On Location: Virgin flies high with 'Departure Date' film
British tycoon Sir Richard Branson has made a career out of bucking conventions — opening a recording studio in a country estate, building an affordable, premium airline service with soft violet mood lighting and seat-back entertainment screens, and even launching a space tourism company.
Now Branson’s Virgin Group is breaking the mold in the movie business. Virgin’s America, Atlantic and Australian airlines have teamed up with the company’s new film and TV company to shoot a half-hour movie filmed and edited entirely aboard regularly scheduled commercial flights — believed to be a first.
Titled “Departure Date,” the airborne romance between two people who meet on a plane was shot over nine days and three continents last week during flights from Los Angeles to London, Dallas, Fort Worth and Sydney, Australia.
The project involved a crew and cast of 20, including actors Janeane Garofalo, Ben Feldman and Luis Guzman.
“Virgin airlines have swept all the awards for having the best entertainment systems in the skies, but a movie about falling in love with a stranger onboard a Virgin plane: now that’s in-flight entertainment!” said Branson, the founder of Virgin Group.
Directed by Kat Coiro, the film is part of a marketing campaign to promote Virgin’s services to Los Angeles. It will be featured as in-flight entertainment and will debut in June at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Virgin is also negotiating to land a TV deal for the film.
“We really wanted to [do] something that would convey the unique Virgin experience in a way that was meaningful and relevant to Los Angeles,” said Simon Bradley, vice president of marketing for North America for Virgin Atlantic. “That’s where the idea of a movie came in because of L.A.’s strong connection to the movie industry.”
Commercial airlines have long played a major role in scores of movies, including the 1980 screwball comedy “Airplane!”; the 2005 thriller “Flightplan,” starring Jodie Foster; and Paul Greengrass’ 2006 film “United 93,” based on an account of one of the planes that was hijacked and crashed on Sept. 11, 2001. But those movies took place mainly on soundstages, making the Virgin production particularly unusual.
“We pride ourselves on doing things that are a little bit different, and this is certainly an example of that,” said Jason Felts, chief executive of Virgin Produced, which released its first movie last year: “Limitless,” a sci-fi thriller with Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro. “As far as we know, nobody has made an entire movie at 35,000 feet.”
Filmmakers went out of their way to not turn the work into a blatant commercial for Virgin. The airline is a “character” in the film in much the same way that the hotel is a character in director Sofia Coppola’s 2003 independent film “Lost in Translation,” starring Bill Murray, and how the FedEx and Wilson brands had costarring roles in the 2000 Tom Hanks movie “Cast Away.”
“At the end of the day, the film stands on its own,” Felts said. “We’re telling a real narrative story. We’re not overtly trying to promote Virgin.”
The picture, which cost less than $1 million to produce, tells the story of a young man who meets the girl of his dreams on a plane, lets her slip away and then takes the journey of his life on three airlines to win her back. Along the way, he encounters a future version of himself.
Of course, filming at 35,000 feet poses certain logistical challenges that ground crews don’t ever encounter. Turbulence forced the crew to take a break from filming during one especially bumpy section over Iceland.
Producers also had to take pains to comply with Federal Aviation Administration rules limiting the size of liquid bottles used by the hair and makeup department. They enlisted lightweight hand-held digital cameras without the use of a dolly to film scenes that were shot mainly in first-class or business-class lounges and other discrete areas to minimize inconvenience to passengers. Some passengers volunteered to be extras in the production.
“I would never rule out doing a sequel,” Bradley said. “But we see this as pretty much a one-off.”
-- Richard Verrier
Photo: Philip Baker Hall and Kat Coiro work on a scene aboard a Virgin America flight. Credit: Jessica Stout / Virgin America.