Filmmakers have always had a knack for playing with our most primal fears to make their art. And no other fear has been more enticing—and at times more taboo—to delve into than flying. From Richard Donner’s masterful Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” to Alive to United 93, there’s nothing that gets us to grind our teeth and grip that elbow rest a little tighter than watching something go wrong in the sky.
Playing with these fears may have partially been the intention of the theater company Creative:Unconscious when they began work on their play Charlie Victor Romeo in their small Lower East Side theater in 1999—but it certainly was on most of the audiences’ minds as they filed in to watch it for its 13-year run. Using actual flight transcripts from the “Black Box” recorders on the planes, Charlie Victor Romeo highlights six real-life airline emergencies and showcases the harrowing attempts by the pilots and crew to take back control of their planes. From the navigation tools on the dashboard malfunctioning to birds flying into the engine, each example has its own unique problems and is only shown from within the confines of the cockpit with the dialogue spoken only taken from what was actually said in those faithful moments.
The play has now been made into a feature-length 3D film, which following a festival run that included stops at last year’s Sundance’s New Frontier section and the New York Film Festival, is now being shown in theaters. For the creators of the project, making “CVR” into a film not only gives more people the chance to see it but it also gives their work that has been championed by aviation groups and the U.S. Defense Department a fitting end as for years to come it will still live on even if lack of funding or logistics makes it impossible for them to perform it live.
I sat down with two of the project’s creators, Robert Berger and Patrick Daniels (Daniels also stars in the film), to talk about the show’s long history (which has included performing in front of victims’ families and the pilots who survived), the importance of continuing to do CVR following 9/11 and why after watching the film you become less terrified about the “friendly skies.”
I had read that this idea blossomed over burritos?
ROBERT BERGER: Burritos happened after the idea blossomed. Basically, in 1999 Irving Gregory, one of the author’s of the play, and I were walking from the theater on Ludlow Street to Broadway because I’d ordered a book at Shakespeare and Company. We were having a discussion, or as Patrick put it—
PATRICK DANIELS: An argument.
RB: About whether reality-based programming in television in 1999 was an example of Millennialism? Was it a sign of people going crazy at the turn of the Millennium, as other Millennial turns had presented things of people going crazy? And at the time in 1999 reality-based programming was Cops and American Gladiators—
PD: And game shows.
RB: And game shows. So we’re having this conversation and we find ourselves in Shakespeare and Company and of course Irving and I are loudmouths and at one point I see a book about aviation accidents that I had read a few years previous when I was a cameraman for the news covering Flight 800. So I told Irving to go look at the book as I went to go get mine I was picking up. I come back to him and I see that he’s reading what looks like a script but it’s a transcript from a flight accident. And I’m looking over his shoulder and I said, “Hey, Irving, that might be a really good idea for a play.” I told him what I thought and he said, “That’s a great idea.”
We left the bookstore and walked back to Collective:Unconscious and Patrick was at the theater and we all went out for burritos and sketched the whole thing out on a cocktail napkin. What the set would look like, how you would do the stage. So in 10 minutes we had it.
PD: And I said I want to cast it and I can build the set, that’s pretty simple, and it’s perfect for our space because it’s this small microscopic environment and it’s also, content-wise, the most serious material I’ve ever worked on and in that way it really piqued my imagination. I was like, “This is what I’ve been struggling to want to work on.”
RB: We were desperate to do something serious, and do something that was not just comedy. Not that it’s easy to do comedy, but at that time in 1999 there was this huge appetite for huge spectacles of comedy and sci-fi [in the theater world]. But the opportunity to do something powerful, something dramatic, something meaningful in a way that that other stuff wasn’t was something that we were hungry for.
And Patrick, as one of the actors, was there a challenge to express the emotion needed for the characters where the only source material were transcripts?
PD: It’s a real gift to be presented with material such as this. It’s an opportunity to commit to something because it’s real. It’s based in reality. I personally have a struggle with believing in imaginary circumstances and that struggle does not exist in this case. One of the things that is interesting, and we’ve had to recast a couple of times over the years, every time we hold an audition people are rushing to get into the door. They want to do this. And as soon as someone sits down with one of the sides that we have and reads through it a couple of times, it’s obvious who is going to be good in it.
