On January 15, 2009 US Airways Flight 1549 took off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport enroute to Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina. In less than five minutes that A320 airbus—with 155 passengers and crew aboard—would lose both engines after multiple bird strikes and would find itself floating in the Hudson River. All those aboard survived that dangerous water landing and the two pilots—Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles—became national heroes in what has become known as the Miracle on the Hudson.
That’s the story the world has come to know as it became international news within seconds of the averted disaster. What you don’t know is what happened in the aftermath during a lengthy investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which didn’t conclude its investigation until May of 2010, some 18 months later.
Four-time Oscar winner Clint Eastwood directs Sully, which lands in theaters this Friday, in which the amazing untold story of Flight 1549 is revealed for the first time. In fact, Sullenberger's 2009 autobiography Highest Duty, on which the movie is based, was published before the NTSB investigation was completed. Two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks stars in the title role as Sullenberger, along with a stellar cast including three-time Oscar nominee Laura Linney as Sully’s wife, Lorrie, and Golden Globe nominee Aaron Eckhart as co-pilot Skiles. In a series of individual interviews, Eastwood, Hanks, Linney, Eckhart and Sully himself revealed their thoughts and experiences surrounding the film and their memories of the actual event. We even conclude with an amazing story from Eastwood about his own brush with death in a similar water landing 65 years ago.
The Real “Sully” Gets a Call
Chesley Sullenberger: I got a phone call from Allyn Stewart, the producer who optioned the rights to [my book] Highest Duty, on a Friday afternoon about 4:30. And she was on the line with [legendary film producer] Frank Marshall, which told me that something was up and that this was important news, and it was probably going to be good news. She had been trying to find a home for this story and taking the script around for a number of years, so it was very exciting. I called Lorrie, my wife, right away and told her about it, so it was big news.
We enjoyed meeting [Clint Eastwood]. He spent about three hours with us and had lunch, and we learned that he doesn’t like pickles [laughs]. Very quiet guy, but very focused and obviously very much in love with his craft. It was important [to him] to get it right. I think it was important that he get the emotional temperature of this right. It was important that he told this story as truthfully as he could and as accurately as he could, and with the kind of respect that we feel about the story itself because of the way it touches people. He assured us that he would do that and that he would take good care of us. And we took him at his word and it’s been quite a process, and it’s been a lot of fun.
Clint Eastwood: [Sullenberger is] pretty much like [he was in] the news coverage actually [laughs]. The news portrayed him as being very low-key, sort of a humble gentleman with a great history in aviation and he was like that. I went up to Danville [California] and met with him and his wife and it was great because he was exactly like how I pictured him. In fact, we sat there and my first questions to him were “How did you like the script?” and “Do you think it portrays things accurately?” And he said, “I think it’s a good script.” He was extremely pleasant and very supportive of it, so I said, “Who do you see playing you?” And he said, “Well, we’ve talked about that a little bit,” and I said, “What about Tom Hanks?” He said, "That was someone we thought of right away and he’s terrific," so we came back and made an overture to Tom Hanks. At first [Tom] wasn’t sure because of the timing, but he read the script and liked it a lot and decided he wanted to participate. [Tom was my first choice] from the beginning. It was never offered to anybody else.
Tom Hanks: I knew that I was tired and had in my head a period of non-activity. But, as is often the case, something comes along and none of it is about business reasons. That’s not what you work through. The fact is that I read the screenplay written by Todd [Komarnicki], and I read it in 17 minutes and I was infected with the bug of imagining the story, and once that happens you’re doomed. The only thing you can do is hope that it works out schedule-wise. I talked to Clint and we know each other enough that the pleasantries didn’t go on for very long:
He says, “Hi, where are ya?”
“I’m in a car”
“Oh yeah, where are ya driving?”
“I’m driving into L.A.”
“Ah, well, I’m in Budapest”
“So when did you want to start filming?”
“Well, I think we have to start in October because we need the Hudson River”
That’s really all it was [laughs]. Just logistics and the calendar.
The Eastwood Effect
Laura Linney: One of my first films that I ever did was with Clint called Absolute Power and then many years later I did Mystic River and now there’s Sully. There are many things [that I love about working with Clint] and I’m not the only one. There is a chorus of actors and crew who love being around Clint and love working with him and for him. He’s a tremendously kind person, he’s very relaxed, he knows what he’s doing and he creates a superlative environment in which to work. And he gives you an enormous amount of responsibility. He sets up a situation for you to do your job and to do it really well, but it is up to you to be prepared, relaxed and ready to go. So once there’s that sort of trust that’s established between both you and him, it’s a very easy-going situation to work in.
Aaron Eckhart: I’ve obviously been a fan of his films as an actor and a director since I can remember watching movies. I’ve been acting for a while now and this was the first time in a long time where when I got the news [that I got this role], I threw my arms up in the air and had a big reaction. You always hear stories about how the boss directs: "He never says anything." "You never get enough takes." I love the fact that Clint doesn’t say, “Action,” because I personally believe that’s the way to go myself. So I would watch him all the time, how he interacts with the crew and how beloved he is with the crew, how he would talk to Tom and how he gave me direction, how he managed his day. He’s very efficient about what he does.
On the first day of filming, Tom and I were out on the boat on the Hudson acting, and we just sort of did what we thought we should do, and I turned around to ask the boss a question, and he just turned around. So I realized that his whole thing is, “Hey, I hired you. I have confidence in you. I trust you. You’re my guy and just do what your instincts tell you to do.” That’s interesting, because as an actor you have certain insecurities and you want to feel like you’re in a symbiotic relationship with your director and all that, but sometimes it can get to be neurotic and he just doesn’t want anything to do with that. I remember one time we were doing the scene in the boardroom with the NTSB on one side and Tom and I on the other side, and we rehearsed it and it was kind of good and everybody was happy, and Clint said, “That’s why I hired these actors,” which is nice to hear for everybody because everybody is looking at him. He’s our captain.
Tom Hanks: I’ve seen all the movies of Clint Eastwood and the ones that are amazing are super-amazing. I know how movies are made, so when I see them and I see what Clint has done with a minimum amount of fuss and at the same time with every cinematic trick that exists, it’s quite astounding. Then, him as an actor? Jeez, he has some pretty iconographic performances. That’s one side of it: fan and co-worker is one aspect. The other side of it is that I made a survey of people who worked with Clint. I’d say, “So what’s the deal? Are the stories true, do you only get one take? Do you not know sometimes when the camera’s rolling?” And they all said, and rightly so, “There’s not a lot of takes, but there’s a lot of coverage.” Which means that you have seven, eight, nine or even more opportunities to do what you want to do in a scene. And to back this up, I never felt as though we left something on the table during the time we were shooting it. Sometimes it was just the opposite. I felt that because he moved so fast we were able to go on and find other aspects of the scenes that only came out because we had big momentum going with us.
Aaron Eckhart: Everyone else’s relationship with Clint was that we were all looking up to him, so it was interesting with Tom and Clint. I mean, Tom’s a big dog, he’s a heavyweight. He’s the biggest of the big and a fantastic actor and he’s worked with the best. So Tom was [tight] with Clint. It was really an interesting dynamic and I watched it closely. Tom is very secure in who he is and what his job is and how to do his job. Of course he takes direction and all that sort of stuff, but it was interesting to witness his confidence in who he is and how he’s earned that. So I had this great pleasure in sort of being the fly on the wall during the making of this movie.
Portraying Real People
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: 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.
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
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: 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