Plane truth: Producers Parkes & MacDonald pilot Zemeckis drama 'Flight' to awards season

With hits galore, veteran husband-and-wife producing partners Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald have stayed aloft in Hollywood for decades, and now the journey continues with Paramount’s Flight, which landed in theatres on Nov. 2.

Puns, uh, do fly when describing this latest from the former DreamWorks production chiefs, as critical reaction and word of mouth assure a smooth landing with so much Oscar-worthy cargo (on both sides of the camera) onboard. Star Denzel Washington, director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins have first-class seats, but others also carry awards potential.

Only the second production (summer hit Men in Black 3 was the first) to go into release from Parkes and MacDonald’s Parkes+MacDonald/Image Nation—their newly expanded partnership with the Abu Dhabi Media subsidiary—Flight was produced with Zemeckis’ ImageMovers, his longtime partnership with Jack Rapke and Steve Starkey.

Washington stars as regional pilot Captain “Whip” Whitaker, who initially emerges heroic after guiding a passenger jet through catastrophic mechanical failure but subsequently confronts the consequences of his out-of-control addictions, a story thread as emotionally charged as the film’s amazing scenes of the out-of-control plane.

The relatively low budget, strong adult subject matter and R rating hardly scream “tentpole.” But Zemeckis, moving to “emotion capture” after so many years in motion capture, elevates the film, even with eye-popping special and visual effects, beyond the disaster-film genre. Much credit goes to writer Gatins, who has total control over his vehicle, including its troubled pilot character.

Parkes and MacDonald previously collaborated with Gatins when, about eight years ago during their tenure at DreamWorks as heads of production, they green-lit his film Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story. Gatins, who had worked on the Flight script since 1999, “gave us in 2005 about 40 pages of what he had thus far written,” Parkes recalls. “We knew there was something there, but he hadn’t found the movie yet. I said, ‘Let’s try to figure out the rest of the movie.’ So we went to work with him on the script.”

To Parkes and MacDonald’s disappointment, the Flight script became somewhat orphaned when Paramount soon after took over DreamWorks. Says MacDonald, “It wasn’t on Paramount’s front burner, so the only way to get it made we thought would be to get a great actor and director on board. The turning point came when [late agent] Ed Limato called us about how the script might interest his client Denzel Washington. He read it, loved it and committed even though it’s rare for an actor to commit right away when there’s no director attached. But John was working with Jack Rapke on a film and made him aware of the script and Denzel’s interest.” Finally, Flight’s course was a direct path from Rapke to Zemeckis to both production companies and to Paramount and “go.”

Parkes acknowledges that even with five important (and no doubt strong-minded) producers on Flight, there was no dissension. “Our absolute, most foremost job,” he explains, “is taking an idea and notion for the script to the optimum point for a director, so that a studio will put up the money. So we gladly let Bob [Zemeckis] have his way, especially as he’s a completely collaborative guy.”

Asked about Image Nation’s role in this gestation, Parkes clarifies that they put no money in this. “Image Nation funds our company, our overhead and our independent development fund over which we have discretionary control. This is something that DreamWorks had done for us when we were there. So Image Nation has no input into the films we do.”

Aware of the audiences and attention Flight will attract, the producers were thrilled with its presence as part of the New York Film Festival, which recently gave the film its world premiere in the prestigious closing-night slot. “The reception was fantastic,” says Parkes.
As producers, Parkes and MacDonald have a tremendous track record, either producing or executive producing. To cite just a handful, there’s the ongoing Men in Black franchise, Gladiator, Dinner for Schmucks, The Uninvited, Minority Report, Sweeney Todd, The Kite Runner and the most recent Zorro films.

