German director Patrick Vollrath’s first feature “7500,” which world premiers August 9th on Locarno’s Piazza Grande, takes place mostly inside the claustrophobic cockpit of a commercial airliner that is hijacked by Islamic terrorists. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a young pilot who contends with the critical situation that turns out to have a humane twist. The hyper-realistic thriller segues from Vollrath’s Oscar-nominated short titled “Everything Will be Okay” and was snapped up by Amazon Studios in Cannes. Vollrath spoke to Variety about how he pulled off this coup.

How were you able to make such a big leap after your short?

A couple of weeks after the premiere of my short I talked to an older friend who had already made the transition to his first feature. And he sat me down and said: ‘what is next for you?’ I was like: ‘I have a few ideas’…and he was like: ‘No, no, no. Now go home, sit down, and write stuff, because people will come to you and say: ‘what do you want to do next?’ And he was right. So I went home, sat down and wrote down some ideas I had…Then we got his invitation to Cannes, and a lot of producers — especially German producers —were like: ‘Do you have something? I was like, ‘yes, I have something.’…Basically I had the story of this film written down: they were like: we love this!

So then what happened? I started writing a treatment, I got paid a little bit…Then when the Oscars came, I got a manager who asked me if I thought I could make it an English-language film. I hadn’t really thought of that. But I was like: ‘yes, of course!’ 

Of course JDL is a great asset. He’s a great actor, and he does a great job. How did you get him?

I first talked to Paul Dano about this role. But then there were scheduling issues and we were very happy about getting in touch with Joe. He saw the short, and he read the script. Then I got on a plane and went to L.A. We met for about two hours…I told him my vision for the film and how I work with actors…a lot of stuff that actors can enjoy…I do 15-20 minute takes, without cutting…where they can really get into the emotion, and play, and try out stuff…I told him my ideas; how I work. I think that was something he was really interested in. He told me he hadn’t done improvisational acting since he was a kid.…So a day later his agent called and said he would love to do it. 

Narratively the tone is: you are there. The characters are not superheroes. It’s very naturalistic. Did you do a lot of research?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

Yes. I read a lot of hijacking reports and did a lot of research about airplanes…to make sure it would be as real as possible. But basically everything started on the one hand from shooting in a cramped space, and on the other from the humane aspect, which stems from a YouTube video I watched. There was a time in 2015 when a lot of really young kids mostly from Europe left their homes and tried to join ISIS. I watched a report about this kid who was 18 and he came back after joining ISIS…totally disillusioned and de-radicalized…I felt I want to make a film about a kid who becomes de-radicalized the moment when he’s got blood on his hands. And from there on I wanted to tell the story of a kid who was becoming that. But he’s not just a victim, he’s a perpetrator, or a mixture of both. The thin line there is what really interested me. And then there is this aspect of revenge. In the end I want to break this spiral of violence. While I was writing, the Paris attacks took places and the German attacks. And I stopped writing and asked myself: ‘should I go on telling a story about this situation?’ I told myself that we need to try to give an answer about how we can get out of this [spiral]. How we can break this circle of countering violence with more violence.