If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
Transcripts, technical language, and airline disasters.
Robert Berger and Patrick Daniels are the writers (with Irving Gregory) and directors (with Karlyn Michelson) of the film and play, Charlie Victor Romeo. The show originated in 1999 at the Collective:Unconscious theater space in the Lower East Side. It has since been performed around the world and, in 2013, released as a film. It is currently available on most streaming platforms.
Charlie Victor Romeo—the title is the NATO code for cockpit voice recording—features six episodes of real-life airline disasters as experienced from the point of view of the crew in the cockpit. It is a remarkable, white-knuckle experience. Six actors, including Daniels, play various roles of pilots, copilots, and navigators, and these same cast members appear in multiple vignettes. The film version was shot as a live theater production over three days in August 2012, and it was filmed in stereoscopic 3-D to heighten events taking place on stage/screen.
Charlie Victor Romeo is remarkable not just because of its content, but because the cast is able to recite long, complicated dialogue—much of it technical, featuring terms unfamiliar to most audiences. But the actors’ vocal inflections, expressions, and body language urgently convey the horror they are facing. That the film (like the play) frames each episode with slides indicating the number of passengers, crew members, and survivors is quietly devastating.
The conceit of the project—and what makes it so chilling—is that the world outside the cockpit exists, but is never seen. Viewers must imagine the passengers and flight attendants behind the door, or envision the mountains, runway, or water where the plane will hopefully (but not always) land safely.
I spoke with Berger and Daniels about the play, the film, and, of course, their experiences with flying.
Gary M. Kramer Your piece is a black-box theater project about black-box recordings. How did you originally conceive of Charlie Victor Romeo?
Robert Berger In 1999 we were doing Lower East Side art happenings and plays and performance craziness. And some of us were looking at something more serious than improvisation. Irving Gregory and I were talking about reality-based programming at the turn of the century, so we came up with the idea of having cockpit voice recordings as a script. We talked with Patrick in June and the play opened in October. We won some Drama Desk Awards, and since the play had been successfully produced in the performing arts arena we really wanted, by 2012, to make it into a movie.
Patrick Daniels When they came in with the idea I thought it was amazing. I was excited to work on something that wasn’t improv-based, where I could dig and delve into something we could work on for more than one or two performances. We had to work really hard to bring it to life. It was important to Bob, Irving, and I to expand our horizons and do something serious and challenging that would run for a few weeks. It was a real shift.
GMK What is critical to this experience is the use of sound—music, sirens, geese, and the noise of the jet planes. Can you talk about how you incorporated these aural elements into the production?
RB Charlie Victor Romeo was a piece of documentary and experimental theater. It wasn’t enough to use the cockpit voice recording script. We had to recreate the audible environment in a fifty-seat theater on Ludlow Street to mount something that captures the sacrosanct text of the CVR. We felt the powerful response was to do it correctly with the actual sounds.
PD The sound was so epic and serious just in rehearsal. I struggled not to burst into tears and tried to remember my lines!
GMK What criteria did you use to select the six disasters Charlie Victor Romeo presents?
RB We were looking for things that were interesting from an aviation perspective, a human factor perspective, and a theatrical perspective. It’s drama that plays well in front of an audience. The Space Shuttle disaster was interesting from an engineering perspective but not from what was said on the landing at the time of the accident. What you learn from studying situational factors in aviation are very similar to things you experience in day-to-day life, from the troubleshooting of your mother’s laptop to working with a difficult person. It’s just on a different level. That’s what’s happening in the Sioux City flight. A bunch of skilled people are having a problem and working together to solve that problem, and someone comes in and helps the leader. It was amazing how the guy came in and rendered assistance.
GMK You deliberately include schematics of the plane, and identify the passenger list and flight information for each act. What decisions went into deciding what would be revealed about each flight?
PD In the beginning of the play we used a slide projector, and we felt the sound of the projector was dramatic. We didn’t want to give away too much information, but we felt that we have to tell viewers the dates, the number of people, the type of airplane, and the company. Those details were things people would remember, or perhaps associate to something within their own past.
RB In the theatre they serve a real purpose: one before, and one after. The most powerful moments are between those scenes—the silence in the audience. As you catch your breath and recognize what happened, you sit with that and get ready for the next thing. It is an interesting moment in the film.
