UK Release Date 1 June 07
UK RELEASE DATE: 1 JuNE 07
running time 2 hrs 18 mins
ELECTRIC ENTERTAINMENT Presents in association with SKYDANCE PRODUCTIONS and INGENIOUS FILM PARTNERS
A DEAN DEVLIN Production A TONY BILL Film "FLYBOYS"
JAMES FRANCO MARTIN HENDERSON DAVID ELLISON JENNIFER DECKER and JEAN RENO
Casting by JOHN HUBBARD DAN HUBBARD & ROS HUBBARD Music by TREVOR RABIN Costume Designer NIC EDE
Film Editor RON ROSEN Production Designer CHARLES WOOD Director of Photography HENRY BRAHAM, BSC
Co-Producers MARC ROSKIN KEARIE PEAK Executive Producers PHILLIP M. GOLDFARB DAVID BROWN DUNCAN REID JAMES CLAYTON
Produced by DEAN DEVLIN MARC FRYDMAN Story by BLAKE T. EVANS Screenplay by PHIL SEARS & BLAKE T. EVANS and DAVID S. WARD Directed by TONY BILL © 2006 Electric Distribution (Flyboys) Ltd. All Rights Reserved. DISTRIBUTED BY MGM DISTRIBUTION CO. www.FlyboysTheMovie.com
Soaring high above the earth in a fragile, flammable, open-cockpit biplane, outracing better-equipped enemy aircraft, and knowing the average life expectancy of someone in your line of work is at most six weeks: this was the daring and heroic story of the men of the Lafayette Escadrille, the first American fighter-pilot squadron to see action in World War I, when a few brave young men volunteered to fight for democracy. And this is the story of the new epic motion picture FLYBOYS, starring an international ensemble cast in a story of love, loss, and adventure; featuring a fleet of real WWI airplanes, state-of-the-art special effects, and ground-breaking digital camera technology, to put the viewer in the cockpit with these courageous flyers. Barely a dozen years after the invention of powered, controllable flight, these pilots invented, experimented with, and simply dashed headlong into the modern era of aerial combat.
Golden Globe Award® winner James Franco (James Dean, Spider-Man 2), Martin Henderson (The Ring, Bride and Prejudice), Jean Reno (The Da Vinci Code, Mission: Impossible), and French newcomer Jennifer Decker head the cast of this film, directed by Academy Award® winner Tony Bill (My Bodyguard, Five Corners), and produced by Electric Entertainment's Dean Devlin (Independence Day, The Patriot) and Marc Frydman (Scenes of the Crime). Written by Oscar® winning screenwriter David S. Ward (The Sting), FLYBOYS is based on an original screenplay by Phil Sears and Blake Evans and was shot on location in the United Kingdom in spring 2005.
Electric Entertainment Presents in Association with Skydance Productions and Ingenious Film Partners a Dean Devlin Production of a Tony Bill film, FLYBOYS starring James Franco, Martin Henderson, David Ellison, Jennifer Decker, and Jean Reno. Released by MGM Distribution Company.
~ ABOUT THE STORY ~
Flyboys: America's First Fighter Pilots
The year is 1916: World War I has been raging for almost two years. On the Western Front, the Allied powers of Britain and France are bogged down in stagnant trench warfare against Germany, and millions of men have been killed. The United States remains doggedly neutral and isolationist, preferring to let Europeans fight their own wars. But a number of Americans have journeyed to Europe to assist the Allies, as volunteer ambulance drivers and members of the French Foreign Legion. Soon, some of these American volunteers form their own squadron to take on the better-equipped German pilots and aid in the Allied war effort. It is in this tense, life-or-death context that FLYBOYS takes place.
