First Flight is an original story that began in the imagination of Writer/Director Greg Bowyer. Inspired by aviation literature and lore, Bowyer conceived of a psychological drama with the world of aviation as its backdrop. Once he crafted the story, Bowyer cast the two brothers at the heart of the conflict. Newcomers Matthew Linhardt (Conrad) and Philip Sternberg (Nic) enthusiastically underwent five months of flight instruction and immersion in the world of aircraft and airports. Bowyer and his actors hung out with pilots, got to know their planes, and flew the skies of Southern California. To supplement his research into the emotional experience of his characters, Bowyer flew across the United States in a light aircraft.
While rehearsing at an airport, Bowyer spotted the plane for his story: a sporty, fire-engine red Grumman that stood out from all other planes on the tarmac. He recruited the plane and its owner, Pete Crosetto, to join the First Flight project. Crosetto gave flight and maintenance lessons to the actors, and proudly flew his plane during the making of the 15-minute promotional film. After location scouting across Southern California for a small, rural airport, Bowyer settled on Redlands, 90 miles east of Los Angeles at the foot of the San Bernardino Mountains -- a dramatic landscape suggesting the challenge that lay ahead for the characters. Redlands Airport also had a unique domed hangar with a functioning night beacon that offered distinctive visuals for the location of Sloan Aviation.
With most of his main resources in place, Bowyer turned to the task of securing the key actor who would play the father (Robert). As the locus for the main conflict, the role of Robert Sloan demanded a master craftsman in the field of acting: someone who could portray a complex character with power and sensitivity. Because of his performance in Searching for Bobby Fischer, Joe Mantegna was at the top of Bowyers list. Impressed by the script and story concept of First Flight, Mantegna accepted the role. Bowyer secured rehearsal time with Mantegna, Linhardt and Sternberg at a local airport to establish a connection between father and sons -- a connection that powerfully translates on screen. Bowyers vision for the 35mm film demanded a first-class director of photography. His first choice was Cory Geryak, who had shot two of Bowyers student films. Geryak was just coming off The Italian Job as chief lighting technician and looked forward to working again with Bowyer.
They assembled a professional crew to meet at Redlands over a spring weekend. The airport remained open, so Bowyer, committed to making the most of the resources at hand, worked with a network of pilots to coordinate the flow of take-offs and landings while he filmed on the runway. The hangar also stayed open for business, with air-craft repairs carried on between shots.
The film schedule took a hit the first day with a rare, torrential all-day rain storm that clocked the most rain in the area in 50 years. Forced to postpone all outdoor work, the crew soldiered through their indoor shots. At 4 am the next day, the rain stopped and the crew hit the ground running. Heading into day two with only indoor shots completed, and Mantegna set to arrive for his one day of filming, the shoot was grossly behind schedule. Yet Bowyer kept the set calm throughout Mantegnas work day. An unexpected benefit following the inclement weather was a spectacular sky of slate clouds over snow-capped mountains, which Bowyer and Geryak used to full advantage. The third day saw Bowyer take his crew through a staggering 51 shots, including all the runway shots using the 54-foot trailer/camera car complex. Bowyer radioed directions to his pilot flying overhead as daylight faded, and they got their last shot in just as the sun set. The film was completed on time, with all shots,
and on budget.