Wide-eyed 13-year-old Patrick Vollrath was inspired to become a filmmaker after watching James Cameron’s Titanic.
Twenty years later, he has found his own Titanic, directing Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the cockpit of a hijacked Airbus A320 airliner in tense thriller, 7500, thus named for the air traffic control code for a hijacking.
While the German director had a taste of Hollywood in 2016 after his live action short movie Everything Will Be Okay was Oscar nominated, he was determined to set his debut feature film in the heart of Europe.
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a mild-mannered young American co-pilot, 7500 features a predominantly German cast on a routine passenger flight from Berlin to Paris, taking a deadly detour when three terrorists armed with makeshift knives storm the cockpit.
We spoke with Patrick Vollrath ahead of the film’s premiere on Prime Video.
Hijacked planes is a genre all of its own. Did you watch Con Air, Air Force One or Flightplan in preparation?
No, I did not, although I did watch some airplane movies in general, like the Airplane films. I didn’t want this to be one of those regular hijack films with a typical action hero. I was very much not looking for a Bruce Willis kind of guy or a Special Forces trained guy who uses all his abilities to solve a situation.
So where does the fascination with planes come from?
Growing up, I was into flying. As a little boy, my parents would always take me to the cockpit, back in the days when you could knock on the door and ask the pilot if you could come in. Being a pilot was my first dream job from when I was six years old. So, there was an early fascination, but my reasons for making this film are quite different.
Did you tell Joseph Gordon-Levitt to stay out of the gym in preparation for the role?
Joseph immediately knew after reading my script that this was not a film to show up on set with big muscles and I think that he was very glad about that. He’s playing a pilot and a father – not someone who is at the gym all the time. I liked Joseph for this role because he’s very likable and someone you can identify with; someone who would never really think of being in a situation like this. When you go to work as a commercial pilot, you never really imagine something like this might happen. Joseph has an ability to portray a man who could easily be your next door neighbour, rather than a big action star who is going to save the day.
Did you meet Joseph when you were in LA for the Oscars?
No, we met about a year later. He’d shown interest in my script and I flew over to LA for a couple of hours to explain my vision for the film. He said yes the next day.
Racism and injustice have become global topics. Do you feel 7500 also speaks to racism?
When we talk about people joining extremist groups and threatening society – a part of that is that they don’t feel like they belong to the society around them. And that’s a form of racism, when we shut people out and tell them they don’t belong. So, if people then tell them that they can belong to their group, then you can see why they might want to join. Society tends to push people at the edges even further away instead of embracing them. This is what racism is doing and it creates problems. The terrorists in my film have all grown up in Germany and yet their characters don’t feel like they belong. Very often, it is the feeling of being ignored or neglected that makes people cross the point of no return and commit terrible deeds – deeds that destroy any sympathy people could have for them.
It’s amazing that Carlo Kitzlinger, who plays 7500’s pilot, actually flew for Lufthansa for 20 years before becoming an actor?
My idea for all the roles was to hire actors who had real experience or knew what they were doing, be it for the cabin crew or Carlo the pilot, who didn’t have a lot of acting experience but he knew the life of a pilot and you see that in every move he makes in the cockpit, creating a very naturalistic behaviour for the camera.
Did Joseph Gordon-Levitt attend any flight schools to prepare for the role?
Carlo Kitzlinger flew to LA for a few days and trained Joseph on all the instruments in the cockpit. And then when Joseph came to Germany to shoot the film, he went on the flight simulator once a week with a trainer. For pilots who fly every day, it becomes second nature, so I gave Joseph the time to have a sense of that. I didn’t want him to play the pilot, I wanted him to be the pilot.
The story takes place on a flight between Berlin and Paris. Was there any pressure to use a US location?
Not really. I think Paris is the core of Europe. It’s about European society, not just German society. So, I wanted the flight to be from one heart of Europe to another heart of Europe. This was always going to be a European film. From the very outset, I wanted it to be based in Germany because that’s the society I know best. I don’t know about American society.
What first drew you to filmmaking?
After I saw Titanic when I was 13, it changed my life. As a young kid, searching for what I wanted to do in life, it blew me away and after that I always wanted to do something with film. The whole thing fascinated me. For the first few years I thought I wanted to be an actor but then I learned all about editing and it sent me in another direction.
Did you pay your dues along the way, working shitty jobs?
No, I was very lucky. Straight from school, I got on a training programme to become an editor and then started working immediately. Even at 19 or 20, I was able to cut my own short films. And when I went to film school, I was still able to do editing jobs. I have always worked in the film field although perhaps there is a downside to that because I never got to experience any other work. A wider range of experience is always very helpful in life.
We’re living through very fractured times right now. What message do you hope 7500 gives?
In my mind, I have always thought of 7500 as the “anti-revenge” movie because I wanted to create a film about not taking revenge and breaking the circle of violence. I wanted to make the film an intense experience but, at the core of it, it’s about putting down the knife and not taking revenge even if you have the chance, and accepting the pain instead. There’s a quote from Gandhi I really like, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”. There’s so many films about revenge so I wanted to do the opposite.
Did the producers of 7500 freak out when you said you could only film this on a real Airbus A320 airliner?
After the Oscars, I told them that I had an idea for a film and they said that they wanted to work with me. I did warn them that there were strings attached and that they would have to find me a real airplane. Luckily, they went out and found one. It turns out there’s a real market for customising old airplanes, so we were lucky to get inside a real cockpit which was re-built to give us a little extra room. Other than that, it was absolutely original. But I had to insist upon putting the audience inside a real cockpit.
7500 streams on Amazon Prime Video from June 18, 2020