Air Force One Screenwriter Talks Sequel Ideas, Potential Reboot and Origin of “Get Off My Plane!”

Let’s take a look back at Harrison Ford’s original turn as POTUS in Air Force One — aka one of the greatest action movies to ever come out of the ’90s. Imagine John McClane had been elected leader of the free word, and you’ve got a rough sense of President James Marshall, a man of great integrity and a celebrated Vietnam War veteran who is none too pleased when a band of terrorists takes his family hostage aboard the most secure aircraft in the world.

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To celebrate the fact that the movie is now streaming on Peacock, SYFY WIRE recently caught up with screenwriter Andrew W. Marlowe, who was kind enough to unload a proverbial luggage compartment of information on the making of 1997’s Air Force One and its cultural impact.

Screenwriter Andrew W. Marlowe on creating Air Force One

Just to start off, tell us a little bit about how the project first came together.

I was thinking about how to construct a great action movie with a really compelling character at the heart of it and I thought, “What more compelling character than the President United States?” One of the things that I had observed, is if you’re running for president, you have to cut so many deals with people along the way that by the time you get into office, you’re kind of owned. You have all these obligations and your motivations are never pure. What would it be like to take all that away from the character and just put them in a situation where it’s them and their moral compass — and it’s their family versus what is politically the right thing to do?

I wanted a situation where nobody could come to help. Air Force One, the actual plane, is such an icon of the United States and it represents freedom; it symbolizes everything that this country is about. So what happens when that’s compromised? When that is no longer a safe space and nobody can come to help? As Glenn Close’s character says, “What are our airborne scenarios?” Well, there are no airborne scenarios. How are you supposed to protect somebody on the plane once the plane is in the air? So to me, that was a really great equation to have a really fun action movie with something substantial at the heart of it.

Was ‘Air Force One’ always the intended title, or did you play around with any others?

It’s so iconic. So no, I didn’t play with any others. Sometimes when things come to you, it’s perfect. I’ve been on other projects, where I’ve been racking my brain, like, “What could this title be? What encapsulates it all?” But in this one, the title was obvious and I think it was just perfect for the tone the movie was setting.

The movie is basically Die Hard in the air. Would you say that was a major influence?

It was certainly one of the influences. I think that story pattern goes back thousands of years. It goes back to The Odyssey when Odysseus comes home and finds his house overrun by suitors. He has to strap on the bow and arrow and defend his family. I think Die Hard had echoes of that, so I think it’s a really classic story pattern. And, of course, this was coming at a time in the ’90s where there were are all sorts of [Die Hard imitators]: Die Hard on a bus, Die Hard in a this, Die Hard in a that. I was absolutely cognizant of it, but I also wanted this to feel different enough from that movie, so people didn’t feel like they were on a ride that was too familiar. I think putting it on a plane really helped that.

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How much research did you have to do? Was there any official input from the White House?

I actually did a lot of research. I found a National Geographic documentary that they did on the plane and there’s a three-second clip in there that shows the plane’s layout. I couldn’t find anything else and this was before the internet, before you could do searches. I remember freeze framing on that and the time it took to freeze frame just right on the old videotapes. And then doing my own sketch [of it] just to get the layout with some relative accuracy. I wanted to be as accurate as possible.

I did call up the Presidential Flight Office and asked them some questions. And, of course, they really couldn’t comment. I [asked] about the escape pod and getting the president off, and the official response was, “Well, we can’t comment on it, but it would make sense that we had a way to get the president off the plane in the case of an in-flight emergency.” So I took that as dramatic permission, dramatic license. There was some stuff in the popular press when the planes were delivered about their countermeasures and what had gone into it in terms of its ability to repel attacks — both on the ground and in the air. So I took some of that and, of course, added dramatic license. But I did as much research as I could certainly at the time.

This was just a few years after the Cold War had ended and your script really plays on the lingering ghosts of that conflict. How did you decide on who the villain would be?

