NEW YORK – The day after John Gatins graduated Vassar in 1990 he got into a car and drove to California to be an actor. He was already having borderline “Whip-like issues,” he says, referencing Whip Whitaker, the alcoholic airline pilot Denzel Washington plays in “Flight.” Part of the decision was an attempt to leave those problems behind a little bit. So, naturally, he became a bartender.
It’s a typical story. Bartender by night, wannabe actor by day. And while he’d always heard the stories of Hollywood hopefuls never getting their shot, it just wasn’t his story, he says. “I had so many shots,” he tells me over (non-alcoholic) drinks at the Four Seasons hotel. “It was like, very quickly after getting there I had found myself in a lot of great situations. I had great agents trying to help me along and putting me in rooms. I had auditions for good movies. It was pretty immediate, honestly.”
So why didn’t it happen for him? Well, he admits, that’s the best question, because the intimidation was significant. “I think it took me looking back years later to go, ‘Come on. Be honest. You were terrified at the whole thing,'” he says. “It’s like as much as you were drawn to it because you like telling stories, and you like the atmosphere, and you love movies and movie culture, I was scared, man. I really had no idea. Part of me was scared and a little bit self-sabotaging. After a year of proving to myself that I could kind of live without alcohol, then, I picked up again. I spent a few really tough years in my early 20s. A lot of people tried to reach out to me to say, ‘Look. You’ve got to get this together.’ I didn’t hear anybody.”
And so you begin to see how the pieces of a screenplay like “Flight” would come together. Whip Whitaker is all that — self-sabotaging, deaf to assistance, caught in a downward spiral — and more. Why more? Because he’s responsible for the lives of hundreds of people at 30,000 feet. But it’s deeper for Gatins, who quips that he’s “100% Irish.” All four of his grandparents were born and lived in Ireland. His parents met in an Irish ghetto in Washington Heights when they were teenagers. “We were this tight kind of Irish culture,” he says. “It was all around me. I saw what it had done. I was like, ‘I’m never going to mess with that kind of thing.’ Then when I drank for the first time, it was different for me. I just had a different kind of zeal for it.”
And Gatins had an interest in writing, too. It went back to his days at school, loving English class, loving to read (which he learned how to do at a very young age). His father was a police officer who did the New York Times crossword puzzle every day, who studied Shakespeare in college. “He has this very conflicted kind of creation myth of his own, in a way,” Gatins says. “And he had a great Irish tenor singing voice. He honestly was a performer. It was always like, ‘Sing for us, Georgie.'”
When Gatins first started writing “Flight,” he was actually five years sober and he had a much firmer grasp on who he was. He had the clarity of mind, he says, to look back and see that, had he gotten some job on “Beverly Hills 90210” or one of the many pilots he had read for, he would have been ill-equipped.
“I think in sobriety you do nothing but reflect,” he says. “You’re a little bit like, ‘Whoa, I just survived the metaphorical plane crash of my life.’ You feel that way. You feel like, ‘Holy cow, I just got out of that thing.'”
His screenwriting career started to take off a little bit, and in particular, a meeting with MTV Films really ignited it for him when they offered him an unassuming high school football drama called “Varsity Blues.” Says Gatins, “I just pitched them a bunch of crazy stuff. I was like, ‘What if the brother is obsessed with religions, and every day he’s trying on a different religion? He is a Buddhist one day. He is this the next day. He’s Hindu. He thinks he’s Jesus Christ. He puts a cross, and walks around, all that stuff.’ They were like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy, but you know what…?'”
The confidence carried with him into pitch meetings for this and that. Eventually he was afforded the opportunity to write and direct “Dreamer” for DreamWorks, inspired by the true story of a broken-down racehorse trainer who takes ownership of a broken-down racehorse. But while he had a draft of “Flight” in his pocket this whole time, he knew he didn’t have the profile to give it lift. He kept saying “no” to offers, like “Blades of Glory,” because he really wanted to direct something he wrote. So finally, he decided to show the first 40 pages of the script to DreamWorks.
