Categories:  Students

In ‘Flight,’ director Zemeckis returns to live-action roots

Denzel Washington in "Flight"

Denzel Washington stars as a veteran pilot who masterfully lands a plane in a freefall in “Flight,” director Robert Zemeckis’ latest film.

By Matt O’Connor

“When I was a film student, I got the chance to actually shake Alfred Hitchcock’s hand,” director Robert Zemeckis notes as his chief moment of awe in filmmaking, hours before his new film “Flight” premiered at the Chicago International Film festival last month.

The highly anticipated mystery thriller “Flight” stars a commanding figure itself — Denzel Washington as Captain “Whip” Whitaker, a veteran airline pilot who masterfully lands a plane in freefall, saving nearly every life on board. However, the hero is not so quickly crowned as details begin to emerge on what really happened onboard the flight.

For the better part of 10 years, Zemeckis has been tinkering with new technologies, most notably the cutting-edge digital performance capture technique. The result — “The Polar Express” (2004), “Beowulf” (2007), and “A Christmas Carol” (2009) — cutting-edge animated pictures that changed the landscape of modern filmmaking.

However long he has been away, the Academy Award-winning director is still responsible for live-action classics- “Back to the Future” (1985), “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988), the Oscar-winner “Forest Gump” (1994), and his last live-action film, “Cast Away” (2000).

While the metaphorical layover may have been long, Zemeckis maintains his indifference between live-action and digital filming.

“It wasn’t like I had ever stopped doing live-action, I just was gravitating toward projects that were digital,” Zemeckis said during a roundtable interview with college journalists Oct. 25. “They’re all the same, movies are movies.”

While Zemeckis might not play favorites with filming technologies, “Flight,” like many of his other movies, has a similar overarching character structure marked by a character’s dynamic personal journey from the opening scene to the closing lines.

“I just sort of gravitate toward character arc,” Zemeckis said. “Understanding that I have to have a character that moves from point A to point B, if I don’t have that I don’t know how to make the movie, I think that’s a thread you’ll find in my work.”

That signature thread is evident in Denzel Washington’s character as he struggles with his substance abuse and inability to be truthful to himself. This same personal struggle is found within character Nicole Maggen, played by British actress Kelly Reilly. It’s these internal struggles that audiences can relate to most, and what appears to have drawn the Academy Award-winning director to “Flight.”

“What I think is fascinating about the movie is that every character, in their own way, is searching for truth, and everyone has their own way that they do that,” Zemeckis said. “I think that almost every character in this screenplay is on that same journey.”

The journey toward directing “Flight” may not have been as harrowing, but it still proved to be an intricate process for the seasoned director.

“It’s just reading a lot of scripts, most of which aren’t very good, and then finally finding one that’s kind of interesting and bold in the way it’s written,” Zemeckis said. “Then it becomes a worthy thing to do.”

As a pilot himself, Zemeckis has an understanding of the world from the inside of a cockpit. That experience proved invaluable when directing “Flight.”

“I knew what was real,” Zemeckis said. “I was able to make sure that everything sounded real, that they weren’t doing silly things that didn’t look natural.

“In a movie like this you try to have as much authenticity as you possibly can.”

It is arguably that authenticity, coupled with an inspiring performance from Academy Award winner Denzel Washington, that brings “Flight” to life on screen. The time and energy devoted to the film are evident in his work, but Zemeckis hints that he will likely continue developing future projects.

“The good news about making movies is that they always end, which is great,” Zemeckis said. “If I have an idea for a movie I’ll pretty much write it myself.”

“Nothing’s that close, but I’m always tinkering.”

moconn31@uic.edu

• Matt O’Connor is a junior in English.