I liked looking at the complexities within the Soviet Union. You had these reformers who were looking to push Russia into the future after Gorbachev. And then you had these hardliners that saw the breakup of their empire. So creating a character who wanted to reestablish Russian glory, who was opposed to the reformers, I thought gave some complexity on the other side, so it wasn’t just mustache-twirling bad guys. One of the things I tried to do [with] the Gary Oldman character was make him, in his mind, a good guy. He’s a patriot, he’s somebody who’s trying to defend this country.

I thought that that would give him a little bit more to hang his hat on than standard bad guys being bad guys, which you see a lot of. I always like my bad guys to think that they’re the good guys in their movie. And it’s been interesting to see what’s happened since, where you have that tension in Russia between the reformers and the people who are more the old guard. Putin’s rise and him trying to reestablish the Soviet Union and that empire. Those tensions were already there when I was writing the movie and so, I thought it would be really fun to exploit that.

Explaining the Twists in Air Force One

One of the big plot points involves a traitorous member of the Secret Service. We never get a clear explanation for why he betrays the president, but I did some research online before our interview and saw that there was a backstory involving his life as a CIA agent kind of collapsing after the Cold War ended. Is that true?

We did have an explanation in the script and it was an explanation that was coming at a moment of culmination. [Director] Wolfgang [Petersen] said, “Hey, we can’t stop the movie when it’s the face-off between the president and the Secret Service agent to have this explanation.” … So we had a compromise, where we wanted the Gary Oldman character to couch it in the politics of what he believed.

So there’s this nice moment where his character looks at the president and says, “Mr. President, do you know how I got on this plane? Money. God bless America.” [Meaning] that in his mind, the capitalist system corrupts. So when I was working on it, I had a backstory. It wasn’t quite the CIA agent [thing]. I think that some other people came up with that. But we’ve seen these people who have been traitors to our country, who have been cultivated as assets and they’ve been paid off. They’re getting their money and they’ve lost their belief system. So for me, that was interesting enough, looking at it … from Gary Oldman’s character’s side.

Are you able to share what that backstory was?

I think it’s been lost in the wind. It’s been 28 years since I wrote it. But to me, he was a guy whose career never got to where he wanted it to be and he could never afford the things he wanted in life. He didn’t feel special in his world and those are the ingredients for somebody who can be cultivated, somebody who can be turned, somebody who can be paid off. And this was at a time when the Secret Service was considered apolitical. I think that in recent administrations, there have been conversations about, “Has the Secret Service become politicized?” So I think that I was looking at it not through political motivation, but through financial motivation.

Did you have anyone in mind for the role of the president while writing the script?

It’s a fantastic cast and I can’t believe that I got that lucky. And in a lot of ways, I was spoiled because it was the first movie of mine that was ever produced. As one of my friends said to me, “It’s all downhill from here, kid.” I was a child of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones generation, so when I was thinking, “Who could play that white-collar hero? Who could be physical, who could throw people around, but you could still believe could be in the role of the president?” Harrison, of course, came to mind. He was at the top of my mind when I was writing it.

When I had sold the pitch to Beacon, the executive producer of the project, Armyan Bernstein, had a really close relationship with Kevin Costner. And I think one of the reasons why they bit on the project is that [Bernstein] always knew he could take it to Kevin. Kevin was the first person that he showed it to. I think Kevin had just come off of a very big film and wasn’t looking to jump in right away and said, “Hey, you can go to Harrison, but if Harrison passes, hold off for a year, and I’d be interested in doing this.” So it was a really great confluence of events. There were a couple of guys in the orbit who could play it credibly. But I’ve always been a passionate Harrison Ford fan, so he certainly was top of mind when I was writing it.

Alternate Ideas For Air Force One

Were there any alternates considered for the Gary Oldman character?

No, and Gary Oldman came a little bit later in the process when we had Wolfgang Petersen [as director]. [Gary is] just a remarkably strong bad guy, in that he plays the layers. He plays that sense of patriotism. He plays the guy who is a true believer on that side. And just to have somebody who is not just a great star, but such an extraordinary actor play the role, we felt really privileged to get him. And then Glenn Close as the vice president, just so phenomenal.

Any memorable set visits or interactions with Harrison that stick out?

