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The Toughest Scene I Wrote: Screenwriter John Gatins on Flight

Over the next few weeks, Vulture is talking to the screenwriters behind 2012's most acclaimed movies about the scenes they found most difficult to crack. What pivotal sequences underwent the biggest transformations on their way from script to screen? Today, John Gatins dissects a scene from the Denzel Washington drama Flight, as told to Kyle Buchanan:

There's a scene in the stairwell at the hospital where this gaunt young man appears — the character's name is actually Gaunt Young Man — and he kind of takes the movie on a ride you're not expecting for seven minutes. I had a lot of screenwriter friends who read it and thought it was unnecessary, because the script was always long, but for me it was important. A working screenwriter should adhere to the idea that you can't just have the Oracle of Delphi show up and give you a seven-minute monologue and exit the movie — it's not supposed to work that way — but I put all that aside and said, "For some reason, this character is important to me."

It used to be two scenes. In the first scene, Whip (Denzel Washington) and Nicole (Kelly Reilly) just smoke a cigarette and they don't really talk, and then there was a cutaway to Whip spending one extra day in the hospital, and then there was the Gaunt Young Man scene. But the director, Robert Zemeckis, made a good point to say, "We can't elongate the movie-time feel of that section. Take a shot at combining those two scenes." It was risk to say, "Look, we're going to have a big, long sequence where all these things are going to happen: Whip and Nicole are going to meet, Gaunt Young Man will enter, we have to find out where she lives, what she does, and that she knows now that he was the pilot after he doesn't come clean with it." If you've got all that information that you need to get into a scene, it's better to do it in a crafty way that doesn't hit the audience like, "Okay, I got it."

That scene has so much going on for me because the cancer that he talks about is the cancer that my best friend had — and my friend is a survivor, which is great. But it was a really intense period in his life and tangentially mine, too, so I kind of brought a lot of that to that character. In my everyday life, I'm not thinking about what I really believe and why I'm here and God or Allah or any of that, but I promise you that when tragic things happen, like someone getting gravely ill, you really do have to go through it in your brain to say, "Why do I think this has happened?"

When Zemeckis and I first sat down to talk about the script, he said, "You know what part we really need to cast? Gaunt Young Man." And James Badge Dale was phenomenal in it. We literally airlifted him in for a day: He came in, and he knocked it out of the park, and we flew him out.

Photos: Paramount Pictures; Will Sherrod; Will Sherrod; Will Sherrod; Will Sherrod; Will Sherrod