Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg first learned of the U.S. Marshal's prisoner
transport service while scanning a newspaper article. After reading a fascinating
account detailing the special program, he visited the outfit's Oklahoma
City base to get an eyewitness perspective of the incredible operation-which
quickly formed the genesis for "Con Air."
As the writer recalls, "I spent three days on the Con Air plane with the convicts. We flew all over the country. These guys were in a really bad mood. It was just before Christmas, and that didn't help matters.
"But it was great for me to see the tension and the conditions, and to observe these hardened convicts at their worst. It was very unsettling, and a bit terrifying. But I knew the story would make a great film."
The experience of viewing the real-life Con Air transport system remains indelible to the screenwriter. "The machinations of it all are unbelievably efficient," Rosenberg says. "The breach of security that we depict in this movie could never happen-or so they insist. They laughed when I asked if there was a plausible way the cons in this story might be able to take over the plane. They told me the only way was to let my imagination run wild. So I did.
"Nobody frisked me," Rosenberg recalls of the moment he entered the aircraft. "I just walked on with a notebook, pencil and tape recorder. When I asked about contingency plans, in case something went wrong, they didn't have an answer, because there aren't any such plans. They run a very smooth, highly efficient operation. I have great respect for them."
Producer Bruckheimer, West and their ace support team refined the script
and pre-production elements before meeting with Nicolas Cage to discuss
his acceptance of the star role.
The group held their first "Con Air" production meeting in a small office above a Los Angeles restaurant as the cast and crew of Bruckheimer's recent blockbuster "The Rock"-starring Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage and Ed Harris-were celebrating the completion of production.
That very evening, Cage had won the highly coveted Screen Actors Guild Award for his performance in "Leaving Las Vegas." Hollywood odds-makers had already-and correctly-made book that Cage would also win the Best Actor Academy Award®.
To Bruckheimer, Nicolas Cage was clearly the actor to portray the pivotal, lead role of "Con Air" hero Cameron Poe. As the producer says, "Nicolas is the consummate pro who brings everything of himself to each role he plays. He always invests a great deal of time into his character and in the script.
During that first meeting, West spoke at length with Cage about his character's background, his hopes and desires, his life in prison. These early discussions resulted in West adding a prologue that runs over the film's credits depicting Cameron Poe's eight years in prison-and the rituals he used to keep himself emotionally and physically together.
"Nic is always contributing ideas to the films," confirms Bruckheimer. "It was his concept to make Poe a decorated Army Ranger, which adds tremendously to the power of his character and the empathy you feel for him. I love working with Nicolas, because he's totally-and deeply-involved in every aspect of the film and his role. He's an incredible talent and one of the finest actors in our business."
For his part, Nicolas Cage expresses unabashed high praise for the extraordinary producer. "Jerry has an unbelievably strong rapport with actors. He genuinely cares about the balance between action and character development. Ironically, working on an action movie-with this great guiding force of a producer-enables me to do more writing, to be more in on the creative process. 'Con Air' has been a very fulfilling experience."
According to director Simon West, "Nicolas Cage is simply one of the greatest actors around today. I've always been a big fan. You never see the same character twice from him in any performance.
West found himself impressed with the actor's devotion to the role-Cage even journeyed to Alabama to work on his accent-and his passion for ideas.
"In this, he's completely different than anything else he's done before. He's unbelievably hardworking and passionate about acting. I've never seen anyone so inventive and experimental. He's amazing to watch. The work he puts into a role is very impressive. I could not have wished for a more wonderful actor to do my first film with."
Adds producer Bruckheimer, "No matter how much action there is in the picture, the story, characters and themes cannot be overlooked. In 'Con Air, Nicolas Cage's character is truly three-dimensional and interesting.
"The trick in making a good picture," says the producer, "is getting the best people available. We certainly did in this picture. We got a cast and crew that is unequaled."
