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‘Masters of the Air’ looks to the sky to close Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ WW2 trilogy

The Apple TV+ series reunites part of the team responsible for ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific.’ ‘It was an incredibly immersive experience,’ say its protagonists

Austin Butler and Callum Turner in the fourth episode of ‘Masters of the Air.’
Austin Butler and Callum Turner in the fourth episode of ‘Masters of the Air.’

In 2001, three years after the release of Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks returned to World War II — this time as producers, accompanied by Gary Goetzman, and on television instead of the big screen. Band of Brothers, which became a classic of the war genre, was followed by The Pacific in 2010, both on HBO. The former focused on the Infantry; the latter on the Marine Corps. Now, the team that brought the stories of brotherhood among soldiers in the deadliest conflict to the episodic format has set its sights on the sky to complete their epic TV trilogy.

Masters of the Air (the first episodes are already available on Apple TV+, with a new one being released each week until the nine-episode miniseries is complete) was inspired by Donald L. Miller’s book of the same name and adapted for television by screenwriter John Orloff, who 23 years ago was part of the writing team for Band of Brothers. The story follows the men of the 100th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Air Forces. Before their arrival, British bombers only carried out night missions, which were safer, but less effective; the Americans took more risks with daytime attacks, which were better for hitting targets like railway networks, oil refineries and essential supplies of the German Nazi machinery. They also suffered more casualties: over 70% were killed, wounded or captured.

Actors Austin Butler and Callum Turner lead the cast as two of the men whose real-life story is depicted in the series, Gale Cleven and John Egan. Unlike other fighters, they have been friends for years, and their relationship serves as a guide for the viewer, through the missions they must undertake. “This time period has always fascinated and intrigued me. And I was a big fan of Band of Brothers and The Pacific,” says Austin Butler — who was nominated for an Oscar in 2023 for Elvis — via video call. “So when this came along, it really felt like a no-brainer.” Callum Turner, sitting beside him, adds that “it was an honor to represent these people that turned the tide of the war and helped save the world. And interestingly enough, Band of Brothers was a focal point when I started with my agent. I was 22. She always used to say, ‘We’ve got to get you something like Band of Brothers.’ So many young actors started out in that, like Tom Hardy, Michael Fassbender, Andrew Scott...”

An image from the first episode of ‘Masters of the Air.’
An image from the first episode of ‘Masters of the Air.’

Their characters have opposite personalities: while Gale Cleven (Buck) is stoic, serene and quiet, John Egan (Bucky) is extroverted, carefree and sociable. “One of the things we learned is that whatever your personality type is, when you’re in a war situation, it multiplies by 10. If you’re an introvert, you go 10 times introverted. If you’re an extrovert, you go 10 times that way,” says Turner. “When you’re up in that plane, it’s about protecting those that are with you. When you’re in a plane that’s in formation with all your friends next to you, your job is to protect them as well. That brotherhood is the heart of it, having that love and that care. So we really built that, spending as much time together as we could,” Butler adds.

To prepare for their roles, the actors did two weeks of boot camp under the command of Dale Dye, a technical advisor and Marine veteran who was also involved in the other two war productions. “It was really a luxury because we all surrendered our individualities and were open. We learned how to take off and land and what every button on the dashboard of the plane meant, how to shoot guns, how to prepare the bombs. And what that provided us was what they call the ‘crew-glue,’ that then helped propel us for the rest of the shoot. We were doing this for ten months. Ten months is a long time. And it built that unity and that togetherness, and we were all trying to achieve the same thing,” explains Turner.

Barry Keoghan and Austin Butler (foreground), in ‘Masters of the Air.’
Barry Keoghan and Austin Butler (foreground), in ‘Masters of the Air.’

The actors quickly became aware of the emotional burden that the war left on the fighters. “It was a war zone that was unprecedented at the time. It was the most violent place on the planet. The loss that they were dealing with — men that they had trained with and were trying to protect were going down left, right and center. On the third mission, when they go to Africa, they go with 27 planes and land with 11. The toll that must take on their soul, and their bodies, and their minds,” reflects Turner. Showing the consequences and the physical and emotional damage that these men faced is one of the main goals of the series.

The production team wanted maximum authenticity to portray that hell. They placed special emphasis on recreating the B-17 planes that were used back then. Although some of these aircraft still exist, they did not have all the necessary features for filming, so they decided to build their own B-17s from scratch. Two replicas were made: one that could roll on the runway and another that could be towed. Their construction took eight months. With them, they were able to shoot inside a cockpit that was exactly like that of a B-17, while through the windows huge LED screens showed the other aircraft or the attacks they received from the Flak (the German anti-aircraft defense). “It was an incredibly immersive experience,” both actors agree. They also built approximately 80 buildings to recreate the military base, from the barracks where they slept to the mess halls where they ate and the chapel. “We were given a map to get around; it was that big,” recalls Turner. “Having all of those facets, the technology and the old school way of making movies combined was a special experience. Gary Goetzman and Steven [Spielberg] and Tom [Hanks] left no stone unturned with that.”

Austin Butler and Callum Turner in the fourth episode of ‘Masters of the Air.’
Austin Butler and Callum Turner in the fourth episode of ‘Masters of the Air.’

The actors emphasize the challenge of shooting during a pandemic. “We shot this during [the Covid-19 pandemic]. I felt more pressure of not getting Covid than anything else. Inevitably, we all got Covid, all of us at different times,” recalls Turner. Despite that, and the responsibility they felt for the story they were telling, there were also times for relaxation. “We had a choreographer who would give us dance lessons. We did boot camp, we had to fly a plane, we had to dance, we had to sing... We really were giving everything. And some of the sequences in the officers’ mess, some of the dance moves, I thought were pretty. Those days were a lot of fun.”

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