Behind the Screen: Amelia with Paul Austerberry

Editorial Staff Art

Hilary Swank’s portrayal of pioneering aviatrix Amelia Earhart in the new film Amelia has been turning heads—but the real star of Mira Nair’s biopic might just be the gorgeous vintage planes. As the film’s visual consultant, Toronto-based Paul Austerberry spent months researching classic aircraft.  He talked to The Magazine ANTIQUES about that process, and explained why flying a late-1930s eight-seater to South Africa (where a good deal of the film was shot) is as dangerous now as it ever was.

DARRELL HARTMAN: Could you give us a rundown of the three main aircraft in the movie?

  • Moving the Electra

  • Film still with the replica Vega

    Photo by Ken Woroner.

  • The re-created Vega cockpit

  • Building the replica Vega

  • Film still of the Electra crash

    Photo by Ken Woroner.

  • Film still of the Electra cockpit

    Photo by Ken Woroner.

  • Archival photograph of Earhart in the Electra cockpit

  • Archival photograph of Earhart and the Vega 5B

    All images courtesy of Paul Austerberry except noted.

  • Archival photograph of the Electra crash

  • Archival photograph of fuselages at the Lockhead plant

  • Color scheme and plans for the Lockhead Vega (“Winnie Mae”)

  • Original Lockhead Vega 5B flown by Amelia Earhart at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

  • Archival photograph of a Vega wing at the Lockhead plant

  • Interior of the replica Fokker

  • Building the replica Fokker

  • The Fokker on location

  • Archival photograph of constructing the Fokker

  • Interior of the Josephine Ford Fokker

PAUL AUSTERBERRY: The 1928 Fokker, which we built from scratch; the red Lockheed Vega, which we also built; and the one she perished in, the 1937 Electra, for which we used several different, real planes—two here in Toronto, and a flying one in South Africa.

DH: Of those three, the Electra is really the star. Tell me about getting it on screen.

PA: It was a little difficult. There are not a lot of those planes out there. The real plane was a Lockheed L-10 Electra, but we ended up using an L-12 Electra Junior.  It’s a very similar plane—I actually think the proportions are slightly more elegant.

DH: Where did you find the three Electras you used in the film?

PA: We were able to get one from a fellow in Lafayette, Georgia. He flew it up here and we painted it and used it in the hangar and on the runway.  Then there was another, non-flying one in Florida—we had to get a police escort through every state from Florida to Toronto. That was outrageously expensive, but we got it here.

DH: And then you also had one at the South Africa location?

PA: We had to convince someone to fly it all the way from France to South Africa. It was a bit of a dangerous journey, actually. I think the owner’s son, who flies for Air France, flew it down. They were surrounded by an army on an island off West Africa and basically had to pay their way out of there.

DH: These old Fokkers are also extremely rare. What did you base your re-creation on?
PA: The Josephine Ford, which is at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. There’s a Vega there as well, so I made special arrangements to go in after-hours with the curator. The fellow doing the drawings and I actually got to clamber inside the Vega and take detailed pictures of the interiors. We weren’t allowed inside the Fokker—it’s too delicate—but we looked in the windows and took measurements and photos of details that you can’t really find from the drawings and black-and-white photos.

DH: Did you make a trip to the Fokker plant in the Netherlands?

PA: No. I got a bunch of drawings that came from the factory, but through other people.

DH: Tell me about building the Vega.

PA: Lockheed wasn’t going to give me any drawings, but there’s a fellow in Texas who had a ton that he had collected over the years. Earhart’s Vega is at the Smithsonian, so I got a record of the paint color and an incredibly high-resolution photo of the cockpit from them. We were able to re-create that one very well.

DH: These three planes were all built more or less within the same decade, and yet they’re so different.

PA: And if you look at Earhart’s life, it’s basically from the birth of flight all the way up to the modern passenger liner. The Fokker is pretty damn basic. The Vega is actually a pretty sleek-looking machine except that it’s wood and paint—not gleaming new materials like polished aluminum. That’s the art deco beauty, the iconic Electra.  Those desk lamps and things you think of when you think of art deco, that’s basically the Lockheed Elektra.

Images from above: Film still of the Eletra. Photo by Ken Woroner. The recreated Fokker on location and the cockpit of Amelia Earhart’s original Vega B5. Courtesy of Paul Asterberry.