Director Simon West was intrigued from the beginning both by the project's
potential and the opportunity to collaborate with Jerry Bruckheimer. "I
saw the potential to put really fascinating characters into this very tense,
high-explosive situation and at the same time I really wanted to work with
Jerry," the director says. "He is an exceptional man, with a
great talent for movie-making, who gives you total freedom. But at the
same time, he's always there with guidance and advice. He was of invaluable
help as we revised the script into a much more complex and emotional drama."
Adds West: "I certainly didn't sign on to 'Con Air' because I wanted to direct a huge, epic action film-even though that's exactly what I got!"
Commenting on "Con Air" standing as his first major feature film directing task, West says, "I wouldn't have necessarily picked something of this scope to start with. The key is to not look at the magnitude as a whole, but rather to make sure that each individual scene works individually and within the story as a whole."
The director agrees with Bruckheimer that characters were of great importance in the development of this film to its full potential. "One of the things I really wanted to see in the film was a bit of black humor that would really set off these offbeat, vivid characters. I felt that by adding a dash of humor, the violence committed by these men would be rather more palatable."
"After Nicolas Cage came on board, we started looking for other great actors," West says. "We raided the acting world for the freshest, the strongest, the most interesting types of actors around. The script isn't just a pure action movie, because the characters are so good. It wasn't hard to persuade non action-type actors to get involved. In fact, they were jumping at the opportunity. It was the nature of the story and the script which attracted them. As a result, we got an amazing cast."
Steve Buscemi, who portrays serial killer Garland Green says, "I think it's a credit to Scott Rosenberg's writing that this film attracted a cast of such high caliber."
Director West holds "Con Air" as a singular high point in his already illustrious career. "This film has all the excitement of a great roller-coaster ride that you expect from a first-rate action picture, but people will also remember 'Con Air' for the incredible characters placed in a highly unusual story. And, this film has a lot of wit in it as well."
"In this case, 'Con Air' tells of Nicolas' character, a working class hero who, because of certain events in his life ends up in prison, at the bottom of the social pile. He can't believe how he ended up there. This film really is his fight to claim back his self-esteem and take his place in society again.
"He has to make several moral decisions along the way. Helping people-saving comrades-trying to put down the 'bad guys'. It's the classic tale of an honest man's fight against evil. It's very operatic."
Following his impeccable instincts, which have made Jerry Bruckheimer
an accomplished leader in motion pictures, he championed for this film to
be "more character-oriented than it was initially. Each character
is rich in dimension and interesting-although not necessarily on the right
side of the law," Bruckheimer says. "This is what ultimately
attracted our incredible cast, actors not usually associated with so-called
"'Con Air,' I believe, transcends the action genre," Bruckheimer says. "I hope it will set a new standard for the action genre of the '90s."
Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg created the roles of Agent Larkin, and Garland Greene, the Marietta Mangler, specifically with his friends John Cusack and Steve Buscemi in mind. To the great satisfaction of Bruckheimer and all concerned, both highly accomplished actors were available-and interested-in "Con Air."
Award-winning actor John Cusack-not usually associated with action/adventure films-immediately warmed to the challenges offered by the demanding "Con Air" script and characterization.
Cusack recalls Bruckheimer convincing him to take on "Con Air." "When Jerry told me about the film, he said he would get the very best actors for it. He positioned it like his 'Crimson Tide'-a great thrill ride, a very smart thriller with really fine actors. I accepted because I admire Jerry's work and his films. 'Crimson Tide' was great entertainment.
"Jerry Bruckheimer is a complete pro in every sense," praises Cusack. "He knows exactly and perfectly how to do these great films. He gets all the right people and treats them right. And he makes the entire experience a complete pleasure.
"It's an action film, yes," says Cusack, "but with a much different tone than any other I've seen-it's smarter, has more dark irony, and a sense of the absurd that makes it really unique and unexpected. It's got great characters and is very well written. It was a great experience, all the way around."
