Masters of the Air

Masters of the Air co-creator John Orloff loves World War II stories because “the stakes were so high and the scale was so big.”

His new Apple TV+ series is a companion to HBO’s Band of Brothers and The Pacific and shares their mission of honoring the Americans who helped save the world from Adolf Hitler’s rancid, white-supremacist vision of a world ruled by Nazism. 

“The world really was confronted with a choice of, ‘Do we want to be a world enslaved? Or do we want to be a world where freedom can exist?’ An imperfect freedom, yes, but freedom nonetheless, compared to what Adolf Hitler was recommending to the world,” Orloff told Moviemaker.

“The other thing is, the whole world was involved. We’ve gotten so used to regional conflicts or maybe we read about something in the newspaper. But from 1939 to 1945, if you lived on planet earth, you were part of WWII.”

Orloff is from a show business family — his father was a TV commercial director, and his grandmother and grandparents were actors. When he wrote a screenplay about Shakespeare in the 1990s, it found its way to Tom Hanks, who hired him for Band of Brothers, which the actor executive produced with his Saving Private Ryan director, Steven Spielberg. World War II has been a lifelong fascination for Spielberg — from his 1979 John Belushi comedy 1941 to his Holocaust masterpiece Schindler’s List — and Hanks shares Spielberg’s commitment to making sure future generations understand how much was at stake.

Orloff was a huge fan of the World War II epic Saving Private Ryan — “that first fifteen minutes….you have to be a certain age to realize how revolutionary that moment was” — and was ecstatic when he was given the chance to write two episodes of Band of Brothers, an adaptation of Stephen E. Ambrose’s 1992 non-fiction book. The limited series starred Ron Livingston, Damian Lewis, Donnie Wahlberg, Scott Grimes, and David Schwimmer, and focused on the heroism of the 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division. 

It was followed by The Pacific, which was again executive produced by Hanks and Spielberg, as well Gary Goetzman. (The three also executive produce Masters of The Air.) While Band of Brothers focused on the fight on land, and The Pacific focused on Marines at sea, Masters of the Air takes to the skies. 

What Is Masters of the Air About?

Based on David L. Miller’s book of the same name, it follows the ordeals of the 100th Bomb Group, a B-17 Flying Fortress unit in the Eighth Air Force. This time, Orloff played a much bigger role, co-creating the series with John Shiban, developing it, and co-executive producing.

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“I wrote a bible for this show that has 500 footnotes with 40 different sources,” he says. “When I was hired on Band of Brothers, it was already greenlit, there was a process, we had a lead writer, and there was already a group of writers. With Masters, I wrote the first three episodes by myself and my only reader was Tom. My only note giver was Tom. After I wrote the first three, Tom said that he didn’t think anyone else could write it and that I should keep going. I ended up writing the first seven before we got greenlit.”

Barry Keoghan in Masters of the Air, courtesy of Apple

Despite an all-star cast that includes Austin Butler and Barry Keoghan, and the luminosity of Hanks and Spielberg, Masters of the Air, like Band of Brothers and The Pacific, strives to avoid Hollywood theatrics.

“This series sprouts from the same idea by Tom and Steven of honoring the real guys who saved the world, and telling their stories as truthfully and honestly with as little movie brouhaha as possible. Tom likes to say they’re documents. I like to say they’re more than TV. The truth is there’s going to be an awful lot of people who learn about WWII simply because they watched this show.” 

To make sure audiences always understood the stakes, Orloff deeply researched the Nazis and the state of Germany when Hitler ruled, and was attempting to conquer the rest of the world. Hanks suggested he read Nicholas Stargardt’s The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945. 

“The book was eye-opening in that it showed just how much the general population knew about what was going on on the Eastern Front. It wasn’t just the S.S. that was doing these atrocities.” 

Masters of the Air recognizes the paradox of World War II for Black enlisted men who had to fight for freedom both abroad and at home. It tells the story of second lieutenants Alexander Jefferson (Branden Cook), Robert H. Daniels (Ncuti Gatwa), and Richard D. Macon (Josiah Cross), who were among the Tuskegee Airmen who served in the 332nd Fighter Group (aka the “Red Tails”) and the 447th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces. 

“In August of ’44, the Tuskegee guys were starting to get shot down,” Orloff notes. “When they were shot down, they were brought to the same stalag as some of our main characters. What happens when a segregated unit in a really segregated Army ends up in a basically all-white P.O.W. camp that’s going to be filled with some pretty nasty racists? That was really interesting to explore. 

The trailer for Masters of the Air.

“It also finally gave us a legitimate way to include the African-American experience in this war. We couldn’t do it in Band because Black people weren’t allowed in those units. I can’t even imagine the patriotism it took to be a Tuskegee airman. I don’t know if I would have had it in me. To have lived in Alabama like Jefferson did, face racism, and still volunteer. There’s greatness in that. And after the war, they were civil rights activists. They continued their fight for justice.” 

Masters of the Air premieres Friday on Apple TV+.

Main image: Ncuti Gatwa in Masters of the Air on Apple TV+.