Texas-born Blaine Rawlings (James Franco) finds himself evicted from his family’s 900-acre ranch, and sees a new future in a newsreel reporting on the squadron’s heroics. French Foreign Legion recruit, Higgins (Christien Anholt) transfers to the squadron from the ambulance corps. Nebraska-born William Jensen (Philip Winchester), the son of a Calvary officer, joins to uphold the family tradition of military service. Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine) enlists to make something of himself, yielding to the pressure of his wealthy and powerful father. Eddie Beagle (David Ellison), a cocky character who can't shoot straight, seems to be escaping from his past. Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis), a black American expatriate, wants to defend France, a country that has shown him tolerance by allowing him to compete and become a boxing champion, whereas in America he would not be allowed inside a cockpit.
During the initial weeks of training, Rawlings encounters squadron leader Reed Cassidy (Martin Henderson), already a veteran fighter pilot at age twenty-eight. Cassidy has seen firsthand the dangers of this new air combat and knows few of these young men will survive. An object of respect and mystery, Cassidy, the squadron’s top ace, has defied the odds time and again with more than 20 kills to his record… but at the cost of his own innocence.
Under the command of French Captain Georges Thenault (Jean Reno), the French pilots put the Americans through vigorous training in preparation for their first aerial combat. As the boys train to fly the latest French biplane, the Nieuport 17, they quickly realize the gravity of their situation: a pilot's life expectancy is a mere three-to-six weeks. They learn that they are outnumbered and fighting against a superior German military power. They are even denied parachutes, since the military places more value on the airplanes than on their pilots’ lives.
Soon combat begins, and Rawlings and his fellow pilots are engaged in a furious aerial dogfight with shocking, devastating casualties beyond their worst expectations. The highly-trained German pilots, in their superior Fokker aircraft, are adept at coming from nowhere to outmaneuver a French plane and shoot it down. The shockingly short life expectancy of the pilots is reinforced with each new burial in the squadron’s cemetery.
In-between battles, Rawlings finds moments of hope and happiness when he meets and begins to fall in love with Lucienne D'Arcy (Jennifer Decker), a young French woman who lives in a town nearby with her war-orphaned niece and nephews. Through her, Rawlings learns firsthand the disturbing costs of war as it has affected her and her family. When Lucienne’s farm is surrounded by German infantry, Rawlings risks everything to rescue her. Soon thereafter, he must say goodbye to his new love as the chaos of war engulfs them.
As the pilots who survive re-group and prepare for their next battle, Rawlings and his courageous flyers must leave their fears behind as they face the deadliest battles yet, and all thoughts of idealism and thrill-seeking take a back seat to a single notion: staying alive, and helping to save their comrades and loved ones.
The "War To End All Wars" on Screen
When producer Dean Devlin first read the script for FLYBOYS, he realized that no one had ever been able to make a film that truly did justice to the men who fought the dogfights of World War I. "I've never seen the kind of chaos in the sky that these people experienced," says Devlin. "I knew that using modern equipment and special effects to re-create another time, we could show how it happened, what it was really like for those extraordinary and brave young men."
Whereas World War II was exhaustively documented and has inspired numerous films and television programs recounting its horrors and heroics, the First World War, specifically its unprecedented aerial battles, have been long ignored by filmmakers, documentarians and authors. Aside from Charles Schultz's long-running comic strip, Peanuts, which featured a Red Baron-obsessed Snoopy (who imagined himself a member of the legendary Lafayette Escadrille) what little most know about the world's first fighter pilots comes from a handful of books and a few films… all of them made decades ago.
"There are several generations that have never seen these planes in action," says Executive Producer Philip Goldfarb. "In my memory, there's The Blue Max and Von Richthofen and Brown, and that's about it... .It's been a long time."
In fact, it’s been even longer – over 75 years – since any major film undertook to portray the remarkable Lafayette Escadrille. Wings, the first film to do so, won the first Academy Award® for Best Picture in 1929 and played for two years. The Dawn Patrol and Hell’s Angels followed in 1930 and were also hugely successful. (Tellingly, like FLYBOYS, they were all directed by experienced pilots.)
