So, I want to start right back at the beginning with Flight for you guys. When and how did the script come to you Bob? I presume it came to you through Steve Starkey and Jack Rapke, who had worked with John Gatins on Real Steel.
Bob: Yeah, it came to me through those guys, but I don’t know exactly how it got to them. I don’t know if it was John or his agent, I’m not sure.
And when you read it, did you knew you wanted to do something with it straight away?
Bob: Well, you know, my partners said this was something you really had to read and they were right, it was really good.
And Denzel, this was brought to you by your late agent Ed Limato.
Denzel: Yes, Ed Limato – the last two scripts he sent me were Safe House and Flight and I read them both and they were very different. I don’t know if we decided to do Safe House first – it was probably already set up to do first but when I read Flight as soon as I finished the last page I called my agent I said, ‘I am doing it.’
Bob: When I started reading it, half way through I started praying. Not literally praying, but I started hoping that, you know, if it’s really good when you are hitting page 60 or 70, ‘Oh man keep this going, don’t let this thing fall off the rails…’ You just want the script to finish well, so you start getting nervous about it being a really solid piece.
Bob, you’ve already done one of the great plane crash sequences already, in Cast Away, and here there is an astonishing plane crash sequence about 10 minutes into it. On reading that script the first time, did that almost put you off?
Bob: …and the same two partners who gave me the script are the same two partners who suggested Cast Away. The only downside to it is being on shows like this and being asked, ‘What about the fact that you did two plane crashes?’ And am I gonna be known as the ‘plane crash guy’ all my life? But the script was too good and he had to be a pilot. And, you know, that would be a silly reason not to make the movie.
Bob, the last three films you made were obviously in the performance capture arena with ‘black box cinema’ as you call it: The Polar Express, Christmas Carol and Beowulf. I don’t know whether this was deliberate from you, but Flight starts off with a scene that involves cocaine use, other drug use, alcohol abuse and nudity. Was it almost a sense that this was a clean break for you as a director?
Bob: No, but I can understand why you would think that because two of the digital movies were family films but no, that was the way the screenplay started and that’s what the intent of the writer was and so my intent as the filmmaker had nothing to do with making a statement about my career – but I was making a statement about what the tone of the movie was going to be. I am a believer that the very opening images of any film are extremely crucial.
And Denzel, it must been a great grabber for you, reading the script for the first time: this guy wakes up in bed, has a drink, has a toke on a joint, takes a cocaine chaser and then you reveal he’s a pilot – was that a moment that just got you thinking, ‘This is quite interesting…’?
Denzel: I don’t remember, you know. I am sure I did. It probably made me say, ‘Where are we going with this…?’
Bob: You know, it is interesting you asked Denzel that question because it’s unfortunate about the pilot reveal aspect. Obviously we live in a world where there is media everywhere but there was really exciting moment – and it was a one-time-only deal – when I previewed the movie in Los Angeles in a media vacuum and the audience went in and didn’t know anything about the movie. When Denzel walks out of that room with his pilot uniform on, the audience screamed.
In a good way or…?
Bob: In a good but in an astonishing way. ‘This guy is the pilot!?’ They had no idea what was coming. Everyone just lifted off their seats but that reaction could only happen if there was no advertising and that could never be… Everyone is gonna know that when he wakes up and starts snorting the line of coke he’s the pilot because they have seen it in the trailer. It’s in the advertising so that’s why they are coming to the movie.
Bob, have you watched Denzel’s career from afar before Flight?
Bob: I have been watching Denzel’s.
Denzel: Yeah, me too! (In a sarcastic tone) No, I missed Cast Away…
Bob: (Joining in) What was that Forrest, what…?
It’s Forrest Gump I believe, yeah, you should check that out. It is on DVD, I think. Do you have a favourite of each other’s movies?
