TORONTO -- With the upcoming release of the disaster film "Flight," acclaimed director Robert Zemeckis can rightly seek the title of Hollywood's "plane crash king."

His latest drama begins with a terrifying catastrophe that sends crew and passengers see-sawing through the air as a routine trip goes horribly awry.

It was a complicated sequence that involved lots of computer-generated technology and meticulous planning, Zemeckis said during a recent stop in Toronto to promote the film.

"All of those things that you use in movies," Zemeckis said with the casual delivery of a director whose most recent film "A Christmas Carol" cost an estimated $200 million.

His last live-action film, "Cast Away," also included a heart-stopping crash landing. The Tom Hanks survival epic features a FedEx plane tossed through the air by a violent storm until it plummets into the ocean.

In the years following that film's release, the aircraft's distinctive dive sparked intense online debate among pilots and aviation experts over the circumstances, staging and plausibility of such a crash.

Zemeckis, an Oscar-winner for directing "Forrest Gump," says he's hoping there's no eye-rolling over his latest big screen catastrophe in "Flight." He said he strove for as much realism as possible.

"We have real pilots and experts vet all these ideas so we don't have anyone doing that," he said of picky eye-rollers.

Zemeckis added that the crash in "Flight" was based on an actual Alaska Airlines accident in 2000 that killed all 88 people on board.

Things turn out much differently in his fictional version.

It's not a spoiler to reveal that most passengers survive thanks to the bold manoeuvres of a veteran pilot, played by Denzel Washington.

Washington's troubled character, Whip Whitaker, emerges a hero for averting total disaster but soon comes under scrutiny for the role he may have played nonetheless.

"I found the complexity of the character really intriguing, the way all the characters were shades of grey," Zemeckis said of the script, by "Real Steel" scribe John Gatins.

"Nobody was good or evil. Everybody thought they were doing the right thing, everybody was damaged and broken and yet they are all compelling in a way."

John Goodman co-stars as a pal who enables Whip's private vices, Don Cheadle plays a hard-nosed lawyer who defends Whip against accusations of pilot error while Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood plays a union rep who proves to be one of Whip's few allies.

Zemeckis admits that Whip is not always an easy protagonist to like.

"But I think we also can sympathize with the fact that he's imperfect, sort of like everybody," said Zemeckis, whose most recent efforts were the big-budget animated films "A Christmas Carol," "Beowulf" and "The Polar Express."

He praised Washington for softening Whip's rough edges with an innate charm.

"He's a great actor, a magnificent talent, a huge talent. And he's got screen presence, he's got gravitas, he's someone you love to watch on the screen. Those were the elements that I think makes this character intriguing and compelling to watch."

"Flight" hits theatres Friday.