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The secret to butt-whupping Plane acting, with Gerard Butler and Mike Colter

The new action movie got messy AND exhausting

Mike Colter and Gerard Butler in Plane running through a dilapidated warehouse with two assault rifles in Plane Photo: Kenneth Rexach/Lionsgate
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

The new movie Plane promises even more than what it says on the tin, because the tin only says Plane and there’s actually much more to the movie than that.

In Plane, certified Hollywood run-and-gunner Gerard Butler plays Brodie Torrance, a pilot whose worst-case-scenario day begins with a plane crash and ends with a battalion of Filipino separatists hunting him and the passengers through the jungle of a remote island. Aiding him is Louis Gaspare (Luke Cage’s Mike Colter), an accused murderer who was being transported on the ill-fated flight. There are obvious shades of Con Air to the whole thing, but finally Colter gets the down-and-dirty action movie he deserves, and with an ol’ reliable like Butler as an anchor.

Plane is not a movie audiences will flock to for tightly wound drama and Shakespearean-level soliloquizing. But it’s a hell of a good time at the movies because Butler and Colter hit the marks and sell the hits. Action Acting is a thing, and these two do it well. But what does it take? Polygon asked the pair to explain what’s required to make a movie like Plane take off.

How to make plane action look legit

Gerard Butler: For this we built the whole body of an aircraft and put it on a gimbal that threw us around and dipped down. I really thought we were going to topple over. At one point a cameraman literally fell over the railings. He was strapped in because it was so violent. I think that gives the audience the sense that they’re really with us in this cockpit.

Mike Colter: To Gerry’s point, a lot of the anxiety that you feel is because of how [director] Jean-François [Richet] shot it, but also all the cast members buying into this idea that we’re going to die. We’re responding to this shifting, unpredictable quality that the gimbal is giving us. Lily [Krug] and Kelly [Gale] and Joey [Slotnik] and Otis [Winston] and Danielle [Pineda] and all these guys, every flight attendant, everybody was was buying into this idea of selling this fear.

How to kill an action movie goon with a sledgehammer

Louis Gaspare (a bearded Mike Colter) walks in handcuffs down the middle aisle of a plane with his cop escort following behind in Plane Photo: Kenneth Rexach/Lionsgate

Colter: How does smashing a guy’s head like a watermelon feel? Well, it was great. But have you ever held a sledgehammer? It’s really heavy. And I don’t know that I’ve ever used it to hit anything other than a couple of rocks.

Butler: You don’t remember?

Colter: When you pick it up, you go “This is going to bludgeon someone to death.” You realize how blunt-force this thing is — it is lethal! Just to pick it up and swing it. So listen, full disclosure, they have to have fake sledgehammers and real sledgehammers on set. And a fake sledgehammer is hard to make look real. So I elected to use the real one as much as I could, because you can’t fake the heaviness of it. Then, obviously, on contact, it was supposed to be a fake one.

Butler: Supposed to be?

Colter: The weight when you swing it, you gotta make sure it doesn’t hit the person’s head. I remember it was really hard to stop it, and so it was really difficult to make it look like it’s gonna hit, so look — somehow we got it done. That was [stunt coordinator James M.] Churchman’s idea. He wanted the kill to be really quiet. So how do you do that? Sledgehammer.

How to fire a loud, cumbersome rifle while still looking badass

Butler: You put in training for that kind of thing. We get the best of the best to show you how to do that. Often it’s, like, special forces. But Mike, you had to know what you were doing.

Colter: It’s all about earplugs. Earplugs are key. That is a loud piece of equipment when it goes off. If you have earplugs, it’s half the battle. The kicking and the recoil is something you get used to after a while and if you’ve done it enough you get comfortable, but listen, no one picks up a weapon and just starts letting it fly without earplugs.

Butler: I have done so many takes surrounded by gunfire and then realized at the start of that take I didn’t have my earplugs in and you have to do a whole take and it feels like that one alone has taken away 10% of my hearing. I had one set piece in London Has Fallen, and an explosion went off, and I had ringing in my ear for two months. The problem is you don’t want to go, “Cut! Stop!” I literally have lost easily 30% of my hearing from this stuff.

Colter: Yeah, this is why Gerry claims he never hears me. He’s laying the groundwork.

How to slap-fight with meaning

Gerard Butler’s Brodie, bleeding from the left side of his face, runs through the jungle with his gun in Plane Photo: Kenneth Rexach/Lionsgate

Butler: Our fist fight in this movie was... kind of a real fight.

Colter: Yeah, the other guy was a local and really didn’t like Gerry’s movies. He showed up to set and you guys just started fighting and we recorded it, right?

Butler. We made friends at the end. But no, part of what’s cool about this movie is we’re not dealing with superheroes. We’re dealing with regular people in incredible circumstances. So when I’m in that moment fighting, I remember that everybody’s life depends on me surviving. I’m not just fighting for me, I’m fighting for the lives of all the passengers. So it’s desperate and it’s messy and it’s exhausting. And we did it all in one shot, which is rare; normally we break that stuff up. So it was messy and it was exhausting. And a lot of the time was literally just pushing with strength and to me that’s a lot more believable than a stunt — punch, kick. I love this fight.

How to make a truly great action movie instead of a fine one

Butler: The difference is really believing in the story. Having a lot of passion for it. And not wanting to be embarrassed when the movie comes out! You don’t want anyone thinking, “Oh, that moment’s convenient,” “That moment’s not truthful,” “That moment’s not funny.” So we pin down all these moments, and make them as exciting, as entertaining, as moving, as surprising as possible, and ultimately, something people can relate to. You ground each moment. These are ridiculous situations, but you play them as believable as possible.

Plane is now playing in theaters.