"World War I has not really been featured in any [modern] films, with the exception of France’s A Very Long Engagement and twenty-some years ago, Australia’s Gallipoli, both of which focused on trench warfare," says Devlin. "It's been decades and decades since we've seen anything about the aerial battles. I think one reason we haven't seen these films in a long time is because these planes haven't existed for a long time. And the technology to do these kinds of battles has only existed recently."
But that doesn’t mean that the impact and drama of WWI dogfights has been entirely forgotten: George Lucas used the aerial battles portrayed in those early movies as the prototypes for the battles in his original STAR WARS. In fact, when he test-screened the movie in its earliest incarnation, while waiting for the special effects to be finished, he used aerial sequences from WWI movies as a substitute for the finished scenes. Many of his friends were puzzled, if not dismayed, by the imagery of WWI biplanes as spaceships. But his comparisons, as it turned out, were apt.
Devlin says the first director he thought of when he read FLYBOYS was his longtime friend, Oscar® winning actor/director/producer Tony Bill. Devlin knew that not only had Bill been a licensed aerobatic pilot since he was 14, but that he was a dedicated World War I buff with one of the world’s largest private collections of books on the subject. Devlin knew Bill’s passion and talent would enable the director to translate to modern audiences the unprecedented thrills and dangers these men experienced.
"When World War I broke out, most people had never seen an airplane, much less flown in one," says director Bill. “The Wright Brothers had flown at Kitty Hawk in the last few days of 1903 but, incredibly, the airplane had languished, practically unnoticed for several more years. Aeronautical technology had barely advanced before WWI. This was a time when most people had never even driven a car, so the airplanes of World War I were the space vehicles of their time. They weren't in a cockpit, they didn't have any protection around them or parachutes. A mere spark was almost certainly fatal. They were basically flammable, flying targets.”
Bill was determined to show in detail what it was actually like for these courageous pilots, who chose to become fighter pilots in open planes made of nothing but canvas, wood, wires, and linen.
"If anyone has ever wondered what it's like to fly inverted or to do loops and rolls in the sky in an open cockpit biplane with people shooting at you, this is their chance to find out," says Bill. "There's no template for this movie. No one's seen this movie before.”
"Before we started shooting, Tony gave me some books and stories to read about these guys," says co-star Tyler Labine. "These stories were amazing: like the story of a pilot whose plane had flipped upside down, and he’s in an inverted spin hanging from the wing, trying to pull himself back into the cockpit, control the airplane and avoid being shot down… .all before he hits the ground!”
Co-star Jean Reno says he realised the extraordinary bravery of these men when he first set eyes on a real plane from the period on the FLYBOYS set. "When you see those planes up close, it's like flying a kite in the clouds!" he says. "You have only leather, wood, wire and cloth and you wonder how... how people could fly and fight in these planes? They're basically sitting on clouds…completely open to everything around them. They were very courageous."
Unlike modern warfare, aerial combat in World War I often retained a courtly feel; in the skies, the fighting was dubbed "the last gentleman's war," by military and aviation historians. "The part of WWI history we deal with is the war in the air," says Bill. "The horrible filth and pain and suffering on the ground was pretty much left behind in the air. It was a different war up there." This contrast stemmed in part from the elite stature of the men who were able to become pilots. Many of these young volunteers were well-educated, aristocratic, or in the case of the Lafayette Escadrille, Ivy League graduates. As aerial tactics developed, this new combat became reminiscent of medieval military tournaments, with one-on-one dogfights between pilots, resembling warriors on horseback; soon they were called “Knights of the Air”.
"World War I was the last time there was a direct connection between combatants in a war," says Goldfarb. "You were close enough to see the other individual's face while fighting and flying. There are stories about firing a weapon and the blood of your enemy would literally end up on your windshield and face. It was graphic, but it also gave an intimacy and personal connection that never existed again."
"When these men went into the war they had these old concepts about marching across the fields with their guns… only to get plowed down by this new automatic fire, by the thousands and thousands," says actor James Franco. "Then, you have the pilots up above, still living out those old ideas of chivalry. War had always been face-to-face, man-to-man. The idea was to be knights of the skies; a duel; the last kind of duel, in effect, since modern weapons have taken all that away."
