Since his high school days, Jan Goldstein thought that an in-depth documentary on the pilots and planes of World War I "would be the coolest thing to watch." Now a restaurateur and self-described "scruffy bass player from rural Connecticut," he finally grew tired of waiting for someone else to make his dream documentary and decided to do it himself. The result, The Great War in the Air: Aces of the Western Front, proved so popular on YouTube that it was recently released as a double-DVD set. The documentary covers in great detail the history of World War I aviation and the men and machines that defined aerial combat from 1914 to 1918. Richard A. Martin interviewed producer and director Goldstein, a true renaissance man, for HistoryNet.com to learn how what began as a "hobby project" became so popular.
I don’t own this story. It belongs to all those brave kids who lived and died so many years ago.
Richard Martin: How did you get involved in filmmaking?
Jan Goldstein: I had opened The Rain Desert, my first restaurant/nightclub and was very interested in producing a show for public access cable TV that would spotlight the various musical acts that graced our stage and hopefully promote the restaurant as well. I had never produced any video before, but my online homework led me to buy a second-hand Sony Vaio tower already set up to make video with Adobe Premiere installed.
I had no background or training in using Premiere, and the learning curve was incredibly steep. During those first months I really racked my brain trying to figure things out and continuously gave myself new tasks and tricks to further my learning. Over the next couple of years I produced around 40 hours of original programming for two of the cable networks here in eastern Connecticut.
RM: Is The Great War in the Air your first documentary?
JG: Yes. I began toying with the idea of doing the documentary pretty quickly after I started doing my cable show. After my first season was complete I felt I’d become competent enough with the software that I was ready to seriously begin thinking about how I’d make my The Great War in the Air.
RM: What led you to write, produce and direct a documentary on World War I aviation?
JG: Mostly the fact that no such film existed. Since my high school days I had thought that such a film would be the coolest thing to watch. I never intended to make the film myself, but in the end I got tired of waiting for someone else to tackle the project and decided to give it a whirl. I really just wanted to tell the story of my childhood heroes, illustrated as authentically as I could make it with period photographs. It was really just a hobby project intended for my own amusement, but as I worked on it I’d show segments to various friends and could see them getting “sucked in” to the story.
At the start of The Great War, the aeroplane had barely progressed beyond the machine the Wright Brothers had taken aloft a scant 11 years earlier. By the time of the Armistice, dozens of specialized types had been developed and put into operations: high performance fighters, ground attack machines, heavy bombers and more. The speed at which new types went from the drawing board to combat and then finally withdrawn as obsolete is absolutely dizzying. This is truly a period of history like no other that came before or after.
RM: How long did the production process take?
JG: Nine months, start to finish. The script was written over five months. Although my days with the restaurant were remarkably long, I made it a point to sit and write a little every single morning before I left home. It didn’t matter if it was a couple paragraphs or just a couple lines, I forced myself to write every single day.
The script started with an outline that I had pretty much created off the top of my head. I knew the story pretty well and had definite ideas on which elements I considered essential. Once my outline was complete I wrote out the documentary, trying as best as I could to get the facts right. It wasn’t unusual to have four or five books opened at any given time while I weighed what the different historians and participants had to say.
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I also wanted to incorporate anecdotal material and even discuss some of the obvious mythology that has passed as “fact” in the years since the war. While some of the stories of the earlier aviators had certainly been embellished through the years, I really felt they should be at least mentioned when appropriate, being a real part of the legacy that has endured since the 1920s.When my script was finally completed I immediately began putting the film together. My hobby project now switched from early morning to late at night. In the wee hours, after the restaurant closed I would sit in the club’s sound booth recording narration.
Narrating was easily my least favorite part of the process, but like everything else, I learned as I went along. One important lesson was to slow down my delivery; you can tell my narration is a little rushed in the first 15 minutes or so of the film.
I generally recorded the narration to one section in the middle of the night and would meld the clip with pictures the following day. If narrating was my least favorite task, setting the sequence to the photographs was the part I liked best. This is where it all came alive for me, combining words and pictures. The final step with each clip was selecting the background music. Then I’d be back late night sitting with my script and a microphone working on the next segment. It took me five months to write my script and an additional four to assemble it.
RM: Where did you dig up so many pictures and film clips?
JG: This first film used period photographs but no film clips. The pictures came from a myriad of sources—some old books, online resources, and pictures I’ve collected over the years. It was a real challenge to be as accurate as I could with the visuals as I was telling the story. If, for example I said, “Albert Ball shot down an Aviatek,” I really tried to show a crashed Aviatek. Not THE Aviatek he shot down, but an Aviatek nevertheless.
I’m sure I made a few mistakes over the four hours of my film, but I really tried to be as accurate as possible. I’ve seen some of the commercial stuff covering the subject on cable TV, and to be honest, I am sick of seeing that stock footage of the Sopwith Camel when they’re talking about Mick Mannock in his SE5a, etc.
