Designing and Filming the Thriller
Shooting on an accurately sized airplane was a potential hardship for both the
cast and crew, but production designer Alexander Hammond explains that it helped
that the director understood how it would affect everyone's work-in front of and
behind the camera: "Jaume is wonderfully straightforward about story and action;
he is a great director for saying, 'This has to be a space that works for me and
the actors.' He was most concerned with where, physically, all the people on the
plane would go. He needed to see how the blocking worked and if the space was
conducive to the action that's written in the script. In addition, he wanted to
know how you create this thing."
Silver believes Collet-Serra and his team-led by cinematographer Flavio
Labiano-have broken new ground with the techniques they used to lens Non-Stop: "Jaume
puts us into the story and characters, into the plane in a way we've never seen
before. Because of the way that the team has built cameras into the plane,
they've given us a unique way of showing this kind of story."
The director was not intimidated by the idea of creating action scenes on a
small set. He envisioned that the contained environment would actually make for
a more visceral film experience. Says Collet-Serra: "Shooting action in tight
places presents a technical challenge, but ultimately that pays off
exponentially because people feel they are much closer to the action. The
audience is going to feel like they're on this plane, and the action involves
them and feels like it's happening all around them. You can do a lot of car
chases and motorcycle chases, but having fights happen around you in a tight
space is much more intense than your regular action movie."
Aside from a few scenes lensed at JFK Airport and an airport runway on
eastern Long Island, Non-Stop was filmed entirely at a soundstage in Brooklyn,
New York, that was just large enough to house the airplane set. For the design
team, it was a bit like building a ship in a bottle. The 158-foot-long movie
aircraft, modeled on a 767, had 29 first-class seats and 159 coach seats, and
was constructed so that the sides of the plane could be raised up for a variety
of camera placements. As Hammond, the production designer behind Flightplan,
sums, "just like an old Gullwing Mercedes."
Although it was a vessel that would never have to take off, the Non-Stop
plane needed to be able to move. A thrilling sequence involved tilting and
shaking the plane, and suspending the actors on cables to simulate their being
thrown around the cabin. All of this work, done at the end of the shoot, had to
be well-planned in advance, says the production designer. "The back third of the
aircraft was on a teeter-totter rig, so it could go up and down and jerk. It
went about 13 degrees because of how big our stage was and how much rigging we
had up on top of the set."
The special effects department attached shakers to multiple places around the
perimeter of the plane that moved out of sync with one another, resulting in a
harmonic vibration. Reflects Hammond: "Between that and camera shake, and even
some visual effects shake at the end, the special effects rig shook this set as
hard as I'd want a set to be shaken."
In building the plane, Hammond and his team made modifications to the
standard airplane aisle width to allow for film equipment and to the ceiling
height to allow for the film's quite tall leading man. As Hammond explains,
"You're dealing with an actor who's in shoes, 6 foot 5, in an airplane...which is
a very small set. You don't want him right at the ceiling. You have to set up
the volume of the space so you can film him and the other actors without getting
crazy eye lines, but also so you feel every shot isn't claustrophobic for him."
After giving the crew and the cast extra room to breathe, Hammond used a bit
of design trickery to visually shrink the plane to standard size. He explains:
"We put lights on the floor that were always illuminated, which gives you a
visual compression of space in the aisle. So when you're thinking about how big
the aisle is, your eye actually picks up the lighted floor strip, and it makes
it feel smaller."
From the beginning of preproduction, it was important to the design team to
incorporate elements of a plane that an average flier wouldn't know were there
but would definitely experience. Continues the production designer: "We wanted
to do this in a way that's a bit similar to what Virgin Airlines does now. With
new international aircraft, there's a different kind of thought put into
lighting systems. There are moods for when you first enter the aircraft: when
you're all bright and announcements are on, and then when it is night and people
The lighting incorporated into the plane was also a way for Collet-Serra's
crew to expedite moving smoothly from scene to scene during the course of a
shoot day. Shares Hammond: "We had about 3,000 practicals [lights] on the plane,
if you include all the LED strips. The built-in light was basically controlled
by the DP and the gaffer, so we didn't have to do a lot of lighting of the
environment. You still had to light actors, but the environment lit itself once
all of those systems are in place. It made it fairly quick to go from setup to
setup: night in one and day in the other and dawn in the next."
There was one small piece of the set that was separate from the body of the
plane: a duplicate of the airplane bathroom, in which a key fight scene occurs
between our hero and another passenger. To shoot the sequence, the filmmakers
used both the bathroom on the plane and the duplicate, which resembled a wooden
box the size of a phone booth, to enable better camera positions for DP
Hammond explains that the script had unique opportunities and took advantage
of the plane's character: "That made it fun to design the actual plane with
surprising choices. One of the biggest fights in the film takes place in an
airplane bathroom with Liam and another guy who is not a small guy, either. They
put two large men in that tiny bathroom and Jaume wanted to go for it. The idea
of a fight in a small space was something he very much embraced, and instead of
saying, 'No, let's make a really large bathroom,' he said, 'Let's make it real,'
because it gave an energy to that fight and a different kind of choreography
than would have happened otherwise."
Rona comments that the technical accuracy added to the story: "You want
everyone to believe what's happening is how it would happen in real life, so we
took great pains to make sure that it's authentic. We consulted with TSA
officials, former U.S. Air Marshals, flight attendants, pilots. In fact, one of
our major plot points came out of one of those conversations with our
consultant. They told us how it would happen and this is what they would do and
this is how an air marshal would behave."
Experts were also on hand to advise the key cast on how to handle weapons on
an aircraft and how they could be deadly in a quick, confined way. Stunt
coordinator MARK VANSELOW, who has worked on many films with Neeson, shares how
he worked with Hammond's set: "We reverse-engineered the bathroom scene from
what those characters would be able to do and what their skill set would be.
They aren't necessarily martial-art experts, but the airplane is their home and
where they train, so we created a scenario where you have two evenly matched
people and we demonstrated how surprising that would be. Then you take into
consideration the space. A lot of techniques work great in open space, but when
you're confined, they don't work at all because your elbow doesn't work this way
or the force of a hit is different in tight quarters."
The special training extended to the film's in-flight crew, says Dockery: "We
had a flight attendant who came in to do a seminar with us. We were taken
through various things-mainly safety procedures, how you present yourself, how
you would deal with someone who was being aggressive and the things that you
would and wouldn't know. I learned a lot about protecting the cockpit. Actually,
the flight attendants are very wary of anyone getting close to the cockpit door,
and there are various methods in how they deal with that."
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