Clint Eastwood was just 21-years-old when he was in the US Army Eastwood as a passenger on a Second World War-era navy bomber when it crashed.
“I was catching a free ride from Seattle down to Almeda,” he says of the events of 60-odd years ago. “It was stormy and we went down off of Point Reyes, California, in the Pacific. I found myself in the water swimming a few miles towards the shore. I remember thinking, ‘well, 21 is not as long as a person wants to live’.”
Eastwood spent multiple hours in the Pacific, wading against kelp beds and finally climbing up a cliff to a radio relay tower in Bolinas to safety.
And while he says that these events didn’t particularly lead to his decision to make the film Sully: Miracle on the Hudson, it did give him insight both into the experiences of the passengers and crew, and the vital split-second decisions of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. These same decisions were later challenged by the authorities, which bothered Eastwood.
“I suppose having been in a similar situation as the pilot I would have chanced a water landing rather than go someplace where there’s no runway,” he says.
“And of course Sully was familiar with that area. He knew where the helicopter ports and ferryboats were, so he picked the right spot, where everyone could get to them fast. It wouldn’t be like being out in the middle of the ocean. He knew that somebody would see them.”
And when it was time to re-create the crash dramatic he tapped in long-time collaborators, cinematographer Tom Stern and production designer James J Murakami.
Murakami recreated the Airbus A320’s flight deck on a soundstage in Los Angeles which he mounted on a gimbal (a pivoted support) allowing the set to mimic the movements of the plane in real time while in New York Tom Stern considered the option of building a mock-up of the fuselage and putting it in the Hudson.
This idea was scrapped when he was warned that the currents would rip the set apart. So instead, digital effects were used for long shots of the plane in the water, and integrated with live action of the rescuers and onlookers, which Stern shot on IMAX cameras.
In Los Angeles Eastwood shot on a real Airbus parked in a tank at neighboring studio Universal and mounted on a 350-ton gimbal surrounded by 200ft of blue-sky backing for the interior and close-up shots.
It was then that Stern used five cameras, shooting simultaneously, for the evacuation sequence which Eastwood didn’t rehearse in order better to capture the immediacy of the events shortly after Flight 1549 made its unscheduled water landing.
But for Eastwood, it was happened after the fact (especially to Captain Sullenberger) that fascinated him just as much as the day itself.
“Anybody who keeps their wits about them when things are going wrong, who can negotiate problems without panicking, is someone of superior character, and interesting to watch on film,” he says.
“But for me the real conflict came after, with the investigative board questioning his decisions, even though he had saved so many lives.”
With a background in the creative and educational fields, Amelia Finefrock is freelance writer, singer-songwriter and nanny based in Chicago.
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