2:50am PT by Alex Ritman
'Rogue One': How an Ex-Navy Pilot Wound Up Next to Jyn Erso at the Rebel Alliance Base
Towards the end of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, just before the climactic all guns and AT-AT blazing battle on the tropical planet Scarif, Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso delivers a rousing speech around the briefing room table at the Rebel Alliance base. It’s a pivotal scene, gathering all the film’s forces of good before they hyperspace off towards a rather uncertain future against the Empire.
Just behind Erso stand two figures looking suitably roused: Riz Ahmed’s nervous defector Bodhi Rook and an unnamed rebel X-wing pilot in full iconic orange garb.
Thanks to a book published to coincide with the film’s release — Dorling Kindersley’s Star Wars: Rogue One: The Ultimate Visual Guide — this pilot would be given a name, Harb Binli, and a call sign, Red Seven of Red Squadron. Red Squadron would, of course, famously be joined by Luke Skywalker in A New Hope and successfully destroy the Death Star, a mission Red Seven wouldn’t return home from.
For the man beneath the flight suit, appearing in Star Wars and becoming part of its folklore completes something of an almost-too-perfect circle.
In the early 1980s, Brit Ben Hartley was among the millions of children obsessed with George Lucas’ galactic fantasy world. But it was the X-wings and their pilots that interested him the most. And it was this interest, coupled with a youth spent living abroad in far-flung places such as Morocco, Turkey and Mexico thanks to ex-pat parents, that he credits with steering him towards a career as a helicopter pilot for the British Royal Navy.
Hartley spent 18 years serving in the military, mostly flying on anti-submarine warfare and anti-people smuggling missions. Towards the end of his time on duty he moved towards pilot recruitment, and it was here where he met Andrew Buckley, a former Royal Marine who was leaving the forces to work as a film location manager. One day, Buckley gave him a call.
“He said, ‘mate, can you help me get an aircraft carrier for a shoot?’,” Hartley tells The Hollywood Reporter.
The shoot was World War Z, and Hartley and Buckley managed to not just find a suitable boat (the RFA Argus, which was renamed the USS Argus for the film), but bring Hartley's expertise on board as the film’s helicopter supervisor.
“I was the technical advisor, and somehow ended up controlling the whole deck scene,” he says.
It was on the deck of the Argus that Hartley noticed that the extras didn't quite look the part.
“I saw all these guys running around with guns playing U.S. Marines and I thought it would look much better with actual armed forces personnel who had done that sort of thing in real life. So we said to them: we can get you guys who are actually Marines to be Marines.”
After World War Z, word got around, and Buckley soon had a call from one of the assistant directors on the Tom Cruise action film Edge of Tomorrow, also shooting in the U.K., asking for extras who knew how to handle a gun.
“We sent over photos of people and mates that we knew from the Forces and said, ‘these are the sort of guys we can get,’ and he was like, ‘great, can we have all of them,'" says Hartley. "So we thought, shit, now we’d better ask the people whether they actually want to be involved in the film.”
Thankfully, they did, while others found out on the grapevine and got in touch via social media to offer their services. Soon, Hartley and Buckley had a growing database of names — some still serving and others having left the military — and the two, sensing a gap in the market, co-founded Military Film Services.
“Films need authenticity and realism, especially when it comes to people holding weapons and moving in a certain way that you can tell is military or not,” says Hartley. “But there’s also a period where ex-service personnel are transitioning to civilian life, and it’s a really difficult phase of their lives. So having something like this acts as a really good go-between. You’ve also got a bunch of people who are reliable, turn up on time and don’t mind being barked orders at on set!”
With the U.K. in the midst of a film production boom thanks to a tasty tax incentives scheme luring big Hollywood productions, the work started to pour in, and MFS began supplying extras and its technical expertise to films including 24: Live Another Day, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Fury and Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation. It also moved away from being purely military-focused, with its database of names appearing as CIA agents, SWAT team members, police officers and close protection. The company grew, and now boasts more than 3,000 ex and serving military personnel on its books, alongside thousands of police officers, martial artists, action specialists and regular extras in their sister agency, Action Extras.
