"Black Box" filmmaker on making a plane crash thriller that requires you to listen closely

Director/cowriter Yann Gozlan spoke to Salon about making a tense mystery about aeronautics, conspiracies and more

By Gary M. Kramer

Published April 29, 2022 7:02PM (EDT)

Black Box (Thibault Grabherr)
Black Box (Thibault Grabherr)

The gripping French film "Black Box" asks audiences to listen closely. Sound is the key to Mathieu's (Pierre Niney) job as a black box analyst for BEA, the French organization that investigates plane crashes. Mathieu can discern words and noises altering the levels of a recording — not unlike Gene Hackman's character in "The Conversation," or John Travolta's in "Blow Out." 

Director/cowriter Yann Gozlan's thriller, which is as mesmerizing as those American films, opens with a tracking shot from the cockpit to the CVR (cockpit voice recorder) as a Dubai to Paris flight goes down — the crash itself is not shown — killing 300 people and 16 crew members. Mathieu's boss, Victor Pollock (Olivier Rabourdin), who is in charge of the investigation, does not ask Matheiu to assist him, which frustrates Matthieu. However, when Victor goes missing, Mathieu is asked to head up the investigation. Listening to the CVR, he considers that the crash could be a terrorist attack or a mechanical problem. As Mathieu digs deeper, he is unsure: were the pilots saying, "Emergency descent" or "Emergency Delta"? 

Matthieu becomes obsessed with the case (as any thriller protagonist does), and in the process, develops some conspiracy theories, commits some crimes, jeopardizes his marriage to Noémie (Lou de Laâge), and risks his career and hers. But he insists on knowing the truth. "Black Box" will keep viewers enthralled right up through the final credits.

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With the assistance of interpreter Ellen Sowchek, Salon spoke with Gozlan to uncover the secrets contained within "Black Box."

There is some incredibly specific technical information in the film, but it is all presented clearly.  What can you say about the knowledge you needed and research you had to do to tell this story realistically? 

I was really fascinated by this whole world of aviation, particularly civil aviation. Since I didn't really know much about this world, I realized I would have to do a lot of research into it. And I understood quite quickly that technology would be one of the major themes of the film. I got in touch with the U.S. NTSB to talk about the possibility of doing a film about a fictional crash, which is going to be investigated by the BEA, which is the French equivalent of the U.S. NTSB.

The scale of the film is impressive. I'm curious about how you got access to flight simulators, airplanes, and even the floor map of a cabin, among other details?

In the post-2001 era, it is very difficult because there are a lot of controls that have been implemented and security is very tight. I knew that I was going to have to fight to have access to planes, cockpits, airports, and tarmacs, but it was fundamental to making the film. I wanted to plunge the viewer and get them immersed in this whole backstage world.

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"I wanted to show where the black box location is in the plane, and, in a very precise manner, show all of the actions that preceded the crash."

I love the opening scene, a tracking shot from the cockpit through the plane, ending on the CVR in the tail. Can you talk about that?

When you write a script, the technical details are not incorporated. I wanted to open the film with this long sequence where we begin in the cockpit and travel through all the classes in the plane — business, economy — until we end up to the tail end of the plane. There was a real purpose behind this whole long sequence. I wanted to show where the black box location is in the plane, and, in a very precise manner, show all of the actions that preceded the crash. This is really important because all of the clues are there. If you look very carefully in the first scene you will see that.

Actually, it is a "false" sequence because the first part, which takes place in the cockpit, was done in a flight simulator. The second part, which is the whole length of the plane, was shot in a real plane. Finally, the last part, which takes place in the tail, where the black box is, was a set that was specifically constructed for the shot. The real challenge was to make the transitions seem seamless, as if it was just one take.

The sound in the film is, of course, critical, but so too are images from dashcams, and the flight that crashes. Can you talk about creating the recordings, the sound design, and the visuals for the film?

With regard to the sound, what we wanted to focus on what was what was happening on the CVR, the cockpit voice recorder, which is the place where all the [action] is recorded. What I did was a lot of preparation work beforehand. I had access through the BEA to transcripts. I didn't listen to recordings from the CVR, but I read the transcripts. I was able to immerse myself in them so I had an idea how one of those recordings would really sound so I could create the soundtrack for it. I also wanted to be sure that it was a classic style of CVR, and not referencing any real accident that took place, but something that would be very authentic to someone who was knowledgeable of cockpit voice recordings. 

[Cowriter and sound designer Nicolas Bouvet-Levrard jump in for this question.]

Nicolas Bouvet-Levrard: We thought about the sound when we wrote the script. It is like a character for the film, and when we did the sound editing, everything was planned in our heads. I edited the film in my room for two months during COVID, sitting on my bed – 

Gozlan: Like making a short film in college! 

Bouvet-Levrard: My neighbors never complained! [Laughs] We wanted the sound to play an important part in the script because the film is about sound recording. I worked closely with Yann and with the BEA. We never had the opportunity to hear real crash audios, but they gave us transcripts and technical info and a lot of scenarios we put in the story. 

What was funny was they are working with the kind of software we use with sound editing when they have to process sounds. Often it is very bad sound because the mics in the plane are very bad. They clean every sound, and we use the same equipment for sound editing. For the film, we created several CVR audios, with different iterations and deteriorations and "parasite" sounds with different layers so during the film you could, like the character, understand what happened during the crash. It was hard material to work with until the sound re-recording, but it was great fun. 

