Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and John Orloff, New Masters of the Air

The B-17 "Memphis Belle" and crew. (U.S. Air Force photo) (Wikipedia CC BY 4.0)
The B-17 "Memphis Belle" and crew. (U.S. Air Force photo) (Wikipedia CC BY 4.0)

John Orloff, Emmy-nominated for Band of Brothers (2001), is the screenwriter and the co-producer of Apple TV series Masters of the Air (2024), with Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, starring Austin Butler and Barry Keoghan, based on Donald L. Miller’s book, about the 100th Bombardment Group (Bloody 100th), during World War II.

How are you doing? What an adventure !

Yeah, it’s been amazing. Well, it’s been ten years, you know. So, it’s very exciting to finally have people see it.

It’s been a strange production. Why so long?

Yeah, I mean, it starts with just the subject matter. The subject matter is enormous. And the idea was always to be enormous because that’s what the Air War was. But the first sort of not problem, but the first thing I had to do when I was hired ten years ago was take Don Miller’s really excellent book about the Air War based in England over Europe, the history of the Mighty 8 air force. But it’s an overall history, and the 100th bomber group is one of multiple people that he follows in the book. So well, there are scenes in the book about the 100th; it’s not a history of the 100th. So what that meant was I had to discover and research what the 100th did for the full 18 months they were in Europe, not just the couple of moments Don discusses. Because this is a series of shows band in the Pacific that are based in reality very, very much so. So I spent a full year writing a 250-page outline of the show, researching every mission, all the guys. So that took a year, you know. Then Tom Hanks had to digest it; I think it was a little more detailed than he was expecting. And then we had to go through it page by page, Tom and me, revise, come up with ideas, how do we take advantage of this particular historical moment dramatically, like okay, how do you turn that history into drama because it’s not a reenactment. So that took another year, say so now in this almost two years, and then I started writing. And each one of these scripts, I’m a feature writer by trade. You know the only other television show I’ve ever done really is Band of Brothers, which is not really a TV show in the classic sense. So I came at it as a feature writer, so each one of these first drafts was 80 to 90 pages for each episode. It takes a good 3 or 4 months to write something like that. So each episode, the first draft was a four-month commitment for me. Then you get notes from Tom and HBO at the time was going through some, I don’t want to say management changes, ownership changes. AT&T bought them in the middle of this process and then sold them. It was very complicated. So that kind of interrupted us. And ultimately HBO didn’t make the show, but thankfully Apple TV+ came right in. And said, ‘Oh, they don’t want to make it? Well, we would be happy to make this.’ And that was seven years. What I just described was seven years. And then making it was just to get enormous. Making it during Covid, in the middle of Covid, you know, a crew of a thousand people had to be tested for Covid, five days a week, you know, nothing’s been easy with that show.

Tom Hanks was surprised by the technicality of the script for Steven Spielberg’s 5th project about WWII after Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers since their method is usually to tell the micro-history of everymen, here the Bloody 100th battalion of the 8th Air Force to be able to humanize the characters inside the story.

Steven was the one who really first said we should do a mini-series about Bucky (Callum Turner) and Rosie (Nate Mann) when he read Masters of the Air. And a good part, you know, of Tom and Steven’s brilliance is obviously their filmmaking, but shooting the right story to film is itself a creative decision and sometimes the most important one. So you’re right, Steven homed in on the journeys of Major John “Bucky” Egan and Major Gale “Buck” Claven (Austin Butler), and the journey of Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal, and said this is really interesting for a host of reasons because, of course, over the course of the 100th’s existence, as a unit evolved, and Egan and Claven are very different airfare than Rosie becomes part of, which you’ll see in the show. So deciding on the right story is really important, and that is all Tom and Steven, obviously. And then the surprise in the research was this: as I started to map out the show, having been part of Band of Brothers intimately, and knowing all the players in the Pacific, I didn’t work on the Pacific, but I knew everybody, what they were going through when they were making it. I wanted to start Masters of the Air in the best place possible before we went to script or camera, knowing how complicated these shows are. These are very different than anything else. I don’t know how to describe it because our commitment to the truth. So that is not to say we got it 100% right and not to say that we will dramatically change things when we have to, but there’s a reason why we don’t do that haphazardly because, again, these are dramatic shows, not reenactments, but you have to start from the truth. And one of the episodes I wrote for Band of Brothers was ‘Day of Days,’ which is the D-day episode, and when I wrote that episode, I included in the script a map of the battleground, so you could follow it, and everything you see in that episode shot by shot is in the script because that’s what the guys told me happened, and I wanted to do the same thing for every single one of these missions in the air. Well, that meant I needed to know who was in every single plane in our group on every mission we shot, and that takes a lot of research. So when you see a plane go down in this show, let’s just take episode 1, there’s three planes that go down: Shmolenbuck’s plane, real guy, his crew really went down the way we show it, Patrick’s crew, that’s not a made-up name or a made-up plane, that plane really went down, and Adam’s crew, they really went down. Same thing in episode 2, when Lieutenant Curtis Biddick gets hit, that really happened, it’s all true. Same in episode 3, the only ones which arrived at this point as we’re doing this interview. I think there is one plane we show inaccurately. No, no, not in this episode. I think every single plane we show goes down accurately represented when they go down, where they go down, which plane goes down.