After about three years of steady work, a call came in from an assistant director MFS had worked with several times previously. Knowing that Hartley had himself been a pilot, the request this time was for others who knew the insides of a cockpit, who he needed to work on a major secret project.
That film was Rogue One.
“When we found out it was Star Wars, it was amazing to know that we’d be putting people who had flown military aircraft into X-wings fighting for the Rebel Alliance,” he says. “You can imagine how amazed and chuffed everyone was.”
Having previously kept himself at a managerial or advisory level, this time Hartley decided to put himself forward as one of the faces and, once selected, went down with the 50 or so MFS pilots, ground crew and engineers on the first day for their costume fitting.
“It was like an old reunion of mates. People had come from all over, people who I might have flown on squadron with or known in my career,” he says.
One ex-navy man, believing he’d been set up as part of a — very — elaborate joke, actually started crying when he put on the orange flight suit and realized that he was, actually, going to be in Star Wars.
Much of the shoot involving the extras took place at RAF Cardington, a former air force base boasting a huge hangar that had been extensively used by Christopher Nolan in his Batman trilogy and for Inception. For Rogue One, it was transformed into the Rebel Alliance base on the moon of Yavin 4, the setting for those iconic outdoor scenes as frantic pilots scramble to their waiting X-wings.
Aside from his extra work, Hartley also became the on-set aviation advisor, sitting in the ships with Felicity Jones, Riz Ahmed, Diego Luna and Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO, giving them tips on which buttons to press and how to look comfortable and authentic in the cockpit.
“In a lot of those scenes in the ships, I’m actually crouching behind the seats,” he says, adding that while working with the key cast he learned that he and Luna used to hang out in the same shopping mall in Mexico City as kids.
But things were to get even bigger for Hartley when shooting moved to Pinewood for the scene in the Rebel Alliance briefing room, where he was slowly moved towards the front of the pack of extras.
“When they reshot it the second time, I was right behind Felicity and when they did the final reshoot — where much of the footage is from — the AD kept pushing me further forward,” he says. “When they framed up the camera, they realized they needed to fill a gap so I was drawn right to the front of the table. From that point I absolutely knew that I was going to be quite key in this scene.”
The subsequent marketing drive underlined his prominent role, Hartley glimpsing himself briefly in the first trailer and more significantly in the second. And then came the other promotional material, with his face appearing on trading cards and official stills that were published around the world.
After Rogue One was eventually released in the U.K. on Dec 16, Hartley's social media “went bananas,” with him being inundated with messages from people who had seen him, several joking that they had no idea what Erso actually said in her speech because they were too busy staring at their friend next to her, or pointing out that he appeared in the film “more than Darth Vader.”
And now, thanks to the Dorling Kindersley book, Hartley isn’t just a nodding extra, but a legitimate part of the Star Wars family, with a backstory on Wookieepedia that looks only set to expand (it currently says he’s from the planet Eriadu and “particularly excelled at strafing runs against point defense cannons.”)
Hartley says he found out about his sudden new place in history by complete accident, having bought his daughter a copy of the book simply so she could see behind-the-scenes pictures.
“When I opened up the X-wing page and saw myself, with a name, I had to look it at a few times to check it was definitely me,” he laughs.
“At the time of filming I was just there trying my best to look concerned, but now you realize he actually jumps in an X-wing and fights the battle of Scarif in Rogue One and later becomes mates with Luke Skywalker and fights in A New Hope!"
Red Seven may have met his maker at the hands of the Empire in the 1977 original, but Hartley isn’t sad that he’s unlikely to be donning the orange jumpsuit again in any of the future Star Wars films (production on the Han Solo spinoff kicks off in the U.K. in early 2017).
“It’s kind of good [that he dies], because it means that you’re part of the ultimate iconic battle. You were there.”