After Honey, I Shrunk the Kids came out and made around $136 million domestically, my friends at Disney asked if there was anything else I wanted to do. I had been a fan of Dave Stevens’ graphic novel since the day it hit the comic book stores. Disney had the rights to it and Bill Dear was attached to direct. I don’t know if there were creative differences or if Bill took another project, but a few months later I got a call from David Hoberman asking if I was still interested in The Rocketeer.
Writers Danny Bilson and Paul de Meo were also big fans of Dave’s work and just as intent to write a screenplay that did the source material justice. They worked right off the set during production, making changes as needed and helping keep the dialogue convincingly “period.”
From the beginning, I wanted to make a picture that captured the feeling and essence of Dave’s art. He had drawn the comic in a visual style that was very reminiscent of comics of a much earlier age. While I didn’t want to make a film that looked like it was made in the thirties, I did want it to be distinctly unlike action adventure films that were being made in 1990. It’s been called campy and old-fashioned, but in my opinion that means it’s honest and has a lot of heart.
I met with director of photography Hiro Norita and production designer Jim Bissell. I jointly gave them the task of coming up with a “moving postcard” visual style for the film, a color palette and richness of the period that would remind an audience of the “golden age of Hollywood” and the wonderland that California in the thirties advertised itself to be. I wanted it to be complete with orange groves, palm trees, roadside architecture and the fantasized glamour of the burgeoning film industry. 1990 was pre-computer graphics. That revolution would begin a couple of years later with Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. Industrial Light and Magic was still building models and shooting them in front of a blue screen while we were prepping The Rocketeer.
One of the crucial aspects of the story was the flying. I didn’t want to use models if real planes were available, and I didn’t want to shoot actors in a mocked up cockpit with a blue screen behind them. By some strange twist of fate there was a functional reproduction GeeBee Model Z racing plane in Riverside, California. Even more bizarre, it was for sale for $25,000!
All I had to do was convince the studio and its bureaucratic parade of accountants and attorneys that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We couldn’t build a phony non-flying mockup for $25,000. The plane’s builder, Bill Turner, who ended up being a consultant on the show and piloting one of the other racers in the air show sequence, was ready to sell but he had another buyer back east who was interested and planning to fly out to look the plane over. To get a check cut by the production accountants could take days if not weeks, so I took a potentially foolish leap of faith and bought the plane myself. When the studio finally decided that it would be a good idea I sold it to them for the purchase price, but for two weeks I was the nervous owner of a 30’s racing plane. I sat in the cockpit once and worked the pedals and joystick. Good enough.
Now we needed someone skilled enough to fly the damn thing. All the original Gee Bees crashed, but the problem turned out to be largely due to high speed aileron vibration and this reproduction had had the problem corrected. Our flight coordinator and chief pilot, Craig Hosking, gave the plane a very thorough check-up. When he was finished, he said, “I’ll make ten takeoffs and ten landings. No more.” As it turned out, we didn’t quite need ten, but every takeoff and landing was a white knuckle experience for everyone watching. Craig was probably calm and collected, except maybe the time the oil sprayed on the plexiglass of the tiny enclosed cockpit forcing Craig to essentially fly blind.
For the shots of Bill Campbell in the Gee Bee cockpit we had a special three cockpit biplane set up with the pilot in the front cockpit, the camera and operator in the middle, and Bill in the rear cockpit with a copy of the GeeBee canopy over him. The airfield scenes were shot at the Santa Maria Airport almost exactly where Billy Wilder shot the takeoff scenes in The Spirit of St. Louis with Jimmy Stewart.
The trees that Jimmy almost clips on takeoff are the same eucalyptus trees that the Feds, Ed Lauter and James Handy, chase Wilmer and his gunner through before they collide with the landing gear of Cliff’s Gee Bee. Dave Stevens himself plays the Nazi test pilot who tries to fly the German rocket pack in the black and white footage. The actor playing Adolf Hitler in the footage was also the short order cook in the Bulldog Café.