When director Robert Zemeckis read the script for "Flight," he knew he was ready to make another live-action movie.
The filmmaker's previous three films — "The Polar Express," "Beowulf" and "A Christmas Carol" — were shot in the motion-capture technique, in which human actions are recorded, then used to digitally animate computer characters.
"When this screenplay came along, I thought it shouldn't be done in performance capture, it shouldn't be done in 3D," Zemeckis told the audience Wednesday night at TheWrap's screening series in the Regent Theatre in Westwood. "I'm always led by the screenplay."
He called his last three films in digital cinema "great training" for returning to a cast of live actors, given that motion-capture films are shot on much shorter schedules, and he only had 45 days for "Flight."
"My biggest concern about doing a movie with so little time is, would the cast — when you do a drama like this — have enough days to get what you need?" he told TheWrap's awards editor Steve Pond in the Q&A that followed the screening.
So he and star Denzel Washington spent hours hashing out the character of Captain Whip Whitaker, the alcoholic, if brilliantly talented, pilot who miraculously lands his nose-diving airliner but faces possible jail-time because he had alcohol and cocaine in his system at the time of the crash.
"That's the really fun part of moviemaking, just understanding the character," Zemeckis said. "Then deciding everything from what kind of car he's going to drive to what color socks he's going to wear."
Pond looked surprised.
"By the time you started shooting, you knew what color Denzel's socks should be?" he asked.
"If I'm on set and a set decorator asks, 'what color should that door be?' and I don't have an answer, there's a problem," the 61-year-old director said. "I feel that, as a director, I should be able to answer that question of what socks he was wearing."
But the pressure of returning to live-action and directing what he called a "serious, adult film" with hero cycles reminiscent of Greek mythology, is difficult. He needed a creative partner.
Screenwriter John Gatins, who had begun working on the screenplay in 1999, joined him for the month-and-a-half-long shoot in Georgia.
"I needed a creative soulmate, someone who's there in the movie," he said. "In the heart of battle to say everyone is suggesting we change this line and have the writer there to say, no way. We drove back and forth to the set in the same car every day."
And this wasn't the first time Zemeckis had filmed a massive plane crash.
His 2000 live-action movie, "Cast Away," starring Tom Hanks, began with a FedEx plane plummeting down in the South Pacific.
"Cameras got smaller, which made things a lot easier," he said. "We have a lot of digital effects, a lot of physical effects — everything is like a giant, sort-of special effects stew."
And with a tight schedule and a tighter $31 million budget, Zemeckis had to reintroduce himself to those cameras and figure out ways to shoot certain scenes without building expensive sets.
In one, Washington and his co-stars Kelly Reilly and James Badge Dale — whose brief but important cameo as an oracle-like cancer patient gives the film its Greek-like quality — are furtively smoking cigarettes in the stairwell of a hospital.
The cramped space and inevitable audio echo make for a difficult scene to shoot — most directors of Zemeckis' stature would just build a staircase to shoot in.
"I couldn't believe I was actually shooting that in a real stairwell," he said, laughing. "That really brought me back to my film school experience."