With dialogue taken from actual black box transcripts of six real-life major airline emergencies, Charlie Victor Romeo is a haunting, riveting theatrical experience superbly translated to film by directors Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels, and Karlyn Michelson. Started on stage in 1999 at the Collective: Unconscious Theater on the Lower East Side, this compelling, almost experimental piece recreates the tense cockpit scenes word-for-word based on the CVR, or Cockpit Voice Recorder. With unsparing truthfulness, the film has been embraced by the aviation community and used as a training video for pilots. It is truly unique cinema, stretching the boundaries of film, theater, and the traditional documentary.
(Note: This interview is with two of the film’s three directors. All three bios can be found at the end.)
Please describe your movie in your own words.
Patrick Daniels: Charlie Victor Romeo is a 3D sledgehammer concealed in a document of a live theater experience. It is firmly based in the reality of its content—aviation incidents and accidents—and it is unforgiving, unflinching, uplifting, moving and intense.
Robert Berger: We use stereoscopic 3D to place the film’s audience into the best seat in the house, transporting them onto the flight deck of an airplane in crisis and able to see every nuance of an extremely detailed and technically challenging performance. Connecting our audience with our cast has always been a key part of this project and, in many ways is enhanced by the film.
Charlie Victor Romeo is an emotionally intense experience designed to connect audiences with the aviation community we portray, to show the professionalism and grace under pressure they have in the toughest experiences they may face. We want to build a bridge between the lay and aviation communities through art.
What inspired you to make this particular film?
PD: We have been working on the live experience since 1999 and talking about a cinematic version almost since then. Sometimes, critical mass takes time.
RB: Charlie Victor Romeo began as a piece of documentary theater at Collective:Unconscious Theater on New York’s Lower East Side. As a play it has won prestigious artistic awards and toured extensively nationally and internationally. It’s been used by the United States Air Force, Department of Defense, National Patient Safety Foundation, Institute For Healthcare Improvement, and other professional organizations as a tool to train audiences about Crew Resource Management, the psychological study of cognitive and interpersonal skills needed to manage people and performance within technically complicated environments.
Within the first year of the play’s production we were approached with offers interested in developing Charlie Victor Romeo as a film, and over the years we have gone through multiple lengthy negotiations to see what those offers might bring. All of these deals lacked the one essential requirement we had: to have meaningful artistic participation in a production allowing us to maintain our work’s artistic vision and its long-standing and rewarding relationship with the professional community we depict. In the end, after so many years, we finally found ourselves in a position artistically, technically and financially to create a film that we would be proud of, the way we wanted our work depicted.
Did you approach the film as documentary or a narrative? And why?
PD: We wanted to record the live experience as closely as we could, so that effort was documentary. The film is a narrative based in an episodic structure. Storytelling in this case is abstracted, but through the different episodes of the film, a narrative arc is revealed. Audiences are ready for simplicity, intricacy and complexity.
RB: An interesting question to think about… The theatrical production of Charlie Victor Romeo opened at a time when Documentary Theater was becoming popular, and we were honored to be academically aligned with works such as Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles (1992), The Laramie Project (1998), etc. The theatrical source for the film has verbatim documentary roots. Our film captures Charlie Victor Romeo in performance as it happened in front of live audiences. Yet the film is a narrative… multiple narratives presented together and telling a story.
I love that in order to capture our work we bend genres to our needs and pay little respect to the idea of genre itself. At an early test screening a dear friend of mine described the film as “a cross between Rust Never Sleeps and Lifeboat,” and I’m honored to say that I agree.
Did the actors work with real pilots to prepare for the role?
PD: To some extent. During the years of live performance, we all had the opportunity to talk with aviation professionals who came to see the piece, and they gave us performance notes.
RB: The cast of the film is composed of performers who have all been in the piece on stage for years. While they are not pilots, as actors they have done their homework, studying aviation’s classic texts and the technical details of the incidents depicted. Part of the magic of the project has been the ongoing interaction between the countless pilots and other aviation professionals who have seen the show and met with our cast. What production receives notes after every performance from the professionals they are portraying? That ongoing interaction has informed, evolved and shaped us into the performance we do today. Talking with our audience after productions or screenings has been one of the most rewarding aspects of this project.
