Sully: Behind the Scenes-2


What if I did get this wrong?  What if I  endangered the lives of all those passengers?

The Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger the world has come to know began flying at the age of 14, “as soon as he was tall enough to see outside the cockpit of the plane,” quips Tom Hanks.  The young pilot then attended the United States Air Force Academy and flew fighter jets in the service for five years, attaining the rank of captain, before taking the controls of a commercial airliner.  “The life of a professional aviator,” the actor continues.  “If he tallied it up, I think he’d have something like 20,000 hours as the guy in charge of the plane.  That’s a lot of take-offs and landings, a lot of looking at gauges to see if anything is wrong, and a few hairy moments here and there in the course of a career.”

But nothing like what he faced in those 208 seconds that would come to represent the culmination of his life’s experiences.  Pilots work hard to prepare for any circumstances they could face in the air, and suddenly Sully was faced with the challenge of his career.  “A flock of geese got sucked into the engines and boom! he was essentially flying a powerless glider with 155 souls on board—his included.  It’s a good thing he had those 20,000 hours of experience behind him,” Hanks offers.

The role of Sully was one the always-in-demand Hanks couldn’t turn down, despite having to postpone a well-earned break.  “Sometimes you read something that is so stirring and at the same time so simple, such a perfect blend of behavior and procedure,” he reflects.  “Now, I’m as competitive as the next actor, so I knew I wanted at least a shot at it, even though I’d been working pretty steadily for about six years.  Sure I was beat but, not unlike a solid jolt of adrenaline, this role, Sully, Mr. Clint Eastwood…they all came along.  I felt like I couldn’t pass up a chance at playing in this great double-header at the end of this long baseball season.”

Although the two had never worked together before, Eastwood says, “Tom was one of the first people we thought about for the part.  But at the time he was just finishing a picture and we didn’t think we could get him.  But he read the script and liked it and made himself available.  And he was terrific, a consummate pro, and it was kind of effortless working with him.”

Stewart relates, “Sully has that ‘everyman’ quality that I think reminded Clint of Jimmy Stewart, and once that was in our minds we thought, ‘Well, there’s no one like that but Tom Hanks.’”

The filmmakers also appreciated what Hanks brought to the shoot when the cameras weren’t rolling.  Offers Eastwood, “He has a great sense of humor, so that makes it fun.  He’d be standing around waiting, sometimes in the rain, and still making the crew laugh.”

Despite his easygoing demeanor on set, Hanks admits that when playing a real person “you’re always intimidated.  You say to yourself, ‘I’ll never sound like him, I’ll never look like him.  Hopefully I can embody some aspect, capture some part of his personality, his characteristics, his gravitas, his charm,’ whomever the person may be.  And then you go to work.”

The subject of Hanks’ portrayal had no qualms about the actor stepping into his shoes.  “Besides the fact that they were making a movie, directed by such a gifted storyteller as Clint Eastwood, to then have Tom Hanks playing me…it’s a dream team,” says Sullenberger.  “I know Tom is someone who can transform himself, but the first time I saw a long-range shot of him in costume, with his hair colored?  Wow.  It was amazing.”

In fact, prior to production Sullenberger’s wife, Lorrie, was most excited to see the two men together.  “When I saw Tom for the first time, it was so strange.  Then later I would find myself looking at my husband, thinking, ‘His hair looks just like Tom’s…wait…Tom’s looks just like Sully’s!’” she laughs.

In addition to pulling off an accurate physical representation of the man, Hanks would also be tasked with recreating the most challenging moments in Sully’s life, not just outwardly, but internally.  The actor would need to convey the pilot’s rapid-fire thought processes that led to his ability to control the seemingly uncontrollable situation with which he was faced, despite never having trained for this exact event apart from theoretical classroom discussions.

Joining Hanks on the flight deck, Aaron Eckhart took on the role of co-pilot Jeff Skiles.  Eckhart says he was very affected by the screenplay for “Sully.”  “It was structured beautifully, because from the time they took off to the time they hit the birds was three and a half minutes.  How do you make a whole movie about that?  But it was very emotional and managed to build tension throughout the story, showing the audience what went on for these two men who were, to the outside world, hailed as heroes.  I think it’s a heroic story, with good lessons to be learned.”

