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Sully the Motion Picture Starring Tom Hanks

The untold story of the East Bay’s hero pilot becomes a movie starring Tom Hanks.


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Photography by Marc Olivier Le BlancNearly eight years ago, millions of television viewers saw US Airways Flight 1549 floating on the frigid waters of New York’s Hudson River. Just after taking off from LaGuardia Airport, the plane crossed paths with a flock of geese, disabling both engines.

The pilot told passengers to brace for impact. The plane was losing altitude. With skill, perhaps some luck, and what can only be described as nerves of steel, the pilot glided the plane to land on the Hudson. Emergency responders rushed to the scene, and 155 passengers and crew members safely exited the aircraft by walking along the plane’s wing and onto ferries.

The last person to leave the floating plane was East Bay resident Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the veteran pilot whose quick action saved every life on Flight 1549.

The images were incredible—they easily could have been the climax of a Hollywood movie. But while the world feted Sully, much was going on behind the scenes. It is that untold story—of the investigation into the accident and the stress of its aftermath—that is the focus of a new film, Sully, directed by two-time Oscar winner Clint Eastwood and starring two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks.

Diablo met with Sullenberger and his wife, Lorrie, to talk about the accident that changed their lives forever, and why Hollywood’s A-list teamed up to make the movie that premieres in New York on September 9.


 

Photography by Marc Olivier Le Blanc

Q: I remember watching the Miracle on the Hudson on my desktop computer at work. Sully, you went through it in real time. What are your memories of the experience?

A: Sully: The suddenness and the intensity. I had never experienced anything like it in my life. It was the worst day of my life, the hardest day of my life—and then ultimately, one of the best days of my life. All within a few minutes.

 

Q: What was it like to give up your anonymity as the media chased this enormous international story?

A: Sully: I was still in New York for the initial investigation, and Lorrie was home alone. I remember telling her on the phone that night, “I think our lives have changed forever.” Of course, I had no idea how much.

Lorrie: I listened to the news and read the mail, and knew the effect this story had on the American public. It felt impolite to turn away from it. We needed to honor and respect the emotion that people had about this story. We felt a sense of duty to it even at times when we could have used a break.

Sully: It was impossible to have a break from it. We were constantly reminded about the story, mostly in good ways. We were hearing from people from around the world. We literally received communications from all continents on the globe, including a research scientist in Antarctica.

 

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Q: Not long after the accident, we heard buzz about a possible movie. It took almost eight years, but you could not have asked for a better director than Clint Eastwood to tell your story. Why did he want to make this movie?

A: Lorrie: One of the things Clint asked when he first got the script was, “I know the story, and I like it—it’s great—but what’s new? Who is the antagonist?” The producer we had been working with told him, “Keep reading . . . ”

A few days later, we got a call saying he was interested, and a few days after that, that he was coming to our house to meet us. Clint told us he was particularly interested in this duality that we experienced. While everyone was celebrating, smiling, and shaking hands, there was this other very intense thing going on.

Sully: He appreciated the complexity of the situation and the fact that my professional reputation was at stake. Much of what the movie shows is a story that people don’t know—that has not been told—about the [National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)] investigation.

The NTSB investigator’s job was to determine, Did we understand this crisis as it unfolded? Did we make decisions that led to the best outcome? It was some period of time before that was all validated. So we were all waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Part of the difficulty of post-traumatic stress is not only the inability to sleep, distracted thinking, elevated blood pressure and pulse, and tunnel vision—but the constant what-iffing and second guessing. That’s just natural, a natural human reaction following something so traumatic and intense. That story is being told in the film for the first time.

 

Q: Was it intimidating to have a cinematic icon such as Eastwood coming to your house to research the Miracle on the Hudson?

A: Lorrie: No. Because he’s such a gentle, polite man in real life. There were no indications of a Dirty Harry character at all [laughs].

When Clint was at the house, he told us that another reason he was interested in the script was that he had his own experience with an airplane and a water ditching.

Sully: When he was in the Army as an enlisted man based at Fort Ord, he flew up to Washington State to visit his parents. On the way back, he was flying in an old single-engine plane, and they had to ditch just off Point Reyes, in the ocean, just as it was getting dark. They had to swim ashore.

 

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Q: Tom Hanks is one of the biggest movie stars of the past 25 years. He has also played a handful of real-life characters [including Jim Lovell in Apollo 13, Charlie Wilson in Charlie Wilson’s War, Richard Phillips in Captain Phillips, and James Donovan in Bridge of Spies]. How does it feel to be included in that group?

A: Sully: It is a real honor. Tom Hanks is the Jimmy Stewart of this generation and has played people whom I have actually met. Jim Lovell is a great friend and has been one of my heroes for a long time. During the experience of Apollo 13, the three and a half day crisis, with the whole world watching and listening, he showed us how to handle a situation like that.