Did you meet with historians ? Can you make a distinction between a Focke Wulf 189 and a MB 175 ?

Yeah, of course.

The Battle of Berlin was the only one that ever existed, that was not like Julius Caesar or Napoleon fought on the ground floor, but in the air, and it will never happen again.

I agree.

I mean when you watch a Star Wars movie with a thousand planes in the air, it actually happened during the battle of Berlin and will never happen again.

You will see it in the show, by the way.

I only saw three episodes.

You’ll see it; that’s where we go.

Did you meet with historians on that matter?

Of course.

Which one ?

Don Miller, who wrote the book and is unbelievably knowledgeable about everything about WWII, not just the Air Wars. He’s written books about all sorts of subjects. He’s one of, if not the greatest living WWII professor, author, so I would talk to him. We had technical advisors as well when you needed specific, about how does a plane behave in a certain set of circumstances, and then I would talk to the survivors in the 100th who are still alive, not any of our main characters, unfortunately, so I would talk to them, like how do you pee, you’re in a B-17 for 8 hours, how do you pee?

And not have your pee freezing on yourself, it’s in the movie.

Exactly. Which also happened in the show, and by the way, those two guys, that’s what really happened to those two guys on that mission. Sergeant Steve Bosser or Flight Officer Richard L. Snyder who got the hands because when you’re a co-pilot, on that mission, the commander of the squadron is the pilot, so Bucky is the pilot, what happens to the normal co-pilot, well, the normal co-pilot goes into the tail position so that he can check who is who and make sure the formations in the right place. So now Biddick’s co-pilot is accurately now in the tail, and he takes off his gloves because he’s not really a gunner he’s a pilot, and his hands froze to the machine gun. Well, that really happened on that mission. As you said earlier, this is a war that was never fought before and as you said will never be fought again specifically, you know you leave from a base and you fly 600 miles to your target across enemy lines and you hit the capital of your opponent. It had never happened before and will never happen again. And I will argue that the real goal of this show is not to show the brotherhood in the air we already made that show, we already made Band of Brothers. This is showing what aerial combat was like. Because nobody has ever seen it accurately portrayed.

Exactly, you needed to be an athlete like an astronaut needs to be these days and an engineer. That’s the only critic I have on the series, you know what I mean. The actors don’t look exactly like they were, extremely solid physically, more than we think.

One of the things I wish we had done better in the show, there’s always gonna be Monday morning quarterbacks, there was no mechanical engines on this thing, meaning the tail flap that was all manually done, by the pilots with just pulleys and cables so when in episode 1 when Egan is diving, what really would happen, they’re diving to put out a fire and you’re trying to come out of the dive what you’re physically doing is trying to make the flaps on your wing go up well the flaps don’t want to go up because of the air rushing on top of them, in today’s planes there is a little motor that makes those flaps go up. In those planes it was brute strength, you had to pull on that yoke with 100% of your strength, fighting physics to get that plane out of the dive. I wish we had shown that better. And the cold, one of the things the guys have said. I’ve heard feedback. They were really amazed by the combat sequences, the men of the 100th. They’re amazed by the combat, about how good they are, how accurate they are. The one thing they say is you can’t understand how cold it was, you can never understand what -40° fair in the height is like for 6 hours.

Barry Keoghan played in Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan, one of the most brilliant representations of WWII aircraft battle that Hitler called “the most important in a thousand years”. Was that an inspiration to you or do you have criticisms about it?

