After working together for decades on WWII miniseries “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific,” collaborators Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman will bring their trilogy to a close with Apple TV+’s “Masters of the Air.”
Whereas “Band of Brothers” followed the Army’s 101st Airborne division and “The Pacific” centered on the 1st Marine Division in — both in the thick of WWII — “Masters of the Air” turns its attention to the sky to spotlight the 100th Bomb Group of the Army Air Corps, the precursor to the Air Force.
While focusing on the “Bloody Hundredth” rounds out the miniseries trilogy by paying respect to all three major service groups, the original idea for the show came from Spielberg’s late father, who had served in the Army Air Corps and passed away in 2020 at age 103.
“[Spielberg’s father] saw ‘Band of Brothers’ and said, ‘Yeah, that’s good… but when [are] you going to do one about the pilots and the air war over Europe?'” Goetzman told TheWrap in a recent interview. “When Steven mentioned it, we laughed and thought about it — we didn’t really know we were going to do a trilogy at that point — But we did have it in the back of our minds.”
Following the tradition of adapting novels from lauded war historian Stephen E. Ambrose and his son Hugh Ambrose, the trio got in the habit of reading books on the air war, and were sold by Donald L. Miller’s “Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany.”
“We actually saw enough within the stories of the Eighth Air Force and the Bloody Hundredth that we thought, ‘OK, let’s get to it,'” Goetzman said, recalling enlisting John Orloff and other screen writers to kick off adapting the hefty novel.
“Masters of the Air” introduces a slew of junior officers and pilots. who face the brutal physical, emotional and psychological impact of war. Central to the story is the close bond between Major John “Bucky” Egan (Callum Turner) and Major Gale “Buck” Cleven (Austin Butler). Though the pair were meant to be friends “no matter what,” Turner and Butler’s chemistry enabled a deeper connection than originally envisioned.
“In kind of a forced friendship at first, their chemistry developed,” Goetzman said. “They’re friends, they understand each other, they find each other funny, ridiculous and talented. They both respect the talent they have at flying those B-17s.”
As Buck and Bucky head up the air base as the most senior and experienced pilots, the nine-part series finds its heartbeat in narrator Major Harry Crosby (Anthony Boyle), a green and endearing navigator who climbs the ranks of the Air Corps despite battling insurmountable airsickness in the first episode.
Identifying Crosby as a narrator felt like the “natural thing to do,” according to Goetzman.
“We love the sound of Anthony Boyle’s voice, and we did expand a little bit in his voiceover area, because we liked it so much,” Goetzman said.
Beyond Turner, Butler and Boyle, “Masters of the Air” features a strong ensemble cast of young officers and pilots — including Nate Mann, Rafferty Law, Barry Keoghan, Josiah Cross, Branden Cook and Ncuti Gatwa — with some facing the crushing reality of wartime sooner than others.
Balancing both failed missions, which left dozens of soldiers M.I.A., with moments of levity and humor on the base, the series underlines the war effort’s reliance on young men, many of whom arrived to the British base as young as 18 or 19.
“We think of them as boys, and these boys went over there with really bad odds — they didn’t really know exactly what they were doing or what the approach was,” Goetzman said, noting that operational systems were being built at the same time as massive losses. “They were losing men every day, but they believed in the cause they were over there fighting for. They did believe this was for freedom and democracy, and for people in the world to not be living under a tyrant like Adolf [Hitler.]”
Each mission suited up 10 members of the 100th into a B-17, otherwise known as the flying fortress due to its protection from all sides. But the lack of surviving B-17s forced the “Masters of the Air” crew to improvise.
“There aren’t a lot of [B-17s] left, and any ones that we had left, it’s not that easy to integrate into a system that can make you can make a movie with, so we built a couple new ones,” Goetzman said, adding that the team made use of gimbals, rotisserie cranes and anything they thought could “apply to visualizing the war in the sky.”
Goetzman applauded the actors for bringing their A-game to rehearsals, as they soaked up knowledge from B-17 pilots and maintenance experts, saying “they all did not waste any time getting to it — they were ahead of us — they wanted to get every morsel they could of what their particular duties were or what their characters were like.
Although “Masters of the Air” brings the miniseries trilogy to a close, Goetzman noted this likely won’t be the last of his collaboration with Spielberg and Hanks, teasing that Hanks is currently writing a sequel to “Greyhound” for Apple.
“I think that we’ll do movies that may nick this arena, or not,” Goetzman said. “There’ll be more in the movie for nine hours takes a lot of years from you,
The first two episodes of “Masters of the Air” are streaming now on Apple TV+, with new episodes dropping every Friday.
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