CLINT EASTWOOD speaks about adapting the events of the 2009’s ‘miracle on the Hudson’ for the big screen and his interest in the story.

Clint Eastwood's latest film centres on the incredible water landing of US Airways 1549 in 2009. (Warner Bros)

In a UK exclusive interview for AEROSPACE, legendary actor, film director and pilot Clint Eastwood talks about turning 2009’s ‘Miracle on the Hudson’, the US Airways’ A320 water landing in which all 155 people on board survived, into a blockbuster aviation movie starring Tom Hanks as Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger. Eastwood talks heroism, near-death experiences and fate.

AEROSPACE: You’ve never worked with Tom Hanks until now on Sully?
Clint Eastwood: I was very fortunate to have these guys. I’ve worked with Laura Linney before and I feel very fond of her but I’ve always been a great admirer of Tom and he’s from Oakland (California) so he’s always told me I have to be a great admirer of his because I’m from Oakland too, and I’ve seen Aaron (Eckhart) in films and thought he was terrific. I feel very lucky.

AEROSPACE: What attracted you to Sully’s story?
CE: This script sat on my desk for almost a week and my assistant kept insisting I read it and she said several times “Look at the one called Untitled Script about the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’”. Obviously when someone mentions something three or four times over the course of a week, you think, ‘There’s something in that script that really appeals to her. I better read this.’ So I read it and immediately thought ‘What the hell was I reading? Why wasn’t I reading this script instead of those other turkeys along the way?’ I just fell in love with it right away.

AEROSPACE: The real Miracle on the Hudson event received so much publicity, it’s no wonder that everyone feels like they know the story already?
CE: I also thought I knew all about the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ because I follow the newspapers and TV very carefully when that event happened, and then, all of a sudden, it made sense. I started asking myself: What’s the conflict there? This guy Sullenberger did a fantastic job on landing the plane, all 155 lived, where’s the conflict there? And then I realized there was a lot to say, his periods of self-doubt inspired by the NTSB, and he had to prove his decisions and they came out to be the right decisions, so then it became very dramatic and that’s what I’m looking for. The drama. Sometimes you just have to look deeper than your first thoughts which was: this was a wonderful event but who wants to see a whole movie about it? So then you have to live through it with him and feel emotions about the various characters and all the different attitudes and his family life and how it effects your self-reliance, so it became a very fascinating story. So all I had to do was add some dream sequences so that the viewer could see what it would have been like if he hadn’t made those decisions and you get a feel of that in this nightmarish fashion.

Clint Eastwood directs Tom Hanks as Captain Sullenberger on the set of 'Sully' (Warner Bros)

AEROSPACE: The American culture is so quick to describe something as heroism but – as Sully says – he did a good job. What’s your views on heroism vs professionalism?
CE: I agree. It’s certainly different to when I grew up. When you thought of heroes you thought of somebody like Audie Murphy (most decorated American veteran of WW2) who had done something that was above and beyond the norm in a certain situation during war-time. But we have this politically-correct thing now where everybody has to win a prize; all the little boys in the class have to go home with a first place trophy. The use of the word ‘hero’ is a little bit overdone. But I don’t think so in Sully’s case. He‘s someone who‘s done a little bit extra beyond what he could be expected of.

AEROSPACE: You’ve flown helicopters for a lot of your life. Did that give you a better understanding of Sully’s achievements?
CE: I’ve flown 35 – maybe 40 – years in helicopters. I still own one but I haven’t flown it much lately because I’ve been doing films about heroic people. But it had an influence on me. I like aviation. I’ve been fascinated by it since I was a kid. I didn’t follow through with it until I was an adult. But the hero thing is another deal. The inclination of people who do things on behalf of others is probably as good a way to be a hero as anything. You always hear about Iwo Jima or someplace where you hear about someone who fell on an hand-grenade to save his friend or something like that and you often wonder if he did that on purpose or did he just trip accidentally!? And they go, ‘A very heroic thing to do!’ If there’s a hand-grenade, most people would go in ‘which’ direction and I’d be right there with them! I’d be pushing them out of the way! Let’s get out of here. But sometimes people will do something fabulous like that. 

The film explores the aftermath of the Hudson River landing through the eyes of Captain Sullenberger. (Brian Smale)

AEROSPACE: But as a fellow pilot, does that give you some better appreciation of Sully’s achievements?
CE: Aviation is very exacting. In other words, if you go to fly every day, you check everything out. It would be like if you got in your car in the morning and you checked the gasoline and you checked every wheel, changed the oil, checked under the hood. You go through tons of different checks. But when we get in our car, we just jump in. We don’t care if the wheel is half off – as long as we get there – by the skin of the teeth. And in aviation, you just don’t do that. You need to be an exacting person; somebody who really knows the detail and lives by the rules and Sully is that kind of guy. He lived by the rules and in making a decision about landing in the Hudson because he’d been through training but had never imagined himself doing that before, I don’t think. But all of a sudden you have to think and make a lot of things happen in very few seconds and that’s what the story is about.

