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Flyboys - Dean Devlin interview

Dean Devlin, producer of Flyboys

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DEAN Devlin, producer of films such as Independence Day, The Patriot and Godzilla talks about the unique challenges of bringing Flyboys to the screen and the pressure of an opening weekend at the box office…

Q. Aside from putting people into the cockpit, what were some of the other challenges of bringing Flyboys to life?
Dean Devlin: Well, it’s a huge production. Normally, if you did this with a studio you’d do it for $150 million and you’d have every resource. We wanted to do this in a certain style and to do that we had to do it independently. So, we had to really rely on the incredible artists and craftsmen here in the UK to allow us to do everything that was envisaged and to do it within the time and the money we had to do it. I think that’s one of the great accomplishments of the film because I don’t think we compromised anywhere. There’s 850 digital effect shots in it, we had three months of shooting with actual airplanes, we had 22 real airplanes and, from a production standpoint, it’s an enormous accomplishment.

Q. What type of research did you carry out in making Flyboys as realistic as possible?
Dean Devlin: It’s important to remember that airplanes had only been invented 10 years earlier. Most of these pilots had never seen an airplane, let alone flown in one or flew one. Suddenly, they were asked to turn them into war machines. So they didn’t know what you could or couldn’t do.

We drew all of our inspiration for the film from these letters from actual pilots and there was this one story that was actually too fantastic to put in the movie. It was about this pilot who pushed his dogfight to such an altitude that when he landed he was literally frozen into the cockpit and they had to chip him out. He survived! Today, they would never let a pilot fly that high in an open cockpit plane.

Q. The proximity of the dogfights must have been difficult to fathom…
Dean Devlin: Yeah, [nowadays] they’re usually miles apart when they push the trigger. But those guys knew the names and faces of the guys they fought. They had an enormous amount of respect for each other. It was a real turning point in the culture of warfare because in the air you still had the somewhat chivalrous code of honour of which battle is engaged. Yet, on the ground, you had the first time they were using chemical weapons and nine million people being slaughtered in the trenches. So, it was kind of the transition from warfare as the world had known it before to really the modern day mode of war.

Q. That’s reflected in one scene when a German fighter doesn’t shoot down an American fighter when he has the opportunity to do so…
Dean Devlin: That happened all the time. In fact, when a pilot was shot down they would very often take his clothes, fly back over enemy lines and drop the clothes back as a sign of respect. There’s an interesting story… in our “making of” feature we have an interview with the granddaughter of a pilot who, over Christmas, had two German pilots in his sights and didn’t pull the trigger because it was Christmas. He flew over and saluted them. Two weeks later, he was shot down and they remembered him and threw a parade for him [laughs]. He was a hero for having done that. The mentality was so different [in the air] and yet at the same this horrific ground battle was being fought with mustard gas and stuff like that.

Q. Was it the case that you sometimes had too many stories from all the research you did. How easy was it choosing what to put in?
Dean Devlin: I think it’s one of the reasons we chose to not use the real pilots and to create these fictional pilots. By doing that we were able to take stories from four or five pilots and put it into one. For instance, David Ellison’s character is based on several pilots including one who had lost a limb and had crash landed in no man’s land and another pilot who had accused of being a spy. So, by being able to combine them into one character we were able to tell more stories than if we tried to be super accurate to each character.

Q. You’ve worked with some amazing technicians and flying experts on Flyboys. Two names that stand out are Nigel Lamb and Ray Hanna, who sadly passed away after the film was finished…
Dean Devlin: The film is dedicated to Ray. They’re legends. They were so great in that they were very patient with the actors. And when it came to flying they were absolutely religious about safety, which is something you really hope for. You want to get spectacular footage but you never want to see somebody injured in the making of a film. It’s just not worth it. But they had the passion for the subject matter to push it as far as was safe. And they never let us do things that weren’t safe.

