Sully, the true story of Chesley Sullenburger’s famous airliner landing in the Hudson River, is the latest project from screenwriter Todd Komarnicki, whose credits also include Elf (producer) and Perfect Stranger. The Warner Brothers film, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks, provides an in-depth picture of that famous event as well as how it affected the crew, the passengers and the world.
Komarnicki recently took a few moments to talk to Reel Faith’s DeWayne Hamby about the film and its production process.
How did you get involved in writing the screenplay?
I was hired by the producers who had the rights to the book (Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters). I won them over by the take that is in the movie, the structure. That won me the job and I worked on it for a good long while. The key element was Sully and becoming friends with Sully and memorizing him and making sure the movie truly honored him and was true to his experience and also to the experience he had not shared previously, which includes PTSD and the grilling he took from the NTSB.
This movie seems to be beyond entertainment and on a mission to inspire. Was that on purpose or was it a byproduct of profiling such an inspirational figure?
It was so inbred in the story. I remember I was with my mom, who was in hospice care near the end of her life and there were not many things that were cheering her up. When that happened and news of it came to us, I remember sitting on the edge of her bed and it brought her deep joy and gave her confidence that things are not all lost and it’s not all darkness and sadness. So I think from the moment it happened, it inspired people but now that we unpack it and see what it really took and all the little tributaries that shoot off the main event, I think it’s really good to remind people that greatness doesn’t have to be something that you read about at the bottom of a news crawl on CNN. It can actually impact your life. It can actually get into the bloodstream of the way you live your life.
Were there any hesitations about working on not only a true story but one so recent and well-known?
I never think about hesitation. There’s a thing that our former pastor, Maurice Boyd, the finest preacher I’ve ever heard, said, if you ever get a chance to look him up on the internet. He’s from Belfast, Northern Ireland. Every Sunday at church he would say, “Never set sail to a fear, knowing that all seas are the seas of God and even if you sink, you sink only deeper into Him.” That is how I try to live my life. So in approaching a project, I never think “What am I afraid of?” or “What could people think?” or “Is this a problem?” I never set sail to fear. So when I saw the story and I had the chance to tell it, I just saw only bright and shining possibilities.
I’m amazed by this. Being a New Yorker and being around planes that crash, there’s no such thing as a happy ending. The fact that this plane hit the water and nobody hesitated. Every ferryboat drove toward it. The police, the scuba cops, the firemen, there was not one moment of “Could that plane blow up?” “Is there something nefarious happening?” Everybody just came to rescue. That’s so beautiful and deeply inspiring to me. I’ve been asked what I want the audience to take away and it’s that. We can be Sully, we can be first responders to the emergencies and the crises in our own lives. All we have to do is look around, because we’ve got a pretty banged up world. This is a good news movie that reminds us there’s something deeply beautiful and unselfish within us as human beings that we can access through grace and sometimes by pure instinct of how we were made.
What is the one scene that sticks with you the most?
I was surprised. The scene for me, in the screenplay and it’s in the movie, that always stuck with me as a New Yorker is, “No one dies today.” When the rescue worker says that in the script and I imagined it a certain way. In the movie, it’s not a throwaway, but it’s a big mix of a lot of action and sort of there and people can notice it or not notice it. But the thing that surprised me, that moved me the most when I saw the movie was the air traffic control guy. I was so struck by his reaction and I had added in the space between the recording that we know is exactly what they said, I had added these little touches of that character rooting for Sully and saying, ‘Don’t go in the water, don’t go in the water.’ Those little tiny tidbits. The actor did such an extraordinary job. When he is relieved of his duty and the tear comes down his cheek, I was like “That’s the way in.” He became the audience for me. That’s probably at the 35-minute mark and then I was crying and I knew the story!
We know the story, we know the count is going to come up as 155 and yet when Sully is hanging on waiting for that confirmation, we’re all on the edge, too. How is that?
It’s because Tom Hanks takes you on the journey of this man so that you worry what he’s going through, and by the time he finally hears 155, it’s as if you’d heard it for the first time. He’s showing you what it looks like to hear it for the first time. That’s how good he is.
Did you have interactions onset with Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks?
Oh, absolutely. The guys were the best. They’re so generous, so inclusive. Clint didn’t need me around for script changes, because he shoots from script, God bless him. That’s a screenwriter’s dream. What I wrote is what the actors say. It’s a beautiful feeling. I had a lot of quality M&M eating time with Mr. Hanks. Clint came to my local tavern, which is right down the street from where I live, where I wrote the movie, so we all go to hang out in the actual place where the script was written. It was really cool.
Anything else you want to add?
Thank you for what you’re doing. Thank you loving movies, because movies still have the power to change the world. This movie is about something. It’s a movie that literally everybody can see. It’s an all-audiences movie and it leaves you with the feeling that you can go be a better person when you walk out of the movie.