FLIGHTPLAN - Q&A with director Robert Schwentke
For director Robert Schwentke, the roots of his interest in the themes of FLIGHTPLAN - loss and fear - go back ten years to a very real drama which unfolded in his own life. After a potentially fatal misdiagnosis, Robert was eventually told that he was suffering from testicular cancer. Fortunately, the treatment was successful and he has made a full recovery. But perhaps understandably, the shock of confronting his own mortality at such an early age - he was 27 at the time - has informed his life and indeed his work.
"I like stories that deal with the fragility of existence, a little bit, that things can happen to you that throw you off balance and I think that has autobiographical reasons," he explains. "I had cancer when I was 27 and I was misdiagnosed and so by the time they caught it, it was a bit of a problem and I spent a lot of time in the hospital. And since then I just sort of think you're not in control. You may think you're in control but you're really not."
Robert tackled this head on in his film, the black comedy called THE FAMILY JEWELS. And in FLIGHTPLAN, where Jodie Foster plays a raw, grieving widow returning home to America with her six year old child, the themes of the fragility of life - and indeed how we must sometimes fight to protect - are there, too.
FLIGHTPLAN is a psychological thriller set inside the claustrophobic confines of an airliner travelling from Europe to America. Kyle Pratt (Foster) is a grieving widow travelling home to the States with the coffin containing the body of her husband and at her side is their six-year-old daughter, Julia (Marlene Lawston), who, like her mother, is still in shock after his sudden death. After Kyle drifts off into brief, fit full sleep, she wakes to find that her daughter is missing - assuming, at first, that Julia, is playing elsewhere on the plane. When she begins to get anxious and tries to find her, the flight crew and passengers claim that they never saw the youngster and Kyle begins to doubt her own sanity.
Robert was born in Stuttgart, German, and studied comparative literature and philosophy before attending the AFI in California. After graduation he began writing for German television before directing the highly acclaimed thriller, TATTOO. He now lives in Los Angeles with his wife and their baby son.
How did this film come about for you? From making films in your native to Germany to a big Hollywood movie is a big jump.
I was very lucky. And I had a lot of help. And what happened was I made a movie in Germany called TATTOO which was shown at various film festivals and which was at the theatres here and people took notice and felt that it was worth taking a shot with me. So I read a lot of scripts, very dutifully, and there was one project with Disney that I responded to and then I met with Disney. And it's a project that I ultimately didn't do - we had problems getting everybody together - and they said 'we have this other script, would you take a look at it?' And I did.
It was a very different story when I read it. It was, it had been written prior to 9/11 and it dealt with terrorists on board of a commercial airliner en route to New York so at post 9/11 there's not a lot of pleasure in that. And everybody knew that and when I came in and talked with them about it I just felt that we could put the emphasis on whether the girl, Jodie's character's daughter, exists or not, and make that the dramatic engine of the movie, and ultimately that's to me the most interesting part of the movie as well.
Is it true that FLIGHTPLAN was originally written for a man in the lead?
Yeah it was written for a man, and then of course you start looking at him and you go 'is that really the most emotional, the most dramatic version of the movie or should it maybe be a mother and a daughter?' So once that came up and once we started to talk about Jodie we were like 'wow, this is sort of it, if that works then that would be terrific because I don't think there's anybody better at doing this thing than Jodie. And she's attracted to that kind of a role.
What was the most difficult sequence for you to shoot?
The most difficult sequence in the film was everything in the hold of the plane. Because a claustrophobic space like that entails building it, building a tight space. So whenever we wanted to move a camera we had to move walls and we had to like lift the ceiling. If you want to get out somebody has to move the wall. And because everything is sort of fitted it's not just moving a wall it's like screws, I mean it was incredible. So there was one day where we just thought we had all died on the way to work and we were in the outer ring of hell (laughs), and that was where we were going to get stuck for all eternity and we got like three shots off that day and it was really just, it was murderous.
What about working with all those extras?