Denzel: I should say I have actually never seen any one of those three performance capture films you mentioned but I saw parts of Polar Express… But to answer your question, it’s Forrest Gump for me. (Turning to Bob) Also I didn’t realise until we started work on Flight, until I checked you resume, how much you’d done. I was like. ‘Oh he made that too?’ Then there’s Back To The Future and, you know, Roger Rabbit of course, but Forrest Gump is the one for me…
How about you Bob? What’s your favourite of Denzel’s movies?
Bob: For me, Training Day hands down.
Denzel: Training Day, oh wow!
Bob: I remember when I saw that movie – that was such a great film and Denzel delivered an awesome performance. I mean that was really good.
That was the last film you were Oscar nominated before Flight and of course you won. This time around, did you wake up for the nominations or did you just let it happen?
Denzel: I didn’t wake up especially early. I just slept right through it in bed. No, seriously, I did wake up.
So did you wake up to 100 texts or emails?
Denzel: No. And I don’t text either, by the way. But yeah, I had some emails and agents calling, yeah.
Is there still excitement now after six nominations or is that something fades away?
Denzel: To be honest, it is different. It is not like the first go around. You know, it is not like the first date but … I sort of just keep in an even keel. You don’t get too high, you don’t get too low. I’ve been there before and I will probably get the jitters when they get to the actual announcements.
When you read the script for the first time, as an actor who has been nominated for Oscars before and won Oscars, do you assess the scripts like this differently in any way? Do you think, ‘Oh this could be an Oscar?’
Denzel: No. I fight that because you’ll ruin it. You can’t go into thinking that far. You know, you’ve got to get the job done first. I always want to do the best that I can, doesn’t matter what the subject matter. It’s not like, ‘Oh this is an Oscar film but Safe House, it isn’t so I will give them my B performance,’ or whatever. I am always trying to do my best.
Because look at Training Day again, that’s an example of a role that you might not necessarily associate with the Oscars…
Denzel: Well, you know, Training Day was easy. It’s just that people hadn’t seen me like that. I am closer to that than I am to Cry Freedom or Malcolm X. I grew up in the street so that wasn’t a stretch for me at all. The director had such an interesting take on it, Antoine Fuqua – he was the one who turned it into a whole kind of the gangster thing. It was actually written more like a Lethal Weapon almost: beer cans in the back; plaid shirts. To Antoine’s credit, he said, ‘No we want to turn this around: he is a gangster, like a Crips and Bloods gangster.’ It was really Fuqua that turned it into an LA gangster movie.
Okay, let’s actually talk a little bit about the plane crash sequence. Denzel, you were actually strapped into a simulator at one point. What was the experience like for you?
Denzel: Well the simulator didn’t turn upside down – but on the day when we were working on the stage we had…
Bob: Full motion – the rotisserie ride…!
Denzel: … so we actually turned the plane upside down, but the simulator was great fun. I mean, I love getting in there. Talk about boys with their toys: this is the ultimate video game. When the plane hits down the runway, you stay true to the line with your foot pedals. So of course the first go around I am like out in the field and crashed into the buildings – I was all over the place. Then you start figuring it out. But those simulators really, you feel the G forces. I have never gone that fast before.
We were about 180 miles an hour or so on takeoff and it really gives you the real feeling – and then getting up there and trying to keep the balance on the horizon and relying on your instruments. Obviously I didn’t learn everything there is to learn but you do get a sense of trying to keep the plane balanced and it is almost like you could feel the weight of it.
Do you think you might want to go and get a pilot’s licence, Harrison Ford style?
Denzel: You know, as soon as I am done with the press, I am done with Flight. I did it, it belongs to the people now. That said, it did inspire me to be a pilot. To answer your question, it inspired me to be a pilot but I probably wouldn’t want to do that because I did the film, you know, and I don’t want to think about that anymore. To me the most fun, the most exciting part is making the movie, the process of making the movie. Once it’s done and belongs to the people I am done with it.
Because you have never really been one for sequels…
Denzel: No. But they’re writing a Safe House 2 now but we will see.
