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Flight: Denzel Washington & Robert Zemeckis Took Pay Cuts To Get The Film Made

Over a decade ago, Robert Zemeckis made his grand return to the realm of live-action character drama with the 2012 Denzel Washington-led film, "Flight." Now, the movie is dominating the Netflix charts.

In the years prior to "Flight," Zemeckis had been working within the field of motion capture animation with successes like "The Polar Express" and critically-maligned misfires like 2009's "A Christmas Carol." With "Flight," Zemeckis sought to return to the human-based works that populated his work earlier, such as "Castaway" and "Forrest Gump." In doing so though, he was taking a gamble — a gamble that both Zemeckis himself and his star Washington were willing to take a bet on.

A high-caliber director and a box office draw star should be a lethal combination in terms of securing a green light for a film, but "Flight" wasn't a sure thing. Beyond being a gamble for Zemeckis to return to live-action, the film is about an alcoholic and drug-addicted pilot who saves the lives of many people, but isn't a traditional good guy or a hero story. So, the film would be billed as an action film, but it's more of an actual character study, and the lead isn't the typical action movie hero.

Denzel Washington explained to Deadline how this non-typical Hollywood film came together. He said, "It was not a struggle to get it made, but the studio wanted to do it for a price, and we ended up with [about] $28 million, and Robert Zemeckis made it look like $100 million, especially the plane sequence. So he and I threw our money back in the pot [and] took a tenth of our salaries."

Flight was a rarity in the era it was released

Denzel Washington offered up the information that he made a tenth of his usual salary to Deadline in his interview about "Flight." When asked how much that was, Washington simply said, "You do the math." Deadline reported that, at the time, Washington's fee for big-release films was around $20 million per picture. Therefore, in doing the math, he likely only took $2 million upfront from the $28 to $30 million budget for "Flight." There were no reports of what a tenth of Zemeckis' director salary might have been.

When asked why he was so committed to working on the film, Washington said he was drawn to the script. He liked getting to play in the gray zone of a character. He also liked getting to shed his public image a little bit with the character. In addition, Washington said finding a script as good as "Flight" was rare in that era. He explained the kind of movies that were getting made at the time and what was getting funded.

"What I think has changed a bit is maybe five or six years ago they might have given us a $50 million, $60 million budget, or more, but nowadays the studios are tightening their belts, and they knew it was a project we wanted to do," Washington said. "And I think they were smart, they said, 'Look, we don't want to spend more than,' whatever it was, '$28 million, $30 million.' And neither of us wanted to walk away from it, so we did it." 

The risk paid off for Washington, as he was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor for his work in "Flight."