No Concessions: The Most Terrifying Plane Crashes in Cinema

February 07, 2014

The last moments of a plane crash are a mystery: too often, no survivors are left to describe the harrowing scene. So into this void, directors project their imaginations, from Flight’s flight attendant relaying a message to her son through the black box, to the bumbling, yerba mate-sipping pilots in 1993’s Alive, and all the way through to Con-Air’s grizzly pilot exclaiming, “This is beautiful!” as he slams his plane into the Vegas strip.

Charlie Victor Romeo, a film directed by Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels, and Karlyn Michelson, is different. For one, all the dialogue in Charlie Victor Romeo is taken verbatim from the cockpit voice recorders of six plane crashes between 1985 and 1996—in that sense, the film approaches historic dramatization. Add to that the fact that Charlie Victor Romeo was honed as a play for over a decade before it was filmed as movie and you have an arm-rest-gripping, anxiety-fueled production that resembles nothing else you’ve ever seen, live or on screen.

The concept for Charlie Victor Romeo emerged out of a conversation in June 1999 between Robert Berger, and a colleague of his, Irving Gregory. On the way to a bookstore, the two discussed the phenomenon of reality-based programming. The conversation veered toward “how mediated reality isn’t actually reality,” says Berger in a phone interview, when the two happened upon a book about aviation accident investigations. Adapting the transcripts of cockpit voice recorders "might be a great idea for a play,” Berger told Irving. By October of that year, it was.

In the 15 years since, Charlie Victor Romeo has continuously toured the country, and won numerous awards. The movie adaptation, put together by the same team as the play, is simply the theatrical version filmed in 3-D. Despite that, it’s an austere vision, with no affectation or exaggeration. The film doesn’t need those things. Watching the actors of Charlie Victor Romeo breath life into these morbid transcripts is unsettling, and much more harrowing than any shaky camera work or pyrotechnic explosion you’ve seen before.

I spoke with one of Charlie Victor Romeo’s creators, Robert Berger, about the mechanics of putting together the play and film versions.

How hard is it to access the transcripts of plane crashes? We really need to make a distinction between recordings and transcripts. Recordings in the United States are absolutely never released, unless illegally. But the transcripts are published by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as part of a report following a lengthy investigation into what happened. If the transcript of the cockpit voice recorder is relevant to the investigation, and it almost always is, it’s included in the appendix of the report, which may be thousands of pages long. Those reports are available publicly, and after a certain period of time, they’re available as downloads from the NTSB.

How many transcripts did you read through and how did you choose which to dramatize? Between the three of us, we read over 100. We had some criteria in mind: First, we were looking for things that we thought would be interesting from a dramatic perspective. The example I always give is that what happened on the flight deck of the space shuttle Challenger would not make for an interesting performance—there wasn’t much talking, there wasn’t much going on. But the conversation at NASA a day before about whether it’s too cold to launch might make for an interesting play. Secondly, we were looking for things that were interesting from an aviation perspective: a variety of types of things that can go wrong and how people can deal with them successfully or unsuccessfully. And lastly, we started looking at these things and we learned a lot about the difference between what popular culture would have you think would happen at a time like that, and what actually happens at a time like that. We wanted to find things that showed that [going through these events] is not that different than what happens in your own life and how you might deal with them.

You mean minor versions of these crises. Everyone faces crisis in their lives. I fell down in the second grade and needed stitches—it was a bad cut. I was with my father, and he didn’t pause to have an existential conversation about God or the nature of fatherhood. He did what he had to do: he wrapped a shirt around my leg and rushed me to the children’s hospital. He dealt with crisis.

Was it difficult curating the pieces? In effect, you’re ranking the value of these very real disasters. If you’re going to present any survey, you’re making choices. We’re not aviation experts—we’re not trying to rank any of these things. In a documentary theater piece where you’re honoring the text, there are only a two things you can modulate: the text, and the order. In the production of this, we told our company of actors that we weren’t interested in them portraying these characters; we’re not interested in their regional accents; we’re not interested in trying to replicate the people involved. We were really just using the text as a jumping off point, while staying as close to the text as possible.

What came through in the performances that you didn’t expect from reading the transcripts? The whole subject is filled with expectations. We have expectations of what we imagine is going on in a situation like that. In aviation we have them, and our media’s filled with medical stories, police stories. Our perception of these professional communities is really affected by that. Look, nobody in this film [thinks they’re] crashing their airplane; everybody in this film [thinks they’re] landing their airplane. Professionals don’t do what you think you might do in that situation. They do what consummate professional experts do. The struggle to resolve a situation to get a positive outcome is continuous and never stops. There’s next to no last-second prayers, or personal conversations. But when those things do come out, they’re incredibly powerful. Reading someone cracking a joke while struggling with an out-of-control airplane moments before crash landing stands out. It isn’t the action-figure quip that we’re so used to. It has a power to it in the recognition that in this moment of crisis, this is how this person dealt with it.

For such a bare-bones production, I was surprised the film was presented in 3-D. What was the logic behind that? As a piece of theater, it’s an incredibly powerful experience. There are lots of reasons why, but one of them is that the performance of the actors, the commitment, is really showing. That translates into power through proximity—they’re right there in the room with you.

I was aesthetically concerned about how filming Charlie Victor Romeo would change the perception of being close to the people performing. When we were planning on making the film, we were looking for a place to do it. When we went to 3LD, which is where we shot the film, they proposed that we apply for a residency. They were interested in the idea of using 3D to archive performance because it’s a great medium for capturing dance, music or theater. They weren’t interested in the kind of 3D that’s playing with a yoyo or a paddleball—forcing things through the screen and into your lap; not as a special effect, but just to show you what it’s like right there. And we were very concerned with putting up the best version of what we do. So when we started looking at the kinds of things that were possible, it felt really good. It looked really good. So, we thought it’d be a great way to do it.

One of the things I was most surprised to find is that the pilots never panic—they never stop being pilots, even up to the very last moment. That also means that they continue to use aeronautical jargon throughout the piece. Does that create a hurdle for audiences trying to understand what's happening? If you and I were going to the Lincoln Center to see Rigoletto tomorrow night and we got to the theater, nobody’s standing outside the theater taking our tickets saying, ‘Welcome to Rigoletto, do you speak Italian?’ And you’d say, No, and they’d say, ‘You can’t come in.’

You can watch Charlie Victor Romeo as if it’s an opera in a language you don’t speak. Just because you don’t speak Italian doesn’t mean you don’t perceive the love, the emotion of what’s going on, even though you don’t know any of the words that they’re saying.

Charlie Victor Romeo is currently playing at Film Forum in New York, and The Independent Theater in Los Angeles.

No Concessions: The Most Terrifying Plane Crashes in Cinema