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Flyboys - David Ellison interview

David Ellison in Flyboys

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DAVID Ellison is a former competitive aerobatic pilot turned actor and producer, who is also the son of Oracle Corporation founder, Larry Ellison. He talks about the pleasure of playing a World War One pilot in Flyboys and why there have been so few films about their exploits…

Q. It’s been 75 years since there’s been a film about the exploits of the Lafayette Escadrille in World War I. Why do you think that is?
David Ellison: A couple of reasons. Firstly, I don’t think World War One is as well-known, or at least we’re not as educated about it. And until present day, you couldn’t really put someone in the cockpit the way you can now. I mean, Howard Hughes was the person who did it most effectively until then and three pilots actually died in the filming of that movie. I don’t think that was something that anyone ever wanted to repeat. But now CGI really allows you to get the airplanes as close as they were in the air and to really depict what the battles actually looked like.

Q. Given your background as an aerobatics pilot, how thrilling was it to actually be able to fly some of those planes?
David Ellison: Oh it was unbelievable. I grew up flying. I started flying when I was 13-years-old but there’s very few of these machines that actually fly left in the world. You pretty much can’t get your hands on them. So to be able to go up in an airplane like that and literally be a part of flying history was a dream come true for myself. I can’t get a ride in a World War II airplane, let alone World War I. So I absolutely loved it.

Q. Did it also give you a first-hand appreciation of just how skilled those guys had to be?
David Ellison: The airplane I fly today has 450 horse power, it’s all made out of carbon fibre. You can’t break it – your body will break before the airlpane does. Those airplanes were wood and fabric. If you put your foot on the wrong part of the wing it’d go right through. These guys were literally pushing these airplanes further than they were ever meant to go. I have just an incredible amount of respect for the heroes that flew these. It was unbelievable. If you look back at technology, this was really the birth of aviation. They were the first ones to use them in the air as war machines.

Q. And, of course, they were open to the elements – wind scarring, etc…
David Ellison: Well, the amazing thing is that 12,500 feet is where you have to have oxygen today. It’s what the FAA regulates in every single country. If I remember correctly, it’s over 20,000 feet where your body starts operating at 60% of what it normally does. It’s completely freezing and you can’t stay up there for too long otherwise you’ll pass out from asphyxia. But these guys did it.

Q. How high were you allowed to take the planes you flew on the set of Flyboys?
David Ellison: We were up about five or 6,000 feet. That was about as high as we needed to go to have a buffer for safety and to really have the room to manouevre that we wanted. To give you an idea, real dogfights nowadays are usually between 10 to 18,000 feet. That’s with modern day fighters. And they have oxygen.

Q. As part of your research did you try and contact any surviving family members of any real-life pilots?
David Ellison: I based a lot of of my research on a book that Tony Bill gave me that had a biography on every single member of the Lafayatte Escradrille. It was really a case of going through that and learning the history. The other book was the letters home from the pilots and really getting to understand the mentality of what they were thinking, how it felt. So the fact that it was written by their own hand was really helpful.

Q. As one of the most experienced flyers among the cast, did you find the other actors looking up to you?
David Ellison: There were a lot of different questions about how all the different control surfaces work and what it felt like to be up there. But one of the things that Dean [Devlin] and Tony [Bill] had everybody do was put all of them up in a real airplane and have them go through all of it. So once they’d experienced it a lot of the questions went away.

Q. How often do you fly yourself?
David Ellison: Before the movie I was a sponsored air show pilot, so I was flying literally two flights a day, six days a week. I was touring the country. When I was 20, I was the youngest acrobatic pilot to ever fly the Oshkosh Air Show, which is the SuperBowl of Aviation events – 200,000 a day, invitation only. They only invite 20 people a year, so it was a really great honur. My best friend and I were invited and it was unbelievable. We had the best coaches in the world – Sean Tucker and Wayne Hanley, who are the Michael Jordan of their field.

Q. When did you get the flying bug?
David Ellison: As a little kid. I was one of those two-year-olds who ran around with their arms out pretending I could fly. Then, on my 13th birthday… I’d bugged my parents to take me flying and my dad made this very bad mistake of saying that once I’d turned 13 I was allowed to. So, on my 13th birthday I was like: “Dad, let’s go…” So we went and took our first flying lesson together.

Q. So you learned to fly before you could drive….
David Ellison: True. And a very, very embarrassing story is that on my 16th birthday I got up in the morning, went and took my written test and then went to the DNV that afternoon and flat out failed my drive test. So I’m a better pilot than I am a driver!

Q. You’re about to work with producer Dean Devlin again. What do you enjoy about working with him?
David Ellison: Everything… I mean it was really an honour to work with Dean. He’s become some kind of mentor to me. His knowledge, his passion and his genius… I mean all the movies he’s done, you don’t see them anywhere else. The authorship he takes to it is just unlike anybody I’ve ever met, so I consider it an honour and a privilege to be able to work with him.

Q. You have written, directed and starred in a short film before – so I guess you’re multi-talented in that sense?
David Ellison: That’s one thing I loved about going to USC [USC School of Cinematic Arts], one of the things they teach you before even putting a camera in your hand is film history. It’s literally two years of nothing but foreign cinema, pre and post World War II and domestic. You learn about the French New Wave, Italian neo-realism and all the things that really affected the film industry and where it is now. Then, of course, you have access to unbelievable talent. Steve Zaillian, who wrote Schindler’s List, came in and worked with me on a writing class that I had with nine other people. He came in twice to work with students on their scripts, just because he was friends with the professor. There’s nowhere else in the world that you get that kind of exposure. I was really happy that I went there and was able to get that background.

Q. How do you think you’ll find a balance between flying and acting now that you’re doing more within the film industry?
David Ellison: I’ve really stepped aside from doing competitive aerobatics. It’s a full-time thing to do safely. You have to do it every day otherwise you shouldn’t be doing it. When you’re flying 300 miles an hour, 15 feet off the ground, if it’s not your profession you have absolutely no business being there. I still fly for fun but it’s something that will be a hobby from here on in.

Q. Did you develop any particular affections for any English traditions such as going to the pub?
David Ellison: I absolutely loved being in London. I came here the first time when I was 15 and liked going to the theatre, seeing the people and the architecture. There’s so much history here. I love it, so any excuse to get to come back and I’m here.

Read our review of Flyboys

Read our interview with Dean Devlin