Cusack holds special praise for director Simon West. "He was first-rate. He was on top of every aspect of this truly monstrous production, which was so epic in scope. At one point, he had 10, 15 cameras working for one shot. He retained his composure at all times."
The search, however, for the right actor to play ultra-villain Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom took longer, and was not finalized until mere days before production began.
"John Malkovich is perfect for the part of Cyrus," director West says. "Only John could so brilliantly, and chillingly, show the character's intelligence, which lives inside of a twisted sociopath. Cyrus, you see, has been in institutions since age 15 and in that time has read every book he could get his hands on. He's a self-taught madman. John portrayed that evil dichotomy extraordinarily well. On every level, he was ideal for the role."
Reflecting on his character, Malkovich says, "Even though Cyrus is a criminal, he's an incredibly intelligent person. He's masterminded a plan to hijack the Con Air flight and spring the son-who's also on the flight-of a Columbia drug-dealing family, and escape to South America. They'll be met by a second plane and go off to a country that doesn't have an extradition policy with America. The group on the plane are sort of the dregs de la dregs, but of course it was great fun working with all these actors."
Though the action genre is not Malkovich's usual motion picture milieu, he was attracted to the project based primarily on producer Jerry Bruckheimer's involvement. "He has a great track record," Malkovich says, "and I think with a film you can't always decide to take a role just based on the script or the director or the other actors. This was a hard shoot, but I really trusted Jerry and director Simon West."
Noted actor Ving Rhames was the filmmaker's first choice to play "lifer" Nathan Jones, a.k.a. "Diamond Dog."
"We wanted Ving from the very beginning," says producer Bruckheimer. "He's a great actor, and this is a great character. Like Malkovich's Cyrus character, Diamond Dog is very intelligent. With just one look he can completely unnerve you. Anyone whose reputation is killing more men than cancer has to appear fearsome and imposing. Ving handled it all extraordinarily well."
"I'm always looking to grow as an actor," says Rhames. "Working with this cast was what attracted me to the project. This film is made up of actors, not personalities or karate experts.
"Diamond Dog is distrustful of everyone," notes Rhames of his rather militant character. "He doesn't especially care for white people, but he looks at Cyrus as his last possible choice outside of going back to prison."
Mykelti Williamson portrays Baby-O, Poe's long-time cell-mate and only friend on the Con Air flight. "Baby-O's not a bad guy, he just needs a shot at straightening out," Williamson says, describing his character. "He's really out of his element in prison, but he becomes a little harder after having been incarcerated with these guys. He'll do whatever it takes to stay alive and whatever it takes to keep Poe alive. They're family."
Rachel Ticotin took on the challenging role of U.S. Marshal Guard Sally Bishop, the only female agent on the deadly Con Air flight. According to executive producer Peter Bogart, "Using a female guard was not a fictional device that we dreamed up, although it certainly does heighten the stakes for our hero, played by Nicolas Cage.
"We actually saw many women guards in the California prison system," Bogart continues, "even in all-male facilities. According to the research we did, inmates seem to behave better in the presence of women."
As the actress says of her important role, "I portray the only female guard on the plane. She is one of the reasons why Nicolas Cage's character decides to stay on the plane even though he's been paroled and could go home to his wife and child. He stays because he sees that the convicts have taken over and he doesn't feel it's safe for my character, Sally Bishop, to stay on the plane without somebody protecting her. And he's right."
Ticotin laughs when recalling the very different off-camera friendship which developed among the actors in "Con Air." "They're really wonderful guys, the complete opposites of the horrible convicts they play," Ticotin says. "They're all very gracious and gentlemanly. And very, very funny. They made it a great experience for me."
* * *
For a sense of realism and to learn about the real-life counterparts on Con Air flights, producer Bruckheimer, Director West, Nicolas Cage, and screenwriter Scott Rosenberg visited Folsom Prison.
