At the risk of having this excerpt removed, I simply have to share this writeup from Holly Hegeman's "Planebusiness Banter" of the amazing lengths AA went to with Warner Brothers to ensure accuracy in this movie, especially so people like us wouldn't trash it:
"Sully" – A Story Too Important to "Screw Up"
Tuesday night in New York at Lincoln Center, Warner Brothers and Malpaso Productions held a star-studded premiere of "Sully" – the movie directed and produced by Clint Eastwood, which chronicles the memoir of Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger. Sully is more than a little bit famous for a daring piece of flying he performed in January 2009, when he miraculously executed a textbook water landing of a bird-stricken US Airways Airbus A320 in the Hudson River.
After the studio released a teaser trailer the end of June, featuring Tom Hanks, who plays Sully in the movie, AvGeeks everywhere had two big questions about the film.
1. The flight only lasted four minutes. What the heck are they going to fill 2 hours of time with?
2. How badly are they going to mangle the aviation details?
I thought it might be a good idea to talk to Michelle Mohr, Managing Director, Corporate Communications at American Airlines, as I knew she had been working with the folks at Warner Brothers throughout the production of the movie.
Little did I know how much she had been working with them.
Michelle has essentially had two jobs at American for a more than a year. Her normal 40-hour a week job as Managing Director of Corporate Communications, and her other job – working as the airline's representative to Warner Brothers. A job that, as she put it, on the "good weeks" entailed maybe 10-12 hours of extra work. On the "not so good weeks" it was more like an additional 40.
Would she change anything about the last year? I don't think so.
"It's been an incredible experience. You know, you might wonder what it's like to work with these people. You know – Hollywood types. What are they really like? I'll tell you what ...they are the best. The absolute best. Just good decent salt of the earth people committed to telling the story right. Most importantly: there was no drama with these people. The only "drama" that I saw happened behind the camera," Michelle said.
A couple of weeks ago I sat down with Michelle and we talked about American's involvement with the film, and how everyone involved with the movie, from Clint Eastwood to Tom Hanks to Sully to American Airlines wanted, more than anything, to represent what happened as accurately as possible – both on that fateful day in January, and afterwards.
Which brings up the answer to the first question. The movie is, indeed, about more than the four minute flight. The script is adapted from Sully's memoir, "Highest Duty," and details things before, during, and after the flight in Sully's life, including an NTSB investigation into the crash that went on for more than a year, and the media circus that erupted after the crash, and how that changed his life and that of his family.
PBB: What was your main responsibility in working with Warner Brothers?
Michelle: My number one job was to make sure American was represented accurately. And they [Warner Brothers and Clint Eastwood] really wanted to do that. So, this meant a whole lot of things. For instance, we made sure they had access to all the right materials – uniforms, what color nail polish the flight attendants wear, how big can the earrings be. All that. So we went to that level. So that meant, many, many meetings with the flight service department.
One of the funnier moments came when we were filming the scenes at LaGuardia, and the costume designer was there, and they brought out three "customer service" agents. The only problem is they had wings on. So we got that cleared up pretty quickly. (laughs)
We created fake badges, I mean, we had it down to the point where I made sure they had their union pins, their USAPA pins. Their AFA pins. Everything. They wanted, and we wanted, that level of realism. And to show that level of respect.
PBB: I assume American was fully cooperative with Warner Brothers regarding the filming.
Michelle: American was fully cooperative and fully supportive of seeing "Sully" come to light in the hands of Clint Eastwood and Warner Brothers pictures.
I want to make this really clear. The producers of the movie were absolutely committed to making sure they got the details of the movie as realistic as possible.
The number one comment and question I've had from our pilots and our employees, after they found out during the last year that I was involved with this project, was, "Michelle, please tell me this is not going to be like Flight. That was their number one concern.
So I assured them that it was not going to be like Flight.