To prepare for the scenes that depict those critical moments in the air, Sullenberger had explained to them his own process at the time.  His first three thoughts—all within mere seconds—had covered disbelief, denial, and realization.  He told them that those thoughts led to three clear actions: force himself to be calm, set clear priorities, and manage the workload, not trying to do too much, but doing what they could to solve the problems, one by one, in the small amount of time they had.  Hanks and Eckhart would have to internalize the intellectual elements of that progression and then show exactly how, having accepted what they were dealing with, Sully and Skiles were able to land the plane.

What most people might be unaware of, just as these two actors were prior to the project, is that Sully and Skiles, who worked together like a well-oiled machine, had met for the first time just a few days before the flight—a common occurrence considering the thousands of pilots traversing the globe at any given time.  Fortunately their training allows them to communicate effortlessly and assist each other when there isn’t time to talk everything out.

Prior to filming, Eckhart contacted Skiles as well.  Recalling their conversation, Skiles says, “We spoke for a couple of hours and he asked me a lot of questions about being a pilot, not just why I wanted to be one but also why I continue to do so after that day.”

“Jeff told me that first and foremost, they were always in control of the flight; they felt they could make a good landing, a controlled landing, in the Hudson,” Eckhart says.  “He also talked about the effect going through that trauma had on them afterward: stress, lack of sleep, loss of appetite, nervousness, that sort of thing.  It lasted two or three months and they got counseling.  And he’s still flying today; he’s a captain himself now.”

Like Hanks, Eckhart was also able to strongly resemble his counterpart in both appearance and manner.  Marshall felt the production was very lucky in that “there were two really interesting guys in the cockpit when this happened.  Sully is a more reserved, quieter guy, and Jeff Skiles is pretty funny.  And Aaron brought a sort of lightheartedness to what we see in the film is a very heavy situation.  It’s nice to see the dynamic between the two real men played out by Tom and Aaron so well.”

“Tom’s an extraordinary actor,” Eckhart adds.  “He’s so in command, it’s effortless.  I’d like to think working with him had an effect on me; I’d like to learn some of his tricks.”

Both men spent time in flight simulators prior to filming in order to look the part when the cameras rolled.  “We practiced with both Captain Sullenberger and Mr. Eastwood there,” Eckhart notes, offering that the actors eventually got the hang of it well enough for their scenes.  “Pilots look so relaxed; it’s like home in there for them, so we felt a responsibility to do it right.  We got a good feel for it.”

“We invited Sully’s participation whenever he was available,” Eastwood states.  “He kindly arranged for the simulators and pilots to show Tom and Aaron exactly how it would work.  They got the cram course, but they went to town.”

While tackling a persona so well known in the media was part of Hanks’ challenge, his real concern, he says, “was to embody Sully’s level of experience and expertise in the cockpit.”  No amount of reassurance from Sullenberger could compare to what Hanks felt when he took the simulator’s controls.  “He kept saying, ‘You’ll see what it’s like to fly when you get in the simulator,’ and I’ll tell you, it was the most lifelike experience.  It feels exactly as though you are in a plane, it requires no imagination because the physics of it—the tilting, the motion—it’s amazing.”

Both actors discovered during their training that Skiles had actually handled the take-off that day, because co-pilots have to make a scheduled number of take-offs in order to qualify as captains.  As in the film, Sullenberger took over after the bird strike, having more hours under his belt.

Eastwood not only observed the simulations, he also filmed them so the actors could watch and learn from their practice runs.  Hanks says, “Luckily, we had the flight plan, we knew what we were supposed to do and pushed the buttons when we were supposed to, which we worked on a lot.  It was a fun way to spend a day, but you also got this experiential aspect of being in a real no-nonsense atmosphere, as well as how truly short a period of time this all happened in and how many decisions and feelings that had to have gone into it for Sully and Skiles.  In the end, Aaron and I were both eager to make sure we looked like we knew what we were doing in order to do right by them.”


I want you to know I did the best I could.


Of course you did.  You saved everyone.

Almost immediately after confirming that each of his passengers has made it to safety, we watch as Sully takes out his cell phone and calls his wife in California.  She has not yet heard of the incident, and is confused by his assurances that he is okay.  Then she turns on the TV to see the first of many reports that will feature her husband in the days to come.

