A political thriller about a world that’s not dissimilar to our own, that offers insight into politics that are appropriate to our culture today.
Acclaimed producers Tim Bevan and Kate Solomon didn’t set out to become experts in cinematic depictions of real-life terrorism; it just turned out that way.
Ten years after shepherding the Oscar-nominated 9/11 drama United 93 to the screen, the pair was approached about overseeing another fact-based film centered on a passenger jet hijacking. This time the focus was on the remarkable true story of Air France Flight 139, which was hijacked by terrorists in 1976 and held for ransom at Uganda’s Entebbe Airport.
A shocking act of terrorism leads to one of the most daring hostage rescue missions ever attempted in 7 Days in Entebbe, a riveting thriller inspired by true events. In the summer of 1976, an Air France jet traveling from Tel Aviv to Paris is takenover in midair by four hijackers; two Palestinians and two left-wing German radicals. When the plane is diverted to an abandoned terminal at Entebbe Airport in Uganda, the terrified passengers become bargaining chips in a deadly political standoff. As the likelihood of finding a diplomatic solution fades, the Israeli government sets in motion an extraordinary plan to free the prisoners before time runs out. Combining vivid historical details with pulse-quickening suspense, 7 Days in Entebbe is a powerful depiction of an international crisis that stunned the world.
“Ron Halpern at Studiocanal approached Kate and me several years ago and said he thought the Entebbe raid could make for an interesting film,” says Bevan.
Ron Halpern (Producer) has been in charge of international productions and acquisitions for StudioCanal since 2007, overseeing its growth in international production and strongly contributing to the studio becoming a European major.
His productions include BAFTA winner and Academy Award nominee Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis, awarded the Jury’s Grand Prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival; Non-Stop, A War, directed by Tobias Lindholm; and A Bigger Splash, directed by Luca Guadagnino.
He also worked on Paul King’s Paddington and its new sequel, and The Commuter.
Halpern’s original concept was to tell the story from the perspective of the French pilots, so Solomon flew to France to interview several members of the real-life flight crew, including engineer Jacques Lemoine, who would eventually be portrayed in the film by actor Denis Ménochet. “When Jacques told me about the week he spent in Entebbe, I knew there was something really interesting here,” she says.
Solomon recalls Lemoine describing a pivotal moment during the raid when he and the remaining hostages were lying on the floor and the hijackers were in the terminal with them. “He was lying very close to Wilfried Böse, the German terrorist, as all of the Israeli commandos were coming. They could hear gunshots outside. He said he locked eyes with Böse, who turned his weapon away and told him to stay down. In that moment, after having spent a week with the hostages, Böse realized he couldn’t actually kill them. To me, that was a moment worth exploring.”
As they dug deeper into the events of 1976, Bevan and Solomon began to think there might be an even more compelling way to approach the story. “There were a lot of historical details about what happened that covered many different viewpoints,” explains Bevan. “For example, you have the hijackers’ point of view, the Israeli politicians’ point of view, and the Ugandans’ point of view. So it was possible take a prismatic approach to tell this complex story.”
Still, having dealt successfully with the issue of midair terrorism in the past, Solomon wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to tackle the difficult topic once again. “When this film first came to me, my natural inclination wasn’t to do another hijacking movie,” she says. “But what was really interesting about this project was how different it was from United 93, which was set in three relatively small confines. Here, we get to explore the big picture and what happened behind the scenes with Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Also, United 93 happened in a very short period of time, while Entebbe was spread out over a full week.”
Bevan points to another important difference between the two stories: “Obviously, the great thing about this particular historical event in terms of cinema is that it ends with a thrilling rescue mission, so throughout the film you’re constantly racing towards a very exciting climax.”
A Sense of Urgency
To help shape their research into a script, the producers tapped Gregory Burke, who had written ’71, a historical thriller set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.
Gregory Burke (Writer) is an acclaimed Scottish writer whose first play, “Gagarin Way,” won both the Most Promising Playwright Award and Best New Play at the TMA Barclays Awards. His play “Black Watch,” written for the National Theatre of Scotland, debuted at the 2006 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and won the Writers Guild of Great Britain Award for Best Play, as well as four Oliver Awards. It was turned into a telefilm in 2007.
Burke’s first produced film was the BAFTA Award nominee 71, directed by Yann Demange. Burke was nominated for a British Independent Film Award for Best Screenplay and won Best Writer Film/TV at the BAFTA Scotland Awards, among other accolades. Burke has continued his collaboration with Demange on a new, as-yet untitled film with producers Plan B and Angus Lamont (New Regency).