[Editor's Note: Flight was a movie released in 2012, starring Denzel Washington as a washed-up pilot who is alternatively downing alcohol or snorting coke. When he is not flying a plane upside down. A movie, which as Patrick Smith noted in The Daily Beast, "I almost hate to say it, but even Airport ’75—one of the quintessential air-disaster movies, in which Charlton Heston is helicoptered through a hole in a crippled 747—did it better. There is nothing funny about Flight, but should you hear howls of laughter coming from the back of the theater, chances are there’s a pilot in the audience. Laughter, if not tears, is the only fair response to much of what the movie shows."]
Michelle: This is a group of producers that have worked together for a long time. This is their 12th movie together in 20 years. This is one tight knit crew. You're talking about a pretty incredible team that are committed to telling stories truthfully. And that is what they wanted here.
PBB: What was their last movie before this?
Michelle: American Sniper.
PBB: So, for example, the scenes at LaGuardia. Did you guys really shoot footage at the airport?
Michelle: Yes. Your readers will be glad to know that those shots really were shot at LaGuardia Airport, out of one of our gates. Now, having said that, remember that back in 2009, we operated out of a different set of gates, so it's not going to be the exact same set of gates. But they are our gates.
PBB: Because this footage was shot at LaGuardia last fall, will there be some small items that AvGeeks will undoubtedly pick up on – things that simply couldn't be helped I would imagine. The gates obviously are one. I think you talked before we sat down about livery issues as well.
Michelle: Yes, you will see some of the blue Southwest livery. People will also see glimpses of the new American livery. Those will be in some aerial shots they took later. Yeah, you will see some of the new livery in the aerial shots.
I know AvGeeks will go crazy pointing out these inconsistencies, but hey, you know, shooting these aerial shots, there just simply was no way around it.
It was not possible to clear the entire airport for the period of time we would have required. As you can imagine.
Let's remember, it is not a documentary. It's a movie. And knowing how obsessive these guys were about everything else, I can live with those things.
PBB: Besides, how would you go about populating the airport with "correct" liveries. Just can't be done.
[Editor's Note: Watching the movie Tuesday night at the premiere, I did not see any errant tails. It would appear the producers did some fancy photography reconstruction. Either that, or I simply missed the ones that Michelle had alerted me to.]
PBB: Speaking of details, where did they shoot the cockpit scenes? The interior of the aircraft shots?
Michelle: Here's another example of how far they went for authenticity. The producers bought two old US Airways A320s. So, again, for the AvGeeks out there, they put one out at the lake at Universal Studios where "Jaws" was filmed, and they sank it in the water and they did the water evacuation shots out there. I was there for that.
I remember the producers were so excited to show me the footage from that day. We had been working very closely together for about 5 months at that point.
I told them, "Normally, if I were to see one of our planes like this, in the water, my heart would stop." But because I knew what happened…it was okay.
So I got to go on the aircraft. And here again, I can vouch for their efforts at authenticity.
I had been asked to scrounge up copies of our in-flight magazine from January 2009 for them. They were in the seat backs. This particular aircraft they purchased had Wi-Fi. Flight 1549 did not. So they scraped off the Wi-Fi signs. We put a Star Alliance sticker over where the Wi-Fi sticker had been.
The most unbelievable part of the evacuation scene? They did the whole thing in one take. Which blew everyone's mind.
We thought we would have to do two or three. To evacuate 155 people into the lake, we figured we'd have a mistake. Then we'd have to dry everybody off, and start all over. Because some of them have to fall in, you remember.
But they did it, and Eastwood said "Cut" and that was it.
Everybody clapped and cheered and jumped around. We couldn't believe we got it in one take.
However, I will say – for the AvGeeks out there... Those birds are actually America West aircraft….they don't have CFM engines.
PBB: (laughs) But it must have been hard because American has been painting all the older aircraft quite rapidly.
Michelle: Yes, you're right. That was one of the problems with shooting scenes at LaGuardia, because we've been progressing so quickly painting our planes, and thankfully, they wanted to do this before we went through PSS – because of course after that we had no more US Airways, technically.