RM: Were there any surprises in the research or production of the film?
JG: There were a few surprises and a few instances where I really had to rethink some of the stories I’d believed to be “fact” over the years. As I said earlier, at times I’d have a handful of books open, weighing the different accounts and trying to arrive at the truth.
I was surprised at how smoothly the writing process actually went, never having tried anything like this before. I was determined not to backtrack and repeat myself, so I was always looking for the segue that might “jump me across the lines” or to the next scene. Everything connected so nicely. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, as this is the nature of history; nothing really stands alone.
I wrote this like a British documentary, with lots and lots of information. It seems to me that American documentaries often present a lot less information and then drill it over and over.
RM: Did you score the documentary as well?
JG: No. I let the masters do that. I used selections from about three dozen classical composers, some obvious and others more obscure. Adding the music was the very last step with each segment of the film, and I have to say, one of the most pleasant for me.
RM: When The Great War In The Air first came out, it was a YouTube-only release. Why did you pick that venue?
JG: As I said, I really made this film for my own amusement. It was never my intention to market or sell copies. When it was finished, I had a modest premier at my club, where we brought in a big-screen TV and invited the public in to view about an hour’s worth of clips, followed by a Q&A. I’d prepared a small pile of DVDs to sell that night, but truthfully, it was more about promoting the restaurant than selling my film. It was easy enough to get some local press for the event, and I had a good turnout of strangers that night.
My end goal was to simply put the film on YouTube and let that be it. In my mind, I don’t own this story. It belongs to all those brave kids who lived and died so many years ago. They were my heroes when I was young, and I just wanted to pass their story on to a new generation.
I’ve spent an awful lot of time over the years on stage with my band. I’ve have written songs, sold paintings, had my nightclubs and generally been in the public eye. I needed no glory for my Great War in the Air project. That belongs to Richthofen, Mannock, Guynemer, Garros and all those other brave men who lived this remarkable adventure. So it seemed natural to me that I should just give it away on YouTube.
What happened, though, is that once it was online, I started getting requests asking about a DVD. I put this off for a long time; I was often working 90–100 hours a week in the restaurant—the hours got longer as the economy nosedived—and I was making my DVDs one at a time. My attitude was “enjoy it on YouTube; ya don’t need a DVD.”
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RM: Any plans for marketing the documentary to television?
JG: No, I never pursued that course. My YouTube videos caught the attention of a few people in the industry, and for a while it looked as though my work might reach a larger audience, but nothing definite transpired. There were actually three instances of “near fame” concerning Great War in the Air.
First, as I was getting ready to open my second restaurant, my office phone rang one day. It was Tony Bill, whose film Flyboys was opening in theaters about two weeks later. He’d been watching my film online and was curious how I’d come to make this and could he get a DVD copy? Tony was awfully nice, and we probably chatted for 20 minutes about our mutual heroes and about the making of his own movie.
Next, I received an email from Hardy Henniger, one of the owners of Niama, the German company that produced The Red Baron. Niama’s actually a music company specializing in classic blues artists; The Red Baron signaled their foray into motion pictures. Hardy was also looking for a DVD copy of my work, which I sent off. Around Christmas 2006 he wrote back and said they were interested in releasing my DVD, but were REALLY interested in using excerpts when The Red Baron finally made it to DVD, on the “extras” disc, sort of a “True story of the Red Baron” thing.
The third near-brush with fame came when I received an email from none other than the famous producer/director Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Lovely Bones), who had also watched my film on YouTube. He was also looking for a DVD and was possibly interested in using parts of my film in the Aviation Heritage Museum in Omaka, New Zealand. Peter spoke of my film being spread through the museum as a series of “push button” exhibits to tell the story of the first air war.
We exchanged several correspondences. He’s obviously a huge fan of this subject, talking freely about aircraft in his collection. He had some really nice things to say about my own efforts and graciously invited me down to New Zealand for the big air show that year and to “take a ride in my Bristol Fighter.” But my second restaurant had just opened and there was no way I was getting away. But it was an exciting offer.So those were my “near brushes." In the end, the business with Niama went nowhere. They seemed to have run into problems with Warner Bros., who was to distribute their film, and The Red Baron has only just recently been released over here in a very limited way. As far as the New Zealand museum, Weta, a company Mr. Jackson co-owns, sent me an external hard drive so I could send my master files directly to them, but I’ve heard nothing more and I assume they ended up going in a different direction.
All in all, it got pretty exciting for this scruffy bass player from rural Connecticut. All the kind words were certainly a boost to my confidence in my documentary.
RM: What was the most challenging aspect of the production?
