Study Guide

Airplane! Behind the Scenes

  • Director

    We kinda wonder if they all got together because of the cool acronym their last names made (ZAZ).

    Though Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker started out primarily as writers, the trio turned out to be terrific directors, too. After the success of Kentucky Fried Movie, the studio handed them the reins for Airplane!. The ZAZ team would go on to direct two more films together: 1984's Top Secret and 1986's Ruthless People.

    Though the trio would continue to write together throughout the '80s and '90s, Ruthless People would mark the last time ZAZ directed together as a threesome. Their next biggest hit, The Naked Gun, featured only David Zucker as director. David would go on to direct several more successful comedies, including The Naked Gun 2½,the Trey Parker and Matt Stone vehicle BASEketball, and Scary Movie 3 and 4.

    While Jim Abrahams hasn't exactly been prolific in the post-ZAZ years, Jerry Zucker had tremendous success in 1990 with Ghost and went on to direct another modest hit in 2001, Rat Race.

    Airplane!, however, catches the trio as a team, at the height of their creative prowess, showcasing their unusual three-pronged directorial style before they went their separate ways.

  • Screenwriter

    Jim Abrahams and brothers David and Jerry Zucker know their way around a comedic script.

    From their college days in Madison, Wisconsin writing sketch comedy as "Kentucky Fried Theater," the trio—known in the biz as "ZAZ"—always had a knack for the humorous. Their first feature film released in 1977, The Kentucky Fried Movie, was comprised entirely of sketches based on their KFT routines. The team was paired with young director Jon Landis, who, on the heels of Kentucky's surprise success, was launched to stardom in the following years with megahits like Animal House and The Blues Brothers.

    As it happened, ZAZ was just getting warmed up. Beginning with Airplane! in 1980, the trio would go on to pen a slew of hits throughout the decade, including Top Secret! the TV series Police Squad! and the film the series inspired: The Naked Gun.

    By the '90s, however, the team more or less split up, focusing more on directing and producing independently. Aside from the decidedly less successful Naked Gun sequels, the trio hasn't written anything as a team in a couple decades or so. We're still holding out for another Airplane! sequel, one that erases the memory of the non-ZAZ disaster of a disaster comedy Airplane 2.

  • Production Studio

    Paramount Pictures

    Paramount Pictures has a lengthy legacy of churning out box office juggernauts, going all the way back to the Golden Age of Hollywood in the 1920s. This tradition carried into the 1970s, and coming off the wake of worldwide successes like Saturday Night Fever and Grease at the end of the decade, Paramount decided to press on, albeit in a John Travolta-less direction.

    Putting $3.5 million worth of eggs in the basket of little-known comedy team comprised of Jim Abrahams, and brothers Jerry and David Zucker, Paramount took a huge risk. Plenty of other studios had passed on the project, but Paramount CEO Michael Eisner and production exec Jeffrey Katzenberg saw the script's potential. (Source)

    ZAZ loved working with Paramount. Jerry Zucker said, "We were funny guys, but we knew nothing about crafting a movie. The people at Paramount really taught us about making plot points into jokes, about making jokes into plot points, and showed us places where we were probably taking too much time with plot and needed to make cuts." (Source)

    The honchos at Paramount were also helpful in landing the actors that ZAZ wanted to cast—serious actors who might have balked at being asked to film a comedy with young, inexperienced directors.

    Airplane! was a hit, kicking off a fantastically fruitful decade for Paramount, featuring a slew of commercial smashes from Top Gun to Pretty in Pink to the Indiana Jones Trilogy.

  • Production Design

    The movie was shot pretty much entirely in a studio, using an on-set airplane cross-section and airport terminal set. In fact, there's a specialty movie studio just for this purpose: Air Hollywood. Founded by a film producer who experienced first-hand the problems of filming aviation scenes in a real airport, Air Hollywood provided both the cabin and flight deck sets for Airplane! (Source)

    Throw in some occasional green screen and a not particularly realistic looking model jet for the exterior shots, add the accompanying propeller plane sound effects for good comedic measure, and that's all there is to it.

    From the score to the camera work and lighting, to the casting, down to the performances themselves, ZAZ sought to emulate the hyper-serious pomposity of popular '70s disaster films. But when coupled with the filmmakers' special brand of absurdism and self-referential humor, the result is comedy gold.

  • Music (Score)

    In 1980, Elmer Bernstein wasn't known for comedies. The Oscar-winning composer had already been in business for over 25 years, making a name for himself scoring more dramatic fare from To Kill a Mockingbird to The Magnificent Seven.

    But after ZAZ collaborator Jon Landis tapped Bernstein for his 1978 classic Animal House, the composer's comedic potential was unlocked. Bernstein's score for Animal House was stately and refined, an ironic juxtaposition to the absurd shenanigans going down at the fictitious Faber College.

    ZAZ saw that same potential for Airplane!, bringing in the veteran composer to create a serious soundtrack which would emphasize the craziness of the movie's action. Bernstein's score for Airplane! is intentionally over-dramatic, exactly the type of soundtrack you'd expect to accompany a serious disaster flick.

    With business booming, Bernstein would go on to compose the scores for other hit comedies like Ghostbusters, and Stripes.

  • Fandoms

    Talk about a cult classic. Actually—talk about classic classic.

    Airplane! was an immediate commercial success on its release in the summer of 1980, and has only managed to grow in popularity and cultural importance in the 35 years since. On its 30th anniversary, distinguished news rags like the New York Times and The Guardian looked back on its zany comedy. It's often on the schedule of classic film festivals, with regular screenings here and there for hardcore fans and the newly-initiated. There are cast member "Where are they now?" articles, and endless websites analyzing just what makes the film so side-splitting hilarious.

    On its 30th anniversary, Airplane! was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress whose films are judged to be "culturally, historically, or aesthetically" important. (Re-read that oh-so-lofty description after you've watched the movie.) Seriously, every spoof movie since 1980 has Airplane! embedded in its DNA. Even if people don't dress up like Otto Pilot for Halloween or organize conventions like the Trekkies, the film's had such staying power since its release that every year the film makes new fans.

    Even folks who haven't seen the film know the gags. "What's the vector, Victor?" "Roger, Roger." Say to anyone, "Surely you can't be serious," and there's a good chance they'll say, "I am serious. And don't call me Shirley." So much of the film's lunatic dialogue has entered the pop lexicon that if you're a fan of comedy, you're a fan of Airplane!