Co-star and aerobatic pilot David Ellison, who plays Eddie Beagle, agrees with these notions of chivalry: "While in the air, if you shot down an enemy over foreign territory, you either saw him make it home to fight another day, or he died. But if he made it to the ground and lived, you didn't try to kill him on the ground."
Making this film was an exciting historical re-creation for filmmakers and actors alike. "I think part of the reason everyone is so excited about making this film is that what we are making has never been done so realistically before," says Tyler Labine, who portrays the aristocratic Briggs Lowry. "World War I was so long ago that it's largely been forgotten. Our generation doesn't even think about it. It was a war of epic proportions and so is this film. It'll remind people of its significance."
"We're not trying to put gauze between the audience and story, creating this magical period world," says Director of Photography Henry Braham, an experienced aerial cinematographer. "The film is accessible in a modern way. It's a terrific story that doesn't stop. Yet emotionally, it’s very intimate. While we have an epic visual scale, we've worked hard to retain the intimacy with the characters. These men were flying basically in wicker baskets, completely open. There's a strong element of exposure and human frailty that perhaps you don't get in modern action and war movies anymore."
"The great films about aerial warfare have been made by pilots: William Wellman, Howard Hawks, Howard Hughes," says Devlin. "Our director, Tony Bill, is a pilot… I think having him as the film's director allows us to tell the story in a way that's very truthful to that joy, that rush, the adventure and thrill it is to be in the air. We want people to get the feeling of what it was like to fly these biplanes for the very first time--just like these young men experienced."
~ ABOUT THE CHARACTERS ~
The real-life Lafayette Escadrille was commanded by French Captain Georges Thenault, who had a handful of Americans assigned to him as pilots: Kiffin Rockwell, James McConnell, Norman Prince, Victor Chapman, Laurence Rumsey, Bert Hall, William Thaw and Elliot Cowdin. These men were soon joined by additional pilots, creating a core group of 38. Some of the most famous names include James Norman Hall (co-author of the classic novel Mutiny on the Bounty), the legendary Frank Luke and Raoul Lufbery, a Frenchman born in America who became the squadron's first ace. Eventually, some 265 young Americans served as pilots for the French, as the Escadrille expanded into the Lafayette Flying Corps. FLYBOYS focuses on the group of young Americans who served from 1916 to 1918, and combines many of the colorful real-life characters in this story about an original and diverse group of heroes.
"They were all very young and innocent," says Bill. "Most of them were barely out of college and some were teenagers. If they lived more than six weeks they were considered a veteran. We didn’t want 35-year olds playing these kids, so casting our actors was the culmination of a lot of thought.”
Bill and Devlin chose to make the film independently so they could get the best actors for the roles, rather than have studio pressures for name actors and stars. "We wanted to hire great actors, whether they were famous like Jean Reno and James Franco, or if they were new stars who we've never seen before, like Jennifer Decker," says Devlin. "We wanted audiences to be immersed in the story, in the film, and often big names affect that. This is a movie about the characters, not the actors playing these characters. The one thing our actors have in common is that they bring humanity to the part, they pull you in."
James Franco portrays Blaine Rawlings, the Texan farm boy who finds himself flying for the French. "I jumped at the opportunity to play a character who embodies a lot of strength in a classic kind of film," says Franco. "Frankly, nowadays, a lot of the roles I see around are these weak, scummy young guys, and that is not as appealing to me. This was a big, romantic, dynamic film. I wanted to be a part of it."
"This is a huge movie," says Martin Henderson, who portrays Cassidy, a character loosely based on the American-born ace Raoul Lufbery. "It has strong characters and says a lot about relationships and love and friendship and death. Yet, it's also an action movie with planes diving across the skies, shooting at each other, going down in flames and crashing into each other." As the veteran of the group, Cassidy is at first rigid and unwelcoming to the new pilots. Filmmakers discovered that often veteran fighter pilots would not even speak to the new pilots until they had been there for a month or so. "There was just the assumption they'd be dead, so why get to know somebody who's not going to be around?" says Devlin. "They were hesitant to make friends because it was so painful to lose them."