"Michael Mann turned me on to the idea of going to Folsom," Bruckheimer explains. "There are actually two Folsoms: Level three, for those prisoners expected to eventually re-enter society; and Level Four, which is distinctly different. We also had to get special permission from the Governor's Office to visit the institution.
"The men in Level Four are hardened criminals," Bruckheimer continues. "They're called 'predators' in the prison system. That pretty much says it all."
Before the foursome was allowed to enter the yard, they had to sign 'No Hostage' waivers in the event any 'unforeseen problems' arose while they walked among the inmates.
In fact, the team found the atmosphere suitably chilling, with obvious signs of territorial gangs on the prowl. Says West: "The place is so charged that you feel like something could explode at any moment. Imagine 2,000 hardened criminals in a yard. At one point we were hustled out quickly because someone had knifed another guy in the yard."
Having days before won the Academy Award® for Best Actor for his role in "Leaving Las Vegas," Nicolas Cage was still unprepared for the warm reception he received at Folsom. "He was really touched that they even knew who he was," recounts Bruckheimer. "But we were still a little on edge. Your peripheral vision works overtime," he says in reference to being observant at all times.
The visit provided new behavioral insights into Cameron Poe, a process West and Cage continued by interviewing many inmates-ranging from veteran lifers to neophytes just getting used to the system.
Daily workouts for several member of the cast (and even many of the crew) were integral to preparing for the arduous film shoot. Cage spent weeks prior to shooting and several hours each day during production working out and lifting weights with trainer Lee Nichol to build strength and endurance. He also trained with kick boxing champion Benny Urquidez to perfect his fighting technique.
Nichol put Cage on a strict dietary regimen to help him tone and bulk up muscle while reducing his already slim physique to a mere 3% body fat. Not since his role in "Birdy" has Cage looked so sinewy and fit. Urquidez, who takes a rather spiritual approach to training, enticed many members of the crew to join him in his dojo for daily workouts and meditation sessions during lunch.
"I'm really not one of those macho guys, but I also didn't want to spoil the illusion," Cage says. "Whether I wanted to or not, I did most of my own stunts. They wanted to see my face on camera with the explosions five feet from me, and the flaming helicopters dropping behind me, and the ball-bearing bullets flying over my head. So there was a level of intensity -- fear, you might say. To be honest, it was scary," he laughs.
Verisimilitude and authenticity, always of utmost importance in every Bruckheimer production, is apparent in the smallest details including the prisoners' tattoos. Make-up artists Kirs Evans and Fred Blau, and world-famous tattoo artist Freddy Negrete, were responsible for creating, applying and maintaining the many tattoos the "Con Air" prisoners sported.
"Tattoos are more than merely markings for convicts," notes Evans. "They represent gang affiliations, crimes committed, time accrued in prison and time they have left, even personal feelings. We discussed the tattoos with each actor; they all had very specific ideas and requests for their personal designs. Much of the inspiration for the designs came directly from them."
"For example, one of the tattoos reads '13 1/2'," explains Blau. "That means one judge, 12 jurors and a half-assed chance of getting out. Some of them are more straight forward like the swastikas worn by the Aryan Nation cons or Diamond Dog's 'Those Who Kill' tattoos."
Creating the tattoos is done by implementing a process similar to that used in printing T-shirts. Using photo sensitive silk screens and ink, Blau covers the material with an acetate emulsion and then shoots the silk with ultraviolet light. The final step involves washing the screen with high pressure water which etches the design onto the screen. Although the process might sound rather elementary, it is really an intricate process which must be done with great care as the ink spreads easily and once it's on something, it's permanent. Blau and Evans employed a cosmetic ink made specifically for this process which Blau manufactures himself.