Laura Linney was cast in the pivotal role of Lorrie Sullenberger before she’d even read the script.  Linney worked with Eastwood previously, first when he directed her as his character’s daughter in “Absolute Power,” and later in “Mystic River,” and was happy to do so again.

“When someone as wonderful as Clint Eastwood asks you to be a part of something, you just jump in,” she relates.  “You know you’re going to have a great time, it’s going to be interesting material, you’re going to be with great people, and reunited with the crew who work so beautifully together and are so good to you while you’re working.  Clint quietly and elegantly creates an atmosphere that is just a joy to work in, just heaven.  I’d be an extra for him for the rest of my life and be very happy!”

Lorrie Sullenberger was more than pleased with the casting.  “Laura is such an accomplished actress and I was absolutely thrilled when they told me.  Before we knew, Sully and I played the casting game in our heads.  Now, I can’t even think of anybody else doing it except her.”

Linney was impressed by Lorrie’s ability to handle, emotionally, all that was happening to her husband 3,000 miles away and at the same time deal with the encampment of press that had sprouted on her front lawn.

“It was all over the news and their lives changed instantly, yet she was removed from it, too,” Linney considers.  “Her contact with him was on the phone, and that’s difficult to imagine, knowing your spouse has gone through something as traumatic as this and not being able to see him for several days… She gets his voice and she gets to watch him on television, but that’s it.”

In the film, much of Sully’s time right after the landing is taken up by the NTSB.  In reality, the NTSB hearings didn’t actually take place until 18 months later; the filmmakers took dramatic license, condensing the events in order to present the full story within the timeframe of the movie.

It was a choice that Hanks appreciated.  “I thought they were some of the most fascinating moments for the character and the movie,” he says.  “They were the most delicious things for me to play because the stakes are huge throughout that process.”

The actor was also given the benefit of Sullenberger’s unique perspective on what can be, at times, quite adversarial hearings, seeing as the captain has also conducted investigations and therefore experienced both sides of the procedures.  Hanks expounds, “Sully himself told me, ‘Look, these are good people on the other side of that table.’  He knows what they’re doing, and that they might not have all of the information.  But there’s a very expensive piece of equipment in the river and they need to figure out exactly what happened.”

The film’s NTSB team is comprised of Mike O’Malley as lead investigator Charles Porter; Jamey Sheridan as Ben Edwards; and Anna Gunn as Elizabeth Davis.  On Sully and Skiles’ side of the table, Holt McCallany plays union rep Mike Cleary, and Chris Bauer is US Airways’ Larry Rooney.

The three flight attendants on the plane that day—Shiela Dail, Donna Dent and Doreen Welsh—are played in the film by Jane Gabbert, Ann Cusack and Molly Hagan, respectively.  And Patch Darragh plays Patrick Harten, the air traffic controller who took Sully’s mayday call and tried to find the plane a nearby runway on which to land.

“Sully” not only features the terrifying moments that everyone on the plane went through, but also the incredible rescue efforts that were immediately undertaken to get the stranded passengers out of the river’s frigid waters.  In fact, Eastwood’s team sought out as many of the individuals who actually helped that day to appear in the film.  Among them, Captain Vincent Peter Lombardi, who had commanded the Thomas Jefferson ferryboat, plays himself, once again turning the vessel toward the downed aircraft.

Officer Michael Delaney and Detective Robert Rodriguez, both part of the NYPD SCUBA Air/Sea Rescue Unit out of Floyd Bennet Field in Brooklyn, also participated in filming.  Delaney, who is played in the movie by actor Jerry Ferrara, contributed stunt work, as did Rodrigquez; during production, these brave divers remarked that, although they jump out of helicopters as part of their job, doing it for a movie, without the adrenaline rush that comes with a real emergency, made the activity seem like a crazy thing to do!  In addition, among the Red Cross staff and volunteers who were there that day to distribute blankets and warm clothing (the most requested item being dry socks), a dozen or so reenacted their efforts for the movie, including Chris Mercado, Regional Director of the organization’s Greater New York Chapter.

Several New York area newscasters also appear as themselves in the film, including Randall Pinkston, Bobby Cuza and Kristine Johnson.  And real-life pilots Captain Larry Guthrie, Captain Lucy Young, Captain Lori Cline, and First Officer Jon Witten appear in the film as the flight simulator operators.