"For all our characters, the war in the air is sobering and it's not what they were expecting," says Bill. "That's what I've consistently read in the letters home from these men. Yet, their experience is infused with this sense of adventure and romance. Some of these letters were full of, 'Gosh, I can't believe I'm here and this is so great. And flying is so great. I had a couple of accidents last week, but no problem. So don't worry about me.' Then, a few days later, he’s dead."
Ingenious, daring, resourceful, reckless and determined, the young Americans of the Escadrille were a rare breed, and the actors playing them were in awe of what they learned. "What those men did was at another level," says Abdul Salis, who portrays fighter Eugene Skinner, based on Eugene Bullard, the first African-American combat pilot. "What I liked was that they all came from different walks of life and had different reasons for being there," says Tyler Labine. "Some of the men wanted to fight for others’ freedom, others were trying to leave their past behind, and some just wanted to fly. But once they get up in the air and start to fight, they really band together and the things that have separated them on the ground start to change."
Star-Crossed Lovers in Wartime
To prepare to play these unique characters, the actors began to do research. To play Blaine Rawlings, a composite character inspired by ace pilots such as Frank Luke and Eddie Rickenbacher, actor James Franco turned to Westerns and flying lessons. "I watched a lot of old John Ford movies, although it may seem odd to watch John Ford movies to prepare for a World War I aviation movie, but it was the spirit of John Wayne and the spirit of young Clint Eastwood, which I watched," says Franco. “I studied those guys."
Franco also studied for his pilot's license. "I flew every day and trained for months in advance to get my license," he says. “So now I'm a legal pilot, and that helped a great deal. A big part of the story in this film is about the training and getting used to airplanes and I had that very experience in life."
To that end, in the months before production began, the director took his star out for several aerobatic flights in his Marchetti SF260 – one of the finest aerobatic planes made, and known as “the Ferrari of the skies.” The two of them went through all of the combat maneuvers that could be expected in the film. Bill encouraged Franco to fly them all.
Director Bill sees Franco embodying Rawlings as "a Gary Cooper loner, quiet, taciturn, heroic,” he says. “Rawlings represents the purest of motivations, a man who volunteered out of personal conviction. He’s an innocent, an unsophisticated guy, but he hangs in there with his eye on the prize, so to speak. Through everything that happens, he focuses on his original motive for being there."
"James has this quiet intensity, which he put into Rawlings," says co-star Labine. "He's very subtle, understated, which is key for this type of role and film."
Audiences who saw Franco's acclaimed performances in Spider-Man 2, or his Golden Globe® winning turn as the screen icon James Dean (in TNT's bio-pic of the same name), will undoubtedly agree with Winchester's praise of his co-star. "He's amazing, such a great actor," Winchester says. "He's got such a strong presence and working with him was quite a dream come true for me, because I really look up to him as an actor. He's brilliant as Rawlings. "
Franco believes Rawlings is transformed by his experience in a positive way. "Maybe some brightness of his spirit is lost, but what is gained is strength. He goes into the war with a lot of naiveté and ideals, but he leaves as an experienced man with new ideals."
Key to the changes Rawlings encounters are two relationships, with the beautiful French girl Lucienne, and with the veteran ace, Cassidy. "Cassidy's the mentor, the one who passes the torch of experience, and Lucienne is kind of a first love for Rawlings," says Franco. "When he arrives, he's fighting for ideals, but after meeting Lucienne, he's now fighting for someone he cares about whose life and world is at stake."
Lucienne, portrayed by newcomer Jennifer Decker, has the responsibility of looking after her brother's three children after he and his wife are killed in the war. "Jennifer is so comfortable in front of the lens," says Bill. "She has brought an enormous reality and life to the character of Lucienne. We think the audience is going to fall in love with her just like Blaine Rawlings does."