The entire production was memorable for me, because it was first time I was going through it. Can you imagine being a kid in your mid-to-late 20s and you go down to some runway at LAX and there’s a 747 that’s painted to look like the president’s plane because you were sitting around typing something in your one-bedroom apartment? That’s a little bit mind blowing.

Working with Harrison, he has such command of who he is onscreen. And that was really a pleasure, that collaboration, the stuff that he told me about. There was one moment where he had been in the belly of the plane and he gets up to his office and he’s trying to figure out how to do something with the terrorists.

I had something in the script about, “He sits down for a moment just to gather himself.” And he said, “Look, I’m not going to sit down. I appreciate your writing that, but I feel like my family is in crisis and I can’t sit down until it’s over.” He also said something about his character that I really enjoy, because he knows who he is as an actor, and he knows how audiences respond to him. He said, “People don’t come to the movies to see me beat up other people. They come to the movie to see me get beaten up and then get up again. So let’s make sure that we’re capturing that when we do this.”

You mentioned Wolfgang Petersen before. What was his vision for the film? How much (if at all) did your script change as production went on?

Wolfgang’s, a really interesting director. He’ll take a look at the material, he’ll fall in love with the material, and he likes to probe it. He likes to say, “Is there something better that we can do?” So we went through a bit of a development process with him — it wasn’t extensive — where he wanted to try some stuff out and I was game for it. We went down a couple of alleys that turned out not to pay off and I would say that what ended up on film was about 90 to 95% of the original script.

But Wolfgang’s process just makes him that much more committed to the material, because he’s seen what the options are and he’s confident he’s going the best possible way. And when we approached him, he was absolutely top of the list, because if you look at what he did with In the Line of Fire and Das Boot, those two movies combined really had all the elements of what we were trying to capture in this. The claustrophobia of the plane, plus the grandiosity of the position of the president and the president being under threat — and really bringing that human element to it. He was an extraordinary director for this.

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And finally, we come to the big line, “Get off my plane!” What was the origin of that? Did you suspect it had the potential to become as iconic as it did?

You never know what lines are gonna become iconic. When you think about The Terminator and you look at it on the page, the line, ‘I’ll be back’ [it’s nothing special]. But you pair that with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s delivery in that moment … it becomes incredibly quoted. So when I wrote it, I didn’t know. I was just looking for a visceral line, this guy’s anger and rage, talking to the person who has invaded his home and taken his family. And the plane is symbolic of his home … But I was always concerned that the line was a little cheesy, so I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna think of something better.” And then I didn’t and when Harrison performed it, it turned out just to be pitch perfect for the character. Harrison really took ink on paper and breathed enormous life into it, so that it even reverberates today.

Once the film became a success, was there any talk of turning this into a whole franchise of the president kicking ass?

We had talked about it, but there are always challenges with that [kind of] franchise. You get into the Die Hard problem of every time John McClane goes on vacation or goes anywhere, the terrorists take over. So we were very cautious. We had conversations with Beacon and all the folks involved, but we never landed on a story that we thought could do justice to what we had accomplished in the main film. We had set the bar incredibly high.

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Can you remember any of the sequel ideas that were thrown around?

Harrison as as president goes someplace, he’s on an Air Force carrier, it’s attacked, he’s in the middle of an unstable geopolitical situation. And so, there are things he can and can’t do, because you don’t want to inflame it. He’s got to navigate it and he’s the person at the heart of it. There are many variations on it and with the tuning fork, we didn’t get it to the point where we are all like, “Ah, that’s perfect! We’re not repeating the first movie. We’re building on it.”

Has anyone approached you about a potential reboot?

People have talked about it, people are still talking about it. I think we’re in a period of time when, if you’ve had something that’s extraordinarily successful, people want to see if they can mine that IP. But again, I think our bar is, “Are we saying something new? Are we saying something relevant to the culture now?” We don’t want to do something that’s just exploitative storytelling, we want to do something that feels like it has a purpose in the world. And when we were doing it, the presidency and that position was not as politically charged as it is today. And so, I think that there are specific challenges about doing it in the contemporary climate that we would have to figure out. But believe me, people keep talking about it.

Air Force One is now streaming on Peacock.