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‘Masters of the Air’ Producer Reveals “Biggest Problem” They Faced

Apple TV’s new World War II epic Masters of the Air has faced a very steep climb to take flight, creatively speaking.

First, it had to live up to the legacy of its extraordinary predecessor, HBO’s 2001 limited series Band of Brothers, which some consider to be their all-time favorite war “movie.” BoB‘s successor, 2010’s The Pacific, showed, if anything, what a high bar the original set. And then there are the challenges of pulling off an air-war epic — it’s inherently tougher (for reasons we’ll get into), and potentially far more expensive (all those special effects shots), than infantry stories. Perhaps that’s why it’s taken more than a decade for Masters of the Air — which is based on Donald L. Miller’s book — to make the journey from concept to screen.

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Masters of the Air executive producer Gary Goetzman is a co-founder of executive producer at Tom Hanks’ production company Playtone and worked on both BoB and Masters. Here, he takes some questions from The Hollywood Reporter about pulling off the show, now streaming on Apple TV+.

So, what took so long?

We were slow, number one. The story, number two. Developing the story took time. We made a lot of other movies at the same time [such as other Tom Hanks titles like Greyhound and News of the World]. And then, we needed the technology to catch up to allow us to make something that you would believe is happening — that really was the biggest thing. Our visual effects supervisor, Academy Award winner Stephen Rosenbaum, is great, so that hopefully stuff looks real enough and you felt like you were really there.

When I first heard about this project, I was skeptical because air war movies tend to struggle — it’s always guys wearing masks in cockpits, yanking the controls, yelling things the audience doesn’t understand, disorientating action and confusing mission plans. Masters is the first one I’ve seen that’s actually worked since the original Midway (1976). Do you agree this is uniquely challenging war genre, and how did you crack it?

That was our biggest problem! Guys in masks. You can’t do anything where you can see their faces until they’re under 10,000 feet. You don’t want to keep slamming their names at you [to remind viewers who’s who]. You need to make the mission clear, what the stakes are, understand who the guys are and what they care about. So we recognized our biggest problems on the show were going to be in the air.

The consensus is Band of Brothers is incredible and The Pacific less so. Between the two, what did you learn about what works and what doesn’t when doing these kinds of limited series?

What I’ve found with both coming out on Netflix is The Pacific has really moved into its own in a big way. It’s more tough on the audience, and I think this audience is ready for that. It’s all about their stories and, do they make you happy? Do you feel it’s more heroic or not? This one or that one? But I think Masters of the Air became a whole different kettle of fish because as we started to develop a story off Miller’s book, we realized this is different.

This unit was never really successful, and had a huge rate of men getting shot down. And we were lucky enough to find within that great characters like Robert Rosenthal [Nate Mann], who was the greatest pilot — and Jewish, which wouldn’t mean much, except, lately. And, of course, Gale Cleven [Austin Butler] and John Egan [Callum Turner], and their relationship. They were all very real. That’s who these guys were. And to get Austin and Callum to play those parts — they’ve had so much success after they shot the show.

What was it like for the actors having to train for these roles, given how much technical and mechanical knowledge they needed to be credible as airmen?

They had experts for everything. What to do with the brakes and with the flaps and with the guns. And with Band of Brothers and The Pacific and this one, our actors go through a modified boot camp. And the actors insist on it. Some of the parts didn’t even need to go through the boot camp but they’re all, “Come on, can we go through boot camp?”

Band of Brothers followed Stephen Ambrose’s book closely. What were some of the tough adaptive changes you had to make to make this one work? 

Stephen Ambrose wrote a book that was pretty down the pipe. We have that camaraderie and guys who were on the mainland marching and it was a great story. The Pacific was much more anthological. This story about the Bloody Hundredth, it again steered us back to being able to concentrate on a group of guys who are with us basically through the whole nine hours. And, hopefully, it interests the audience and they enjoy watching them in these harrowing situations.

Was there any specific input from producers Hanks or Steven Spielberg along the way, something that was particularly important to them?

They just want everybody at the top of their game, just like they are. They care about anything that can be helpful. As Tom would always say to any actor, “Hit your marks and know your lines.” You know, get out there and march.

Now that there have been three of these World War II limited series, could there be a fourth? Is there an idea you’ve had your eye on?

Well, Steven joked at the premiere, “We’ve haven’t really done the Navy.” But I think we’re going to let Greyhound be the Navy.

Band of Brothers is now 23 years old. If Apple said, “We want to remake it and give you a massive budget to make it 15 to 20 episodes” … What would you say?

I’m sure there’s somebody out there who would do it. We’re probably just doing motion picture things now.

What I’m getting at is whether it would be somewhat foolish, or pop culture sacrilegious, to remake that particular project.

If a young filmmaker had a great approach to it … that would be fine.

Masters of the Air began streaming Friday on Apple TV+.

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