No, quite the opposite. I love that film. I really genuinely love that film. But that is a very inaccurate portrayal of aerial combat. The formations are wrong, and most importantly, the amount of planes is wrong. In his effort to show physical planes, when there are so many that exist, he only has four airplanes in the air at once, but on that day in Dunkirk, there were over a hundred planes battling. So yes, those were accurate airplanes physically, but is that a realistic presentation of aerial combat over Dunkirk? So it’s interesting, right?

Nazi propaganda, especially in France, said the Jews were responsible for the French planes missing in the air. It was an absolute lie, as you said. Christopher Nolan has nothing to do with that, but it’s actually an antisemitic thing to say there were no planes. The battle was fierce and equal. Last question, you also adapted A Mighty Heart.

Oh yes, I love that film too.

I lived across the street from Marianne Pearl for years, in Montmartre.

Did you meet Adam?

She brought Adam to school who was around four years old. I ran a gallery in front of their house.

You’re going to get me emotional. That was one of the hardest things I did.

A Mighty Heart, by Marianne Pearl, about the assassination of her husband Daniel, a journalist from the Washington Post, in 2002, who was about to find Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad (Pakistan), the responsible for the aircraft hijack and attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, on 9/11. How did you meet Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, who produced that movie, to work on that extremely difficult subject. And what did you think of Kathryn Bigelow’s film, Zero Dark Thirty ?

So to the Apple person, I want to finish talking about this so if we can continue, let’s forgive. So I was approached by Brad’s producing partner DD Gardner, one of the greatest producers there is. That was one of their first movies, but then they won many Oscars, DD rightfully so. So DD and I had known each other for a couple of years, and she sent me the book, and I was very moved by it obviously and came up with a way that I thought would be interesting to make it into a movie, met with Brad and DD, and yeah, they said go write it and that was easier said than done, I did a ton of research with Marianne, and I mean I don’t know what to say other than it was a grueling difficult screenplay to write and when I had to write, when I got to the third act and all the really bad stuff happens, I couldn’t write. It took me about six weeks, I think, just to get the courage to write it. Especially because I became friends with Marianne while I was writing it. We spoke a lot. It was just very difficult. I’m attracted to very difficult things, I mean Masters of the Air, you have to remember I was writing about people dying, real people dying there, every single day too. You know when I talk about Patrick, and Adam, and Schmolenbuck going down like I just did, well, there was a version of the script where they were very much alive characters in the show, you know I got to know those guys, you know, and we ended up not going in that direction but every single day I was going to work writing about another ten guys dying, I mean for years, working on this project and as you can tell I took the commitment to the men who served and many died that even if it was in a tiny way, it’s that plane in that way going down, well our whole crew knew it was Patrick’s plane going down, and they would make sure it would be done right. You know writing about people dying all the time is hard. It is hard actually.

I had some issues with Zero Dark Thirty, I don’t even remember what they were, I only saw the film once when it came out.

I don’t feel entirely comfortable commenting on the film. I wouldn’t want to offer uninformed thoughts. However, I can say that working on “A Mighty Heart” involved grappling with numerous complex issues. Does the film suggest that torture works? It’s a remarkably intricate piece, deceptively so.

Moreover, it’s not just a narrative about the American army pursuing public enemy number one, but it mirrors the story of the Mighty 100th. However, I’m not entirely certain I understand the connection.

Could it be that you were approached to delve into these two stories of remarkable bravery?

Ah, I see, navigating through evil, so to speak?

Navigating through evil, penetrating enemy lines, and engaging in an organized, intense battle against an invisible adversary.

Indeed, much of my writing, including my animated film “The Legend of the Guardians,” carries an anti-fascist undertone. While Islamic fundamentalism may not be explicitly fascist, it exhibits fascist tendencies. My work opposes the use of violence to suppress discussions and advocates for peaceful resolution. I’m drawn to projects where the antagonist embodies inhuman bullying—a simplistic but crucial theme. It’s about individuals asserting dominance through force, insisting on their way or resorting to violence. This echoes both “A Mighty Heart” and WWII’s struggle against Nazism and fascism. It raises the fundamental question of how we confront such threats, a question especially pertinent in today’s global landscape.

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About the Author
Alexandre Gilbert is the director of the Chappe gallery.
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