“Flight” director visits campus

By Sam Flancher

by Sam Flancher, Film Critic

Characterized by his state-of-the-art special effects and visionary techniques, Chicago native Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future,” “Forrest Gump”) has returned to live action with his new release “Flight” after directing motion-capture films, such as “The Polar Express” and “A Christmas Carol”  for more than a decade.

Working throughout his career alongside friend Steven Spielberg, Zemeckis has made films, such as “Cast Away,” rooted in a powerful sense of physical and

emotional reality.

“Flight” is a nuanced portrait that examines the complexities of a flawed hero’s internal struggle. Whip Whitaker, played by Denzel Washington, is an airline pilot who miraculously executes a safe emergency crash landing after a major technical failure. A toxicology report taken at the crash site later reveals Whitaker was intoxicated during his heroic flight.

When he visited Columbia Oct. 25 The Chronicle met with Zemeckis to discuss human drama, absurdity and flawed main characters.

The Chronicle: You’ve been working with motion capture filmmaking and animation for the past decade. Why switch back to live action?

Robert Zemeckis: Yeah, that was the whole reason. It’s not like I ever stopped doing live action, I was just gravitating towards projects that were digital. And then the script came along, and obviously it shouldn’t be digital, so I just decided to do it.

“Flight” achieves a delicate balance between the grand spectacle of the plane crash and the subtleties of the human drama at the center of the film. When you’re on the set, do you have to compartmentalize the scenes because they’re so different? Do they influence one another?

Hopefully, they don’t influence one another too much because you have to separate yourself from one to another. I always try to start thinking about what I’m going to be shooting two or three days ahead. The worst thing is when [the plan changes] on you at the last minute. When you’re prepped to do one kind of scene and then, for whatever reason—it starts raining or something—you have to punt and run to something else. You’re not as psyched-up and prepared for it. To me, that’s the hardest thing to have to deal with.

The phrase “act of God” appears numerous times in the film. What role, if any, does religion play in “Flight?”

When things like airplanes start falling out of the sky, the only terms we have to discuss that sort of an event are [phrases] like “acts of God.” I think that all becomes part of what’s going on in the piece. Pilots are supposed to be in control, so when they aren’t, there’s all this discussion about random acts of nature and acts of God, and it’s all part of that same sort of theme. We as humans don’t have a lot of descriptive phrases to discuss certain things like that. If a plane is going to crash in a field, why not crash it in a churchyard?

Are the scenes that discuss religion part of that same line of thinking?

It’s all part of it. What I think is fascinating about the movie is that every character, in their own way, is searching for truth, and everybody has their own way that they do that. I think that’s what’s happening in all of these scenes. Almost every character in this screenplay is on the same journey.

What techniques did you use in “Flight” to emotionally engage the audience?

You always want to try to move the audience in some way or another. Keep them engaged, keep them feeling something—that’s the whole point. You’ve always got to have them feeling, whether it’s suspense or terror or emotion. That’s the whole reason to go to a movie. Of course, you’re always looking for ways to make sure you allow that to happen. For me, the characters are the ones who always do that. It’s the performances and the way the characters are written that hooks the audience.

The film looks into Whip Whitaker’s inner struggle. Could you speak to some of the external factors that cause his moral dilemma? Is everyone too hasty to deem him a hero while watching the film?

Whether he’s a hero or not is up to you. I guess he’s a hero—he’s a real hero, rather than a movie hero. The film touches on this necessity that we seem to have to create

heroes. That’s one of the ironies and complexities of the piece. The one guy who knows he’s probably not deserving to be a hero is our main character. Everybody has their own agenda, and I think that it’s all part of the way the world is right now.

“Flight” opens in theaters Nov. 2.