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‘Masters of the Air’ writer John Orloff on bringing the show to life

"There are things you see in the show that no eyes have seen since 1945."
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masters of the air
Apple TV+ released the opening title sequence for the upcoming Masters of the Air, a limited series based on the World War II air war over Europe and the flyers in the 100th Bomb Group. Screen capture from YouTube.

After a long wait, Masters of the Air is finally out. The show, based on Donald L. Miller’s book of the same name, follows the crews of the 100th Bomber Group of the 8th Air Force during World War II and their missions over the skies of Europe. The “Bloody Hundredth” suffered immense casualties in the war, but kept flying until it was over.

The journey of bringing the show to life was long for John Orloff. Orloff, the head writer and a producer of Masters of the Air, had the task of adapting the real-life history of the 100th Bomber Group into nine hours of television. He had experience in the field, he had written on Band of Brothers, the first show in what has become a trilogy of miniseries focused on World War II. He started working on what would become Masters of the Air more than a decade ago. Along the way he has shared shreds of behind the scenes looks at the making of the show, including some of his research which is brought to life in extreme detail. 

Task & Purpose sat down with Orloff ahead of the show’s premiere to talk about his research, the air war and why the show needed extensive CGI to accurately represent history.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Task & Purpose:  You’ve been working on this show for around a decade. It started with the focus on the air war, but how did you eventually go about researching this and why did you decide  to focus on the Bloody Hundredth? What was the process where you went from “we should do something on the air war” to “I have a show?”

John Orloff: It started with Steven Spielberg. He read the book Masters of the Air for entertainment. We all kind of read World War II books for fun. I guess he called up Tom Hanks and said there’s this book Masters of the Air and there are these two guys, Buck Cleven and Bucky Egan and I think there’s a show about these two guys. Tom reads the book and agrees and I get a phone call from Tom saying “Hey, want to do another one?” I said “Maybe, what do you got?: He said “The air war! The air war! Masters of the Air, you’ve got to read it.” I read it, it’s a fantastic book, except it’s a 600-page overview of the entire air war. There’s only about 60, 40 pages or about these particular guys. It’s not like Band of Brothers. Band of Brothers the book is about the 101st, not just the 101st but about Easy Company. The book Masters of the Air was about the history of air warfare, it was voluminous. 

I had the task of “we want to make a miniseries about these two guys who were in this particular unit, but there’s not enough in this book to make a full series so John, if you’re interested, you’ve got to figure out what the show is.” So my first year of work was 2014, the whole year I was doing this. 

[Note: At this point Orloff pulled out a thick stack of paper full of notes and research.]

This is my Bible, they call it a Bible. It’s 247 [pages]. Here’s the bibliography. There’s about 40 different sources, about 500 footnotes, and it lays out the show. A lot of original research was necessary because there is no biography on our main characters, it doesn’t exist. As I said, Masters of the Air the book is not about the 100th Bomber Group, so there was quite a lot of heavy lifting in the early days.

Q: People are aware there was an intense air campaign, things like the bombing of Dresden. They’re aware of it, but it doesn’t quite have the cultural cache of the Battle of the Bulge, D-Day, Iwo Jima. Did that free you up as a writer or was it more challenging?

A: That was the motivation to make the show! Because the air war had never been seen in a really viscerally accurate way. As great as Memphis Belle is, a really great film, it’s a film of its time. As great as 12 O’Clock High is, same thing. Neither of them could accurately show what these air battles were really like. The technology didn’t exist, the scale didn’t exist. When they did Memphis Belle, there was no digital technology, so you could only get as many B-17s in the air as you could, and that wasn’t very many.

It was always the main goal of this show, at least from my standpoint, was to get people to understand what a unique, what a massive undertaking, what a terrifying experience air combat was in the Second World War. Because nobody’s ever seen it since 1945. There are things you see in the show that no eyes have seen since 1945.