So things were going to be a bit different after that.
So I put in a call to a dear friend of mine at the IOC and I said, hey, can we make sure we have some of our older A320s at LGA? But of course all of this had to be done without disturbing the schedule. Because we weren't going to pull anything off schedule to do this.
And we didn't.
But I had to make sure we had legacy US Airways A320s that were taking off – because God forbid they shoot an A319. The AvGeeks would have a field day.
So we identified a time at LaGuardia with Loretta Bove, who is our Managing Director at LGA, and actually, she and her team managed the actual crash when it happened. In fact, most of the members of that original team are still there.
PBB: So the team that is there now is essentially the same team that was there for US Airways?
Michelle: Yes, it is. So this was surreal for them, to be going through this.
As you can imagine, they were very personally invested in getting this right.
But yeah, it was just a ton of work trying to work with the PANYNJ and the TSA and trying to make sure there was no operational upset because I did not want to get a call from Robert Isom because there was a D0 delay – right? Or we had some kind of security issue where we would have to clear the terminals.
We did it on a very quiet time on a Saturday. But we still had 100s of people in the terminal and we had to like cordon the areas off and had to have lots of extra security. Remember, we had to have people down on the ramp as well because they needed to take visuals of bags being loaded, and that type of stuff.
Then we actually did some scenes onboard the aircraft. So we had to have security for that as well.
PBB: Sounds like a circus.
Michelle: Yeah, a circus. A controlled circus. Movie sets are always chaotic but I can now tell you they are controlled chaos.
For the casual observer it looks like a mess, but in reality everybody has their job and they are off doing it. But to the untrained eye, it still looks like chaos.
PBB: And the cockpit scenes?
Michelle: They were shot in two places. Both were shot on our actual aircraft.
PBB: So it was not a fake cockpit.
Michelle: No, no. Inside the aircraft. Some shots were done on the aircraft at LaGuardia, but the vast majority of the shots were done using one of the airplanes they purchased. They bought a plane and they kind of cut it in half and put it up on stilts, and put it on a soundstage. Totally wild.
Oh, one other nerdy AvGeek thing. Sounds! Alan Murray (Academy Award winning sound man) came to us and told us that he knew the CFM engines sounded different. But they didn't just need engine sounds, they needed all the dings, the door closing sound. The whole deal.
So I was trying to figure out if we could do a charter flight or what. What we ended up doing? A paint run.
So we got these guys on a paint run. We told them to meet us in Phoenix. And while they were there waiting they were busy walking around the ramp picking up sounds... you know, walking around with those sticks. [Microphones]
Then they went on the paint run to Amarillo. In the middle of the night.
PBB: Even better, I hear that Warner Brothers used actual American Airlines pilots in the movie?
Michelle: Yes. There are six actors in the film who are pretty unique. Needless to say they are very special to us. They are five check airmen and one Captain from American. The scenes involving them were shot at our Charlotte Training Center. I think this, again, adds a very important sense of realism to the film.
PBB: How did this come about?
Michelle: When I read the script I felt there was no way any actor could portray the running of the "what-ifs" accurately. I wanted it done right. Again, (raises voice), "We don't want this to be 'Flight!"
So, I made the suggestion that they use six of our own pilots. What is really cool is that two of them were involved in the actual NTSB investigation – Lori Cline and Mike Davis.
PBB: That's just pretty damn cool.
Michelle: I know. So, again, you've got people who did this in real life, and they are acting as themselves in the film. And Sully was thrilled with the idea. Sully was on set that day and hung out with them. Was so glad they were doing this. And he, I think, genuinely appreciated his company's support.
He said, "That is the coolest thing that these guys are doing it."
PBB: Has he seen the film?
Michelle: My understanding is that when he and his wife and daughters saw it in July, he was just blown away.
It was a lot for them to take in. But I hear that they were very impressed with the final product. Remember, this is based on Sully's personal memoir, so it really is about him and what he went through and what he was thinking. It is a very personal movie about Sully. And he's been involved in it every step of the way.