"I think she brings Rawlings this space of peace and love in the middle of the war," says Decker about her character. "While I don't pretend to know exactly how these people felt or how hard it was for them, I do have a strong feeling of Lucienne being there for Rawlings, strengthening his will to live and fight and win."
The French-speaking actress discovered she did understand her character Lucienne's frustration with the language barrier. "My first language is French," says Decker. "In both cases, not knowing how to speak English to him, I had the same problems as my character." Franco, who does not speak French, agrees, "There's a natural language barrier set-up that we've incorporated into the film. More than any other relationship in the film, we were able to play and use what's there. We got to know each other on film as the characters do in the story."
Decker, who is making her American film debut in FLYBOYS, credits Franco with making her feel at ease. "James has allowed me to learn," she says. “He has been patient and guided me through the scenes. It's a fine line between work and real life, a similarity to what our characters experience with language in the story."
Filmmakers Bill and Devlin see the real-life love story in the film as a metaphor for the overall loss of innocence of these people, trapped by war. "It was very important for us to have that heart running through the center of our story," says Devlin. "Because I think these characters are motivated by love. It's that loss of love that becomes so tragic, that moves these people to act and fight."
The Ace and the Lion
The loss and loves that motivate these men was also exemplified in Cassidy, a veteran ace inspired by the legendary fighter pilot Raoul Lufbery, who joined the squadron one month after the unit was organized. He quickly became the unit's ace, eventually downing nearly 20 enemy aircraft. Major Lufbery also led the squadron in the unit's first flight across the front lines. Cassidy is played with a delicate mixture of idealism and weariness by the talented New Zealander Martin Henderson.
"Cassidy is our voice of experience," says Bill. "Cassidy is not so much a mentor as an example of a person who has gone from being an altruist to being a realist. Martin has an intelligence and an edge, a kind of devil-may-care appeal, and I like that." Having survived when so many of his comrades perished, Cassidy has no illusions about why he is still flying and fighting. "He's really just fighting for revenge," says Henderson. "He's out to get the guys that took his friends down and he doesn't want a lot to do with the other pilots. He's already lost too many friends. So he sort of removes himself and is rather enigmatic when we first meet him." According to co-star Franco, "Martin's got a great grasp of who Cassidy is. He's perfect for the character. He brings across this dark-horse quality as a man who has seen a lot. He's everything I imagined that character would be."
Henderson says Cassidy views Rawlings as the group's natural new leader. "I think Cassidy believes he's not going to be around for much longer and sees in Rawlings someone to take over the reins. He sets up a series of tests to see if Rawlings is capable of assuming that role." For Henderson, Cassidy was also firmly dedicated to the men around him. "He's fun to play, but I was very aware of honoring his function, the role he played to these men and the war. Cassidy was a real hero: a man who gives himself completely to the cause and is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice."
"Martin reminds me a little of Clark Gable in the way he puts his hands in his pockets and just looks at you with a little humor in his eye," says Reno. "He reminds me of young people I've seen in America and England, handsome, but having his own way of thinking and being." Co-star Winchester sums it up: "Martin Henderson's just cool. He's super suave. He's super chill. His Cassidy is a nice guy who has a lion for a pet. What more can you ask for?"
During their early days, the Lafayette Escadrille had two lions as mascots, one named ‘Whiskey’ purchased for fun, and the other, ‘Soda’ bought when Whiskey turned out to be popular. Both real-life lions are represented in the film by a single 15-month-old lion named Shaka. While filmmakers combined the two lions into one mascot in FLYBOYS, there's no doubt the king of the jungle is the star of the film. "Shaka is the man," joked Henderson. "He's beautiful, a real star."