How is that?
PD: There are people who are really fantastic actors who wouldn’t be able to work this material. Their capacity for speaking just wouldn’t work. But the people that are, once they start reading you go, “Oh yes, there’s a pilot right there.” And not only are they going to be able to work up to being a good pilot but this individual right here is obviously a serious, committed performer. And for me that’s where it all turns. Because the people that we have in the cast of the film, who are also the most recent cast of the live experience, all at the drop of the hat when we say, “Hey, we’re going to do the piece,” they are all like, “Okay, let me quit my job, I’ll be there tomorrow.”
PD: And that kind of interest and intensity in something, I think the material inspires that.
How did you guys choose the flights?
RB: We had three things in mind and there were a lot of resources to study and lots of places to read the transcripts, and we read a lot of them.
And this is all available to the public?
RB: Yeah. In the United States, after an investigation by the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] a report is published that includes thousands of pages of the history of the investigation and the conclusions and if what is spoken in the flight deck air craft and the cockpit voice recorder transcript is relevant to the accident, and usually in some way it is, then a transcript is produced. The transcript is produced by a bunch of engineers and pilots and representatives of all the different participants sitting around listening to something and they decide if they all agree unanimously that this is what is said or heard then it goes into the transcript. If it’s decided that they couldn’t figure out what was said then the transcript would have both thoughts of what was said or if they think what was said wasn’t relevant it would be redacted.
So we read a lot of them and we were looking for three things: things we thought were interesting from a dramatic perspective, interesting to perform. We were looking for things that were interesting from an aviation perspective, we wanted to show some that are well known and some that aren’t so well known, show a variety of different things that people dealt with. Lastly, and I think more importantly, we wanted to show that the situations we were depicting are actually not different at all from the situations we as laypeople, our audience, have in their own lives. Experiencing a crisis in your life these days goes from your kid falls down cuts his leg and he needs stitches, to you narrowly avoid someone who swerves into your lane on the highway, to your mom’s laptop WiFi isn’t working and you’re trying to help her out over the phone. So the circumstances these pilots are getting into aren’t that different from the circumstances that we get into and we wanted to make sure that we were drawing parallels between the regular lives of laypeople and the regular lives of professionals.
The big difference between these two sets of people you’re taking about though is the layperson would probably freak the hell out if they were sitting in the cockpit and everything on the dashboard went blank.
Watching this it seemed—or the way you guys performed it—that until the bitter end all of these pilots thought they were going to land these planes.
PD: Reading through the material as we were trying to figure out what would make it into the show, I was surprised that there wasn’t more in the way of freaking out. And apparently from what I’ve read over the years that’s the exception rather than the rule. I mean the way Robert parallels between people’s everyday lives, the stakes are much different, but people deal well with stress and the way people deal with their fear in crisis moments is what exposes their capacity. Even when people aren’t dealing with situations well, the attempt is still correct for what is going on. Yes, you’ll have people yelling and screaming if there’s a problem, but you’ll hear stories day in and day out about a guy who ran back into the burning building to rescue someone. They weren’t emotionally connected to those people, they just did it, and that’s a beautiful thing and speaks to humanity. These pilots and crew on top of that are highly trained, recertified all the time, and psychologically made up to be inclined to never stop trying to fix the problem.
RB: Nobody in this film is crashing an airplane; everybody in this film is landing an airplane. And the reviews for this film or even people hearing about this film and it’s about aviation accidents or emergencies, we all bring a lot of baggage to that subject and we all have preconceived ideas from Final Destination, from The High and the Mighty, from our American culture’s relationship with aviation, that puts all of that stuff in our heads and a big part of this project for us has been to sort of play a little bait and switch with the audience where all of that stuff you’re welcome to come into the theater thinking all of that, I don’t have a problem with that, because the reality of what we’re putting on stage and the screen shows things from a different perspective. Not of special effects, or media coverage of the suffering people who are victims or connected to victims, but to try to just show people that struggle with an out of control monster. And I’m not trying to say that Charlie Victor Romeo is good therapy for nervous flyers, but what I am saying is that over the years the most surprising thing we’ve heard over and over again from people who have seen it, including our mothers, is “I expected to be afraid after seeing it,” and amazing for us and one of those weird things is that many, many people say afterwards, “I feel a lot better about my anxiety about flying after seeing this.”
