A new movie from the Virgin group will be flying high with audiences soon. Shot across three continents on separate Virgin flights – operated Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Australia and Virgin America – “Departure Date” is produced by Virgin Produced, which is among a list of esteemed companies to have been shortlisted this year for a coveted AVION Award.
Starring Ben Feldman (“Mad Men”) and Australian native Nicky Whelan, the short film follows a character named ‘Jake’, who falls in love with a stranger, ‘Violet’, on board a Virgin flight. The two have several chance meetings throughout the film as they fly Virgin and come to discover true love.
“The film is about thinking differently, following your instincts and going for what you want, which fits very well with Virgin Group founder, Sir Richard Branson’s overall way of thinking,” says director Kat Coiro (“L!fe Happens”, “While We Were Here”, and “A Case of You”).
Philip Baker Hall, Luis Guzmán, Janeane Garofalo, and Max Brown also star in “Departure Date”, which premiered in June at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
In a one-on-one interview with the APEX editor’s blog, Simon Bradley, VP of marketing-North America for Virgin Atlantic Airways, and a producer of “Departure Date”, gives us a detailed account of how the film came about, why Coiro was the perfect fit as director, and how the crew and actors were able to pull off filming at 35,000ft in the air!
Q: How did the film get started and where do you fit in as an executive producer?
A: All three airlines – Virgin America, Virgin Australia and Virgin Atlantic – came together because, two reasons really. First of all in Los Angeles you can actually choose to fly all three airlines. And the second reason was we brought our frequent flyer programs together during the past coupe of months [which] was a great reason to talk about the three airlines as a grouping. What better way to talk to the Los Angeles market and get conversation going than around a movie? That’s how I ended up in this project along with executives from Virgin Australia and Virgin America as well…and we’re very fortunate that in our family of Virgin companies we have a company called Virgin Produced. We were able to collaborate with them and make this movie.
Q: Virgin prides itself in thinking outside the box and innovation, and as Virgin Produced would say, being “contrarians”. How was “Departure Date” inspired by these ideals?
A: We all have the same philosophy that we want to do things differently than the rest of the airline industry and we do that in every aspect of our world. That was very much at the forefront of the matter when we came up with the idea of making a movie. What other airline would approach it in this way? It’s a very Virgin thing to do, to go off and produce a movie rather than the more traditional, stylised advertising campaign. We like to get conversation going and I think “Departure Date” is something that’s gotten a lot of conversation going, and will get even more when we start to formally distribute it.
Q: Could you tell us a little about the filming process and how the storyline for “Departure Date” came about?
A: First of all we came up with an idea that we wanted a movie – one that would get some conversation and buzz going around our airline, so we put that challenge out to Virgin Produced. Then [we] went out and canvassed a number of writer/directors and invited them to come forward with their ideas and how they’d approach this. Now, of course, when you’re making a movie on board planes there are a number of constraints. There are also a number of subject matters we wouldn’t want to feed on board a flight – a horror movie for instance.
Virgin Produced invited scripts from writers/directors and we got a number of them in. We selected Kat Coiro’s [script] because it was the truest of all the scripts to our brand. Our movie is all about grasping those opportunities when they come your way and taking control of your life to make a difference, and that’s what the Virgin brand is all about. It really spoke to us when we read that script. I thought, “Wow, this is going to be an awesome concept.” That’s how we got to it.
We made sure the production team was very aware of all the restraints and challenges of filming on board an aircraft, everything from costumes and wardrobe to makeup to lighting.
Q: And they brought their regular filming equipment on board?
A: There was a lot of thought and planning that went into this. For example, the lighting that we used – we couldn’t put lighting into the power system on the plane and [we couldn't] bring heavy duty batteries on board a plane either, so a special lighting system was designed that was very, very light weight, could be quickly moved around, and could work effectively on a laptop battery.
The crew had to be extremely mobile and agile because at any point during the filming the seatbelt light could come on and if the seatbelt light comes on everything’s got to go away and everybody’s got to sit down. It doesn’t matter what state of the process that you’re in. That was taken into consideration so we really only had one camera on board and a very, very stripped down production team. It was all really a part of the challenge of making the movie.
