The Passion of Tony Bill

October 1, 2006

The Lafayette Escadrille flies again

Flyboys should really be named The Passion of Tony Bill because the movie reflects an Academy-Award-winning producer's love of flying and his 30-year quest to make an aviation movie — specifically one based on another of his hobbies, the study of World War I. The dream is to become reality for Tony Bill on September 22 when Flyboys, the story of American volunteers who flew for the Lafayette Escadrille, opens at theaters nationwide. Bill, the movie's director, an AOPA member and long-time pilot, made Flyboys one of the most accurate Hollywood flying films you'll ever see.

The realism comes from having three pilots on the set — two of them actors. The movie's star, James Franco, became a pilot as part of his research for the film after Bill gave him two aerobatic flights aboard his SIAI Marchetti.

"When I first met him, Franco said he was interested in doing the movie. I said, 'Come fly with me and I'll show how easy it is, to demystify it for you. I'll show you some fun aerobatics and show you what it feels like to maneuver in the air the way these guys had to.' I took him for an aerobatic ride or two from Santa Monica and Van Nuys. Pretty soon I found out he was taking flying lessons," Bill recalled.

Franco said Bill's friends later invited him along on a trip to Santa Paula, an airport known for housing aircraft that represent much of the history of aviation. "That was my first introduction into the private pilot culture, and it was just amazing. I loved it. I decided right there that I would take lessons," said Franco. He was standing where one of his favorite actors, the late Steve McQueen, once flew. McQueen appeared in The War Lover (1962) and filmed a scene admired by Franco in which McQueen played a daredevil bomber pilot more willing to die than to live, but one who knew his stuff and brought his crew back safely; that scene showed McQueen preflighting an aircraft with comfortable realism based on his actual pilot experience. Franco said he hoped to achieve the same realism in Flyboys.

Franco believes in researching his roles and was predisposed to learn to fly even before his visit to Santa Paula Airport. He had practiced sword fighting before appearing in Tristan and Isolde and had gone through a boot camp before filming Annapolis. No telling what he did before filming a top role in Spiderman I, II, and III.

Adding to the cast's aviation experience is costar David Ellison, a budding airshow pilot with a waiver for low-level aerobatics.

But back to Bill's dream.

Bill thought his chance to make an aviation movie might never come. In the 1960s he went on one of Richard Bach's annual barnstorming tours. After winning an Oscar for producing the 1973 film The Sting with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Bill thought up a story about barnstorming and described it in detail to Sting director George Roy Hill. This was his first attempt at his dream. The story included all of Bill's major interests: A biplane pilot misses out on World War I and becomes a barnstormer but joins the movie industry to find himself stunting against a famous German ace turned movie pilot. Hill took the idea, wrote the "original" story, then directed and produced the film The Great Waldo Pepper with Robert Redford released in 1975. Bill dismisses it today as, "One of Hollywood's sordid little stories."

That opportunity was lost, but decades later producer Dean Devlin called with a new script in hand about seven of the 38 Americans who volunteered to fight with France in the Lafayette Escadrille before American entered World War I. "This is the movie you were born to direct," said Devlin.

"I'm in. Let's go for it," Bill said.

Then began a five-year search for $60 million to finance the film independent of a major studio, and without advance foreign sales that are key to any movie's success. Bill turned down feature-directing jobs in case Devlin called with a start date. But he didn't; to meet living expenses Bill sold his 20-year-old collection of 1,500 early aviation books and first-edition works of literature in December 2000 to the San Francisco Airport Commission Aviation Library and Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum. The books are a rare resource for writers, said San Francisco Airport Museums Curator-in-Charge for Aviation John H. Hill: "A. Scott Berg cites it in his Lindbergh biography as his second most important source after Lindbergh's personal papers that Anne Morrow Lindbergh provided," Hill said. Bill calls it The Gift of the Magi after O. Henry's Christmas tale of a wife who sells her beautiful hair to buy a fob for her husband's heirloom gold watch, a watch her husband sold to buy jeweled tortoise shell combs for her hair.