It might be slightly tricky for October Frost to come back in that one…
Denzel: Yes, that’s what I said. I said, I think he’s dead – they said, ‘No, no, no…’
Do you ever go back and rewatch Training Day? Bob, do you ever go back to Back To The Future?
Denzel: No. I watched this film more probably than any other throughout the editing process – probably six or seven times but no, I don’t go back. Well, no, that’s not true. When I started directing I watched Training Day and I watched John Q a bunch of times because I had to get used to watching myself because I knew I had to, you know, make choices on different takes and I had to get used to looking at myself, so that was the only time but I haven’t watched Glory or any other movie since.
Because a lot of actors can’t do that, they can’t watch themselves.
Denzel: Well, like I said, when I started directing I had to get over that. I don’t see where there is an advantage to it. I remember years ago I worked with Kevin Kline on Cry Freedom and he’d go to dailies every night and he’d come in the next day agonising. And then he started tweaking his performance based on what he’d seen… you know, so you can’t start chasing yourself like that. You’ve got to trust the director. You know, I would ask Bob, ‘Are we good Bob?’ and he’d say, ‘I’m good!’ That’s what he would say, ‘I’m good.’ I’m like okay: if you’re good, I’m good.
So you prefer actors on your sets not to watch themselves, Bob.
Bob: No, absolutely not. No, no, no. I have only had one actresses who, it was in her deal that…
Denzel: Probably Meryl.
Denzel: I know that because she always looks…
Bob: And I said to her, ‘Meryl I really don’t like it when my cast sees dailies’, and she goes, ‘Well what’s your problem?’ I said, ‘You know, dailies are… they are not a natural form of watching cinema.You are seeing everything out of context. You are seeing the same thing over and over and I am very concerned that you will start changing things for the wrong reasons and you might see something that you don’t like and you’ll change something… but it’s working for the character.’ And she looked at me with a deadpan delivery and said, ‘Bob, I love everything I do.’
Denzel: I used to check maybe be the first day just for makeup but now I just tell the makeup artist to let me know, to make sure everything looks good.
What was your first reaction to watching Flight for the first time?
Denzel: It was an emotional experience. It just touched me on so many levels. It took me a while to get used to it.
Was it fun being reunited with John Goodman, who you worked with on Fallen?
Denzel: John was great, the scene-stealing son of a gun. When he arrived I said, ‘Okay, here we go. I’m in trouble.’ I love John and obviously he is a great actor and very funny. I remember a scene in the hotel, motel room or whatever when he calls a guy Cee Lo, you know, and he just threw it out there, he’d say, ‘Cee Lo go back!’
Bob: You can hear Denzel laughing on this.
Denzel: Could you hear me? I had to bite my lip… ‘He did not just call a guy Cee Lo!’
And Bob, how has your method of working with actors changed over the years? I mentioned that you were working for almost decade now in this black box theatre, where you work with actors very much one-on-one...
Bob: Working like that gave me the conditioning to step on the set and work with the cast that I had in Flight. I mean, when you look at the roster of actors that I work with on these performance capture movies, it’s an amazing group of actors. The only thing I have noticed that I have done differently is that I would beat my actors up a little bit more in my younger days, making them do technical things more than I do now because over the years I realised it really doesn’t matter. I mean if they shadow their nose a little bit – ‘Can you please do that again and lean a little bit more on your left foot? Just so I don’t have that nose shadow that is kind of creeping into your cheek?’ type stuff – I used to be obsessed with that sort of thing. I let that go now.
Is that because you can fix it in post?
Bob: No, it’s because I realised that I am the only one who sees it. Those are the kind of things that you strive for – that perfection – but it is all just your own ego.
Bob, you have been pushing the envelope technologically speaking for well over a decade now. Do you do that in your own life as well? When the next Apple gizmo comes out do you grab it straight away?
Bob: No. I’m gonna have to get a new phone and I dread it because my problem is I don’t have the patience to sit and read those manuals and learn how to do this stuff. It’s so much of a pain. I hate when you have to get new stuff. I used to like it when I was younger but now it’s just me hoping my phone doesn’t die. I just don’t want to have to change it all again.
