Portraying Real People

Tom Hanks as Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and Aaron Eckhart as First Officer Jeffrey Skiles appear before the NTSB in Sully.
Tom Hanks as Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and Aaron Eckhart as First Officer Jeffrey Skiles appear before the NTSB in Sully.

Tom Hanks: You don’t want to screw up somebody’s life for one thing and I do not ever want to project upon them some editorial aspect of their behavior. They behaved as they behaved. What happened to them happened to them. And the results are completely subjective. I want to be authentic to all those things. I want to be accurate to all those things, even though in a movie I will say things they never said and be in places they’ve never been. I will be interpreting moments that are nothing like what actually happened, but I want to do all those things armed with as much authenticity as possible.

Aaron Eckhart: Jeff Skiles is an active pilot so he was flying a European route during the time we were making the movie. Sully came more often, so we had more time with him; Tom certainly more than I did. Whenever you’re [portraying] a live person you don’t want them to be pissed at you; that’s the biggest concern. You want them to come up to you and say, “Hey, that’s how it was.” That’s the biggest compliment you can get, and that’s very important to me.

Laura Linney: I wasn’t able to meet [Lorrie Sullenberger]. I would have loved to have met her but it just didn’t work out. In some ways, maybe that was better. You’re always sort of torn between your responsibilities to a script and what the story is telling you to do and then fully representing the person you are portraying. Sometimes you can do both and sometimes you have to lean toward one way than the other, so I hope that everyone is happy in the long run. You do the best you can. I had watched an awful lot of tape on Lorrie Sullenberger that’s easily accessible on the Internet, so I had a sense of her manner and her energy and her focus, which is quite sharp. She seems to be a very clear person. 

Clint Eastwood: Tom has a certain presence and a certain humbleness in his presence. He’s not extrovert-ish…well, he can be [laughs], but he comes across like a reserved type of guy and he just seemed like he could get his arms around this character as good as anybody. He’s the exact same age in real life as Sully was when the incident happened. Everything fell into place. And when the real Sully saw the picture, he said that he thought Aaron had captured [First Officer Skiles] in a very great way. He thought he was very much like the guy; same sense of humor, same kind of playfulness in life prior to the incident. Everything just fit with Aaron. I always believe that one of the most important things in making a film is casting it correctly. Sometimes you’re very elated when that happens and it turns out to be just right.  

Chesley Sullenberger: I don’t think any of us could have imagined anyone else [but Tom] in that role, especially after having seen it now. I think he did a great job.

In Search of Authenticity

Aaron Eckhart and Tom Hanks reseached their roles in flight simulators prior to filming Sully.
Aaron Eckhart and Tom Hanks reseached their roles in a flight simulator prior to filming Sully.

Aaron Eckhart: Tom and I flew up to San Francisco together where they have these state-of-the-art flight simulators and we actually put in the actual flight plan that the real Captain Sullenberger and Jeff Skiles went through. We would get in our respective seats and we would taxi the airplane, which is not that easy. We would take-off, which is not that easy. Then we would climb and then we would see the birds hit and we would have the exact lights blinking and alarms that went off, so we would have to react to those, which was extremely interesting [laughs]. Tom went first [laughs], and then I went and I wasn’t any better [laughs]. It was fun, because the boss [Clint] came with us and he was giving us no encouragement whatsoever [laughs]. Sully was there and gave us the preamble. It was a good day because we were able to familiarize ourselves with the buttons and the joystick and all that stuff. It really, really helped us.
     The great thing about this movie is that they deconstructed a real A320, flew it to Universal where they reconstructed an actual A320, which is big-time. I mean everybody from the crew to Tom and I, when we all saw it for the first time on the set in the pool, it was like, “Wow, it doesn’t get better than this.” So in-between takes Tom and I spent a lot of time in there working out who was gonna push what, who was gonna do that, with words flying back and forth. We spent a lot of time working that out, because that had to be in concert and I think we got to an acceptable place with that.

Chesley Sullenberger: I had gone into the flight simulator at Virgin America Airlines up in the Bay Area. Clint was there, Tom, Aaron and I were there, along with an instructor, and we spent time going through all the cockpit procedures and how pilots talk to each other and they were quick studies. They were very adept and really picked it up quickly.

the moment right after the landing as portrayed in sully
The moment soon after the water landing as portrayed in Sully.

Clint Eastwood: I think it was important to be authentic because [the events happened] not that long ago; we’re talking seven years. I mean, there’s still a ton of people who were standing on the street when this happened or in office buildings or hotels and they looked out and saw this plane hit the water, and all the people out on the wing and everything. Then you had all the newscasters and it was covered worldwide pretty well. I was talking to some people from China the other day and they knew all about this story. [The real event] is still in the memory of everybody.

Personal Memories of January 15, 2009

Tom Hanks as Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger in trouble in the cockpit before the famous water landing in Sully.
Tom Hanks as Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger in trouble in the cockpit before the famous water landing in Sully.

Chesley Sullenberger: I think I did two things [after the plane was crippled]. First, I forced calm on myself because for all of us our bodies’ normal human physiological response to the stress was intense. It absolutely interfered with our ability to do our jobs, but we were able to tamp that down and focus clearly on the tasks at hand in spite of our bodies screaming at us that this was a life-or-death situation. And I had a really good paradigm that I developed over many decades of how to solve any problem in an airplane: fly the airplane first, fly it well, work together as a team to solve the problems one by one until finally we solved them all. I’m not the best pilot in the world but I think on that day we were at our best and we found a way to do something that we’d never done before and to get it right the first time in 208 seconds.