"Danny Trejo's tattoos encompass everything we do in the process," says Blau. "Most of the tattoos on his body are his own and we actually had to cover up a few of them, but several are ours. We used airbrushing, painting, and an aging process so that you can't tell which are his and which aren't. That's the trick we really take pride in. Even if the tattoo is a story point, which it is with Danny, you don't want it to stand out as too obvious."
Over 100 tattoos were used on the convicts, requiring several hours in the makeup chair. Each tattoo would last about 4 to 5 days before being completely removed from the skin and printed again.
Real life convict-turned-actor Danny Trejo, portrays rapist Johnny 23. After spending much of his adult life in such maximum security prisons as San Quentin, Folsom and Soledad, Trejo was able to draw from his own experiences to create his character. His stories of life in "the joint" enthralled both the cast and crew; however Trejo is always quick to point out how lucky he feels to have put that life and his addictions behind him. He spends much of his free time between films counseling addicts and alcoholics and helping kids escape gang life.
"I started acting in 1985 and I love it," Trejo says. "For somebody who's used to adrenaline, it's the same rush. Like the rush when you do armed robbery. You have total control. When the director yells 'Action!' it's right there, only the gun's pointed at you this time. It sounds like a strange analogy, but that's the life I came from and that's how I relate to it."
Excitement among cast members wasn't necessarily limited to the potentially risky physical surroundings. As actress Monica Potter, who plays Nicolas Cage's character's wife Tricia, remembers, "I never thought I'd be working with Nicolas Cage. When you hear his name, you think Oscar® winner. I never thought I'd be working with him so soon in my career. I've only been out here a short time, and to act with someone of his caliber is really thrilling. And he was so nice. He's just a great person to work with."
Potter continues her enthusiasm for the filmmaking experience and adds enormous praise for producer Jerry Bruckheimer. "Working for Jerry Bruckheimer in this huge action-adventure film is very cool," the young star says. "If it weren't for Jerry I probably wouldn't be working with these people because he really pushed for me. For a man of his stature to see something of value in me is really great."
Rounding out the exceptional cast of "Con Air" are David Chappelle, Colm Meaney, John Roselius, Renoly, M.C. Gainey, Jesse Borrego, Nick Chinlund, Angela Featherstone and Jose Zuniga.
About the Locations
Principal photography commenced in Salt Lake City on an airport tarmac, which doubled as Oakland Airport and the U.S. Marshal's hangar and service offices. The company then moved on to the local airport in Ogden, Utah to film the exchange of prisoners as the Con Air flight made its first stop in Carson City.
According to the script, the deadly flight changes course and lands on a small landing strip in Lerner Airfield in the middle of Death Valley. The company spent over a month in the tiny town of Wendover on the Utah, Nevada border to film these action sequences.
"Wendover was the location I chose because it looked like the surface of the moon," says director Simon West. "My idea was that it was perfect for the convicts who had been locked up for 10, 20, 30 years in little cells.
"It was an agoraphobic's nightmare," the director explains. "When they get off the plane, the guys are terrified because they see 500 miles of nothing but salt flats in front of them-the complete opposite of prison. Some of the men react by running into the distance, tearing off their clothes and screaming. Others stick close to the plane in dire fear. Some take only two or three steps before adjusting to the idea of freedom."
The temperatures in the middle of the great salt flats soared to 120 degrees, without relief. Cast and crew consumed 300 cases (7,000 bottles) of water per week; 24 to 30 watermelons and about 200 Popsicles each day; during the Wendover stay alone, craft services utilized over 35,000 pounds of ice.
A small gaming town with visitors from around the world, the city of Wendover stretches 1.6 miles across the Utah/Nevada border. It is a desolate, yet beautiful desert location where car races across the salt flats are held each year. It is interesting to note that in 1943, Wendover was the site of the largest military reserve in the world with over 23,000 military and civilian personnel working and living in 668 buildings on land encompassing 3.5 million acres. Here, bombers trained and gunnery systems were tested, among them the most notable being the 509th Composite Group, along with their counterpart the 1st Ordinance Detachment who were responsible for the assembly and modification of the atomic aerial devices used to end World War II. The air base where these two atomic bombardment groups trained was code named "Kingman" and the project itself was called "Project W-47."