Denzel: You still have the flip phone.
Bob: I have a flip phone. I have a flip phone and I know that. It’s Vodafone. I know that they don’t make them anymore so once it dies I’m gonna have to get a smartphone and I am just dreading it. That’s a long way of answering the question.
Are you an iPhone enthusiast, Denzel?
Denzel: I have an iPhone but I have no apps. I have none. My kids laugh at me. I just don’t know how to use that stuff. I like it as a phone. I make phone calls on it. I don’t text, no. I guess a part of it is, you know, with fame, I’m trying to stay private. I am not looking for more information. I don’t want people to know where I am. That’s why I don’t text. You could send me a text and then I will call you back. My phone is basically an answering machine. I never have it on. I check my messages four to five times a day.
I receive emails but I won’t email you back. I will call you back, so and it’s basically my lawyer, agent, that kind of stuff so they know they can send me information but I kinda got them trained. They know they are not gonna get me things back right away.
I think you have just answered my next question: would you ever consider going on Twitter?
Denzel: Nah. No. No. For what? I don’t know. I like reading books. I don’t need to know that you’re on the toilet!
Oh, you’ve already seen our Twitter profile! And Bob, never considered doing the Twitter thing?
Bob: No Twitter, no Facebook. Although my son tells me that I actually have 12 or 15 Facebook pages or whatever they are called. I think they’re generated by fans or something, I don’t even know.
Denzel: You know, in an odd way it’s a good feeling… it’s feeling more like an individual, you know. Everybody else is doing it, which is the reason I don’t want to do it, you know. I want to be me. I don’t want to do what everybody else is doing. I want to do what I am doing. I mean, obviously for some people, it is a tool and they need to do that and they need to text and email and all of that but I don’t need to.
So when you are in your trailer you’re reading a good book.
Denzel: Or watching TV. Watching ESPN.
What do you watch?
Denzel: Sport. If there is a ball involved I am watching it. But I love my Discovery and my Animal Planets and all that kind of stuff, a little dabble with CNN.
Denzel, the last time I spoke to you in LA we talked briefly about the Beatles because I believe you’re a big fan and your favorite album is the White Album – and Bob, you are clearly a big Beatles fan, so did the two of you ever bond over that?
Denzel: We never spoke about that. I never knew you’re a Beatles fan till this moment Bob.
How about yourself Bob, what’s your Beatles album? Abbey Road, maybe?
Bob: Yeah probably Abbey Road, how do you know?
Denzel: Abbey Road’s one of my favourites.
Bob: Rubber Soul is pretty great too. That was like the pinnacle Beatles album.
Denzel: When I directed my second film we did the score at Abbey Road Studios and they still have the rooms with the old equipment. It’s a trip, just walking in there and it’s like, ‘Wow, these old little boards are where The Beatles did their thing…’
Have you guys done the zebra crossing?
Denzel: The walkway? Yeah, I went out there. There are so many people out there all the time, constantly. I saw a guy on YouTube who was who was gonna walk across on his hands and he broke his wrists.
Bob, have you ever worked at Abbey Road?
Bob: Yeah actually I did. We did some recording in there when I was doing Roger Rabbit. I did that here in London. I made that in London and we went to Abbey Road to do something, I can’t remember what it was, some prerecording we had to do and it was really cool.
And the Yellow Submarine remake, is that ever gonna happen?
Bob: No, you know, because here’s the thing. There is no reason. I really think it would have been really interesting and fun to re-envision it in digital 3D cinema but it is probably a good idea for me with however many films I have left in me to not use one of them up to do a remake.
