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NEW YORK – The day after John Gatins graduated Vassar in 1990 he got into a car and drove to California to be an actor. He was already having borderline "Whip-like issues," he says, referencing Whip Whitaker, the alcoholic airline pilot Denzel Washington plays in "Flight." Part of the decision was an attempt to leave those problems behind a little bit. So, naturally, he became a bartender.
It's a typical story. Bartender by night, wannabe actor by day. And while he'd always heard the stories of Hollywood hopefuls never getting their shot, it just wasn't his story, he says. "I had so many shots," he tells me over (non-alcoholic) drinks at the Four Seasons hotel. "It was like, very quickly after getting there I had found myself in a lot of great situations. I had great agents trying to help me along and putting me in rooms. I had auditions for good movies. It was pretty immediate, honestly."
So why didn't it happen for him? Well, he admits, that's the best question, because the intimidation was significant. "I think it took me looking back years later to go, 'Come on. Be honest. You were terrified at the whole thing,'" he says. "It's like as much as you were drawn to it because you like telling stories, and you like the atmosphere, and you love movies and movie culture, I was scared, man. I really had no idea. Part of me was scared and a little bit self-sabotaging. After a year of proving to myself that I could kind of live without alcohol, then, I picked up again. I spent a few really tough years in my early 20s. A lot of people tried to reach out to me to say, 'Look. You've got to get this together.' I didn't hear anybody."
And so you begin to see how the pieces of a screenplay like "Flight" would come together. Whip Whitaker is all that -- self-sabotaging, deaf to assistance, caught in a downward spiral -- and more. Why more? Because he's responsible for the lives of hundreds of people at 30,000 feet. But it's deeper for Gatins, who quips that he's "100% Irish." All four of his grandparents were born and lived in Ireland. His parents met in an Irish ghetto in Washington Heights when they were teenagers. "We were this tight kind of Irish culture," he says. "It was all around me. I saw what it had done. I was like, 'I'm never going to mess with that kind of thing.' Then when I drank for the first time, it was different for me. I just had a different kind of zeal for it."
And Gatins had an interest in writing, too. It went back to his days at school, loving English class, loving to read (which he learned how to do at a very young age). His father was a police officer who did the New York Times crossword puzzle every day, who studied Shakespeare in college. "He has this very conflicted kind of creation myth of his own, in a way," Gatins says. "And he had a great Irish tenor singing voice. He honestly was a performer. It was always like, 'Sing for us, Georgie.'"
When Gatins first started writing "Flight," he was actually five years sober and he had a much firmer grasp on who he was. He had the clarity of mind, he says, to look back and see that, had he gotten some job on "Beverly Hills 90210" or one of the many pilots he had read for, he would have been ill-equipped.
"I think in sobriety you do nothing but reflect," he says. "You're a little bit like, 'Whoa, I just survived the metaphorical plane crash of my life.' You feel that way. You feel like, 'Holy cow, I just got out of that thing.'"
His screenwriting career started to take off a little bit, and in particular, a meeting with MTV Films really ignited it for him when they offered him an unassuming high school football drama called "Varsity Blues." Says Gatins, "I just pitched them a bunch of crazy stuff. I was like, 'What if the brother is obsessed with religions, and every day he's trying on a different religion? He is a Buddhist one day. He is this the next day. He's Hindu. He thinks he's Jesus Christ. He puts a cross, and walks around, all that stuff.' They were like, 'Wow, that's crazy, but you know what...?'"
The confidence carried with him into pitch meetings for this and that. Eventually he was afforded the opportunity to write and direct "Dreamer" for DreamWorks, inspired by the true story of a broken-down racehorse trainer who takes ownership of a broken-down racehorse. But while he had a draft of "Flight" in his pocket this whole time, he knew he didn't have the profile to give it lift. He kept saying "no" to offers, like "Blades of Glory," because he really wanted to direct something he wrote. So finally, he decided to show the first 40 pages of the script to DreamWorks.