What do you want audiences to take away from your film?
RB: As lay-people we all have conceptions about various professional communities, and pilots in particular, that are often based on our experience as they are depicted in popular culture: John Wayne, The High & The Mighty, 12 O’Clock High, Airport ‘75, Airplane, The Blue Max… the list goes on. Part of how society acquires these conceptions is through the depiction of aviation emergencies in films with thrilling special effects, news media coverage of accidents and aviation science. These experiences shape our feelings about pilots and about flying.
I have been a news cameraman and worked to cover stories about aviation emergencies. I understand how the telling of these stories, real or fictional, is made more powerful, more dramatic for the audience by using emotionally manipulative imagery. In film and on the news, the shots of burning wreckage, the family members in tears, the special effects and fuel-air explosions add drama and emotion to the story being told, making the power of that story easier to tell to an audience without overwhelming them with detailed information that these media fear will not be understood.
The language of professional communities is both used to communicate efficiently between members of those communities as “nomenclature” and to provide a shield of “jargon” between them and the rest of the world. Charlie Victor Romeo was created to take an audience behind that door at the front of the cabin into the cockpit, the “office” where these people live and work, where they fight to save their aircraft, their lives and yours. The film’s intent is to show you that their lives and struggles are not all that different from experiences you may have had, and the grace with which they deal with these things is ultimately far more impressive when presented as accurately as we can without the distraction of the special effects and the external dramatic imagery.
We want our audience to walk away informed and less afraid of the unknown.
PD: Hopefully audiences see the heroism and struggle evidenced in CVR. The reality of these professionals is that they never give up, even against staggering odds.
What’s one piece of advice you have for aspiring filmmakers?
PD: Get it done! Get to work.
RB: This project has taken almost 15 years to bring to the big screen. We’ve been living with and working with it ourselves for all that time. We have never abdicated our responsibility to shepherd it, develop it, maintain it, and when it came time for this film to be made, we did it our way, ourselves. My grand advice is: do not make sacrifices with your work when you are nagged with the feeling that it’s not the right way. Keep at it and you will get there with your vision.
What are you most looking forward to at the 2013 Hamptons International Film Festival?
RB: I am really looking forward to interacting with and learning from all of the people I am going to meet at the festival and introducing people to our work as I am introduced to theirs. Also, I grew up on Cape Cod, and any excuse to enjoy a beautiful place by the ocean that’s so much like my hometown is fantastic, especially in the fall, my favorite season. Also, LOBSTER.
PD: Screening CVR and talking with people about our film. I hope to check out some other art as well, and I want to get in the ocean one last time this year.
Robert Berger is a founding member of the Collective: Unconscious (C:U) performance space in NYC and has served as technical director and new media director. Berger worked for CNN as a studio engineer and field cameraman before leaving to pursue a master’s degree in Interactive Telecommunications at NYU. He now develops/deploys robotic systems to migrate the content locked on magnetic tape-based media to archive quality digital files. These systems are used by libraries and archives to insure the preservation and access of our audio/visual heritage.
Patrick Daniels has been performing, directing, and producing theater in NYC since 1994 with Collective: Unconscious and other performance groups, including East River Commedia and the Institute For Aesthetic Modulation. He has performed and directed at P.S. 122, HERE Arts, Theater for the New City, the Knitting Factory and Charas El/Bohio. Daniels curated an outdoor film and video screening for the NYC Fringe Festival, and received a BFA in Theater Arts from SUNY Purchase College.
Karlyn Michelson is an Emmy award-winning multimedia storyteller and video journalist. Her documentary work has aired on PBS and HBO and screened at dozens of film festivals worldwide. Michelson has also produced, directed, shot, and edited news segments and multimedia pieces for a multitude of media outlets, including Time Magazine and Turkish Public Television.