And it’s worth giving a shout out to the actors and the talent behind it, and the toll that it takes on people to travel as much as they did, while making the movie, and looking beautiful. On day one they flew from LA to London; day two they flew back to LA, then they filmed at the airport in LA. Day three they flew LA to Dallas and Dallas to LA, and on day four they filmed in Sydney. These people are professional, well respected actors in their own right and they were just great sports.
Q: When you started searching for your actors did you find that people were excited about the project?
A: We did, but there were two things we had to work around – the budget of the movie, which was very low and the gruelling travel schedule. The actors that came on board are a fantastic group of actors and we were looking for people who were willing to embrace the spirit of what we were trying to do, which had a slightly guerrilla, independent feel about it. We worked hard to find the right people for that…all of them fit perfectly into the roles that were cast for them.
Q: As executive producer were you on board while filming was taking place?
A: The story takes place across three flights and we were on the Virgin Atlantic segment. It was a real challenge to get what we needed. On our flight during that day we had about 300 passengers on board, all of whom were getting the regular [onboard] service that we provide and yet we were making this movie at the same time with Hollywood actors and a Hollywood director. Out of the 11 hours that we flew I think [we] filmed for about ten.
Q: Did the passengers know before buying their tickets that the film would be shot on their flight? How did they react?
A: Not before buying their plane ticket, but when they checked in everybody was given a notification that this would be happening. We kept disturbance to a very low level, and if anybody did have an issue they were very welcome to get on the later flight, but nobody opted for that and the passengers had a great time. We deliberately made it in such a way that we minimised the impact on the passengers. So we had a discrete area for a lot of the filming to take place.
People liked it. It was something fun that was going on and we had some well-known actors on board. I think people expect that sort of thing from Virgin. There’s always something unusual going on our planes and it wasn’t a surprise to many people.
Q: It seems “Departure Date” pays homage to LA and Hollywood while still tastefully promoting Virgin group airlines. Is Virgin on the frontier of movie making in the aviation world?
A: It definitely hasn’t been done before. This is the first time that anyone’s really attempted to make a proper movie at 35,000ft and all that goes with that. From our point of view I think we have sort of broken the mould and done something different and unusual. We approached it with the idea of wanting to do a fun project that would generate a conversation in the Los Angeles market. We didn’t approach it with a point of view of “let’s get as many pictures of our aircraft in this movie as possible”.
I think that’s so important when you do something like this. Ultimately it’s going to be a movie that stands up as a movie and not a commercial and people are going to want to watch it and be engaged by it. The audiences that we’ve showed it to so far have really enjoyed the movie as a story.
Our director will tell you that the inspiration came from “Lost in Translation” and how the Park Hyatt hotel…was very much a character in that movie. It would never revert; it was always there and kind of had that feel…but you never overtly talk about it. It’s the same thing [in "Departure Date"]. We’re trying to put the ambiance of what the experience is like to be on a Virgin flight, but that’s as far as it goes. It’s much more about the plot and the characters as every good movie should be.
Q: Was the choice to do a short film based on the presumed difficulties of filming on board aircraft?
A: It lends itself very well to where a lot of video content and movie production is going right now. There’s a huge industry follow around shorts and what you can do with those films. It fits very much with our independent view of the world. We’re big fans, all three airlines actually…are big fans of independent cinema. We all in our own way support fledgling filmmakers. Virgin America sponsors the LA Film Festival every year, Virgin Australia is heavily behind Australians In Film, and Virgin Atlantic supports the Telluride Film Festival.
Q: Did you produce this movie as a means of developing your own content to offset some of the costs incurred by licensing movies?
A: No, that wasn’t really our intention. We’ve always envisioned that it would go onto IFE. The way all three airlines approach it is we want to give the people an eclectic collection of the best that’s out there. Actually on all of our IFE we offer everything from mainstream blockbusters to pretty obscure independent movies. Of course “Departure Date” will become part of that [independent movie selection].
Q: How else will you distribute “Departure Date”?
A: We’re currently exploring a number of distribution routes, but the intention is very much to put it out there [and] make it widely accessible. Within the next couple months we’ll be able to make some announcements about where people can actually go and see this movie. There’s been a tremendous amount of interest and we really want people to be able to see it, so we want to get the right distribution platforms.