Well we forced them to bath every morning so that helps (laughs). No they were great. They got totally into it and as far as extras are concerned of course, I gig like this doesn't come around a lot. Because you have a block of six weeks, you know you're going to be employed, once you're in that seat and once that camera filmed you once you got to be in that seat for the rest of the show. So we got rid of the crazies pretty early on. (Laughs) There was one guy who like saw me walk by and he started yelling at me and going "who are you?" and I got a little flustered and he was like "I know you, you're like the director or what? You're a little young to be directing a movie, don't you think? Do you think you walk around a little to big? Don't you think?" You know.
Are you serious?
Oh yeah and then Brian Grazer (executive producer) came to visit us and Brian and I were talking and the same guy came up to us and he was like this close in Brian's face and he was like "You're Brian, you're Brian. I do great Pacino, I do great Pacino." And he launched in to this Pacino impersonation. So we very quickly realised that he needed to go home. Very, very quickly realised that. He was a piece of work though.
There's actually a new British TV show called EXTRAS.
Well there you go. Well that's the thing, they're all like "Hey I could say a line!" because of course if they say a line they get bumped up to actor status. So they always want to say a line and of course all they ever get to do is sort of mouth and pantomime, which is frustrating, there's no doubt about it. No, they were a great bunch, they were great, and they got so in to it that after a while like continuity would walk up to them and say 'you were reading a newspaper not a book...' and they were like "No, I was reading a book and I was on page 109, which ..." and they right, they were on page 109 in this book. I mean it was, they got totally into it, it was great.
Did some of them get intimidated working with Jodie Foster?
If Jodie was a different kind of person, then maybe. But she is really down to earth and really gracious and really funny and smart and wonderful to be around, so no, not really. I mean it was also really great atmosphere. We started shooting and we were like okay, we're going to be in a tube, with 300 people at any given time for 10 weeks so we're going to be killing each other in about 3 hours. So that never happened and I think that's also due to Jodie. I mean Jodie set a certain pace and a certain tone and everybody just said okay, if she's like that then we all have to be like that.
Can I ask about your family. Do you have children and was being a parent an inspiration for FLIGHTPLAN?
Actually, I recently had a son, ten weeks ago. But I like stories that deal with the fragility of existence, a little bit, that things can happen to you that throw you off balance and I think that has autobiographical reasons. I had cancer when I was 27 and I was misdiagnosed and so by the time they caught it, it was a bit of a problem and I spent a lot of time in the hospital. And since then I just sort of think you're not in control. You may think you're in control but you're really not.
What kind of cancer?
I had testicular cancer, which no pun intended, ain't no big thing if it's caught. But like I said, at the time that they caught it, they thought it was an infection.
Was that back home in Germany?
No, here, they misdiagnosed it here. And then I went back to Germany because I helped my brother move and I lifted something that really was a little too heavy for me and I thought I had a hernia. And I called up a friend of mine who's a doctor and I said you know you've got to walk me through whatever hernia test there is, you know. Because I need to know what that is. And he said it's not a hernia, what else is going on. And then I explained it to him and he basically forced me, made me promise that I would go to the urologist the next day and it turned out that saved my life. That was ten years ago.
You made a film about it, right?
I made a film about it called THE FAMILY JEWELS.
Was that cathartic?
It's really painful. I think the catharsis there was during the writing of it. Pretty much it took me about three months to write the script and two of those three months I just sat on the couch and sort of stared at the wall because I really didn't want to go back there. And then I sort of kicked myself in the arse and said okay, you got to do it. The film was called THE FAMILY JEWELS, the movie I did before FLIGHTPLAN, and it's a small sort of $1.5 million that we did. And I wanted to make a movie (about it) because I think that most movies that deal with death and illness and sickness and those things just sort of use it as a metaphor or they use it as a kick off for the dramatic engine, and invariably you have an arsehole who gets sick and in the face of his own mortality becomes a nice guy, and like I can tell you it doesn't happen like that.
