Terror in the Skies in 7500

Director Patrick Vollrath on reinventing the hijacking drama

Joseph Gordon Levitt as a pilot no longer in charge of his plane in the claustrophobic 7500

It started with a challenge. Patrick Vollrath came out of watching Locke - the Tom Hardy film set solely inside one car, in real time - and he asked himself, "Why not just shoot a film in just one space?"

Immediately, he decided he wanted to make a film completely in the cockpit of a plane, and built the story of what would become his new film, 7500, around that technical obstacle.

The movie, which debuts this weekend on Amazon Prime, stars Joseph Gordon Levitt as Tobias Ellis, the American first officer on a German flight who must stave off disaster as a band of terrorists invade the cockpit, stab his pilot, and leave him injured. After he retakes the cockpit, the hijackers threaten to kill passengers unless he opens the flight deck door - something he knows he can never do.

Austin Chronicle: Shooting in a single location seems like an attractive idea - until you actually have to do it.

Patrick Vollrath: It was a big challenge to the writing process, because it's very hard to create a story in one place, and write a believable plot that's still realistic. Doing the filming, everybody asked, 'How do you make it visually interesting?" and we thought a lot about that. First, we lit it 360, so we made it even more challenging with the natural light from the cockpit. Everything is illuminated by the instruments, from the headlights, and from outside lighting. And then we had different setups to make it cinematic, and in a not obvious but hidden way, to keep the emotional core of the scene. It's little brighter in the beginning, and in the end all the lights are dull, and it's just light from the outside, as they are more locked in.

AC: Hijacking narratives have become subsumed by 9/11, but there is a long history of plane hijackings, including of German flights. Did that affect how you came at the story?

PV: I never thought about the history of hijacking. Of course, I read everything I could find on the hijacking process. In the Seventies, it was way easier to hijack a plane, and you got could get a lot of attention on yourself. If you want to make a point, you hijacked something very big, but at that time you could bring machine guns and hand grenades to an airplane. That's changed because airport security changed, and after 9/11 there was another big change about the cockpit door. I think that made a big difference, because it's very, very hard to hijack something, so we had to come up with ideas of how it could happen now.

Airplane security is based on "Well, if something happens, now we do this which will prevent it." When 9/11 happened, everybody sealed the cockpit doors. I wanted to create a moment where it would still be possible, but hopefully it will never happen because we know where the problems are, and where the lack of security could be.

“The main character does not answer revenge with more revenge, and I think that’s the only answer, and how we can react to acts of terrorism and acts of violence.”
AC: That means the door becomes pivotal, because it reduces Tobias' decision to one moral choice - does he open the door. I can imagine that would really focus the writing process.

PV: During the writing and researching process, that was one of the main conflicts. The deeper core of why I wanted to make this film was towards the end, where he has to make all these decisions, between life and death, that are very close to him.

The core of this film is that you can never answer violence with violence. All these hijackings are acts of revenge. The leader tells everybody that they want to take revenge for what they do to other people. Here the main character does not answer revenge with more revenge, and I think that's the only answer, and how we can react to acts of terrorism and acts of violence.

AC: By picking an airplane, even though the film is set in Germany, you have to write some sequences in English because it's the agreed common language of air flight. What impact did that have on the script?

PV: My short film (2016 Oscar-nominated "Everything Will Be Okay") got a lot of attention and opened up a lot of doors, and it opened me up to the idea of casting an English-speaking main actor. I thought of that, that the main language on the plane is English, but bringing someone who speaks a different language creates this barrier, and it tells you a lot about him, and adds another level to the characters - who is well educated among the terrorists, who isn't.

It's almost like being in a big city. People who come from the same cultural background, they're way more accepted in society even if they're a foreigner. "OK, you're a foreigner, but you come from the same background." But these kids, even if they come from the same home country to join a terroristic group, they speak German very well because they grew up there and it's their main language, but they still don't really feel like they belong to society. Then someone who didn't grow up there is immediately accepted.

AC: This concept of who does and doesn't "belong," and who feels alienated, and that Tobias is more welcomed than the young hijacker, Vedat (Omid Memar) - when did that become a theme in the script?

PV: It was 2015 when I started working on the script, and I was very interested in all these kids leaving Germany or Austria, fighting for ISIS, and calling their mother after a few weeks and saying, "This was the biggest mistake of my life. Please get me out of here." I read a lot of those stories and it really moved me, and I thought, "That must be a character of someone who goes in with a lot of hate and a lot of misguidance," and wakes up in the middle of it all. I wanted to make empathy for this kid who does so much wrong to people, but in the end is just a little boy who went on the wrong path.

7500 is available on Amazon Prime now.

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