Robert Zemeckis has a taste and talent for versatility that has made him one of the most prolific and commercially successful American moviemakers. As a producer, writer and director -- on some projects, all three -- he has given us the "Back to the Future" trilogy, "Forrest Gump," "Cast Away," "Romancing the Stone" and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"

Less well received were his computer-animated motion-capture films "Polar Express," "Beowulf" and "A Christmas Carol."

Zemeckis returns to live-action directing after a 12-year hiatus with "Flight," which opens Friday in the Twin Cities. Denzel Washington stars as Whip Whitaker, an airline pilot who heroically lands a malfunctioning plane, then faces disgrace when he's found to have had alcohol in his system.

In a phone interview, Zemeckis said the key to luring him out of the special-effects lab and back onto physical sets was John Gatins' script, which begins as a smash-bang disaster epic and evolves into a vivid character study.

The script also caught Washington's eye, and the director felt he was ideal to play the flawed hero.

"The thing that's so good about Denzel as an actor is that he doesn't shy away from a character who has ambiguity. His performances where it's not the white hat or the black hat are the ones that seem to be the most gripping," Zemeckis said, adding that casting a film is the most crucial decision any director makes.

"I miscast Eric Stoltz [as skateboarding teenager Marty McFly] in 'Back to the Future' and had to replace him. It's not that there was anything wrong with his acting; he wasn't right for the part and it wasn't working. That's where the real directing happens, choosing the actor, the set designer, the wardrobe person."

Zemeckis' fascination with visual effects inspired his detour into computer-animated filmmaking and he became the driving force behind the University of Southern California's Center for Digital Arts, which opened in 2001. He said that returning to a live-action set after making three motion-capture films in a row was not a tough transition.

"It's like riding a bike. Movies are movies, whether I'm making a live-action movie or a performance-capture movie or a documentary." The difference, he said, is that the spectacle in "Flight" is "the great performances" from a cast including John Goodman and Don Cheadle.

The film also has a strong subtext of religious symbolism. The themes of confession and redemption resonated for the 61-year-old filmmaker, who was raised in Chicago in a poor Lithuanian Catholic family.

"When you say religion you've got to be careful because religion has become dogma, which I try to stay away from," he said. "The interesting thing is, when planes fall out of the sky, [acts of God] are the only terms we have to discuss the situation. I thought Whip was a universal character. His fault, his imperfection, is relatable to some degree by everybody. If we're honest with ourselves, everything is a little bit broken."

"Flight" features a midair catastrophe as terrifying as the one that stranded Tom Hanks on a Pacific island in "Cast Away."

"All my partners were cautioning me that maybe it isn't a good idea to do another movie with a plane crash. I'd be the plane crash guy. But I couldn't pass on a screenplay this good. It had to be a plane crash. It wouldn't have been as good if it was a bus crash." Drawing on his own experiences as an instrument-rated pilot, Zemeckis strove for authenticity as well as drama in the sequence. He also stressed that he's not trying to frighten people away from air travel.

"I have never been in an incident like this," he said. "Flying is extremely safe."

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186 • Twitter: @colincovert