That was the strangest thing for me, as the movie went on I had a feeling of reassurance about the pilots and by the end I felt an ease about having to fly in the future because I just see how dedicated they are to their jobs.
PD: The gathering of knowledge is what helps you live with your fear. What you are describing for me is, “I know more now than I ever had,” so it’s not that my fear is gone but it’s controllable, I can live with it. And from a performance point of view, having that fear in you as energy is valuable and it’s something that we take advantage of from the audience as well. Giving people information and consequently raising their knowledge is helpful to them but people’s fears are still there. It’s just the way they deal with it.
RB: And challenging the audience. One thing that I’m so proud of was we didn’t presume. Some people ask, where’s the context? What’s the passengers doing? What’s going on outside of the aircraft? All those things we specifically chose not to show, we made a film and a piece of theater that invests the trust in the audience’s ability to pay attention, to learn something from context and most importantly, that when you see this film our intent for that experience is that you’re seeing it in a theater full of people sharing that experience. Our biggest fear in the making of this film and what we wrestled with the most was how can we bring this incredibly special experience sitting with a group of people and that you’re definitely aware of the people around you and keeping that tone, that sense of community alive? That’s something that the 3D and the sound and what’s chosen to be in the film and trusting the audience to fly with us and step back and then step in.
Doing work as an audience member is the most challenging part of putting art in front of anybody. You want desperately for people to not just react but to be affected and yet because this subject is so scary and we’re using things that were never intended to be thought of as a script for a play or a script for a film the burden of managing our relationship to these things and trying to craft something that at the same time is challenging and respectful and “entertaining” is what the efforts of the last 15 years has required.
How vast were the ideas you had when thinking of adapting this into a film?
PD: From our own perspective given infinite time and money we would come up with something that is different then what this is, however the item as it stands is very, very close to our hearts in terms to the kinds of things we look to go see ourselves. We’ve had experiences over the years of people who would say, “That was an amazing piece of theater, I would love to make a deal for the rights and make a film so the first thing we have to do is change it this way,” and those conversations are interesting because that’s the kind of conversation that makes you expand your capacity for imagination.
So on an abstract level it’s good to have those conversations, but it’s frustrating to talk to folks like that who not only have a lot of ideas about how they would do it but they’re not really interested in including you in their efforts, or paying you enough of money to make it worth your while to just let go. So early, early on, maybe a year in or not even a year into production, I started thinking to myself how would I add to this [for a movie version]? There’s an Air Force incident in the film. It’s really short. And what becomes before what you see in the film in the transcript is this amazing preflight track monologue with everyone on the plane and cracking jokes and there’s this guy that shows up right before they take off and they joke that they should take off with him still on board and there’s a fly in the cockpit and someone kills it, beautiful stuff. It didn’t fit within our capacity to present it but my first thought was we can expand on all of this through a film. I mean I could go on for hours on what I thought of doing. But what we narrowed down to is what you see in movie theaters these days and it’s the core. The effort has been to get to the core of the content and that was important and try to present that as truthful as possible.
The play started in 1999, when was its final live show?
PD: The last time we performed was directly following the shoot of the film, we performed for a month in the space we shot the movie in. That was 2012.
How was it doing the play after 9/11?
