You could say that Flight is new territory for John Gatins. Before he finally got the film off the ground, a journey that took twelve years from his first draft to principle photography, he was a specialist in scripting such sport-centric stories as Hard Ball, Coach Carter, and Real Steel. It was an unexpected change of course for an artist who never set out to become a writer in the first place. Gatins studied acting at Vassar, moved to Hollywood in 1990 with acting dreams, bartended to make the rent between jobs (which included such direct-to-video productions as Pumpkin Head 2 and Leprechaun 3), and drank to ease the disappointment. His first screenwriting gig came out of nowhere, but he found he had a knack for it and it led to more jobs.
While not exactly autobiographical, the roots of the drama are from Gatins’ own experiences—he was five years sober when he started writing the script—refracted through his own fear of flying and our cultural fascination with heroes and their fall from grace. He had hoped to direct the film himself (he previously directed Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story), but a drama about addiction is hardly a recipe for blockbuster success and it remained unproduced until director Robert Zemeckis and actor Denzel Washington took an interest. So Gatins reluctantly gave up his hopes of directing, but in return he saw his dream project on the big screen with one of the biggest and most respected actors in Hollywood in the lead. He also earned himself an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, his first ever nomination.
I talked to Gatins by phone in conjunction with the disc release of Flight. It was a brief discussion but we managed to cover quite a lot of territory, from the origins of the story to the way the issues in the film reverberate through the culture.
Sean Axmaker: I’ve read that you came out to Hollywood to be an actor and ended up writing scripts. How did you start screenwriting and when did you realize it was something you’d like to do?
John Gatins: It was after years of being out here as an actor and having studied in college to be an actor and taken some dramatic literature classes at Vassar. People say you should take an acting class to people who want to direct. I was already an actor. I always liked writing but I never really considered it. Then I was playing in a poker game with some guys I had gone to Vassar with and one of them was working for a producer and said, ‘Man, you’re so funny, you should write a script. When you get broken up, I’ll pay you to write a script.’ So I called him the next day and said, ‘Yeah, I got an idea for a movie,’ so I pitched him a movie idea. I just decided to try to write it and the interesting thing was that from all the years of being an actor and reading scripts for auditions, I always say it was ‘wax on, wax off, do you know how to do karate?’ You read thousands of scripts and you know the innate form and structure of a screenplay. So I had a little bit of an instinct about how to write a movie from having been an actor. One really helped the other.