JG: The narration, especially the pronunciations of French names and places. I speak no French. Early on in the recording process, I had a Danish buddy visiting for a month, and since he speaks some French I went through the list of names with him and phonetically wrote out what I needed. Even so, I wish I had done a better job with these. The German came a lot easier, as I’d spent three years there with the USAF and had taken German in high school. I lived in the Hunsruck region of Germany, where the “ch” is soft, not hard—it’s “ich” like “fish,” not “ick.” Early on I decided I would use the soft “ch” throughout my film. As expected, once up on YouTube I got some complaints from folks who wanted to hear “RiCKtofen” and not “Richthofen”.
RM: Of all the fliers that you give individual bios for, who are your favorites?
JG: There are a few that really stand out for me but no one too obscure. Manfred Von Richthofen occupies a larger part of my film than any other flier. His is simply the greatest story of the war, and to tell his tale is to tell the story of history’s first war in the air: the start of the war, Oswald Boelcke and his contribution, the first German fighter squadron, the first fighter wing and more. I introduce Von Richthofen early in the documentary and continuously come back to him.
I really came to feel as though I’d gotten to know this guy; so much has been written about him. As the events of April 21, 1918, approached in my writing, I actually felt a growing dread because I was going to have to kill him off. This was one section that I wanted to get right, both objectively and with a sense of mourning. In a way, Richthofen’s death is the end of the story, even though the war continued for nearly seven months. The rest of the story is a little anticlimactic in my opinion.
That said, there are plenty of other fliers who really interest me. I think the enigmatic Edward Mannock was an amazing story. He seems a contradiction of emotions and actions, an often angry cynic who could weep openly over the death of a squadron mate. As a fighter and leader, Mannock had few peers. It was said that he viewed each engagement as a chess match, plotting his moves in a very well-reasoned, methodical manner.
Georges Guynemer stands out as one of the great tragic figures of the war, so frail and sickly and yet so driven to defend his country. Guynemer became famous in France despite being shy and uncomfortable with the adoration.
Jean Navarre is another great character, rebellious and defiant. He hurled himself at the enemy while leaving his commanders frustrated over his distain for discipline. Navarre is another truly tragic character; the images of him hobbling around Paris drunk and disheveled are very sad.
Those are a few fliers who interest me, but to be sure there are many more. Being a huge fan of the literature on the subject, some of my favorite fliers are ones that survived and wrote about their experiences: Elliott White Springs, Arthur Gould Lee, Victor Yeates, Arch Whitehouse and folks like that.
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RM: Have you heard from any of the family members of fliers covered in your film?
JG: I have heard from a few, yes, including a Boelcke that lives here in the USA. I have received a lot of letters from relatives of fliers not covered in my film: “My grandfather served in the air service; can you tell me anything about this picture … ” I got a good number of letters like that. In several instances, I have put the question to the good people at theaerodrom.com. Lots of experts over there.
RM: Some chapters of GWITA focused on noteworthy airplanes. What are your favorite airplanes of World War I?
JG: Mostly fighters: My all-time favorite warbird is the Spad XIII. I just love the way those things look, beefy and warlike. I dig the Sopwith family of fighters too—the Pup, Camel and Snipe. These were no-nonsense machines and the progression from the prewar Sopwith Tabloid to the Snipe is tremendous. The German Albatross is beautiful too; its lines are so sleek and businesslike.
RM: What is your favorite World War I aviation film?
JG: The Blue Max. John Guillerman did a great job of bringing a fabulous book to the screen. As a kid, this was the first World War I flying movie I’d ever seen. I had already started reading about this stuff, and from the very first moments of this film my eyes were simply glued to the TV screen. Early in the movie, when Stachal makes his first flight in the Pfaltz, when we see those great camera angles of the ailerons and flaps moving … those were powerful images that left a lasting impression in my mind.
Best of all is its superior story. The conflicts take place within the squadron, amongst the characters. The fact that it’s set against the backdrop of World War I aviation is great, but it’s the story of Stachal’s ambition that is really being told. In similar films the conflict exists as an unseen enemy; not so in The Blue Max.
RM: Where can people purchase The Great War In The Air DVD set?
JG: To date, I have mostly been producing my DVDs one at a time and selling them through my own Website. Now though, the two-DVD set is available on Amazon.com, and I’m sending buyers over there.
RM: What’s your next project?
JG: I’m currently researching and writing a film about Tony Fokker, the Dutch aircraft builder. Stylistically this will be like my first film, although besides using just still photographs I will have some period film footage in it as well.
Fokker’s story always fascinated me, that peculiar mix between child inventor, pioneer aviator and self-promoting huckster. Sorting myth from fact has been a real odyssey. I hope to be putting the film together before the end of the year.
RM: What do you want viewers to take away from the The Great War In The Air?
JG: I hope they will have been entertained; I’m really hoping to “hook” someone on World War I aviation. It would also please me to think viewers come away with a real appreciation for what these young men, barely out of childhood, accomplished. They invented a new form of warfare, and it was done at great sacrifice.