In addition to producing, Parkes, a California native and Yale graduate, is a former documentary filmmaker whose career highlights began with his 1978 doc California Reich, which earned him his first of three Oscar nominations (later came nominations for his writing work on WarGames and as producer on Awakenings.) As a screenwriter, Parkes co-wrote both WarGames and Sneakers with Larry Lasker. He and MacDonald oversaw production at DreamWorks from its inception and achieved the rare success of delivering three consecutive Best Picture Oscar winners (American Beauty, Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind, the latter two in partnership with Universal).

Prior to DreamWorks, Parkes was president of Amblin Entertainment and MacDonald oversaw development. She also served as story editor at Columbia Pictures before becoming the studio’s VP of production.

Whether as producers or executive producers, films together made by Parkes and MacDonald have earned more than $6 billion worldwide. Asked how they distinguish the difference between producer and executive producer credits, Parkes responds that the distinction is, well, indistinct. "Sadly, producing credits are often negotiated rather than earned. The DGA and the WGA have very specific standards that determine the awarding of credits; the PGA is making great strides in this arena, but we aren't there yet, which is why so many films list everybody and his brother-in-law as some sort of a producer. Oftentimes, the executive producer credit is taken by the line producer, or by a financier, or by someone who once had a strong relationship to the movie but no longer does; on the other hand, someone can be listed as an executive producer and have been the driving force of the whole project. This is why the only way you can judge a producer is to look at his or her whole career and see a logic, a level of taste, a sensibility behind the body of work."

But what about the difference between working within the studios and producing independently? Parkes contends, “The job isn’t all that different. Both at DreamWorks and now, we have our independence, although at DreamWorks we could cause movies to happen. Still, whether it’s studio in-house or producing independently, the criteria is the same because it all comes down to your ability to recognize good material that attracts great talent and the financing. The high standards remain the same.”

But studios are more resistant to independents these days. Says Parkes, “Now more than ever, studios are much more focused on what they develop, so they give a lot more attention to their tentpoles and their own properties, which makes it harder to get attention for films they weren’t involved with at inception.”

It was Parkes and MacDonald’s successful 2007 The Kite Runner that put their Parkes/MacDonald production company on the radar at and finally in business with Image Nation. With elements of the film suggesting specialized, Parkes doesn’t see it that way: “That’s not how I look at films, as it only comes down to story.” He explains how the film led to the Image Nation partnership: “Laurie and I were the main producers for The Kite Runner, which was perceived very positively by the moderate Middle East. I had contact with the Brookings Institution [a liberal think tank that is also one of Washington, D.C.’s oldest], which brought me to Qatar for an event and there I met a board member and then the chairman of The Abu Dhabi Media Company [of which Image Nation is a part]. The chairman thought that Laurie and I occupied a good space [in the film industry] that also happened to be attractive to the Abu Dhabi Media Company.” (Parkes now serves on the advisory board of Brookings’ Arts & Culture Dialog Initiative of the U.S.-Islamic World Forum.)

Two Parkes and MacDonald deals immediately ensued with Image Nation, the first in 2009 after the Qatar meetings and involving a $10 million revolving development fund. On its heels in April this year came an expansion of the partnership with Image Nation chairman Mohammed Al Mubarak and Image Nation CEO Michael Garin that forged Parkes+MacDonald/Image Nation. Image Nation is fully funding Parkes+MacDonald, which has full discretionary control to develop, acquire and produce projects of their choosing with studio partners they select. Among the projects they’re developing are
Martin Campbell’s The Fall Guy, based on the 1980s TV series about a Hollywood stuntman; the film adaptation of Jon Robin Baitz’s Tony-nominated hit play Other Desert Cities; and a remake of the Graham Greene classic The Fallen Idol.

Parkes and MacDonald productions have always emphasized story, a focus that is a kind of strategic stabilizer. As Parkes puts it, “The only thing about our industry that is certain is that we are in the midst of an unprecedented sea change. But the one constant that remains is story.” Approaching a new story or script in terms of its targeted demographic is not a top priority. Parkes explains, “I do think about what audience a film might be for, but first comes whether I like the material. In other words, there’s a difference between an instinctive response and a critical, more analytical response. Thinking beforehand about what key demographics might be is foreign to me. I have to like the story.”