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For instance, like a thousand B-17s in the air on a mission. One of the interesting things to me was when we entered the war in December 1941 the US Army Air Force had 200 B-17s in existence. In the whole fleet of the air force, 200 B-17s. As you may know we ended up building over 12,000 B-17s and an additional 15,000 or something like that B-24s. The industrial might required to go from zero to 12,000 airplanes is a pretty amazing thing. That leads to these air armadas where hundreds and hundreds of planes are in active combat in one battle. By the Berlin mission in ‘45, an average mission was 1,200 bombers, 500 fighters, you know 1,700 Allied air planes. I don’t know if we have 1,700 combat airplanes in the entire US arsenal right now, and you’d send that many on one mission.

I think the wing has 72 planes on our first mission that we see in the show. By the end of the show you’ll see thousands. Again, things you’ve never seen before, really it’s the intensity of air combat. It really hasn’t been seen accurately. Technically we couldn’t do it.

I know people might be giving us knocks for having CGI, but there’s no other way to do it and give you the audience member — that’s more realistic I would say than as much as I love the film Dunkirk, that’s not what the skies looked like that day. There weren’t four fucking airplanes in the air that day. That’s all they could find, because that was the decision, to only use real airplanes. Dunkirk usually had around 100-150 airplanes in combat. They chose to do it a different way. For me, getting the scale, the commitment, the national commitment, not just the commitment of these young men, but the commitment of the homefront, the whole building these airplanes, getting them across the sea, and getting them in the air is an extraordinary thing. 

Q: We’ve been following your social media posts for months about the show. We’ve enjoyed seeing the recreations, and you mention CGI, but you had physical stand-ins, things on the ground for the ground scenes. There’s a photo you posted of the officer’s club that was recreated. When you were doing your research, how did you go about deciding we need this for verisimilitude or we definitely need this, because as you said there’s not much first-hand information on these guys in the book.

A: Well in the research I found it. There’s the personal diary of Red Bowman, one of our characters, the intelligence officer. He had a diary, and I have that diary. I knew what happened day by day from his perspective. Some of the guys had written memoirs. Just a little bit here, a little bit there, it was really informative in those bits. But also the Air Force took incredibly copious records of every mission. Those were incredibly important sources.

I’ll give you an example. Quinn and Bailey, the two guys who go on the Comet Line with the Belgian resistance. When [Bailey] got home from that, I have his after report. So I could look at what he went through. Some of that dialogue comes from Bailey, when he first lands in Belgium. 

As I said, this Bible has 500 footnotes, and that’s why it has 500 footnotes. I had so many sources. I knew other people were going to come on, not just other writers but other people. And they’re going to want to know “Where does that come from? Where did John Orloff get this beat? How can I as a director look at that source material myself and maybe find something myself that John didn’t and is really cool?” I wanted it to be that kind of process.

Q: For people who see the trailers, the first episodes, they know it’s going to be a dark show, a lot of people are going to get killed. A lot of bombers go up, they get shot at by flak, German planes, they land. For you as a writer how do you differentiate each mission? What was the challenge in keeping each one fresh and terrifying?

A: Each one has its own look. They are designed very specifically believe it or not. The first battle you might remember is really in the clouds, which was accurate. When we see planes go down that’s how they went down. It’s actually those planes, they’re not just random B-17s. I know who’s in those planes, the crew knew who was in those planes, and the special effects people knew who were in those planes.

So that battle was in the clouds, it has its own look. I call that one Jaws, you don’t quite see the shark. You don’t see the shark until the end of Jaws, it’s just that scary thing. They all have a different flavor, a different look. They’re at a different place, so the Sun is in a different place. At Regensburg, everything’s bright blue, the contrails are really specific, while episode 9’s battle is in the winter and icy and cold, the ground is right. It always feels very texturally different. 

The first two episodes of Masters of the Air premiered Friday, Jan. 26 on Apple TV+, with the rest of the series airing weekly after that.

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