John Gatins spent 1999 to 2009 writing the alcoholic jet-pilot drama Flight, which THR pundit Scott Feinberg ranks as a "major threat" to win Oscars for best picture, director Robert Zemeckis, actor Denzel Washington, supporting actress Kelly Reilly, and Gatins' original screenplay. He tells THR's Tim Appelo about the wild ride that got him within sniffing distance of the Dolby Theater.
THR: Flight is often surreal, but it's got a lot of factual background, right? The drug friends of the pilot (Washington) seem real. John Goodman's Harling Mays is the kindliest drug dealer I've seen onscreen.
Gatins: Drug dealers are people, too. John Goodman was an overflowing bank of goodwill. I may have been a few people's Harling Mays. I got sober at 25.
THR: The incredible opening plane crash scene is based on what?
Gatins: Ten years' studying crash reports. The famous flight off Oxnard where these guys flew inverted for over a minute -- there were amazing, they almost made it.
THR: How did you ever get this film off the ground? It has no genre, and all these great characters in small roles: Reilly as the pilot's rehab pal, Don Cheadle as his lawyer/fixer, James Badge Dale as a wickedly hilarious cancer patient with one Tarantino-sized monologue.
Gatlins: Dale's character was based on my best friend, who got sick but survived. He almost got me kicked out of Cedars' cancer ward, we were laughing so hard. Studios would say, "I dunno how to sell this movie. Is it a courtroom drama? Not really. And you can't just have a cancer guy with a seven-page monologue and you never see him again!" But actors who read it told me, "You never know what the hell is going to happen next."
THR: Do actors like you because you started as an actor?
Gatins: Yes. I was in Witchboard 2, with Laraine Newman, and Leprechaun 3, where Harry Potter actor Warwick Davis bites me and turns me into a leprechaun. Teen Wolf with leprechauns. Kurt Russell made me act out the entire movie on Dreamers. I learned so much from him. If acting were an Olympic sport, he'd be a gold medalist every year. He and Dakota Fanning never blew a line. On Hardball, Diane Lane said, "You're an actor. You've suffered from both sides."
THR: How did you turn writer?
Gatins: My poker buddy from Vassar, Fox evp production Jeremy Kramer, paid me $1,000 to write Smells Like Teen Suicide, a dark teen comedy. It got me a job rewriting Varsity Blues.
THR: You did lots of rewrites, then decided to be your own boss by writing Flight.
Gatins: The bad thing about putting your career on hold for ten years writing a script and trying to direct it is you're unsuccessful most of the time. The good part is you keep combing the script, adding details. I had the time. Nobody's going to make it anyway, so why not write whatever you want?
THR: How long was the script?
Gatins: 149 pages.
THR: That's only 17 pages shorter than Django Unchained. What made Flight more salable?
Gatins: True Grit, Black Swan and The Fighter showed that, see? There is a grownup audience that wants to be a little challenged by something interesting.
THR: How did Flight change with Zemeckis directing instead of you?
Gatins: I said, "I've got more ideas for Cheadle's fixer character, talking about the politics of aviation and how to spin the media for your client." I got enthralled -- there's a whole Michael Clayton-like movie in Cheadle's role. Bob said, "No. Stick to your character. Be conscious of Denzel's point of view at every moment." I might have chased some of those rabbits down some of those holes. If I'd handed off the POV to Cheadle, the movie could've become lopsided.
THR: What did you disagree with Zemeckis about?
Gatins: In a big drunk scene, I had it scripted as a boozy ballet. I fought to have us see him drink. Bob said, "No, I've got a better way." Denzel said, "I like Bob's idea."
THR: Bob's idea is, you don't see him take the fatal drink, just the buildup to it, then a cut to the aftermath.
Gatins: Yes. It's so riveting. Also, nobody could match Bob on that opening plane scene. All the work he's done, and the digital cinema he's done for the past decade -- he's encyclopedic. It was painstaking, man. We shot all day, all night, tiny pieces of gauges and needles moving. He knew exactly what he wanted.
THR: Did you cut any scenes that you shot?
Gatins: Every scene we shot is in the movie. We only had $31 million, 45 days. These actors were on their game. We had Melissa Leo for two days, John Goodman two days, Cheadle the same. For a hacky actor to see these people in action was amazing. Denzel and Bob didn't take their fees, really. They pushed off their salaries and said, "We're going to make this movie."
THR: So what's the sequel? Drunk Pilot 2: This Time It's Personal?
Gatins: Maybe Denzel takes acid and flies the Space Shuttle.