AEROSPACE: You survived a plane crash when you were just 21 years old, when your plane crashed into the water. Did Sully’s experience bring back memories of that time?
CE: I think it did. But I haven’t really thought that much about it. In recent years, when this project came up, I went back and thought about it a little bit but it was a little bit different because I wasn’t with a group of people. I was just a passenger in a lonely spot in a plane and I didn’t have to react off anybody else. I never knew what the pilot was doing; I was just guessing that he was going to do a water landing. If he’d bailed out, I’d be in bad trouble. Fortunately, he did the right thing and waited for me. That was an experience; it was different. But by the same token it gives you an idea of where you get to that moment where you feel: this is it. Some people live through this and some people don’t. And that’s all I thought about, and fortunately, when we got in the water and I felt much better.

Tom Hanks as Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger, left, and Aaron Eckhart as First Officer Jeff Skiles in 'Sully' (Warner Bros).

AEROSPACE: As a director, your movies are usually straight down the line without a lot of visual flourish or embellishments. What was your thinking with this?
CE: We had a lot of discussions about realism and philosophies and the only thing I added was to try to do the dream sequences. I added those because I was trying to figure a way that – if you take the movie as an hour and a half – I didn’t want the landing to be a few seconds in an hour and a half chat about it – so the dream sequence is a ‘what if’ so the audience can be in the picture for other reasons other than just finding out about Sully. If he hadn’t done what he had done, things would have been a mess. If that river hadn’t been there, things would have been bad. A lot of things have to fall into place for this event to happen but it did because the right guy was there to take advantage of it at the time. If he had waited a few seconds longer, it wouldn’t have worked, and if he had gone too early, he would have not made the airport; he would have come up short on the other end, so there was a lot of ‘what ifs’. But he did the right thing. A water landing can be done and if executed right. It can also be not be so good if executed wrong, as a matter of a quarter of inch, one side hitting before the other, it could spin the plane. There’s a million things that could go wrong there if it wasn’t for good, quality flying.

AEROSPACE: The real Sully talked about how you came over to his house and spent three hours with him over lunch. What were you looking for specifically?
CE: There’s a lot of ironies here and both Tom and I are from the Bay area, Oakland, and it turns out that Sully lives just behind Oakland in Danville so, all of a sudden, you go ‘Oh he lives there’ and so a lot of things fell into place to get this picture going and so after reading the material I said, ‘Oh I’d like to meet this guy. Where do I have to go? Do I have to fly to Chicago or wherever he lives?’ And then it turns out he lives in Danville – which is on the way to Red Bluff – so I went right up and saw him. So there’s a lot of things outside of logical thinking that were making this project come together. Everything just fell into place. Tom was my only choice to play Sully. 

Sully - A Review

It’s easy to be critical of movies today. Script writers and directors add fear, doubt and uncertainty to entertain the viewers with an emotional roller coaster ride. Actors said and did things in ‘Apollo 13’ and ‘Sully’ that did not happen. Substance lies beyond the criticism, so you need to be tolerant of the Hollywood factor and enjoy the bigger picture.

The scenes where Sully imagined his plane crashing into the buildings were not illusionary fantasies. I wrote in my book how I also became self-doubting after QF32, consumed by thoughts and dreams of ‘what-ifs’ that ended in disaster.

The perspectives of Sully and his First Officer, Jeff Skiles, being on trial for everything they had accomplished in their careers and did on Flight 1549 were accurate. However, the reality in the cockpit was far more dramatic than the movie.

Tom Hanks did not capture the depth of Sully’s bravery, leadership and resilience. Many, if not most, pilots would have felt they were done with their responsibilities the moment the passengers were rescued. But Sully never relinquished command of USAirways 1549, not at the ferry terminal, not in the subsequent days of media frenzy, nor throughout the lengthy investigation. Sully is still the Captain of Flight 1549 even today.

Sully shows us a better way to investigate safety. Safety officials generally only research events where things go wrong. The answers uncover ignorance, inadequate training or lack of experience. Rarely do the positive influences emerge.

Sully captured the successes of Flight 1549. When we look into Sully’s career, we discover the ingredients for personal resilience. These skills did not just protect the passengers of Flight 1549; they saved the lives of every passenger who flew with Sully over his 42-year career. We should bottle the essence of Sully’s values and behaviours, and use it as an elixir for resilience and success.

Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks did a great job in Sully, a human testament to leadership, teamwork and resilience. However, the real Sully Sullenberger and Jeff Skiles are larger in life than their characters in the movie.

Captain Richard de Crespigny, FRAeS, PIC QF32


 ‘Sully: Miracle on the Hudson’ opens in UK cinemas on 2 December 2016

2 December 2016