GMK How did you work with the actors on the dialogue and terminology, to help them understand what they were saying in the context of the situation? Much of that language is unfamiliar, yet what they say comes across clearly.
PD While different performers say things in different ways, there are a lot of similarities in how people have done the work in this show. By working with a transcript we are working with words spoken aloud by a human, so it’s a record of how they talk, and the order and word choice indicates a specificity of that person.
RB And you are forbidden to change the text. It’s the trust we invested in the cast. We never told anyone who performed in the play or the film to find out anything about who they were playing—their accents, if they were men or women, what they were like as people. We wanted the performers to invest their text with themselves: “You be the pilot.” The machine, the system, is an airplane being “performed” in a theater. How it plays off the performers and how they play off each other comes out of that. How does an actor know how to say “overspeed?” Well, here is a copy of a manual, and here’s what “overspeed” means. How does the cast member tell that bad joke that goes over like a lead balloon? There are some moments that are like that, and others that are casually, unbelievably powerful moments of real people cracking jokes about a runway before a crash. We are guiding them within a system of control and giving them the freedom to be that intense.
GMK What can you say about details, like sweat and body language, which inform and elevate performances?
PD What’s great is that, in my experience, when you have the opportunity to perform physical responses to stimulus—heighten the temperature of your body, change your voice with emotion—it is accessible with this content. The piece is super-dramatic, and the situation is so horrible you wonder how they kept it together, sometimes righting a un-rightable situation. The performers choreographed the entire Japan Airlines piece. They worked it out further than necessary, broke it down into pieces, and worked each of them out to form a deep connection to the material.
RB In Romeo & Juliet you have to commit yourself to believing it’s real. You don’t have to waste one second on that in Charlie Victor Romeo. It’s forensically accurate. Part of the magic is that it frees the performers from “What’s my motivation?” It’s “Land the fucking airplane—or everyone is going to die!” That‘s why we demanded it be performed live and filmed live. The energy gets going. If you stopped it, and shot it line by line, scene by scene, you’d achieve other goals, but it would be difficult to get that constant terror on the part of a performer who is stuck inside a system, hurdling to its ultimate destination regardless of knowing your lines. That system and your cast-mates are going to support you in that effort. It’s a documentary of a live performance that’s a document of an actual airline accident. I love that what we did on stage carries the power of the airplane.
PD We did a speed through of the script before opening the [theatre] doors to limber the actors up. It is drilling and repetition before you begin to do the work. I do that as an actor regardless of what play I’m doing. You need to forget about the text. Doing this show has been an acting lesson to me about how to commit to content. I learned more about acting on this piece than all four years of college, and I perform it as truthfully as I can.
GMK What about the interpretation of the dialogue? You used real transcripts of the cockpit voice recordings, but no one heard the recordings themselves. How did you (the actors) work on the phrasing of words that might have been questions or statements, or spoken either passionately or dispassionately? This is what makes the film so gripping. Even though I didn’t know what “overspeed” meant when it’s repeatedly mentioned in the Aeroperu sequence, it still scared the daylights out of me.
RB The thing about the Aeroperu incident is that the brain of the airplane had a stroke. The sensors that told the airplane what it was doing were giving contradictory information. The first officer is afraid the plane is going too slow and may stall. But if you go so fast that the airplane could break apart, you get overspeed alarms. And overspeed at sea level is not the same at overspeed at 30,000 ft. There are curves that describe where those points are, but regardless, the airliner was giving contradictory information.
PD That stuff is gold. It’s cryptic to us, but we learned a good amount about the technical stuff while working on the show. Viewers know enough about the situation, and the repetitions are chilling because there are many of them. There are several levels at work: first there is the situation, then the way the pilots respond to it. Then there is the macro knowledge of the situation and of the real people involved. Then, as far as we understand it—it’s translated from Spanish to English—you get this odd syntax that makes the text almost poetic.
RB There’s no romanticism in a crash. There’s regionalism. That’s what a little-league coach who is also a pilot might say. Every other moment is intense technical troubleshooting about “mach-speed trim.” We were very conscious of trying to guide an audience who had little experience with the project and subject. As you watch it, you can see it as an opera in a language you don’t speak. You get love, hate, anger, struggle, and the battle of man and machines, and the energy of those things. If you are an airline pilot, you have a literacy, and you are looking at it from a different perspective. We are human psychology simulators. Maybe you are a layperson who wanted to learn from context. You start with a certain understanding, and by the end you have a better understanding. The personal moments and expressions of character are the humanizing glue that connects us as viewers to those people, that brings the audience’s personal experience closer to the professional’s experience.