PBB: What was the biggest thing you had not anticipated when you agreed to do this project?
Michelle: I think just to what level of detail they wanted everything. We had actual log books. Every single thing was down to a minute level of detail. They had a technical consultant working with some of our engineers to make sure things were done correctly. That type of thing.
The most challenging aspect – that is easy. The shoot at LaGuardia. That took about 2 months of planning and was very, very hard work from both the producers and from our side.
Then there was Halloween. In the sims in Charlotte. Re-creating the flight. Oh my. "Here we go…hit the geese again. Get a close-up of the altimeter." Four times. Five times. Over and over. Hit the geese again.
After about four hours of doing that…
It is not glamorous work. It's repetitive work. It's hurry up and wait work. I think making a film is much harder than people realize. If you want to do it right.
PBB: Wasn't your Dad a pilot?
Michelle: Yes. Retired pilot and A&P Mechanic. And yeah, this is kind of cool. At the end of the film, kind of like the end of American Sniper – they have a reunion of the actual passengers and a lot of the employees who helped bring the actual aircraft to The Carolinas Museum, and they more or less recreated the party that took place in June 2011, when the aircraft was brought to the museum.
My Dad was my date for that party in June 2011.
My Dad never asks me for anything. But last summer, when he found out I was going to be involved with the film, he asked, he pleaded with me. "If you are going to do anything on set, can I please come one day and watch you."
So yes, he not only got to watch me, but he got a little part as an extra in the last scene that recreates that party. So now he's the only member of the family that can say he's been directed by Clint Eastwood.
PBB: What's Clint Eastwood like?
Michelle: Totally nice. Just normal. Low key. Very tall. Probably 6' 4". I didn't think he'd be a warm guy. He's very warm and kind.
PBB: I would have thought he would be pretty tightly wound.
Michelle: No, he doesn't say a lot. I think because he doesn't need to. Just good people.
PBB: Admit it. Aren’t you just a tad disappointed that this project is now about to hit the big screen? I mean, how can dealing with cranky, bothersome members of the press ever come close to all this?
Michelle: This has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience and it will be a thrill to see Sully's story come to the big screen in the hands of master storytellers. But there's no disappointment on my end that the experience will be over, it's been a lot of work on top of my regular job, which is plenty exciting. You never know what the day will have in store for you in airline communications: One minute you can be talking to colleagues and reporters about snazzy new inflight entertainment options and then the next, the effects of a massive weather system that is disrupting operations or an emotional support pig that was booted from a flight for being, well, a bit of a pig.
PBB: I guess you never dreamed back on January 15, 2009 that you'd be sitting here, getting ready for the movie's premiere in New York, having had the opportunity you've had.
Michelle: What a team to work with. I am honored to have had the chance to represent this company on this project and I've had a heck of a good time doing it.
I always say that January 15, 2009, [pause], excuse me, I get emotional about this, was the most terrifying day that I have ever had in my job and also the one I was most proud of. Nothing has topped it.
What happened filled aviation professionals everywhere with an incredible sense of pride. Because we know what we're capable of. We know what our colleagues are capable of. Regardless of the uniform.
And I think what happened that day just brings out a lot of pride in our profession and the industry. And it came at a time when we really needed something like this in the country. Because the economic situation was so bleak. It was like a ray of light.
I know it was an accident, but "Miracle on the Hudson." That says it all.
These particular folks happened to wear US Airways uniforms, and we are so proud of them. In fact, three still fly with us. We see them out there all the time.
I'd like our people who were actually involved in it – I want them to feel proud of how the incident was portrayed and how they are portrayed. That is what is most important to us.
PBB: And you think Clint Eastwood and Warner Brothers have done that.
Michelle: Yes, I do.
Editor's Note: "Sully," starring Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, and Laura Linney, opens September 9 at a theater near you.
"In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem - government IS the problem." - Ronald Reagan
Comments made here are my own and are not intended to represent the official position of Alaska Air Group