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EAA Plays Prominent Role In Public Enemies

Ford Tri-Motor to appear in major motion picture

Public Enemies
George Daubner (left) and Sean Elliott pictured in front of EAA's "transformed" Ford Tri-Motor. Photo by Fred Stadler

Public Enemies
Set designers even created oil streaks on the side of the Ford's engines. Photo by Fred Stadler

EAA Staffer Gets 'Discovered' :: Public Enemies Co-Producer an EAAer

April 13 2008 — People who live outside the Oshkosh area may not be aware of the "buzz" that's been happening around here the past couple of weeks, but EAA's hometown has been in the throes of movie mania. Its downtown and Wittman Regional Airport have been serving as locations for the feature film Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp and set for release in July 2009.

The film tells the story of notorious gangster John Dillinger (played by Depp) and is set in the early 1930s. Since aviation plays a prominent role in the movie, filmmakers made good use of EAA and its resources, including Pioneer Airport and its collection of vintage aircraft from that era - most notably EAA's 1929 Ford Tri-Motor. Pioneer also served as a location for several scenes.

Filmmakers used the Tri-Motor to depict the aircraft that the FBI used to transport Dillinger to Chicago from Arizona. They spent several hours last week filming the airplane in flight as well as statically and on several landing rolls. Set designers transformed the aircraft from its current "Eastern Airways" paint scheme into that of American Airways, the predecessor to American Airlines. They also turned Wittman's Basler Flight Service FBO into Chicago Municipal Airport (what today is Chicago Midway). Sean Elliott, EAA director of flight operations, and George Daubner of flight operations were cast as extras to depict the flight crew and took turns flying left seat.

Things began on Thursday afternoon (April 10) when Elliott received a call from the movie's on-site manager asking that he join director Michael Mann, Airport Manager Pete Moll, and several members of the movie crew to scout the location. They gathered after midnight (Friday morning) to canvass the airport and determine where to shoot the airport scenes.

Before they could film, EAA got permission to operate the airplane on 3,000 feet of Wittman's Runway 9, which is currently closed while undergoing reconstruction. They also obtained a special waiver from the FAA to fly the Tri-Motor without an N-number, which was painted over for the movie.

A specially equipped Eurocopter AStar helicopter was used to shoot the airplane in flight and during the landing scenes. Pilot Craig Hosking, EAA 222132, literally flew rings around the Tri-Motor, Elliott said, including flying backward in front of the airplane on its landing roll. Elliott, an experienced pilot rated in several types, was amazed at Hosking's expert flying skills.

The landing scene was shot about eight or nine times in the pouring rain, Elliott said. When shooting finished, the Tri-Motor was quickly repainted before a crew of EAA staff towed it all the way back to Pioneer for a different scene. Then it was towed back to Basler in the wee hours of the morning and repainted to American Airways. "They worked all night - time really has no meaning to moviemakers," Elliott said.

EAA staffers who helped move the plane to Pioneer and back were John Hopkins, manager, aircraft maintenance; aircraft maintenance technicians Tom Davis and Gerard Putzer; Mark Leisses, director, event sales; John Faeh, manager, safety and security; and Ron Twellman, curator of collections.

Later that day (Saturday, April 12) film crews shot air-to-air footage of the Tri-Motor over Lake Winnebago. Elliott said that post-production would use CGI (computer-generated imagery) to insert the Chicago skyline into the background.

Johnny Depp was never on board when the Tri-Motor flew, Elliott said, but he was filmed several times to depict disembarking at Chicago Municipal.

At the end of May, EAA's Ford Tri-Motor embarks on its tour of several Midwest cities. Visit www.FlytheFord.com to see the tour schedule and book a flight. Then when you see it in the movie next year, you can say, "I flew on that airplane!"

EAA Staffer Gets 'Discovered'

Public Enemies
EAA Curator of Collections Ron Twellman on the set of Public Enemies. Photo by Sheila Twellman

Ron Twellman, curator of collections for the EAA AirVenture Museum, was one of several EAA employees who provided special assistance to the Public Enemies movie crew as they shot scenes inside EAA's Pioneer Airport facilities and at the nearby Basler Flight Services FBO. Little did Twellman know, however, that he'd wind up being cast as an extra in the film.

On early Friday afternoon (April 11) as the crew was setting up a scene in Pioneer's Lone Rock building, Twellman was asked if he could find someone to play a radio operator for a scene to be shot later that night. He agreed to try and then went back to work on hunting down things like authentic flight wings for EAA's Sean Elliott and George Daubner, who portrayed the Ford Tri-Motor flight crew; old sectional maps; and other period items. (Thanks to generous donations from EAA members over the years, EAA has many artifacts from aviation's early days.)

Later that day, around 10 p.m., while getting a bite to eat at the makeshift cafeteria set up at the Wittman terminal, another crew member asked Twellman if he had found anyone to play the radio operator yet. He had not.

"Would you consider doing it?" she asked. Another member of the film crew sitting nearby told him to go for it, as did Kurt Naebig, a cast member who portrays G-Man William A. Rorer in the film. "So I gave in," Twellman said.

He was rushed through wardrobe, given a haircut ("I had gotten one the week before," Twellman quipped), and then went back to what he had been doing: positioning airplanes to be used as background scenery back at Pioneer. (When the movie is released in July 2009, you might see several of EAA's planes, including the Fairchild FC-2, Pitcairn PA-7S Sport Mailwing, Travel Air E-4000, and Waco RNF. And, for the record, each airplane used was authentic to the time - dataplates and aircraft records verify each was built before the time they were depicted.)

Twellman even served as a "Wisconsin-ese" interpreter, helping Director Michael Mann nail down the correct pronunciation of "Manitowish Waters," a northern Wisconsin town used as a hideout by the Dillinger gang. Actor Christian Bale, who portrays FBI Agent Melvin Purvis, correctly pronounces it "MAN-ih-tow-wish" in the scene.

On Friday afternoon, Twellman had been tasked with finding a radio to be used in the scene depicting the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, airport because the one they had did not light up. When he secured one from EAA's collection, Twellman was suddenly summoned to the set for the scene. "That was about midnight Friday," he said.

For the next two to three hours, Twellman sat on a stool, one hand on a microphone and the other on a radio dial, as the director ordered numerous takes from various camera angles to get what he wanted.

During filming of the scene, the "working" radio Twellman had unearthed kept blowing light bulbs. The crew had earlier rigged up a special on-off switch hooked to a battery charger, turning off the radio between takes to stretch the life of the 70-plus-year-old bulbs. Soon they realized only two working bulbs were left, and they ultimately blew as well. Fortunately, that occurred just after the scene's final take.

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