With the passage of time, I have a greater and more accurate appreciation for the enormity of [the Flight 1549] story. I had been a student of aviation and safety, and had been a pioneer of it for 40 years. I was able to prove, in the most dramatic way possible, that what we had taught really does work in the real world.
Lorrie: Tom also came to our house when he came onto the project. Because he has played other real people, the first thing he said to Sully was, “I have a special appreciation for this being your life. You are going to go back to living your life when I get through doing this, so I need to treat it with the utmost respect.”

Sully had a lot of input on the script, but Tom said, “If you need an advocate about anything at all, you tell me, and I will be your advocate.”

 

Q: Lorrie, I have to ask for my mom: Is Aaron Eckhart [the actor who plays first officer Jeffrey Skiles] as gorgeous in real life as he is on-screen?

A: Lorrie: [Laughs] Yes, he is very handsome. But he is really very quiet. Tom is very outgoing and chitchatty, but Aaron is much more reserved in person.

Sully: I spent some time with Clint and Tom and Aaron in the Virgin America airbus simulator in Burlingame last August to get them acquainted with how airline pilots interact, and what the cockpit dialogue should sound like. We went through some flight scenarios, including a simulated landing in the Hudson.

It was fascinating to see what good, quick studies they are and how they learn everything so they can transform into the characters they are portraying. It was a lot of fun. They both take the work very seriously but can have fun.

 

Q: And Laura Linney will play you, Lorrie?

A: Lorrie: She’s such an acclaimed actress. I was thrilled at the choice. Clint and Laura Linney have done several films together (Absolute Power, Mystic River) and have been good friends for a long time. She was one of the first people we heard was being cast, even before Tom.

 

Q: Is it true that the production team went to great lengths to re-create as much accurate detail as possible?

A: Sully: I went to Burbank and spent a day with every craft department—costume, sound, aerial sequence people. It was a 12-hour day where every group came in and picked my brain about every aspect of: How do we make this movie? What kind of pen did you have in your pocket? What kind of ring and watch were you wearing? Let us take a picture.

The sound editor (two-time Oscar winner Alan Robert Murray) and I talked at length. He wanted to know, What did it sound like when we struck the geese and the engines were being damaged?

Lorrie: Clint wanted this movie to be as real as possible, so they bought two airbus airplanes that had been stored in the desert. One was cut in half and then lowered with a crane onto this big lake that is on the back lot of Universal Studios. They had created all this rigging and equipment to film the scene, and hundreds and hundreds of people were on set to make it all happen.

They told us that this is so unique in the movie business these days because everything is computer generated. Studio heads were coming by that day—the heads of Sony and Universal and Warner Bros.—to see this “old-fashioned” movie being made.
We got out of the van that morning, and we ran into Tom. He said, “Welcome to the set of Ben-Hur!” and pointed to the hundreds of electricians and rigging people.

Sully: And extras standing on the wing of the plane knee-deep in water. The extras had to stand in that water for a long time—and it was cold water. At one point, one of them yelled out, “Hey, Sully, will you come rescue us?”

Later, I found out that each extra knew the backstory of the passenger that he or she was playing.

 

Q: Why do you think the Miracle on the Hudson initially got such a huge response?

A: Lorrie: [At the time of the event,] the recession was happening, people were losing their jobs, losing their homes.

Sully: There was a woman from Sacramento who wrote us very early on. Lorrie read the letter to me.

Lorrie: She said, “In the last year, I lost my job, my home, my father passed, and then I lost my best friend to cancer. I had lost my faith, and you, sir, gave it back.”

Sully: I think that is ultimately what this story is about. It touched so many people, even people not associated with the flight, because at a time when we very much needed it, it gave us hope. It renewed our faith in humanity. That’s why we feel like we have to have such respect for this story, because it means so much to people.

 

Q: This story has taken you all over the world for eight years. How do you feel when you come home to the East Bay?

A: Sully: No matter how wonderful our travels are, it is always wonderful to come home. It’s our respite and safe haven from the glare of the public spotlight.

I always remember so fondly that wonderful welcome home that was just 10 days after the flight in January 2009, in front of the Danville public library. There were thousands of neighbors and friends—a sea of faces. It was overwhelming. Previously, we had been instructed by the NTSB and the union not to make any public statements, and have the only information come from official sources. That was our first chance to see everyone, and for people to see and hear us. We were treated with such warmth. It is a very special memory for us.

Sully opens nationwide on September 9, including IMAX venues in Brentwood, Dublin, Emeryville, and San Francisco. sully-movie.com.

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