"We had a lot of conversations about the character. We did a lot of deconstruction and preparation and talking. And when we were ready to shoot, I'd say to him, 'Here's what I think the scene is about; what do you think?' And he'd go, 'I don't know,' " Zemeckis recalled with a smile. It was a friendly standoff between old Hollywood pros, each accustomed to doing things his own way. "I know he knows, but I also know he's not going to tell me. And this didn't bother me at all, because his choices were all right on the money."
The result: rave reviews of the movie and of Washington's performance, very likely to earn him another Oscar nomination.
It's a different role for Washington, who plays a conflicting mixture of talent and inner torment. The script asks the star to go to some very dark places. His pilot is an alcoholic and drug abuser who hits rock bottom in the movie, and hits it hard.
"We really, really went down deep and really got under the fingernails of this character, under the skin of this character. I think [Denzel] did the performance with zero vanity. It's awesome. It's what I went for; it's what he gave me," Zemeckis said.
Washington's depiction of his character's ordeal was so real and so frightening that Zemeckis was glad the actor worked quickly and professionally.
"I can't speak for Denzel, but it was a blessing that we did the movie in so few days," said Zemeckis, who shot the whole thing in little more than a month.
"With a character piece like this, it's usually helpful to have plenty of time, but this cast was so great, they stepped up. I didn't get depressed being in this dark spot for 45 days," he said. "If we had gone 60 or 65, I don't know."
The movie was also done on the cheap - $30 million - which raises a question: Who do you have to be in Hollywood to get a movie made? Zemeckis has directed "Forrest Gump," "Cast Away" and "Back to the Future." Washington is coming off one of his biggest paydays ever in "Safe House."
"We're in dicey times here in the movie biz. This [type of material] is not the coin of the realm. This kind of movie is a hard sell," the director said.
"Movies are so expensive now that you can't really try anything. The movie is so expensive to make and to market that to get your investment back, everybody has got to go see it. So then, almost by definition, it can't be about anything."
And what's "Flight" about?
Zemeckis said that's in the eye of the beholder. But during the course of the movie, he noted, we see the pilot's complex role in the crash filtered through various institutions and factions - lawyers, corporations, etc. Everybody's doing his or her job; everyone's ethics are defensible. The only casualty is the truth.
"Everybody's got their agenda, and when that happens, things can get very mixed up. Things can get really weird."
Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or email@example.com. Read his blog at philly.com/keepitreel.