In an exclusive interview, helicopter pilot Andy Nettleton tells us about his experiences working in Abu Dhabi on the biggest film of the year – the top-secret Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.
When did you find out you would be working on Star Wars?
I work for Dubai’s premier helicopter service, Helidubai. Myself and my colleague, Andrew Masterson, are the only two motion picture-approved filming pilots with Universal and Hollywood studios in the Middle East. I was contacted by email in September 2013 and thought: “This won’t come off, it’s too good to be true.” We did the shoot last May.
How did it feel to be part of it?
It was the most exciting experience I’ve ever had. It’s not as much pressure as doing a live event. I’ve filmed the Formula One every year, where you’ve got 600 million people watching – that’s pressure, because if you get it wrong, there’s no turning back.
There were a lot of discussions about how to work. You’re not just a pilot – your input is valued to make it work as a team. Sometimes they [the crew] take on board your suggestions and you think: “Wow, I managed to change the script slightly here.” Like, flying a different pattern over the dunes. A lot of scenes I did were in the desert. One is on YouTube, so far seen by 58 million people.
What’s it like to be involved in something so top secret?
When you're in that bubble, you're so focused on what you're doing. Then when you leave you can't talk about it. For months, there was all this speculation. On a night out, I'd hear people talking about it but I couldn't risk word getting out. I remember listening to the radio driving to work and the DJ saying: "There are rumours Star Wars will be filmed here," and someone said: "I know for a fact that's absolute rubbish." I thought: "It's not rubbish, mate, because I'm on my way to go help film it. If only you knew."
Can you explain the procedure you go through on a movie?
All of the airports in the area, including the military, close airspace where they know we’ll be flying. We have a Ministry of Defence person with us to make sure the cameraman doesn’t film anything they shouldn’t be filming, such as palaces or military bases.
You take an engineer with you and spare parts, because you can’t afford for the helicopter to break down in the desert. There are strict roll calls to discuss what’s to be done on a particular flight. It’s got to be absolutely crystal clear so there’s no time wasted. They’ll show you very detailed CGI [computer-generated imagery] of the scene they’re wanting and how the finished scene needs to look. So we see a pre-CGI image of the scene we’re doing on that particular flight, done many months previously by people in the States. After the flight, you talk about whether it was successful. You look at raw footage on the monitors and actually see how it’s done. We flew through the desert in different locations for Star Wars, and they computer-generated a chase scene with starships superimposed. They show you a clip of what the finished movie will look like.
We also get many pages of storyboards, with writing and dialogue. The actors read a script, and we see and fly the script. If there’s a mistake from the camera guy or from my side – say the lighting wasn’t right – we try something different.Between Andrew and myself, it took probably 30 hours of flight time to make a minute and a half of actual footage. As soon as the footage is shot, it’s put in a secure safe or box, then carried by hand and flown back to the States for editing.
What was it like working with the film’s director, J J Abrams?
To be standing in a circle getting briefed by Abrams about what he wants you to do was quite a privilege. When he was standing next to me and asking me questions, I had to pinch myself. I thought: “I’m about to climb into this helicopter with the director and camera crew, and I’ve got to get this right – because the millions of dollars spent on an hourly basis to make this movie work is all down to me, for this particular moment.”
Which celebs did you see on set?
We sat on the next table to Abrams and [the British actor] Simon Pegg. I was standing at the salad counter getting my lettuce and cucumber, and Pegg was standing next to me. It’s a strange experience – they look like normal human beings, then in the movies they’re put under this spotlight.
What were the costumes like?
There were big fairy things, sasquatch [Chewbacca] and dwarfs dressed in ragged clothes. Between filming, you’d see Stormtroopers with the guns and helmets on. Then you go in the mess for dinner alongside extras with their headgear off, but their lower bodies covered in stuff they’re wearing for the movie. They’re sat at the same table and everybody just mingles.
What was the atmosphere like on set?
Great – there were no prima donnas, everybody was just concentrating on what they needed to do. Everybody looks after their own department, then later you meet for lunch.
There were people from all over the world. It’s like a moving circus. They use techies and extras based in the UAE and when they move to another country, they hire from there.
How was security?
Very strict, with a boundary well away from the actual scenes we were shooting miles into the desert. We heard rumours about journalists travelling from the UK and Australia trying to get through the boundaries. Apparently, they were seen hiding behind palm trees and dunes.
For one scene, we drove through a security gate for a good 15 minutes into the dunes so there was no way people could get onto the set and take sneaky pictures. Nobody could walk in or out without their security badge, even in uniform.
What's your best memory of being involved in Star Wars?
The excitement of flying through the dunes fast, at low level, knowing that what you’re doing at that particular time will be seen by millions – or billions – of people and will stay on record forever.
Will you get tickets to the premiere?
I don't know. I'd definitely take unpaid leave to go to that. I'd be more than happy just to go to the cinema here. Based on footage I've seen, it'll certainly be an epic movie and hopefully the best Star Wars ever.The cleaners will be cleaning the popcorn up from under our feet, and Andrew and I will be the two lonely guys waiting to see our names mentioned in the credits. We've been promised they will be.
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is due to be released on December 18