Anatomy of a Contender: 'Amelia'

It took two directors and a computer kingpin to get Earhart's story airborne

A hijacking nearly brought Fox Searchlight's "Amelia" crashing to the ground.

It was July 15, 2008, three days before shooting was scheduled to get under way on the $40 million film, and a 10-passenger Lockheed L-12A (known in the aviation industry as an Electra Junior) was being flown across the globe to Cape Town, South Africa, where the movie was to lense. The 70-year-old plane was a crucial element in the biopic about Amelia Earhart and her 1937 attempt to fly around the world.

But getting it there wasn't easy. For one thing, Junior needed frequent refueling along the way; for another, it was so old it used a special fuel, Avgas, to power its twin engines. That fuel was running low when an airport on Malabo Island, the capital of Guinea, signaled it had the fuel and cleared Junior to land -- at which point it was surrounded by 15 armed soldiers.

"Without the Electra, we could not make the movie," director Mira Nair says.

After three days of haggling, with the French and South African governments taking part, Nair managed to come up with the cash -- a relatively modest $12,000 "fine." Doing so was just one of the stomach-churning episodes in the making of her movie, which already had undergone a year in development and seen two directors and two writers tackle the project before it finally got made.

That it was made at all was thanks to Ted Waitt, co-founder of computer company Gateway and a longtime follower of the aviatrix. Retired from Gateway, he decided to enter the movie biz and set up a production company, Avalon Pictures, hiring former Focus Features executive Kevin Hyman as president.

Waitt was convinced a new theatrical film would reveal fresh elements of Earhart's life. In 2007, he bought rights to two recent biographies -- Susan Butler's "East to the Dawn" and Mary Lovell's "The Sound of Wings" -- then quickly brought in Oscar-winning screenwriter Ron Bass ("Rain Man") to pen the script. Hilary Swank signed and suggested Phillip Noyce ("Patriot Games") to direct.

From July-December 2007, Noyce and Bass worked on a half-dozen drafts of the script until the WGA shutdown late that year put the project on hold.

With "Amelia" suspended, Noyce left to pursue another film, a biopic of Mary Queen of Scots, at which point Hyman approached Nair to take over the film. Nair joined the project in January 2008.

More awards coverage  

Although Nair might seem an unusual choice -- she had, after all, come to fame with such Bollywood movies as "Monsoon Wedding" and "Salaam Bombay!" -- Hyman had worked with her on other period projects, most notably "Vanity Fair," the Reese Witherspoon vehicle Nair made for Focus. Indeed, she had been his first choice to make "Amelia" but was too busy on another picture, the Mumbai-based thriller "Shantaram," in development with Johnny Depp.

Now, with Nair, Bass continued to work on the screenplay. But Nair's vision for the film was very different from his.

Bass saw the picture as a story about an iconic woman whose life was defined by her father's alcoholism, but Nair was more interested in the tale of a modern woman coming of age just before the outbreak of World War II.

"I had issues with Ron's script," the director says. "For me, one of the great hooks to her story was that she was very worldly, even though she came from a small town in Kansas. Her dreams were really the key to that final flight."

Says Bass: "I wanted something about Amelia that was more interesting than just her flying; I wanted something deeper. Everything Mira showed was true: Amelia was heroic, and she was brave and a feminist and a leader and a political leader. I was looking for something that changes her, the journey. Where is the vulnerability? What frightened her? Because she was fearless."

Bass and Nair parted ways in February 2008. Nair quickly brought in veteran scribe Anna Hamilton Phelan ("Gorillas in the Mist"). She shared Nair's vision, one Swank also approved.

"Mira identified with Amelia," Phelan says. "She came from a small town in India, and she had big dreams. Amelia wanted to get out and see the world, and that is what Mira wanted to do. I came from St. Mary's, Pa., and wanted to get out, and Hilary came from Bellingham, Wash. The three of us had desires to be free of tethers and had big visions. We were like the three leaves on a shamrock."

Phelan took on the project while producers Hyman, Waitt and Lydia Dean Pilcher put together the logistics and Swank (also an executive producer) cajoled, pushed and prodded until Ewan McGregor committed to co-star. But the screenplay remained the thorniest problem.

Nair's mission for Phelan, the screenwriter says, wasn't easy. She probed, read biographies and watched newsreels.

"Mira wanted me to find the soul of Amelia," Phelan says, noting that her final script reflects 50% of Bass' original. "Amelia appeared to be very gray, very detached, but with a smile on her face that showed no emotion. There was no evidence that she ever had a meltdown. To construct such a character isn't easy."

Searchlight, which released Nair's 2006 drama "The Namesake," joined the project in early 2008 once Nair signed, but Waitt was the source of the film's budget, while the studio handled prints and advertising.

Getting a distributor brought something else: Richard Gere signed to the project, but he had to juggle two other films -- "Brooklyn's Finest" and "Hachiko: A Dog's Story" -- at the same time.

Shooting began in April in Toronto, where a soundstage was used to handle the cockpit of the Lockheed L-12A. The shoot then went to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where exteriors were used for Ireland and Wales. The South African leg of production began with the arrival of the plane, which had to be painted hurriedly to match the markings on Earhart's aircraft.

"South Africa was perfect because of the diversity of locations," Hyman says. "You would be in a sandy location one day and then at Victoria Falls another day. There were no real issues."

Says Nair, "The toughest part was postproduction; finding the shape of the film was elusive, and we needed a different structure." Some conflict over whether to use a voice-over -- Phelan says Gere dubbed it "poetic shit" -- was resolved. But, Nair says, "The epiphany came with the final flight."

The finale -- Earhart's battle to save her Electra from going down -- is the last 10 minutes of the film and is based on dramatic communications between her ill-fated aircraft and the U.S. Coast Guard cutter trying to get her to land on a tiny speck known as Howland Island. That sequence took weeks of planning, working with editors and effects specialists to capture the drama. In the end, "It looked seamless," Hyman says.

That tragic flight proves the highlight of the film and the part most praised by critics who otherwise have been lukewarm toward it.

"She kept going and going," Phelan says. "She was over the Pacific, and what better place for her to be but in a cockpit and still at the throttle? She was getting older and others would pass her by, and what happened was a perfect ending."