At a time when many of us are still trapped at home and riveted by stressful news, the claustrophobic intensity of Amazon Prime Video’s “7500” serves as the best kind of thriller release valve. We’re confined to the cockpit of an airplane with co-pilot Joseph Gordon-Levitt for 92 minutes as he combats Muslim terrorist hijackers on a flight from Germany to Paris. And German director Patrick Vollrath boldly shot his feature debut as a series of 15-minute, 360-degree takes, encouraging an improvisational spirit among his actors and cinematographer Sebastian Thaler.
Good thing that Vollrath and Thaler were already somewhat prepared after trying a smaller-scale, claustrophobic experiment together on their Oscar-nominated, live-action short, “Everything Will Be Okay” (2015), in which a father kidnaps his daughter in a hotel room. For the more ambitious demands of “7500,” however, Thaler began his meticulous prep by filming in the cockpit of an actual commercial airline flight, capturing footage that would serve as a visual reference for all of the departments on set.
This came in handy for the actual shoot in a real aircraft, purchased as the set and cut into pieces by production designer Thorsten Sabel. The segment of the aircraft used for filming included the front galley and the first eight rows of seats (with the art department buying or rebuilding all of the flight instruments). They shot at a studio in Cologne, where the set was positioned about 12 feet above the ground on a pneumatic rig that allowed it to be shaken by hand to simulate the plane’s vibrations as it hits turbulence or makes steep ascents or descents.
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“It was very joyful process because all of us could give a lot of input be with the actors up close,” Thaler said. “It was really having a dance with them in this small area to discover the scene and their emotional development — and to capture that visually.”
There were no marks, blocking, or rehearsal. The action unfolded live, in a series of continuous takes (and then winnowed down by editor Hansjörg Weißbrich in a jump cut, documentary style, but always from Gordon-Levitt’s perspective). LED lights were placed throughout the cockpit and turned on and off by a lighting operator on the fly to avoid unwanted shadows. Focus pulling was also handled remotely via a video monitor. The sound team strategically positioned mics so they could capture the dialogue wherever the actors moved. Everything outside the plane was a VFX green screen creation.
Thayer was like a fly on the wall: “It was important that they could move freely within the cockpit without being disturbed by myself and the camera,” he said. “And at the same time, I had to make myself as invisible as possible to give the actors the space for emotional development. And it was a challenge for them to feel safe with me up that close in this tight space.”
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To capture it all in real-time in such confined quarters, Thaler used only a single camera (the ARRI Alexa Mini with mostly Ultra Prime lenses) and shot in the widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio to best convey the claustrophobia. “What was most important for me was that we didn’t do any fake walls because we wanted to take the camera inside the space and didn’t want to get angles that wouldn’t be possible in the real world,” he added. “The only thing was that one spot on the roof was expanded so Joe could stand upright. I also tried different ways of getting closer. For example, seating him more in back so I could sit in front or from behind to have different angles and lenses.”
They were limited to four or five takes per day because of the time it took to cover the cockpit. The first was always a master take to capture the entire cockpit and then they got the rest that was needed as coverage. And improvisation was encouraged during the first take. For example, when Gordon-Levitt has an emotional breakdown, he was free to explore the gamut from being calm to sobbing.
“It was nice to have Joe on board. He was the perfect fit for the character and not the typical hero. He’s the co-pilot who has to manage the situation with calm and control. For myself, it was interesting to ask questions but not answer them. It’s for the audience to decide how they discuss what they would do in the same situation.”