BOB GARFIELD: Chances are if you've seen an airplane in a movie, it was a set. Sorry to bust the illusion, but think about it -- anybody who's had to fly recently knows there's barely a seat to spare. No wonder you don't see film crews blocking off gates or trying to shoot on the runway as jumbo jets soar overhead. Instead movie makers head to the north end of the San Fernando Valley where a company called Airline Film and TV Promotions provides what a film crew really wants. Reporter Rachel Myrow of KPCC takes us there.
RACHEL MYROW: We're sitting in a convincing mockup of an airport gate with a real cappucino stand, rest room signs and TV monitors listing departures and arrivals. If it weren't for the film crew, you'd never guess this was a sound stage in Pacoima! Which is the idea. Tonight's shoot is a TV pilot for series called Bernie Mac. Ruben Freed is the art director.
RUBEN FREED: What I found was something that everybody uses and has used in different ways. I tried to personalize it the way that, you know, our particular vision has it. [BACKGROUND CREW CALLING "ROLLING"] But I'm sure that we've done no more or less than a lot of other people have done in the same space, you know? It's a good facility, [WHISPERING] and the, the variety of things, the resources here are actually tremendous for this kind of thing.
RACHEL MYROW: Step inside one of the 747's or the DC-10 on the soundstage and you'll find authentic airline seats, windows and oxygen masks. These retired airplanes have been sawed into pieces that are easily broken down and re-assembled in an endless variety of ways. Standing in the aisles you can almost smell that yeasty air-conditioning, feel the rumble of engines warming up beneath your feet and hear the swirling sound tracks to a dozen cheesy movies.
MAN IN MOVIE CLIP: I want the best available man on this -- a man who knows that plane inside and out and won't crack under pressure!
BYRON SCHMIDT: Well I was with TWA for 19 years--
RACHEL MYROW: 72 year old Byron Schmidt fell into this business, so to speak, after training to fly fighter planes in the last days of World War II.
BYRON SCHMIDT: I started out in sales, and then I got into the department that did motion pictures and television called Special Promotions, and I did that for 19 years, and we did like 130 pictures a year - we did - we did Woody Allen's movie Annie Hall that won the Oscars. They had Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly out here together for a Western Airlines commercial; Jerry Lewis, Angela Lansbury -- you could name the, the famous people that have been in here for different shots.
RACHEL MYROW: Schmidt claims he's not motivated to run a high-flying prop shop because of celebrities--
BYRON SCHMIDT: Here's Jack Lemmon and Dennis Hopper and Red Skelton, and here is....
RACHEL MYROW: --but give him half a chance and he'll lead you into his office and to the Wall of Fame, plastered with photos of actors sitting in airplanes, exiting from airplanes, standing beside airplanes.
BYRON SCHMIDT: ...Sean Connery, and there's Marlon Brando in a picture called -- let's see - what was the name of that? -- The Ugly American.
RACHEL MYROW: Way back in the early days of commercial air travel TWA's special production division provided free travel and mockups to TV crews in exchange for on-screen credits. In 1974, Schmidt and his partner, Alf Jacobson [sp?] formed a company of their own and began operating the TWA program under contract. Their 22,000 square foot warehouse has been home to hundreds of shoots for everything from magazine ads to rock videos. Even that granddaddy of airline comedies, Airplane, was shot here.
MAN: Flight 2 Zero Niner clear for vector 3 2 4.
MAN: We have clearance, Clarence.
MAN: Roger, Roger. What's our vector, Victor?
MAN: Tower to radio clearance, over.
MAN: That's Clarence Over! Over!
MAN: Roger, over.
MAN: Who?! [ENGINE RUMBLE - MOVIE MUSIC]
RACHEL MYROW: Even United Airlines and Boeing shoot commercials and corporate films here. It's just easier, Schmidt says, to borrow a piece of a plane for 15 hundred dollars or spend a 12 hour day in Pacoima for 6,000 bucks. No wonder so many plane scenes look strangely familiar. It's a real worry for art director Ruben Freed. [MAN SHOUTING ORDERS IN FILM CLIP]
RACHEL MYROW: Do you ever wonder that people watching it are going to go haven't I seen this airplane someplace before?
RUBEN FREED: That's my big fear. Yeah. I hate to, I hate to even think about that.
RACHEL MYROW: But there's no one telltale sign a scene was shot here. No cigarette burn hole in seat 4F - no misplaced oxygen mask or impossibly roomy toilet. Then again, just ask yourself how you're able to watch the drama unfold in the cockpit. [MOVIE MUSIC]
WOMAN: Ladies and gentlemen, this is your stewardess speaking. We regret any inconvenience the sudden cabin movement might have caused. This is due to periodic air pockets we encounter. There's no reason to become alarmed, and we hope you enjoy the rest of your flight. By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane? [SCREAMING AND MAYHEM FROM PASSENGERS]
RACHEL MYROW: Not that the actors need to worry. This fuselage may have held a lot of stars, but it never leaves the earth. For On the Media, I'm Rachel Myrow in Hollywood. Okay, okay --Pacoima.