Do arseholes stay arseholes?
Arseholes stay, arseholes get bigger arseholes usually. And you go through various stages but I just didn't feel that, like I was watching them and I just was appalled by how wrong they were, so I said I wanted to make a movie that is not sentimental, that is not melodramatic, because that's sort of what all those movies settle for. Some of them are really devastating and wonderful but most of them just sort of settle for the easy thing and it's just terrible. So we made a rock and roll cancer comedy.
But you said that has also informed your interest in FLIGHTPLAN?
Absolutely. The movie starts with somebody who has just experienced a tremendous tragedy - the loss of the loved one, so her life is thrown off balance and off track completely. And she has to really rebuild her psyche, and rebuild her world. And that was very interesting to me. Because ultimately for me the movement of the movie goes from broken to fixed, or from internal to external, and you can make an argument that the movie really is two movies, I mean there's a certain moment when it really turns. And I'm not talking about the twist, I'm talking about, I mean the whole pace, something happens. The beginning's very internalised and as a character re-engages with the world she becomes active and influences the environment. So to me, it's a taste question for me because I actually like movies that do turns like that, I like movies that feel different in different places, that have a, not necessarily a different tonality but have different pacing and that do different things. So that's what was interesting to me, to have a character who has a wall up between herself and the world, which is usually what happens when something horrible happens to you, I mean you sort of fold in on yourself and then you have to open up again. And everything else is just bells and whistles.
Any director likes to create his own world. Presumably one of the attractions of this is that you create a very defined world in a small place?
Well I, yeah, absolutely. I have a couple of pet peeves. One of them is my belief that reality as such really doesn't exist and that it's all just a projection, and that there's a certain common basis for it all, but really it's what we make it. And the idea that film with it's precision to replicate surface does not discern between reality as we define it, and sort of a projection, is interesting to me. So in film it's all the same. So to have a film start out in a way, as we did with FLIGHTPLAN, as a pure projection, I mean that's, none of it is real. You don't even know whether the real stuff's real and that was really interesting to me. It's something that I find interesting as a filmmaker and that I find interesting in terms of a sentimental, logical sort of exercise. And I could make an argument, if I were really reaching, that none of it's real (laughs). You know, that it's all in her head and that it's all just a projection and I enjoy that,. I like it when there are various ways of reading a movie, even after the heart (drawn on the airplane window) to all is just going on here.
The heart drawn on the window is very Hitchcockian. Wasn't something similar in THE LADY VANISHES?
Well what happened was, I'm a diligent home viewer so when I read the script and I saw the heart thing and I knew that was from THE LADY VANISHES, and I think that if you're kind then you call it homage. (Laughs) But as far as THE LADY VANISHES is concerned, I thought well we could take out the heart, but then again why? So the writers saw THE LADY VANISHES. I mean, who cares?
What other filmmakers have influenced you?
I love almost all the Europeans who came to Hollywood to make movies, because I think a lot of them made their best movies - Hitchcock included.
Where are you from originally?
How did you get into making movies?
I studied philosophy and then came here to study film. German filmmaking was in bad shape at that time. This was 89, 90, this is before the whole comedy cycle of films that then happened in the early 90's. And although content wise I wasn't too thrilled with what was going on in Hollywood films, I always felt that they were still infatuated with story telling. And they were still infatuated with the form and a lot of interesting things were happening. And I thought I go over here and I learn what they have to teach.
Was that California?
Yeah, I went to the American Film Institute. And was that belief that they knew something that we forgot. And I'm going to learn it and go back and make German films, and I tried that for a little bit but then, German filmmaking ran out of steam. And I think that, I mean I know the culture here very well and I spent probably close to ten years here. We've moved back here now because for about 3 or 4 years we lived out of boxes, we had like 8 boxes and 2 suitcases and we just got so sick of it, so my wife and I said if we go here we get an apartment like regular people and we're not going to live in hotel rooms anymore. And that's what we did.
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