When German filmmaker Patrick Vollrath told DP Sebastian Thaler that he planned to do a film shot in one room, Thaler was curious. What he didn’t know was that Vollrath meant a cockpit.
Vollrath’s feature debut, “7500,” which bows in the U.S. on Amazon Prime Video on June 19, stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tobias, a young American co-pilot operating an evening Berlin-to-Paris flight. Shortly after takeoff, terrorists storm the cockpit and try to hijack the flight, and Tobias is put to the test to save his passengers.
It’s a story that’s been developed many times, from “Executive Decision” to “Air Force One” to “Con Air,” using thrilling action cuts between the tension in the cockpit and the anxiety of the passengers. Vollrath wanted to tackle his hijack story differently.
“He wanted to do this fly-on-the-wall, documentary style with long takes,” Thaler explains. “And he wanted to shoot in a real cockpit.”
To prep, Thaler and Vollrath set up and designed shots in a flight simulator. “I noted lighting conditions and space,” Thaler says. He also built a photo library of real cockpits for reference. “Ultimately, I had to figure out how we were going to shoot in that confined space.”
The film opens inside an airport terminal, which audiences view through a security camera that follows the protagonists. Soon enough — and for the remainder of the film — the viewer is in the cockpit of an actual Airbus A320, which was purchased for the production.
As hijackers attempt to breach the cockpit door, Vollrath wanted the viewer to feel the attack from the perspective of the pilot, explains Thaler, and that’s where his challenge began. He worked closely with production designer Thorsten Sabel (art director for the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer’s “Cloud Atlas” and episodes of Tyk-wer’s “Babylon Berlin”) to dissect the front third of the aircraft for filming.
Still, things were tight. “It was a challenge to shoot in the cockpit,” Thaler says, “because the pilot spends his entire time sitting there and I had to be invisible.” He decided the compact Arri Alex Mini camera would allow him the mobility he needed.
One of the things the DP noted during his research was that cockpits were anything but dark, so he worked with his electricians, discussing where to place practical lights to accurately replicate brightness — while still leaving space to get the shots. “I was working with my team — [light board operator] Marcus Klika, [grip] Florian Schabel and [electrician] Björn Schäfer — who were mixing the lights live while I was shooting,” Thaler says. The key was to avoid shadows while shooting.
Sabel had rebuilt the instruments and the flight control panel to let Thaler use soft lighting on Gordon-Levitt’s face. The panel also afforded Tobias the view from a grainy black-and-white monitor back into the cabin — footage that Thaler had to shoot.
Adding to the degree of difficulty: Voll-rath wanted to allow for the actors to improvise. “He shot lengthy, uninterrupted takes — often 50 minutes long,” says Thaler, who notes that often it was just the technical jargon in a scene that was scripted.
The improvisational style meant Thaler also needed to make sure he offered the director coverage. “As I was panning the camera, sometimes I’d change positions just so he could have options in editing,” says the DP. “I was doing this dance with the actors.”
It wasn’t uncommon for Thaler and Vollrath to do up to four takes a day, and at the end the pair would analyze footage to see if they had missed anything. Still, they didn’t have to worry about footage from numerous devices.
“It was all shot with a single camera,” Thaler says.