“We’re attracted to stories that are very strong, whether big or smaller films and we back this up with deep characterizations. We’re producers of good writing. In fact, the most important thing we can do is have relationships with great writers and learn how to work with them.” Even trends don’t get in the way. While Parkes early on had written two tech-themed scripts (WarGames and Sneakers), “I’ve never felt compelled to go out with what is strictly a tech project, but I remain interested.”

Nor are other hot trends like 3D on their front burner. Parkes states, “There have been very few times personally when [3D] really interested me—it’s not so important to me as an audience member or for the foreseeable future. But we did well with Men in Black in 3D and we’re thinking, only thinking now about a reboot of our film The Ring in 3D.”

He cites colleague Steven Spielberg’s thinking on this matter of trends. “Steven never tries to be commercial; he does what he finds interesting and Schindler’s List is a perfect example of this. It’s the story that’s leading the way and then you use your experience.”

Nor does the mass of content and new platforms muddy his thinking. “We continue to approach content and each film the same way. Every movie is a category of one that you design depending on the burden it can carry. American Beauty, which we had at DreamWorks, was small, an indie that was made for about $16 million that we got from a first-time director [Sam Mendes]. But it got the Oscar. And the next year we had Gladiator, a big movie, and that got the Oscar. Both had equally great stories, but we had to approach them totally differently, thinking about tailoring them toward their markets.”

Flight, too, required special handling. Beyond the exceptional talent involved, special attention had to be paid to the budget (held to about $33.5 million, in spite of amazing special and visual effects) and concessions all around to get the project off the ground. Explains MacDonald, “We had a relatively short 45-day shoot and everyone, including talent, is now aware that these days you have to make creative deals,” meaning that sky-high salaries are a thing of the past.

Adds Parkes, “Hollywood survives on the big tentpole films, so I give Paramount credit for their nod and making a serious film like this. And everybody these days acknowledges that with movies generally being less profitable, people and companies can’t demand the fees they once did.”

Parkes concedes that with Flight, he and MacDonald go further than before into controversial material. Says Parkes, “I remember when John gave us a draft of the script where [Denzel’s] lawyer [an excellent Don Cheadle] has Whip’s own pusher [a very colorful John Goodman] get him the cocaine he needs [after a terrible all-night drinking binge] to get him through his all-critical NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] hearing. That really went far.”

As for their long and successful producing partnership, Parkes acknowledges that just about all of their projects have been Parkes and MacDonald collaborations (“We’ve been mostly blessed or cursed with always working together”), although MacDonald is more focused on the day-to-day and Parkes says he “burrows more into developing the material.” Underlying the point, he adds that “it’s hard for Laurie to get me to show up at a lunch.”

MacDonald’s greater focus on the nuts and bolts in the production arrangement issues from her background. “When Steven [Spielberg], Laurie and I began at DreamWorks, she was the only one of us with actual studio experience, as she had been a Columbia VP.”

Still, whatever the nuts, bolts, talent and writing issues, “We both have input on all things we do,” Parkes states. Helping them at their L.A.-based Parkes+MacDonald/Image Nation offices is a staff of about ten people, including two creative executives and an exec overseeing their new TV business. Comments Parkes, “TV is absolutely as good now [as film] and some of the best dramatic work is being done on the small screen. We’re close to making ‘Crossbones,’ a limited fact-based pirate series for NBC and are working with ‘Luther’ creator Neil Cross.”

Film projects in the works include about “15 things in development,” Parkes reveals, “and we’ll be focused on six, so maybe three will get made. Our movies tend to get made in clusters because invariably a few become ready at the same time.”

Although the movie world is fast-changing, Parkes insists, “You can only do what you know how to do. You don’t follow a trend and don’t try to be commercial. We actually joke that we’re in the antiques business, because at the end of the day it’s still about the story.”