“Flyboys” now in theaters

World War I flying saga gets thumbs up from Bob Hoover

Pilots, as a rule, tend to be especially critical of Hollywood’s depiction of aviation.

So imagine the delight of the actors and the director of “Flyboys,” a new movie about the Lafayette Escadrille, when living legend Bob Hoover praised the film after its debut at AirVenture in July.

“It was kind of surreal to have it premiere at Oshkosh,” said aerobatics pilot turned actor David Ellison, who plays Eddie Beagle in the film. “The most surreal part was when Bob Hoover stood up and said that it was the most inspiring aviation movie he had ever seen. Director Tony Bill and I just looked at each other in awe. Bob Hoover was a hero of mine when I was growing up. I remember watching him fly in air shows. He was just amazing. To have a real American hero like him say that about the movie was just perfect.”

Ellison, now in his early 20s, started flying at 13 when his father began to take lessons in a Diamond Katana. By the time Ellison was in college he had developed an interest in aerobatics.

“I met aerobatic pilots Wayne Handley and Sean Tucker and got hooked up with them,” he said. “In 2003, the last time I was at AirVenture, I flew in the Stars of Tomorrow Aerobatics Show Case.”

Ellison’s transition from blue skies to the silver screen reads like an aviation variation on the Hollywood myth of being discovered in a drugstore by a casting director. Ellison was a business and economics major at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., and still practicing aerobatics. His search for a hangar for his Extra 300L changed his life.

“I was a student of Wayne Handley’s and one day Wayne said ‘Hey, I have a friend down there in the movie business that is also a pilot with a hangar’ and he handed me Tony Bill’s business card. Tony let me keep my airplane in his hangar for awhile and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Through his friendship with Bill, Ellison developed an interest in movie making. He left Pepperdine to attend the University of Southern California and study acting. “Flyboys” is his first major role. Ellison was persuaded to be part of the project by Bill who, in addition to being a pilot and director, is a World War I scholar.

“There would be things in the script that I questioned but Tony was always right about them,” Ellison explains, adding, “I am glad I agreed to the project, it has been great!”

Bill’s knowledge and attention to detail paid off in the air-to-air combat scenes, says Ellison.

“When we first started the movie Tony said his goal was to make people sick because he wanted the dog-fighting scenes to be as accurate as possible. He wanted them to get that feeling of what it was like to be in the airplane and in the cockpit.”

During AirVenture the Flyboys exhibit, which featured props and stills from the movie in a walk-through display, was very popular. Parked next to the exhibit were several planes from the film. Pilots gathered to admire them and comment on the fragile appearance of the aircraft, especially given that they were used for aerial combat.

Ellison worked with two acting coaches to prepare for his role in the movie and did research by reading books about the Lafayette Escadrille.

“The one I liked the best had a biography of all the members of the Lafayette Escadrille,” he said. “It was really interesting because I read the script first and knew a little bit about the Escadrille, but not a lot. The thing I thought was fake in the script was the fact that there is a lion that runs and jumps on the main character and I am all ‘there is a what? You’ve got to be kidding me!’ But the Lafayette Escadrille actually had two lions named Whiskey and Soda.”

Ellison notes that, as this was his first major movie, he was a little nervous but the other, more experienced actors welcomed him and made him feel comfortable. He was able to return the favor by helping them with their performances in the flying scenes. The majority of the flying scenes were done using a green screen where special effects are used to create the illusion of flight.

“When we were shooting green screen stuff the actors would ask me what the correct control inputs would be,” he explained. “You are on gimbals so the control surfaces actually work, so they asked where to put the stick to get the right movements.”

Ellison noted that James Franco, who plays Blaine Rawlings in the film, earned his private pilot’s license in preparation for the movie.

“When you see the scenes with the real airplanes, James Franco is really flying,” he said.

It took a little over three months to shoot the movie.

Flyboys opens nationwide Sept. 22.

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