemption.
If you’ve watched the riveting trailer for the R-rated drama Flight (out Nov. 2), then you know Denzel Washington plays a pilot named William ”Whip” Whitaker who performs a miraculous crash landing that saves over 100 lives — only to end up persecuted for having had alcohol in his system at the time. You’ve seen the cool F/X-generated crash, the tense legal arguments, and Washington looking impossibly dapper in uniform. What you haven’t seen is his character taking a single drink. Or snorting cocaine. Or doing anything else that might reveal that most of Flight‘s screen time actually focuses on Whip’s tortured struggle with addiction. ”The trailer, that’s how they sell it, and they really fool you,” says Washington.
”Because that’s not what it’s about.”
What Flight really is about — Whip’s alcoholism, his emotional wounds, and whether the labels ”hero” and ”addict” can possibly apply to the same person — has made the movie an unlikely success story in today’s studio system, where complicated characters tend to get trampled under the more marketable feet of superheroes and cartoon animals. But thanks to Washington’s raw, unsparing performance — one of the most vivid film portraits of alcoholism in years — those same hard-to-market qualities might boost Flight into the realm of awards contenders. ”[Whip] is a very tricky part,” says screenwriter John Gatins (Real Steel). ”But Denzel has such a huge presence on screen. When you see him, you think, ‘I want to go on this journey.”’
The journey of Flight actually began back in 1999, when Gatins started a screenplay that he half-jokingly says tackled ”my two greatest fears: drinking myself to death and dying in a plane crash.” He steeped the story in his own struggle with alcoholism, a period of ”dark moments” that finally led him to get sober in 1993. It took years of rewrites and aborted drafts before Gatins finished the version that spurred both Washington and director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Beowulf) to attach themselves to the project in 2010. But two A-list salaries in the budget threatened to make a risky movie like Flight too financially heavy for takeoff. So Zemeckis and Washington took emergency measures, waiving their usual fees. According to Paramount Film Group president Adam Goodman, the convergence of talent was enough to counterbalance the movie’s tricky content: ”When all of those guys united for this, it became, I don’t want to say an obvious bet, but it sure felt like…we would be really remiss not to proceed with them.”
A cut-rate salary didn’t keep Washington from bringing the full force of his talent to the role, which required him to show the worst depths of alcoholism with naked honesty. ”He gave the performance with zero vanity,” says Zemeckis, who recalls Washington giving him a warning — ”This is gonna be ugly” — before shooting one scene that finds Whip in a booze-soaked stupor. ”He’s very focused. He comes onto the set ready to work. He doesn’t want to bulls— with the crew. I always know when he feels that he’s got the scene right because then he starts to lighten up and make small talk. He’ll relax a little bit.”
Washington is famously closemouthed about his methods. During a brief phone interview monitored by a member of his publicity team, the actor answers ”I don’t know” to most questions about his process. When asked whether he did any research to accurately depict his character’s drug usage, he says, ”Well, you know I grew up in New York, so a few of the things I knew about myself.” Asked to elaborate, he simply laughs. ”I’m not telling you that.” Washington’s techniques were even secret to his director. ”I never ask an actor where they go to find their emotions,” says Zemeckis. ”But Denzel does massive amounts of preparation. He journals. He’ll just be at the table read and I’ll say something, and I’ll see him writing something down.” The director also employed a former heroin addict as an on-set adviser for the scenes in which Whip’s love interest, Nicole (Kelly Reilly), shoots up. ”It’s kind of like a dialect coach or a choreographer. He would watch what Kelly was doing and make sure it looked real,” says Zemeckis. ”He told me that when you [inject] heroin, it makes your pupils shut down, so I put that shot in the movie.”
Whether it’s thanks to publicity marching orders or just great minds thinking alike, the principal players in Flight all want to make one thing clear: Their dark, harrowing film about addiction was made to please audiences, not preach to them. ”The first job of the movie is to entertain,” says Don Cheadle, who plays Whip’s fiendishly clever lawyer. ”If a movie is perceived as being a ‘message movie,’ then a lot of times people shy away from it.” Even so, Gatins says he’s touched that Flight could also help people who are battling addiction in their own lives — just as he was 19 years ago. ”Some people will probably think it’s some dogmatic, proselytizing movie,” he says. ”That was not the intention. I hope you laugh, I hope you enjoy it. And if some people come away thinking, ‘Wow, I need to hold up the mirror,’ then what a great offshoot of that.”
Flight‘s Denzel Washington joins the ranks of our favorite big-screen fliers
(Cary Grant), Only Angels Have Wings 1939
(Harrison Ford), Star Wars 1977
(Tom Cruise), Top Gun 1986
(Will Smith), Independence Day 1996