Until the 1980s, Wendover's role in this area had been kept a secret. The Wendover Airport has also been used to test other more modern devices such as ballistic missiles, radar guidance missiles, glide bombs, supersonic aircraft, booster rockets and many other devices. Today, little of the original base remains, but a local historical society is doing much to try and preserve those buildings left untouched.
Las Vegas was used for shooting the climactic finale. Once again in the desert, the crew prepared for another bout of warm weather. However, an unusual cold snap hit and the company endured weeks of record-breaking low temperatures while shooting nights on the famed Las Vegas Boulevard Strip and throughout the famed gaming Mecca metropolis.
The Sands Hotel, a Vegas landmark, was the site of a major airplane crash sequence in the film. The filmmakers successfully convinced the hotel developers to postpone planned demolition of the famed hotel until after the "Con Air" location filming wrapped.
Special effects coordinators Chuck Stewart and Paul Lombardi took on the task of creating the explosive crash sequence. "The first step was to gut the plane," says Stewart. "We brought in a real C-123K and gutted it to make it as light as possible. We also built a 250-foot track and created a cable system to pull the plane into the front of the casino.
"We thought the cable system would ultimately give us more speed," he continues. "We originally figured it as a 5 to 1 ratio and pulled the plane with a heavy truck, thinking that for every ten miles an hour we got out of the truck, the plane would go about 5 times that speed. Even when empty, the plane was so heavy that the cable snapped and broke a couple of times. It took us a few tries," the special effects veteran says with a smile, "but the plane finally plowed into the front of the hotel."
As producer Bruckheimer says, "One draft of the script had the plane crashing into the White House. I didn't quite believe that, and I said the guys really would rather crash into Las Vegas. So we took our convicts and brought the plane down to land on Las Vegas Boulevard, about 50 yards from the front of the Sands Hotel. It's really something to see.
"We got very lucky," Bruckheimer says. "The Sands was going to be demolished anyway. They blew up the tower on their own. We arranged to blow up the front of the building. Hollywood helped the process along. Fourteen cameras filmed the stunt. It was a one-take deal-that's why we used so many cameras.
Then the company returned to Los Angeles to begin shooting on sound stages at the Hollywood Center Studios.
Interior scenes in the plane were shot on the studio's Stage #7 using a bubble or air gimbal to simulate movement of the aircraft. Unlike the conventional hydraulic gimbal used in "Crimson Tide," this gimbal worked on an electronic bellows system in which the aircraft rested on a set of airbags. In this way, the special effects crew could change the position of the plane at different rates of speed, creating a violent pitching motion. Although the set was only four feet off the ground, the interior of the plane weighed approximately 40,000 pounds and had to be strategically placed on the gimbal..
The filmmakers chose to use a C-123K military transport plane instead of the more commercial jets employed by the Marshal's Services. "The C-123K is much more interesting visually," explains producer Bruckheimer. "It's got a bulky, weighty feel to it. The cages we built inside the plane and the metal we added makes the action much more dramatic, besides the practical aspect of giving the crew more room to move around."
West had read in the Los Angeles Times that the Sands Hotel was about to close down and, seeing the opportunity at hand, immediately got on the phone to get permission to shoot the crash scene there.
Director Simon West says, "This is a story that has every possible element of fascination-intriguing characters, tension that doesn't quit and a plot that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
"So many things are going on within the tight confines of the Con Air plane. There are men who are extremely violent, men who are scary, people lying to each other. There is great suspicion, every kind of emotion coursing through the plane. It's a very charged atmosphere every second. On top of it all, the special effects many literally blow you out of the chair. I think audiences will agree that we have a great story, great actors, great characters, great effects-all in all, a great ride."
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