GMK One thing that makes Charlie Victor Romeo so engaging is that viewers have to imagine the passengers behind the locked cockpit cabin door, and visualize the mountains, runway, or water where the planes are hoping to land. Can you discuss how you created something so palpable, even though we’re really only looking at a few characters in a black-box set?
RB What I come back to is that, as filmmakers, we’ve maintained the trust and interactivity we invest in the audience in the play. What makes the material so successful is what goes on in your mind about what’s outside the screen as you watch it. We limit what we as filmmakers put in front of you and modify your experience of sound and image. It’s the austerity of the project. It’s what we think of when we are making art—using the minimum to get the maximum effect.
PD Cinema is the perfect place for that—it asks the audience to provide and relies on the viewers to fill in the gaps. Theater provided a deep preparation for making the movie. It’s more like visual moving sculpture to me. We want people watching at home to be giving us their imagination. People want to be challenged.
GMK The film has the possibility of being monotonous, but it’s not; how did you order and shape the work?
RB For the ordering, we read a bunch of transcripts from disasters and started putting them together. It was as much experimentation as it was seeing how it all fit together. These six fit and provided a dramatic structure. We worked hard to set it up the way we did. The choices about what would happen and which incidents would happen in what order—that was all conscious.
PD As we put it together, it was a wonderful surprise that it fit so nicely together.
RB The idea is that we’re having a bait-and-switch with the audience. Once it starts and the first scene happens, and we’ve established that something unexpected will happen and that it’s ten minutes long …. We wanted to play with the mind of the audience to stretch out what folks expect to see.
GMK What can you say about the use of humor in the film?
PD It’s important to break the seriousness, and there are some obvious jokes too, but the humor in the last scene is the best because it’s the commanding officer trying to decrease the pressure in the cockpit. It’s not clear that it’s intentional, but these guys are highly skilled and trained, so the bonus is to demonstrate grace under pressure. He’s totally heroic to say that line about the runaway. They are thinking about landing, not crashing. While it’s a crisis, they are still working.
GMK What about visuals—you film a theater piece, but with cinema, you can create a close-up—such as the disembodied voice of the air traffic controller—to emphasize an emotion. What decisions did you make in this regard? And can you discuss filming this in 3-D?
RB From a cinematography perspective, it has to do with artistic austerity: to deliver the content respectfully, with artistic integrity, from where we are coming from in terms of budget. We never wanted video projection. The austerity of it helped us maintain the respectful connection to depicting the piece. The most important connection between the audience and the visual is the intimacy, be it on screen or in a theater. The poster makes it look like an airplane emergency disaster movie and psychological thriller. It is that, but what you see is a very personal psychological thriller stripped of extraneous special effects. We wanted it bare in order to create a connection between the viewer and the characters. You can’t escape those people.
PD The 3-D enhances all of that.
RB That close work with the camera means that regardless of the screen, you couldn’t possibly watch it on an iPad. As a screen film, it’s a lot like face-timeing with an emergency. It’s really putting you right next to those people. I’m proud it works across mediums.
GMK What is your worst experience flying?
PD I traveled to Vancouver this past May, and I got sick on the way out and was taken off the plane. They had to take the plane back to the terminal to get me off it. It was embarrassing, but the flight attendants were really cool about it. On the way back, I flew from Vancouver via Toronto to New York. The turbulence cracked the head of the guy next to me, and I accidently dumped my drink on him. Turbulence isn’t bad for the plane, it’s just scary for the people inside.
RB I’ve done a lot of flying. I’ve had some hairy experiences. I’ve always enjoyed flying though. Once I flew out to Palm Springs as a kid, and as the airplane was on approach and getting ready to land, I was looking out the window. I was looking at the parking lot by the airport, and then suddenly, the airplane went straight up, full throttle, really fast. The overhead compartments flew open and the captain made the announcement that they had to abort the landing for another airplane. It was pretty intense. That was unnerving. But inconvenience—cancelled flights or delays—are far worse torture to me than some discomfort in the air.
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer whose work appears on websites including Salon.com and indieWire, as well as various alternative weeklies across the country. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.