Laura Linney: I grew up in Manhattan and when you know that area of the city so well—my father and step-mother’s apartment looks out right over the Hudson—so I had a very visceral response when I heard this had happened. What I think blew everyone’s mind was that someone would attempt that type of landing, but more than anything is that everyone survived. It’s not over-billed when they say it was the Miracle on the Hudson. It’s still an astounding idea to comprehend, and I really believe that if it had been anyone else it would not have been the same outcome; that it had to be [Sullenberger]. It had to be a man who studied aviation his entire life, who flew the number of miles that he had flown, who knew the aircraft as well as he did, who understood what happens upon impact, and the science of all of it which he’s a student of. If it had been anyone else I don’t think people would have such good feelings about it.

Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart surveying the scene after their famous water landing in sully.
Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart pictured after the landing of Flight 1549 in Sully.

Tom Hanks: It’s because of what didn’t happen. We had gone through 9/11 and the last thing the world needed to see and the last thing New York City wanted to experience was to have another bunch of dead people against the skyline of New York City. They didn’t need to see more wreckage, more flames on the water. They didn’t want to experience a moment where everything fell apart one more time. And the opposite happened, which, on one hand, is something to celebrate, but I think the bullet dodged is why it has this emotional resonance. Can you imagine what the next ten days would have been like in New York City with the river right there and the bodies that would have had to have been pulled from the water? The New York Times would have run all these stories and all the pictures of all the people who had been lost. You would have seen all that again and it would have been a massive and long moment of national mourning, and instead what happened was our institutions proved worthwhile, the professionals did their job and, guess what, we all survived what seemed to be an act of God by way of a flock of Canadian geese. I think the resonance that I felt when I first read the screenplay, because it had even more moments of people in New York City looking out and seeing another low-flying passenger airplane coming in at the level of the buildings and no one wanted to see that again, but they did and it turned out to be one of the best news stories of the decade. So I think that’s what it is.

Clint Eastwood: I was fascinated by it at the time, as most people were, but especially by that iconic picture of the plane floating on the Hudson River and the people standing out on the wings. And I was thinking, “That’s a great shot,” along with the fact that nobody perished in the landing was great. So it was a good news program all the way around, especially for New Yorkers. So it was a fascinating story, but I didn’t know there was a conflict to it. When it was presented to me as an idea for a movie I thought it was such an uplifting story, but where’s the conflict to give it drama? And there is a conflict as we find out in the plotline. When I read that, I realized that I wanted to make this.

Clint's "Other" Water Landing

Director Clint Eastwood on the set of Sully.

The Miracle in the Bay
Long before he was a Hollywood legend, Clint Eastwood almost never had the chance to become one of cinema's most enduring icons. Back in 1951, when he was a 21-year-old draftee of the United States Army during the Korean War, Eastwood would find himself in a water landing that nearly took his life—not unlike the events surrounding Sully which he has brought to the screen more than 60 years later. We'll just let him tell the story:

"It was something similar except it was a military plane, it was a Douglas AD [bomber]. I was in the army when I was 21 and, at that time, during the Korean War, if you wore your uniform you could fly free in any other branch of the service. You could fly with the Navy if they had an opening or with the Air Force if they had an opening. If they had a seat open, they would let you on for free. So after Basic Training I wanted to go back up to Seattle where my folks were living at that time, so I went out to Monterey Airport and got a free flight to Seattle. 
     "Anyway, when I was coming back on that Sunday evening, I called Sand Pointe [Naval Air Station] in Seattle and asked if the Navy had any openings on a plane and they said, 'No.' But then they said, 'We have two Douglas ADs taking off and they do have a compartment in the back that’s used for radar and various things. You’re not claustrophobic, are ya?' Because these compartments are tiny and you can’t see out much; you have a little tiny porthole on the side, you have nothing but instrument panels in front of you that you know nothing about. And I said, 'No, I’m not claustrophobic.'
     "So we took off [going to Alameda Air Base] and we hit all kinds of bad weather. Finally we got near San Francisco and it was very stormy. The radios didn’t work, the oxygen went out, so [the pilot] went out to sea and finally found a hole through the clouds, so he went up the coast by Point Reyes. And it was the same thing as the movie, the engine gave out and we hit the water and bounced around pretty good. Then the plane started sinking, so I get out on the flaps of the wing, and the pilot comes down from up above where the cockpit was and says to me, 'Whaddya think?' And I said, 'It looks like we’re going swimming.'
     "We jumped in the water and started swimming towards shore [three miles away]. This was in late afternoon and it was turning dark as we went, but you could see the shore because it had phosphorous in the water. It was eerie, because it makes the water kind of glow, and we could see by the waves crashing on the shore that it wasn’t a great place to land. Anyway, so we were crawling over kelp beds and stuff like that, and finally made it in. He thought I had drowned and I thought he had drowned, because we lost touch with each other because of all the waves. And that was that.
     "It was an interesting choice that I’m given [a movie] about a water landing to direct, but I guess I’m as knowledgeable as anybody they could have gotten [laughs]."

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