The true story of the first fighter pilots in World War I
Travel back to World War I, Paris, France, the first ever fighter pilots in combat - the Lafayette Escadrille. It's the subject of the new film, Flyboys, starring James Franco.
Taking the true stories of these men of war, producer Dean Devlin and director Tony Bill were able to transform James and the rest of the cast into 1917 soldiers.
James plays Texan-born rancher, Blaine Rawlings, the rough and tough outsider; after getting into some trouble in Texas, he travels to France to join the squadron. In a way, he could relate to the character he was playing. "In a war film it's like everything's on the line, the stakes are so high because of the situation, so, just off the bat it is a place of great drama. But about the people that I've played, and I play in this film, they are people that have volunteered to be there, and what they're volunteering is themselves."
But with that same thought, it's something he's never experienced before. "They're putting their lives on the line, and I can't say that I've ever done anything like that in my life, and because I do that I have such great respect for them; I consider them heroes. They're volunteering for something they believe to be the right thing and they're willing to risk everything for that; I think that's really what this movie is about. At the time that these men volunteered, and the Lafayette Escadrille formed, America hadn't entered the war. Nobody wanted to go until they found the Zimmerman telegram and then, 'Ok, we're going to go,' but before that the country didn't want to go. But these men believed that it was the right thing, and they were willing to fight for it and sacrifice for it."
David Ellison jumped from being a producer of Flyboys to being an actor. "I really got involved with this more on the other end, and it wasn't until Tony really approached me, after most of the other stuff was all sealed and finished, about being involved as an actor on it. And he was really adamant about having a real pilot in the movie, and I was a little apprehensive at first, but I trusted that he and Dean knew what they were doing and I couldn't be happier about doing it."
And that's because David is a real pilot; in fact, he's probably one of the best acrobatic pilots in the country. So getting up in the planes for this film was not too much of a risk for him. "I think one of the things with that is with flying these kind of airplanes, you know every time you go up what kind of risk you're taking, but in a sense of real danger what we were doing for the movie, when we were up there we weren't. But on the film, a couple of times when the pilots came down, because these airplanes roll 420 degrees a second, you flick your wrist and it responds. These airplanes are really rustic, and aviation had been around for 10 years, so I know when the winds got picked up they had a couple of times where guys were a little worried, but never with an actor in the airplane."
Even Tony pointed out that it was important for the actors to get the feel of being in the plane before shooting. He had them do multiple test runs as soon as they got on set. "All of our actors went up; they had various degrees of enthusiasm, but they all had equal degrees of enthusiasm when they came down. Some of them took two or three flights in a day - I don't think any of them just did one, I think they all went up more than once. It was an old cockpit biplane. they all did a syllabus of acrobatic maneuvers that basically represents what the airplane can do in the sky."
James puts 110% into all of his character - Flyboys was no exception; he took flying lessons as soon as he got the job, and even got his license. "I become kind of obsessive about research; I think part of it's just filling time. I signed onto this at least four months in advance, and Tony is a big pilot and he took me up, he had some of his friends take me up in a Steerman out in this great little airport called Santa Paula which I guess was a World War II base. They have these great old planes, mostly from World War II, not World War I but World War II planes, and I went up in this open cockpit plane, and did all the loops and everything, and it was a blast. So I thought, 'Well, I have the time, I might as well get my license,' so I went every day and I got it; it was a blast. One of my favorite actors is Steve McQueen, and he did a number of war films, and one in particular The War Lover he plays a pilot, and you just watch him in and around the plane, and it's so natural and detailed, because he was a real pilot, and so I hoped to try to come close to something like that, and it felt like maybe the only way was to do it."
At age 23, David took on the task of not only being a producer, but an actor as well. "I'm doing things really early in my life and I'm really fortunate to be able to work with Dean this early on as a producer as well as an actor; I think that's an advantage, but I don't think age has any bearing on it. I just think I'm really fortunate and lucky to be working with people like this, this early on, especially after getting involved as an actor, You usually don't see the two compared until people are later on in your career; I consider myself really lucky there because it provides more options that normally aren't available. Honestly, I'm just excited about being a producer; you get to work on projects that you are passionate about, you get to dream something up from start to finish and that's one of the things I enjoyed the most about this movie is I was involved with every stage. I went through editing, I went through composing, when we first got the script, the rewrites - nowhere as long as Dean and Tony, they had it for five years but it really becomes like your kid and you watch it as it evolves through all these different stages and that's one of the most rewarding things for me and I just hope to be able to continue to do that.
Visually, Flyboys is spectacular; the air battles between the Lafayette squadron and the German squadron look awesome, and feel awesome! A lot of work went into getting it that way. "We had 22 planes, we shot for three months with helicopters, and then augmented that with 850 special effect shots. So between the mixture of the two, we were able to create the six aerial battle sequences of the picture," noted Dean.
And that meant the actors had to be up in the planes to shoot the aerial shots. James remembered one moment of fright while filming. "I did two days in this helicopter rig; over the seat, was just the top of the airplane so it looked like I was just sitting in the cockpit and the camera would be in the helicopter and I would be totally outside. They went up and they fly me around and it only really worked if you have a background so you can't see how fast you're moving. They're flying me right over the trees and I'm at their mercy; they wanted some clouds and there were no clouds except at six thousand feet or something. So, they're like, 'Let's go up;' we went up so quickly, I didn't realize how cold it actually was but it was the most piercing cold I've ever experienced. It got in my bones and took me a minute to realize, 'Wow, it's really cold up here;' it lasted all night. Then they shot me on one side and wanted the other side of my face so they moved the rig to the other side and the French helicopter team - they were great, really excellent - but they started arguing in French and making gestures like the chair was going to fall off. 'He's not going up!' 'No, it's fine!' 'No. I'm not taking him up.' Eventually I guess they got it right but it was pretty intense."
You can check out the intensity for yourself when Flyboys opens in theaters September 22nd; it's rated PG-13.