News & Features
Screenwriter Alum Takes Flight
Screenwriter John Gatins ’90 is clearly proud of Flight, the recently released drama that has critics speculating about an Oscar for its star, Denzel Washington.
But as he spoke to Vassar film majors Monday night following a screening of the movie on campus, Gatins told the more than 100 students gathered at the Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film that the movie “could not have been made without [director] Robert Zemeckis and Denzel Washington.”
Gatins noted that both Zemeckis and Washington had been so moved by the script that they offered to work for well below their normal pay scales to make the movie. “Once Paramount discovered the film could be made for $30 million, it was a no-brainer,” he said. The movie grossed more than $60 million in its first three weeks in theaters.
The film follows Washington’s character, airline pilot Whip Whitaker, on a gut-wrenching journey that begins with a horrifying crash that could have killed everyone on board if not for his heroics in the cockpit, and continues as investigators begin to suspect that he had been drunk at the time of the crash.
Gatins, who has publicly acknowledged his own battles with drugs and alcohol, said the script was born out of his two worst fears: “drinking myself to death and dying in a plane crash.”
He wrote the first 30 pages of the script more than 12 years ago and shopped it around Hollywood, hoping to convince a studio to let him direct it. During those 12 years, Gatins told the students, he rewrote it numerous times. “The script was unique because it wasn’t an assignment given to me by someone else—I didn’t have a boss,” he said.
Gatins also had the luxury of taking the plot in any direction he chose because it was a wholly original idea, first spawned by conversations with Navy pilots who were acting as technical advisors for a movie he was working on in 2000, Behind Enemy Lines. “They were some really crazy guys, and it occurred to me [that military pilots] often become commercial airline pilots,” Gatins said. His fears were further solidified when he was seated next to a pilot on a flight. The man insisted on telling him all his troubles, Gatins recalled, “and it occurred to me people like this become alcoholics.”
Once he began work on the script, Gatins interviewed many more commercial pilots and read “lots and lots” of crash investigation reports compiled by the National Transportation Safety Board to make the story as authentic as he could.
Responding to questions from the students, Gatins shared other insights:
What’s the hardest part about writing screenplays?
“Act II. You find yourself wondering if people still care about what’s going on. And, of course, a satisfying ending.”
Are you bothered by what critics say?
“Yeah, it’s hard sometimes [because he can’t respond to all of them]. But usually, I’ll email one or two of them to let them know, ‘Hey, I’m a human being here on the planet.’”
Any advice on training as a screenwriter?
“Take an acting class. It’s so important to know what actors are going through—it’s such a hard job.”
Film professor Sarah Kozloff said Gatins had asked Paramount for a break from his hectic schedule of public relations appearances so he could make the trip to Vassar, “and that’s typical of John,” she said. “John has done a lot of counseling of Vassar students, both in Los Angeles and here on campus,” she added.
“I have taken students to John’s house in Los Angeles; he has looked at rough cuts of students’ films; and he has participated on numerous panels, advising students how to get jobs in the industry and telling them his story—how hard he knocked around before finding success—to give them hope,” Kozloff said.
During more than an hour of conversation with the students and Kozloff, it was clear the acclaim was not going to Gatins’s head. He readily acknowledged that some of his earlier work—notably his acting in the 1995 horror spoof Leprechaun 3—may have been lacking. “My performance speaks for itself,” Gatins joked.
Even his script for Hugh Jackman’s highly successful 2011 film, Real Steel, which grossed more than $300 million worldwide, failed to escape Gatins’ self-deprecating wit. “It was,” he said, “perhaps the greatest robot boxing movie ever made.”
Kozloff said her students had described Gatins’ visit as “fantastic, beneficial, inspiring—it made them feel a part of the larger Vassar community.”
Gatins—whose mother, Teresa, worked at Vassar for more than 30 years and whose sisters, Deborah ’83 and Ellen '84, also are graduates—grew up in the Hudson Valley and said he always enjoyed returning to campus. “I ran around on the Vassar tennis courts even before I became a student—and my wife [Ling Chan ’91] is a Vassar grad, too, so it’s always fun to come back,” he said. “We’re a Vassar family.”
Posted Wednesday, November 21, 2012