Ray and his daughter were really at the centre of co-ordinating how this was going to look and feel with the airplanes – how we were going to do formations, how we were going to do take off… He really designed the look and feel of the battle sequences.

Q. What was the insurance issue like of putting your actors in the air?
Dean Devlin: Oh, it was a nightmare. Professionally, they wanted to fly everything and the insurance company didn’t want them to fly anything. Every time I looked over someone like David would be sitting in the cockpit and I’d have to tell him to get out of there. It was a lot of pushing and pulling. But even with the most experienced pilots, when they did get in the real airplanes they were shocked at how flimsy they were. I mean, they’re dangerous. It’s amazing that people were able to fly in them, let alone shoot in aerial battles. We had one day on the set when we had four planes taking off together in formation and the camera was on a helicopter. But the wind generated from the helicopter was so strong that two of the planes nearly flew into each other and then nearly flew into a building, so we had to ground everyone that moment. You realised that just the wind from a helicopter was enough to affect the planes.

Q. Having worked on so many big studio films, such as Independence Day and The Patriot, how freeing was it to work outside of the studio system?
Dean Devlin: It was the best experience I ever had making a movie. First of all, it was the first time I’d ever made a film in the UK. The system here is not radically different but different enough that first I was very uncomfortable. But by the end I began to truly appreciate why many of the things that are done here are superior. I really fell in love with the crews, the technicians and the artists. What they accomplished with so little resources was really a tribute to their incredible artistry and technical skills. I think you’d have to spend three times the money and employ three times the people to do this anywhere else. It’s really unique the film community in the UK. The knowledge base on even the lowest level person on the crew is superior to anywhere else in the world.

Q. I guess it makes it all the more frustrating for our crews that they don’t get as much government support as America?
Dean Devlin: Well, part of the reason that we were able to put the movie together was because of government incentives. So it’s sad to see them going away because I know that it really helps to support this industry, which is great. They really deserve the support.

Q. You’re working with one of your stars, David Ellison, again – as co-producers. What can we expect this time?
Dean Devlin: Well, we can’t announce what it is yet but it’s a science fiction film and David actually came up with the idea for it. We’re both very, very excited about it and we think it’s going to be a special film that we’re hoping to shoot next year.

Q. What do you like about working with David?
Dean Devlin: I think David is going to be one of these guys that in 20 or 30 years from now you’re going to look back on and say he was part of a whole new generation of filmmakers. He came out of USC [USC School of Cinematic Arts] in the same way that the last generation of big filmmakers did – people like Bryan Singer. There’s a passion, there’s a love for film and a respect for what went on before. I think that’s something that’s lacking in a lot of filmmakers – they try to just move forward without understanding where they came from. David has an enormous knowledge base and sense of history of filmmaking. So, when he approaches something you can feel in the script he’s written what’s come before it within the writing. You then appreciate what he’s doing with it.

Q. The film didn’t perform as well as expected in the US. Are you hoping that it finds more of an audience in Europe because audiences might have more of an appreciation for World War I history?
Dean Devlin: I hope so. The sad thing for us was that while we didn’t perform at the box office, we did phenomenally on DVD. The DVD numbers would reflect a much bigger success at the box office. So, while we were happy to have people seeing the film on DVD, it’s a shame because this is a movie that really should be seen on the big screen. The exit polls in the US, 90% of the people who saw it loved it. The problem was convincing them to see it. So, we’re very hopeful that because we’re dealing with a much more educated public here that we’ll be able to attract them into the cinema. Just the fact that people are buying the DVD in the US suggests they are being told by other people they should see it.

Q. How frustrating is the emphasis on the opening weekend?
Dean Devlin: It’s a drag. In the old days you used to have several weeks to play out and build an audience. The problem is that there are so many films now and they’re so big that the theatre owners have to move you out even if your audience is starting to find the picture. It is a drag that it’s being turned into a sporting event. But on the other hand the financial reality is that you do need a big weekend.

Read our review of Flyboys