RB: On 9/11 I was sitting in a living room watching TV, I was in Cape Cod, I had moved out of New York three weeks after it had happened, so I became obsessed with tracking down my friends and family and after I did that I realized I have a group of friends who work in the Defense Department at the Pentagon. These were the guys in 1999 who discovered Charlie Victor Romeo through aviation related websites and had a group of combat photographers from Utah come to the Lower East Side to video tape a production of Charlie Victor Romeo in agreement with us to make a training film for Crew Resource Management. By 2000 we had received a Defense Department Award for creativity in their visual media. We’ve received a letter from a Major General thanking us for contributing to saving the lives of guys who are operating aircraft. So we were the only theater perhaps in New York that had a defense contract in the window of their theater.
So when it happened at the Pentagon I reached out to my contact there and I got a response that was like, “We’re all fine, what are you going to do with the play?” And I never thought what am I going to do with the play. And stream of consciousness I wrote back an email and immediately I got a response from them that was, “You’re absolutely goddam right, whatever you do don’t stop.”
PD: Because what this is about isn’t that. 9/11 is a totally different thing and any change in attitude or presenting it in a different way begins to allow that terrorist effort to be successful. We had some rescheduling and some cancelations happen and initially with that I was really frustrated but you have to give people their space. But I thought to myself if we don’t do this they will win, we have to keep going. And for us, this is a monster movie, it’s man against machine so there’s no human on human element and there becomes a lot of political complexities when you begin to talk in those terms. The politics on Charlie Victor Romeo is we’re trying to make the system better.
RB: That’s the only political parallel I can find. That the way the people are trained to respond in these situations, whatever, the burning house, car accident, the horror of 9/11 regular people jumped up and doing whatever they could do and risking their own lives to help other people. Thinking about what people are like they are making those choices and not thinking about the potential ramifications of what it means to try to help somebody else, those are amazing moments.
Did anyone in those cockpits survive?
PD: Yes. In fact, the last incident we show, everyone you see in that cockpit survived and more than half the people in that aircraft survived the crash. And we’ve met Captain Haynes a few times.
He’s the pilot you play?
PD: That’s right. And further, Charlie Victor Romeo has been presented at a few fine arts centers in conjunction with a training project for medical entities. We went to the Scottsdale Performing Arts Center and they also brought Captain Haynes, he presents a slide show and does a lecture about post-traumatic stress and his experiences. So what these medical professionals wanted from us was to perform Charlie Victor Romeo in a small theater and then the audience would walk across the hall and into the big theater and receive Captain Haynes’ presentation. Amazing. And we did that twice. In Scottsdale and Honolulu.
Captain Haynes actually went to our theater in the Lower East Side to see the play. After the incident he recovered in the hospital and then went back to flying.
What’s the reaction you’ve gotten from victims who’ve seen the play?
RB: Over the years from Captain Haynes, who was the first to see it [out of the real people who were on the flights], to performing in Ohio and having a post performance discussion where passengers from one of the flights were there, people who were first responders at the accidents, people who worked on the investigations, people who knew these people, we’ve gotten emails from people who were related to the crew who died. It’s a blessing and the motivation to make this as tight and as good and speaking for what we are trying to say as best as we can because we carry the responsibility to answer who we are and where we are coming from by doing this and not educate but show.
PD: And it’s a reminder. I’m aging further into the part as I get older which is kind of nice but as I get older I’m thinking about things in different ways, I think of this in a more memorial way than I did when we first began and the contact that Robert is speaking of I can’t get those kinds of things out of my head so our activity has to deal with that and you have to be sensitive to whatever anyone in that capacity is going to say.
How do you follow this up? Is there an attraction to do something similar?
PD: From my point of view it’s keeping your eyes open. There are a lot of amazing possibilities in making the next movie or piece of theater. It’s just a question of jotting it down on a piece of paper and beginning to work and choosing the people to work with.
RB: There’s a lot of ideas over the last 15 years. A lot that is not Charlie Victor Romeo. And I’ve been working on three or four of them and I’m really looking forward to executing some of those in a different way for the screen. But this is the first and only time that we’re ever going to open our first feature film in New York and Los Angeles with the kind of press and interest in the work that we’ve done, how could you not think about your ability to take your momentum and start working on the next thing?
* **Charlie Victor Romeo is currently playing at New York’s Film Forum and L.A.’s Downtown Independent.***