He explored a number of themes in the script, particularly spirituality. Coming from an Irish background, Catholicism was of course very pronounced in his early life. But deeper than that, he got into ideas of Whitaker having a bit of a messiah complex, for instance.
“Most models of recovery suggest finding or at least seeking some sort of belief or understanding or god of your own understanding or a higher power,” he says. “The thing I’ve said a couple times is the idea that there are no atheists foxholes, and there are no atheists at 30,000 feet when a plane is pitching all over the place.”
And intriguingly, the plight of addiction has been compared to a low search for God. He references Carl Jung, and asks, “Why do you think they call it spirits? Where did that come from? You drink it and find God? Well, sometimes. Have you ever eaten the worm? Sometimes. Do you know what I mean? It’s kind of one of those interesting things because, look, ever since man crushed grapes, it’s like people have been altering their state of consciousness by whatever they find. And we have these rituals that all kind of surround it.”
In every character, Gatins tried to find some sort of inroad to those considerations. One in particular — a cancer patient named simply “Gaunt Young Man” in the script — blows into the story with “his own Greek chorus,” as Gatins puts it. And indeed, James Badge Dale’s performance in those brief moments makes for some of the film’s most profound considerations. The scene is really the heart of the film, and it’s one of the things Robert Zemeckis was high on when he came on board to direct. Indeed, it was a role he was very concerned about casting because, as he told Gatins, that scene “is the whole movie.”
“Any development person in the world would have looked at that script and said, ‘Okay, let’s be honest,'” Gatins says, “‘You can’t have a bald guy dying of cancer walk into the middle of your fucking movie in the beginning of the second act and give a seven-page monologue and leave. That’s not going to work for a lot of reasons. Why don’t you just go ahead and cut that now?'”
But it does work and it serves as the whole engine that gets the second act going, largely because of Zemeckis’ suggestion that Gatins go back to the lab and constrict that area of the script (which was originally much longer, with Whitaker spending a lot of time in the hospital recovering). And it was moving for star Denzel Washington, too, who walked up to Gatins with his hand extended after filming the scene and said, “I just want to congratulate you. That scene, standing in there, listening to that, that’s like Shakespeare.”
Getting back to Gatins’s desire to make the film himself, obviously, it just never materialized. And for a while, maybe with a hint of that self-sabotage still lingering, he seemed to avoid making the real moves to get it there. Friends and peers would accuse him of hiding behind the fact that he didn’t think he could get the movie made. “You have this beautiful piece of material that you’ve been dying for, that people love. Go do that,” his wife would say to him when he’d consider other offers. “You’re missing the point,” he would tell her. “Nobody will do this with me. My life is passing me by. It’s like, this movie has disrupted my entire creative life. As much as I love it, I fucking hate it. It’s killing me.”
But it’s a happy ending, of course, because Zemeckis took a shine to the script. He and Washington deferred salary to get it made in the mid-budget range, which was crucial. And while Gatins would certainly have had a different take on the material, he admits after a few moments consideration that it was better off as the movie star vehicle it is, one with a higher sheen of gloss.
“I would have to say so grudgingly, because I have an ego like everybody else,” he says. “The truth is, there were things that Bob did that I couldn’t do. Watching him until five in the morning shoot like these tiny, excruciating pieces of that cockpit, that I just don’t know. [Zemeckis is a pilot himself.] I wouldn’t have had the handle to do it. The other thing, too, is we would have to reframe it in the context of how was I making that movie, because they would say to me, ‘Look, you’re making it with Josh Brolin for $10 million.’ What does that look like? That’s a different movie.
“Creatively, Bob could not have been a more gracious and amazing kind of collaborator. The fact that he invited me in at all is like testament to him and his comfort with who he is. He doesn’t have anything to prove to me, surely, or to anybody else for that matter. He really was drawn to do the material because he thought this is interesting. ‘I haven’t seen this movie before. I want to make it. I want to see what happens.'”
“Flight” opens nationwide on Friday.