Born and bred in England, Shaka comes from a long line of movie lions, but makes his screen debut in FLYBOYS. "He's from a movie family that's ten generations strong, working in commercials, television and movies," says trainer Rona Brown. "We searched America, the U.K. and Europe for a lion with a really pleasant personality.... When we found Shaka, we knew immediately that he had the best nature. He was the nicest looking animal. He was the right age and he was easily trainable."
It took about five weeks of training to prepare the lion for his role, and co-star Henderson spent extra time working with Shaka before filming began. "It's important for the cast to spend time with him too," says Brown. "We taught Martin, for example, how to pat him, scratch him, to sit next to him. Shaka knows people by their smell and how they are with him. If they're afraid, he ignores them. But, if they are positive and friendly, then he's positive and friendly back."
Henderson, who has the lion's share of screen time with Shaka, enjoyed working with his unusual co-star. "When you first met him, he ignores you and then eventually when he realizes you're gonna hang around, he'll look you in the eye," says Henderson about his feline co-star. "And that's the moment where you have to be real cool. If you run or flinch or turn away, he knows he's on top. But you can't confront him either. You have to be cool, but careful until he decides you're going to be friends."
Henderson sees similarities between the cautionary approaches of Cassidy to his comrades and Shaka to his co-stars. "When you first meet him, he's very scary, a guy that doesn't want to have anything to do with you. Then, he decides that you're cool and you realize he's a big pussy cat."
Not everyone was as fond of Shaka as Henderson was. "No, no, no, no,” laughs Jean Reno. "W.C. Fields said it best, 'Never act with animals and children.'"
Those Magnificent Men…
The Lafayette Escadrille pilots ranged in age between 18 and 30. The diversity of characters reflects the differences in the men, who journeyed to France to join the fledging air force. FLYBOYS follows these disparate men, who meet under the most challenging circumstances and learn about themselves, each other, and the world at large.
“Once you get talented actors who are right for your parts, much of the work is done," says Devlin. "Now, it's sitting back and watching what they bring. Everyone from Philip Winchester to Tyler Labine to Abdul Salis to Christien Anholt…they've all brought unique things to the part that you would never have imagined. It's a joy to watch them come up with new things and explore the characters in a deeper way than Tony, myself, or the writers envisioned."
Briggs Lowry, played by Tyler Labine, joins the Escadrille under pressure from his wealthy and powerful father, when he would rather stay in the life of luxury he has always enjoyed. At first, his privileged lifestyle puts him at odds with the other recruits, but eventually he gains the respect of the others. "Lowry puts his life on the line with other men and is rescued by other men," says Labine. "He becomes a man, like his father wanted, but he becomes his own man…not the man his father necessarily wants him to be."
William Jensen on the other hand, is a well-educated young man from Nebraska. His father, who was in the cavalry, inspires Jensen to become a pilot. "I think he wants to prove to his family and prove to himself that he's a man," says Philip Winchester. "I think he slowly realizes the reality is not the heroic, pretty pictures he's had in his head. It's death and destruction. The war doesn't build him up, it breaks him down. He can't handle it. He snaps… I think he realizes he's not a knight or hero. As much as he wants to prove to his father he's a warrior, it's not going to happen."
Abdul Salis plays Skinner, a composite character partially based on the real-life Eugene Bullard, who made aviation history as the first black military pilot. He learned that his character's decision to enter the war was all about gratitude, not heroism. "When I did my research, I found that he felt he owed France something because they had accepted him, been nice to him, nicer than any country he had ever known," says Salis. "He made his boxing career in Paris and they treated him so well that he felt he owed them something."
The racism Bullard suffered in America is something Salis doesn't pretend to understand. "The first black guy to fly and fight: I can only imagine what it was like for him," says Salis. "He's projected as a bit of a hard man, but he is also very funny, and has witty one-liners. I like the chemistry we have in the film. My skin color's only a problem with one character and apparently Bullard was well-liked and respected by everyone. I think that's really cool."
