Interview: “Sully” Screenwriter Todd Komarnicki

Posted on September 7, 2016 at 3:44 pm

Copyright 2016 Warner Brothers
Copyright 2016 Warner Brothers
Todd Komarnicki is a Hollywood producer (“Elf”) and writer whose screenplay for this week’s Clint Eastwood film, “Sully,” is exceptionally well-crafted. It was a great pleasure to talk to him about telling the story of Sully Sullenberger, the pilot who made an emergency landing on the Hudson River, and about why Tom Hanks keeps making movies about real-life stories of transportation disasters.

Everyone remembers the news stories about Sully and the images of the passengers standing on the wings of the plane in the middle of the Hudson River. But that was a while ago. How do you draw people back into that story?

The secret was Sully, just meeting and getting to know Sully. He had the untold story which is the bedrock for our film. He had it in his own experience. He didn’t put it in his book but he was able to share it with me. And so going deep with Sully allowed me to uncover all the stuff that the world just didn’t know and because of that it immediately it was obvious that we had a scintillating movie.

The movie begins just after the emergency landing but takes us back in time to help us understand what happened. How did you decide when to give us more information?

I have this storytelling theory which is “the eternal now.” It works for certain stories really, really well and perfectly plugs into Sully. That theory is that everything that has ever happened to us immediately leading up to this phone call between you and me, everything that’s ever happened to us is with us. We have it with us. We can access some of it by memory, some of it just by a sense of feeling. Most of it we don’t remember, but it’s all in there. Then there’s what’s happening right now at the present and then there is of course how the present impacts the moments that follow and so on.

It’s always eternally now and all these things are cooking inside of every human being. So as a storytelling trope that really works because I don’t like the idea of flashbacks. I want everything to feel connected, so just by drifting past the character’s shoulder in a present situation you can go anywhere you want as long as you come back to where we started. That allowed me to go on these memory tributaries with Sully as he was trying to patch his life together. And because he was under such stress with PTSD everything was a trigger for him anyway. So it reminded him of the crash, it reminded him of what he was at stake often losing, they could’ve taken his pilot’s license easily and much more than that. So using memory as a trigger for how to react to the present allowed me to structure the movie that way.

It is so striking that instead of referring to the people on the plane as “passengers” he calls them “souls.”

Yes, I believe that we are all souls so there were certainly 155 souls in that plane. I just want people to remember that it’s not just this crazy impossible thing that occurred but it involved 155 people and their families and their loved ones. The fact that they all survived means that for generations their family tree is going to continue to sprout and that brings me deep joy. To tell that story, that’s really the happiest ending part — these people are alive and are thriving. And because they survived such a dark moment, they are even more effective in the world. Nobody got off that plane and became a worse person; everybody improved after that. So the world is a brighter place because of what happened that day.

One thing that I thought was a very telling detail and very true to life is that nobody paid attention to the safety talk at the beginning of the flight.

Yes, I’m so glad you noticed that. That’s in the script, absolutely. I wanted to highlight that because nobody ever pays attention.

So, do you listen now when you’re on a plane?

Are you kidding me? I elbow everybody near me and I pay total attention! I’ll tell you where your seat cushion that can be used as floating device is or whatever you need. I’m on it.

The phone conversations between Sully and his wife, who are never together throughout the time period of the film told us a lot about who they are and what was going on.

It’s interesting that you singled that out. It works as a metaphor for isolation — that the person you love the most is the one person you can’t help nor can they help you. They’re really stranded on the other end of the telephone line, and they’re stranded on opposite end of the country. There is a deep sense of helplessness. That’s really a chore for actors to convey all that, the relationship via phone. Our actors were at the top of the chart, so they were able to pull it off. It’s very, very difficult to do but the journey for the Lorrie character is from confusion and agitation to finally understanding that she almost lost the love of her life, and that’s really the journey.

So I love that as a storytelling tool. The only artistic license in the film is the fact that I had to compress the time of the investigation, which actually lasted nine months. I had to collapse it into a handful of days. So, that’s why he didn’t go back to California and knowing that I couldn’t have him go back to California allowed me to infuse those phone scenes with all the powers that they needed to really sparkle.

What did being a producer teach you about creating a script?

As a producer the hardest and the most frustrating thing is getting the writer to not give up. A lot of writers reach rewrite fatigue. They take it from the 5 yard line, to the 4 yard line, to the 3 yard line, but then they run out of gas and often in Hollywood writers get replaced for that reason. It’s hard and it’s frustrating and as a writer who produces some of the producers have the instinct of just saying, “If I could just fix that scene.” But that doesn’t work either because you can’t take the power and the respect away from the writer you are working with.

So in this case I had such incredible partners in Alan Stewart and Craig Marshall creatively during the development process and also Kipp Nelson, the Executive Producer. So they were such strong guys that as I was writing and developing, I knew that we were just making it better and better. And because I had no plans to go anywhere as long as they were happy with me I was going to stick around. So it was a great working relationship and a real blessing. And also, I need to give a shout out to Jonathan Coleman who runs my company and he is my editor. He is the first person that sees the material before anyone and he always forces me to make everything as good as the best scene in the script. So that means constant rewriting and something that had worked for five drafts suddenly up against the new scene doesn’t work anymore. You’re always forced and forced and forced and pushed. You need a gadfly like that and I’m grateful for Jonathan.

I know you are a person whose faith matters deeply. Do you have a favorite Bible verse?

I definitely try to remind myself to live by Romans 8:28 which is “All things lead together for good for those who love God.” It allows me to just relax and trust that the God of the universe is in charge and is on my side and it makes life a lot more peaceful. It’s been easier to do that as I’ve gotten older. I’m 50 now and at 30 I believed the same thing but I struggled a lot more with letting it sink in. And so what I would say now is that, that Scripture has allowed me to stop wanting what I want and only want what God wants and by doing that it has made my life a lot sweeter.

I think we have got time for just one more question. I’ve noticed that Tom Hanks seems to be playing real-life people responsible for saving people on vessels a lot. He was on Apollo 13, he was Captain Phillips — what is it that makes him so trustworthy in that role?

Tom is drawn to characters of deep spiritual worth. Tom is a great guy and he wants to play people that are inspirational. He makes choices outside of that too but I would say if you look back at his career he has always played someone that is very soulful even if they are searching. He is not a guy that runs out and plays a bunch of bad guys. He is our Gary Cooper and we’re so blessed to have him.

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