How about a similar question about Roger Rabbit 2 – we interviewed Don Hahn a couple of years ago and he said that there would be very good news for fans very soon. Two years have passed and there hasn’t been anything…
Bob: Well, there have been a lot of changes at the Disney Studio and I don’t think it’s on the cards. I don’t think it is going to happen. When Don was talking about that, yeah, maybe – now there have been three regimes since so I don’t think it’s going to happen. It is very clever script. It is really good. When the time is right … And the 3D test I did for Yellow Submarine, it will be revealed some day and that’ll be pretty great.
But the last time we spoke you said that you look at your career quite fatalistically now, you think at yourself: how many movies do I have left in me? I am just wondering Denzel, do you feel the same way?
Denzel: In 2010, I did a play on Broadway called Fences and we won pretty much all the Tony Awards and it sort of reawakened me – about my work and my commitment to the work and every movie including like Safe House and then obviously Flight. I just said, I got to dig deeper. It just woke me up. It is like I was rebooted or something. And yeah… well, Clint Eastwood is my hero also. He is 80, so I figure I got at least 22 years before I get there, but you never know. I don’t feel like a sense of urgency like I gotta do more, I gotta get them all in. Obviously filmmaking is a bigger chunk of your life, anywhere from a year to 3 to 4 years or whatever so you do only have so many films.
Do you see yourself moving into directing more?
Denzel: I absolutely want to. It’s funny, the more I say I want to direct – and I have a couple of things I want to do – the more Flights show up and then it is like a three prong problem: I love the theatre, that’s actually my first love, and directing probably is my second and acting in my movies is my third so I want to do all three. So like next year I am gonna back to Broadway. I guess I can say it – the reason why I did Fences on Broadway was Scott Rudin who produced it and sent me the script – the only screenplay that August Wilson wrote, of his plays, is Fences.
And he sent it to me to direct so when I read it I was like, man… to act and direct? I said I thought I was too young to play the part because I remember James Earl Johns playing that – and actually I was too old to play the part so I said well I want to do it on stage so I did it on stage and in fact I brought the script with me now and I really do want to direct that on screen.
What is the latest on the The Equilizer, can you say anything?
Denzel: You know what, I stuck my toe in the comedy waters, I think. Coming off of Flight I said man I got to lighten up here so I got a script called 2 Guns that I did with Mark Wahlberg and it is sort of a buddy action comedy so I don’t know if it’s funny but it was very therapeutic. We did everything short of spit takes and pratfalls. I haven’t done comedy really and I don’t know how to, so I just was, you know… The director [Baltasar Kormákur] was like, ‘Yeah just keep going, keep going.’ So I kept going, so we will see.
Okay and Bob what’s next for you?
Bob: I have no idea. I have no idea. I have never… I very rarely, if ever, stack movies up one behind the other. I always take a break. Until the movie is completely released all over the world, then I look around and see what’s out there.
Recently you were asked about the current trend for 3D conversions of old films and you called it bullshit. Why is that?
Bob: Everyone is angry at 3D movies because they have to be designed as 3D movies. You have to design a 3D movie just like you design a widescreen movie, you can’t just make a movie and then say, ‘Oh yeah, let’s turn it into 3D!’
Denzel: Flight 3D!
Bob: People have asked. I said absolutely not. I mean there will be no reason to do Flight in 3D because it is not a movie that should be done in 3D.
You’ve probably had people from the studios come and ask about 3D converting Back To The Future, say, or Roger Rabbit.
Bob: Yeah, I remember when Nike did laces, the power laces, they did a charity thing with Michael J. Fox’s charity and there was a big announcement for it. People thought, ‘Is there is gonna be a big Back to the Future announcement about 3D?’ And then there was this giant collective sigh of relief because all the Back To The Future fans thought we were gonna announce a 3D conversion of Back To The Future and thank God it’s only the power lacing shoes and not a 3D conversion but it would just wouldn’t be right, it wouldn’t work.
We are two years away from 2015 and so far there is no sign of flying cars, there is no sign of hover boats, and more depressingly there is no sign of Jaws 19 directed by Max Spielberg…
Bob: I think we did pretty good. We are about 50% right. I mean we got junk faxes, we got flat panel TVs. We got a lot right. But that’s the problem when doing movies about the future: you always underestimate it, usually.