Salis says playing the first-ever black military fighter pilot was the type of special role which "is one of those parts, one of those stories, one of those honors, where you think to yourself, I've got to do testament to the man. It's great stuff." While researching his character, Salis says he was surprised at Bullard’s prominence. "I was amazed at how much information there was on him," says Salis. "He had his own comic book, and it was more or less for black kids.... It had a black guy on the front cover in his plane. When they have Black History Month, he's right up there, you know? A real hero. The very first."
"Abdul may be the biggest surprise of the movie because when Abdul came in and read, he was so in character, he was so this guy, he just blew us away. Absolutely blew us away," says producer Devlin. "One of our fears was how are we going to get this guy to come out of his shell? He's too quiet. Of course, once he got on the set we discovered the person he really is. He’s a very different person than the character he is playing. Abdul gives a touching and genteel performance."
To portray the squadron's most hapless pilot, the filmmakers recruited one of America’s top aerobatic pilots, David Ellison. Ellison, like director Bill, began flying at age 13 and became an aerobatic pilot when he was 17. "Tony Bill and I had the same coach, Wayne Hanley, who's a world-renowned air show pilot and coach," says Ellison. "I was also in film school at USC and acting, so he wanted to put me in the film."
Ellison portrays the fearful pilot Beagle, a young man escaping from his past by joining the squadron. "When you are 16, 17, and 18 years old, you don't think anything can ever happen to you," says Ellison. "When something finally happens, that first shocking incident kind of wakes you up."
All the actors asked a similar question when researching their characters: What makes a young person want to volunteer to fight another country's war? "It's an honorable trait that perhaps is lost in younger generations," says Labine. "I'm in that generation where we're just lazy. We don't want to get off the couch, you know? We're not that committed to anything... Everything's based in technology and war is a different game. You don't see your enemy. You press a button and they are dead. This story is about a long lost era that we're bringing back. What these young men did was very honorable."
Ellison says his character's ability to overcome his fears is a key to understanding these men. "I think it goes to show what people can do or become when they are put into situations that test them," says Ellison. "It shows the humanity and the ability to come back from tragedy as a hero, to triumph in the end."
It is Reno's character, Thenault, who must take these various Americans and in a few short weeks, transform them into pilots and fighters. "He is kind of a father by the end, but at the beginning, he's strict in discipline because he knows the average life span of a pilot at that time was between three and six weeks, so he's very strong, very disciplined," says Reno. "He knows how important it is that they learn what he has to teach since he knows the odds are against them."
Reno, who himself was stationed in Germany during his required service in the French military service, says there was a single element in surviving the battles: control. "All the tests the pilots are put through are about control," says Reno. "Controlling your emotions, your reactions, the plane. The g-forces, the keen eyesight, the ability to fly and fight; all this was about control. These men endured a great deal. They are very tough men, exceptional."
On the set, many of the younger actors were particularly pleased to be working with Reno, having respected the acclaimed actor's work for years. "I don't usually buckle when I meet a movie star, but when I first saw Jean Reno I quickly tried to remember some French, got really nervous and a little bit sweaty," confesses co-star Labine. "He's a very talented, very clever, very funny guy. It was a thrill to work with him." "Mr. Reno brings a very specific gravity to the part of the commanding officer," says executive producer Goldfarb. "You believe him. This is not playing. This is someone who very well could be that individual."
Reno's not sure how his character, Thenault, felt about flying, but he is sure of where Jean Reno the actor stands on leaving the ground. "No thanks, I am afraid of flying," says Reno. "I'm happy to stay right here." Reno soon discovered he was not the only actor with a fear of flying. "I didn't know we were flying planes until we were about two and a half weeks into the shoot," laughs Salis. "I was on the set and they approached me about my flying orientation, and I asked, 'What do you mean?' They said, 'You've got to learn about planes before we go up. And I said, 'We're going up in the planes?' and they replied, 'Yeah, of course...' No one told me we were actually going up. I thought it was going to be CGI. I'm scared...I'm scared. Everyone else was good to go, but I know me. I'll fall out, a wing will fall off, or the engine will stop."