Yann, Pierre Niney is best known for his comedic films, but he is really intense here. Can you describe why he was right for this role and how you worked with him on the character?

"Pierre threw himself in it wholeheartedly. He lost weight, so the tension within him becomes even more evident."

He was someone I worked with before and wanted to work with again. This was the first time I wrote a screenplay with the actor in mind for the role. He's perfect! He is a very good actor and is required to play a character who is in a state of permanent tension throughout the film, and he is able to embody this and transmit it to the viewers. You get a sense of what is happening to him internally. What was important for me was to enable the audience to enter into the psyche of his character. Pierre has that ability.

He has matinee idol looks, but if you film him from another angle, he can look very disturbing, and that makes him rather ambiguous, and I wanted this ambiguity for the audience. I wanted them to identify, but also wonder, "Is he getting lost within this investigation and falling for these conspiracy theories?" He was very good at conveying that. Before we started filming, Pierre met with investigators at BEA the guy who does the job Mathieu does in the film. He filmed the investigator at work to see how he gets started and manipulates the keyboard when he is trying to show you how the software is being accessed. Pierre threw himself in it wholeheartedly. He lost weight, so the tension within him becomes even more evident. In very tense moments, you can see a vein running down his forehead. The physical effects on him were very powerful. When he finished shooting, he really ended the shoot exhausted emotionally and physically.

The film is a conspiracy thriller. What decisions did you make leaning into the genre and even paying homage to the classics? 

"There is a fine line that separates the quest for truth and stepping over in that whole world of conspiracy theories."

"The Conversation" and "Blow Out" are, of course, classics of the genre, and films that are for me, from a period of American cinema that I admire. I wasn't trying to surpass these masterpieces. What I wanted to do was not make an homage, but a film that can stand on its own. I was obsessed with exploring this world of aeronautics. It was new for film. There are films about air crashes, but this one deals with steps involved once crash has happened. The scene of the black box being opened — I don't think that has never been done before in a film. I was obsessed with the accuracy and show what happens as technology is progressing. What is its effect in world of aeronautics? 

If you are a filmmaker and want to make a thriller, you immediately think of Hitchcock. But you are not going to make your film like Hitchcock made his film. While I had these films in back of my mind, "Black Box" was not a tribute or them or "In the style of . . ." I was trying hard, even though this is a fictional film, to be accurate and to show issues that this whole world of aeronautics is having to deal with today. Films like "The Conversation" and "Blow Out" were very reflective the paranoia that existed at that time in the '70s. If we look to today, where there is a great deal of fake news, it's important, because the technology has advanced to the point where we can falsify images and falsify sound. We can create fake news. So, in a sense, the paranoia is almost even greater. There is a fine line that separates the quest for truth and stepping over in that whole world of conspiracy theories. This was one of the major themes of the film and something I wanted to talk about in the film. 

There is a suggestion in the film about automating pilots. What are your thoughts on this aspect of aviation? 

I think this is another theme that is very important in the film — this idea of planes versus automation, and on a larger scale, man vs. machine. We are talking about the conflict that can arise between the two. While technology is progressing and enabling us to do far more that we were able to do in the past — particularly in regard to security – I think this is something happening right now. There are pilots who are very critical of more automation in the cockpit. Most crashes are attributed to human error, and there is this idea that humans are failable, whereas machines are not failable. Artificial intelligence is also making its way into the cockpit. I know that Airbus and Boeing are working on prototypes for self-flying planes. Would you want to get on a self-flying plane? These are the issues that we are going to have to confront.


"Would you want to get on a self-flying plane?"

The problem that arose with the Boeing 737 Max 8 recently is an example of this. What happens when this anti-stalling software was being put into a place and was in conflict with what the pilots could and could not do in the cockpit? The technology may have started out with good intention, but it evolved into something else. I think another problem is that as automation has developed, pilots have become less fliers of the planes, and more engineers for the planes. This shift from being a pilot to being an onboard engineer has resulted in pilots actually forgetting how to fly. If they have to disable the automated systems and take over flying on own, some of them are just not competent to do it because they are not being trained or focused in that area. This happened 10 years ago in the Paris-Rio crash

What can you say about the morality in the film? I love how almost every character behaves badly in some regard.

I don't think they are all badly behaved. As Mathieu becomes more paranoid, he starts to think [people] are conspiring against him. The film presents people who are ambivalent, ambiguous, and have flaws. They are human. I am fascinated by these obsessed characters who will stop at nothing to follow logic through to its conclusion. He's ready to put his wife in danger because he is persuaded that he is on the path of the truth, and he knows the truth. But what happens if his truth is not the truth?

Do you think your film will impact people's fear of flying or trust of airplanes? 

Honestly, I don't know. I myself am always afraid to get on a plane, and you can sense this fear in the opening part of the film. But in the course of doing all the research and documentation for the film, I was convinced that there are a lot of processes in place and safety measures being implemented to make air travel much safer than it was. But I think that the real danger is the hegemony of technology and the idea that while technology can make our lives easier, it can also make our lives more complicated and bring problems that did not exist before.

"Black Box" opens in theaters Friday, April 29. Watch a trailer for it below, via YouTube.

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Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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