Who gave you both your first big break, who do you credit with getting you through the door?
Denzel: Well, I started in the theatre so I never envisioned cinema as an aim… it wasn’t my dream to be a movie star. We were like theatre snobs from New York and I thought I would get $650 a week one day on Broadway and play all the classic Shakespearian roles, so my breaks, if you will, were in theatre. I did a play about Malcolm X off Broadway in a 175-seat theatre and we had a 1000 people that night trying to get in, so that was sort of my introduction in New York and as a result of that I did the next play, A Soldier’s Play which won the Pulitzer prize and we won a bunch of awards.
That became A Soldier’s Story so those were the really first breaks for me. And then as a result of doing A Soldier’s Play on stage I was cast in St. Elsewhere, with two actors out of New York: myself and an actor named David Morris. As far as film goes, in 1980 I did my first film with George Segal called Carbon Copy.
So at what point did you start to embrace film?
Denzel: I did not feel like I had to do one or the other, and I never wanted to television and nor did my agent at that time, the late Ruth Aronson. But St. Elsewhere was a good idea because there were 16 or so characters and they would give me two lines and they didn’t know that I was happy because I didn’t really want to be known as a TV star. But in the course of those six years that I did St. Elsewhere I got the opportunity to work with Sidney Lumet, Norman Jeweson and Richard Attenborough in A Soldier’s Story, Power with Richard Gere and then Cry Freedom, so there was never an overnight thing. It was just over time.
Bob was it the same thing with you, just plugging away, knocking on doors?
Bob: Well yeah, but I mean I always wanted to be a movie director. The two guys who gave me my break were Spielberg – which is a well-documented story – and John Milius. He is a great screenwriter and he commissioned Bob Gale and I to develop 1941 and it was that script that got to Steven and while we were doing rewrites with Steven, Bob and I wrote I Wanna Hold Your Hand and so while were working as writers for Steven we then handed him I Wanna Hold Your Hand, just a critique, and that’s when he said, ‘You should direct this!’ and I said ‘Yeah I agree, so how can we pull that off Steven?’ He said, ‘Well let me make some calls and so that was that… It sounds much more simple than it really was but those are the two guys who gave us our break.
John Milius is often painted as quite a character, is that true?
Bob: He was one of those bigger than life guys in the tradition of the John Fords and John Hustons. He was exactly like that, just a bellicose big man, just doing what he wanted to do, just writing what he wanted to write.
Denzel: I’m gonna be the dumb guy. What did he write?
Bob: Well… Conan the Barbarian. Dirty Harry. The Wind And The Lion, and Jeremiah Johnson and many more.
We’ve got to let you guys go now but I just want to ask one last thing, as Beatles fans, have you ever met in your life any of the real-life Beatles?
Denzel: I haven’t. I think I still have my Meet the Beatles album – I’d love to meet one.
Bob: Everyone but John. It’s pretty heady meeting those guys. I’ll tell you one funny story: the first time I actually had dinner with Francis Coppola, I kept trying to explain to him what a great film the Godfather was. I didn’t think he understood what a masterpiece it was. But anyway, yeah, meeting the Beatles was a thrill.
Denzel, have you ever got really star struck around anyone?
Denzel: Sports figures for me, sports figures. When I met Michael Jordan. That famous shot he made. I don’t know if you know, but I was at that game in Chicago and then I actually went out to dinner with him afterwards and my son said I had the stupidest smile on my face. I met Nelson Mandela and that was unbelievable… and my kids had no idea. They said, ‘Who is the old man with the big house?’ That’s who they thought he was because we went to the President’s residence. I said, ‘Do you know who that is?’ They said, ‘That’s that old man with a big house.’
Guys this has been an absolute pleasure and thanks very much for coming in: Robert Zemeckis and Denzel Washington. Thank you.
(Bob and Denzel together): Thank you.