James Franco for “Flyboys”

Back during World War I, a group of American pilots volunteered to fight for France at a time when the US had not yet entered the conflict. Now, the story of the Lafayette Escadrille has been made into a film and “Spider-Man” actor James Franco as the lead character Blaine Rawlings. Rawlings is your typical good-looking American farm boy who joins the war and falls for a beautiful village girl. Franco recently talked about the film inside an airport hangar on the Californian coast:

Question: Were you a pilot before you made Flyboys? Or did you get it as a result of the film?

Franco: I’ve become kind of obsessive about research. I think part of it’s just filling time. I signed onto this at least four months in advance. Tony is a big pilot and he took me up. He had some of his friends take me up in a Stearman out in this great little airport called Santa Paula, which I guess was a World War II base. They have these great old planes, mostly from World War II – not World War I but World War II planes – and I went up in this open cockpit plane. They did all the loops and everything. It was a blast. So I thought, “Well, I have the time, I might as well get my license.” So I went every day and I got it. It was a blast. One of my favorite actors is Steve McQueen, and he did a number of war films, one in particular [called] The War Lover. He plays a pilot. You just watch him in and around the plane, and it’s so natural and detailed because he was a real pilot. So I hoped to try to come close to something like that, and it felt like maybe the only way was to do it.

Question: What was it about this subject matter, these pilots, that appealed to you?

Franco: In a war film, it’s like everything’s on the line. The stakes are so high because of the situation. So, just off the bat it’s a place of great drama. But about the people that I’ve played, and I play in this film, they are people that have volunteered to be there, and what they’re volunteering is themselves. They’re putting their lives on the line. I can’t say that I’ve ever done anything like that in my life, and because I do that I have such great respect for them. I consider them heroes. They’re volunteering for something they believe to be the right thing and they’re willing to risk everything for that. I think that’s really what this movie is about. At the time that these men volunteered, and the Lafayette Escadrille formed, America hadn’t entered the war. Nobody wanted to go until they found the Zimmerman telegram and then, “Ok, we’re going to go.” But before that the country didn’t want to go. But these men believed that it was the right thing, and they were willing to fight for it and sacrifice for it.

Question: What other research did you do? Your character’s based on a real person, right?

Franco: Kind of a few people. One of the other great things about having Tony as a director is not only does he know his aviation but he’s also one of the biggest book collectors. He was such a great resource book [we primarily used for research] I think was put together by (Charles Nordhoff) who wrote Mutiny on the Bounty, and it’s these two thick volumes. Just biographies of all these pilots. You couldn’t ask for anything more. The other thing about the movie is there really hasn’t been a World War I aviation movie, since The Blue Max.

Question: Did you actually go flying while shooting scenes?

Franco: There was a number of aspects to the shooting. We had the regular scenes on the ground and then we had all the flying scenes, which we shot in a number of different ways. They had real pilots, these guys that make replicas of World War I planes. I think everything’s accurate except the instrumentation’s a little [more modern]. So we’d go up with them in two-seaters. I guess the hardest couple of weeks was going up in this two-seater, a Youngman. I’d been flying everyday and I’ve done aerobatics and all that but going up everyday in this thing and all they want is the most exciting bit. So you go up you know you’re going to be doing loops and everything else. And then it was also [that] you’re subject to the weather so when the weather’s nice you’re going to go up and do as much as possible as quickly as possible. So it got a little difficult after awhile. I never got sick but that’s when flying was a little less than pleasurable for me.

Question: What was the scariest part of the filming?

Franco: After I did the stuff in the Youngman, the plane, I did two days in this helicopter rig. They had a helicopter and they made this little seat that sat outside of the helicopter. I was not in it. And then over the seat was just the top of the airplane so it looked like I was just sitting in the cockpit and the camera would be in the helicopter and I would be totally outside. They went up and they’d fly me around. It only really works if you have a background so you can’t see how fast you’re moving. So they’re flying me like right over the trees. I’m like, “All right, I’m at their mercy. If anything happens, it happens.” Then they wanted some clouds and there were no clouds except at six thousand feet or something. So, they’re like, “Let’s go up.” We went up so quickly, I didn’t realize how cold it actually was. It was the most piercing cold I’ve ever experienced. It just got in my bones and took me a minute to realize, “Wow, it’s really cold up here.” It lasted all night. So they shot me on one side and they wanted the other side of my face so they moved the rig to the other side. It was a French helicopter team – they were great, really excellent – but they started arguing in French and making gestures like the chair was going to fall off. “He’s not going up!” “No, it’s fine, fine!” “No, I’m not taking him up.” Eventually, I guess they got it right but …

Question: How did the Spider-Man 3 reshoots go? There were some rumors online.

Franco: Oh, there was some quote that was actually a lot to do about nothing about some test screenings that never took place and there wasn’t enough action. A lot of baloney. I think I was asked, “What are you going to be reshooting?” And I said, “Just some action scenes.” Scenes that are already going to be in it but just filling out a little bit. I actually haven’t gone back yet [to reshoot scenes].

Question: So is Harry Osborn getting his own supervillain name and costume this time? There were rumors that you were going to become the new Green Goblin.

Franco: I can’t really say. [laughs]