The stories come from six widely different places, but they share a sad, tragic theme. They are Black Box transcripts of six airline emergencies gathered by co-director/co-writer Robert Berger, co-director Karlyn Michelson, and actor/co-writers Patrick Daniels and Irving Gregory for their stereoscopic 3D theatrical documentary Charlie Victor Romeo (the industry term for cockpit voice recorder).
For audiences, the frantic exchanges between cockpit personnel start off tense and quickly turn horrifying. Some are seeing the experimental work for the first time as a movie. Others are returning after first catching Charlie Victor Romeo some 15 years ago as an acclaimed stage production at Collective: Unconscious, a venue originally located in a storefront at 145 Ludlow, in the then-hub for Off-Off-Broadway productions, the Lower East Side, before moving to Tribeca in 2004 and finally shuttering after issues with that facility in 2008.
The latest chapter of Charlie Victor Romeo is a 3D movie adaptation that brings a boost of virtual realism to the nearly verbatim transcripts of aviation accidents and incidents. The result is a unique convergence of live performance and filmed 3D storytelling.
Much of the movie feels like a filmed stage play, with actors recreating the voice recordings against the sparse backdrop of airplane cockpits. Yet inventive camera angles and matter-of-fact use of 3D places one close to the dialogue and inside the cockpit for tense misadventures, including a climactic 1989 flight to Sioux City, Iowa onboard a plane that mysteriously can no longer turn left.
Berger admits that it’s surprising how Charlie Victor Romeo, originally planned for a two-week engagement at Collective: Unconscious, has turned into a sustainable work of art, steadily growing in scale as a touring production; and now building a larger community of fans and advocates after successfully shifting to cinema.
The uninitiated questions how the experience of Charlie Victor Romeo the 3D movie compares to long-ago theater audiences stuffed inside a ramshackle Ludlow Street storefront. But Berger sees a powerful correlation between the two productions.
“We feel that the strength of the piece comes a lot from its austerity; from limiting the relation between viewer and piece of theater as a personal one,” Berger tells Hyperallergic, speaking from Los Angeles with Daniels. “We never wanted to have video projections or things like that in the theater piece. From my perspective, the big thing with deciding to use 3D was thinking, how can we try to use 3D? How can we bring that proximity with the audience and that closeness between people to the film? The limitations that placed on the budget of the film opened all sorts of other things. How many cameras can we use? How long we can shoot? It allowed us to stay true to the work’s austerity.”
Watching a 3D movie is a fairly common occurrence at the neighborhood multiplex. But an experimental 3D film, based on an Off-Off Broadway production, premiering at Sundance no less, well, that’s an entirely different matter.
“I think that technology enables us to be personal and simple and very, very private in our communications between humans,” Daniels adds. “In the context of a movie theater, we can be intimate … Technology is about allowing people to engage in experience.”
With regards to forecasting future chapters of Charlie Victor Romeo — perhaps a complete shift online to a digital space — well, anything is possible. That is as long as Berger, Daniels, and their team remain committed to the goals of connecting audiences to the Charlie Victor Romeo narrative.
“What I want other artists to think about when they see Charlie Victor Romeo is you don’t have to necessarily listen to the traditional way things might have been done in the past,” Berger continues. “The idea that 3D technology and live performance is something that would be interesting on a movie screen, well, it is. It works and sticking to your guns and thinking that and you can challenge the way people expect things is a really important part of continuing your artistic work. We’ve been at this a long time and we have a vision about how we wanted this work to be seen and the results of that can be determined in a lot of ways but I’m very proud that we maintained our artistic vision. We stuck to our guns.”
Charlie Victor Romeo’s premiere screening run in New York concluded at Film Forum (209 West Houston Street, Soho, Manhattan) on February 11. The film is expanding to select art houses nationwide before a planned video-on-demand release.