Finally it looked like Devlin had put together most of the money, but there was a problem: Production would have to begin immediately, due to the availability of resources such as studio time. Devlin began writing checks for a movie that might never be made. One day Devlin called Bill to say his attorney had pointed him to then 22-year-old David Ellison, son of Oracle software chief Larry Ellison, who might want to invest in the film. Bill already knew Ellison through flying and immediately suggested Ellison, who had attended the University of Southern California film school, would be perfect for a part in the film. Devlin asked that Ellison not be offered a part until the financing deal was completed — so Ellison never knew he might act in the film until the agreement was signed.

Ellison said no. He did not want his inexperience as an actor to affect the success of the movie and hurt other investors, and he did not think he was ready for such a major role. But he was a natural. Ellison's life was similar to that of the men who joined the Lafayette Escadrille; many of them were, like Ellison, from wealthy families and had become pilots prior to World War I or at least had a passion to fly. Not only could Ellison fly, he was chosen as a Star of Tomorrow airshow pilot by Sean D. Tucker (sponsored by Oracle) and Mike Goulian, and had performed his mentored routine at Oshkosh in 2003. Acting was his first love, though. Bill made his pitch again.

Ellison still said no. Everyone would think he bought his role. He felt his fellow actors might dislike him (they didn't find out until filming was completed). Then both Bill and Devlin went to work on Ellison, suggesting that with their experience (Devlin produced The Patriot, Independence Day, and Stargate) they knew what they were doing. Ellison finally accepted the part.

In his role as a pilot, Ellison can talk the talk. "Tony changed every single one of my lines right before a scene to make it more realistic," Ellison recalled. It was a scene in which Ellison, in the role of Eddie Beagle, rattles off a number of statistics on German fighter planes that raise the suspicions of his fellow pilots. (The French were concerned that spies might infiltrate the American squadron and had opposed its formation.) Lines were rewritten while the lighting crew was setting up. "I'm not saying I didn't need two or three takes," Ellison admitted.

Keeping it real applied to the flying as well. Four replica Nieuports were built in 52 days by Robert Baslee of Holden, Missouri, and used in shots of formation takeoffs. Near the end of the filming one of them pitched up and rolled during a takeoff, without hitting a nearby aircraft, but from that point on the four were used only in ground taxi shots. For in-air scenes, the actors portraying pilots were filmed while actually in flight in the back of a 1930s Bücker Jungmann biplane. Insurance requirements kept the actors from flying their own scenes — but look very closely at Ellison's close-ups in the air. Is he on the controls? Low-level chase scenes involve real aircraft. For a Nieuport crash scene the stunt pilot was asked to get as close to the ground as possible, and he managed to put one wheel in the dirt, kick up a lot of dust, and fly on with no damage. "He did it better than we wanted him to," Bill said.

Other historically accurate touches (Bill is a member of the Great War Society dedicated to the study of World War I) include a black pilot character based on Eugene Bullard, a member of the Lafayette Escadrille who downed two enemy aircraft. His father had promised that there was no discrimination in France, and it was true — even from fellow American pilots. When the United States entered the war and took over the squadron, Bullard was not allowed into the Army Air Corps, but decades later he was made a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.

When a giant zeppelin comes to bomb Paris in the movie, many viewers might wonder if such a thing actually happened. It did, says Bill, and Germany had 100 of the 1,000-foot-long dirigibles; 80 were brought down.

And yes, the Lafayette Escadrille (first called the Escadrille Américaine until the German ambassador demanded the unit's arrest for representing a neutral nation) really did have a lion as a pet. Two, in fact: Whiskey and Soda.

The goal was to make the transition from aircraft to computer-generated images seamless. Consequently, British computer specialists from the company Double Negative first flew in the movie's fleet of 14 biplanes to gather data and scenes that the pilot would see. In the movie, the tracer lines from the aircraft guns at first seem like a figment of the computer's imagination, but further research reveals tracer bullets were used every third round by World War I pilots to improve their aim.

You can take your kids to this PG-13 movie, although a lot of exploding blood capsules bring home the realistic shooting of pilots. One reviewer called the pilots Disneyesque, when in truth three of the Lafayette Escadrille's 38 pilots were tossed out, even one with four kills, for infractions of the rules. They did party, by most reports, and lived in a luxurious hotel before they were transferred to the Verdun sector.

While the movie may trigger a debate about the representation of such pilots, none who know the film's background can cast doubt on the dedication of Tony Bill and Dean Devlin to the project, and to Bill's dream.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Links to additional information about Flyboys may be found on AOPA Online.

Al Marsh

Alton K. Marsh | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.