The writer is currently adapting the Don McCullin autobiography Unreasonable Behavior for Working Title and actor Tom Hardy. He is also developing a film with director David Mackenzie.
“He was somebody who we were very keen to work with,” says Bevan. “This is ultimately a story about conflict. International and political conflict. Conflict between the hijackers and the passengers. Conflict between the German hijackers and the Palestinian hijackers. And within each conflict there’s something surprising going on. So it takes a deft screenwriter to be able to pull that off, and Gregory did it brilliantly.”
Solomon echoes Bevan’s praise: “Gregory writes angry young men and women really well, and he manages to capture everything with a sense of urgency. You feel like the people in his scripts are making decisions as they go. And that’s what makes this screenplay really interesting.”
Though each of the story’s dynamic characters interested Burke, the intriguing figures of Böse and Kuhlmann proved to be particularly compelling. “I was fascinated by the links between the German hijackers and their Palestinian counterparts, and the fact that they were somehow fighting on the same side,” he explains. “In the script, Böse and Brigitte feel like they have to do this because the movement they belonged to back in Germany was coming to an end. It had been eight years since the high point of revolutionary protest and things were slipping away. And so the Entebbe hijacking was almost a kind of fantasy for them.”
The story’s complex, and often contradictory, notion of heroism was another aspect of 7 Days in Entebbe the screenwriter felt passionately about. “Everybody involved in the event wanted to be the good guy,” says Burke. “That’s one of the things we deal with throughout the film. Böse and Brigitte want to be heroes. The Palestinians want to be heroes. The soldiers on the rescue mission want to be heroes. The politicians want to be heroes.”
Burke points to Israeli Defense Minister Shimon Peres as an example. “He’s not entirely sympathetic,” notes the writer. “Obviously he wants to rescue the hostages. But at the same time, politicians are always thinking about their own legacy. He has his own agenda during those scenes with Prime Minister Rabin. There’s some ego involved. There’s this constant battle about who’s going to come out on top. That’s what’s so fascinating about a situation like this.”
A Kinetic Directorial Vision
With the script in place, the producers needed a director who could capture the complex drama, riveting suspense and real-life action of 7 Days in Entebbe. They turned to José Padilha, the director of several award-winning documentaries as well as episodes of the acclaimed fact-based TV drama “Narcos.”
José Padilha (Director) is a Brazilian director, producer and writer of documentaries and feature films. He is also a commentator for O Globo, a major newspaper in Brazil. Padilha is best known for writing, directing and producing the critical and financial successes Elite Squad and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within. The first film won the Golden Bear at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival. Padilha won Emmy and Peabody awards for “Bus 174,” a documentary he produced and directed. He is also an executive producer (and director of the pilot) for the Netflix original series “Narcos,” which was nominated for a Golden Globe. Padilha’s first American film was the 2014 remake of RoboCop. He also directed a segment of Rio, I Love You. Padilha is the creator and producer of the Netflix original series “The Mechanism,” which premiered in March.
“I’d seen Bus 174, José Padilha’s feature documentary about a bus hijacking in Brazil, and found it to be very thrilling,” says Solomon. “José keeps you on the edge of your seat the entire time, and you never know what’s going to happen next. It’s a really gripping documentary, and I’d always wanted to work with him.”
For Bevan, the style and kinetic power of Padilha’s previous films made him the perfect candidate to helm 7 Days in Entebbe. “His work has a crackling energy and vision to it. You can see it in his thriller Elite Squad, and in the episodes of ‘Narcos’ he directed,” says the producer. “With a film like this, it was important to find someone who wasn’t going to hold the camera still. We needed someone who knew how to move it quite a bit and make sure that all of the scenes have a sense of vibrancy about them.”
Padilha, who was somewhat familiar with the history of the Entebbe hijacking, was impressed with the script. “I had a few ideas about further development, but I really liked the writing and how he was telling the story,” he says. “Greg has an incredible ability to write interesting dialogue that sounds radically true. So I told them to count me in.”
Aiming for Truth
Padilha was deeply committed to accurately portraying the events depicted in 7 Days in Entebbe. “It was very important to me to try to get as many details right as possible,” he says. “We talked to lots of people who were there at the time, including five or six soldiers who were part of the raid itself. The criteria was to run with direct witnesses, as opposed to people who said ‘I heard’ or ‘I believe’ it was like this. So I think we are close to the truth.”
To lend the film’s climactic action sequences a high degree of authenticity, the production enlisted technical and military advisers, several of whom were at Entebbe during the rescue mission.
“Having veterans of the Entebbe raid available to us was important,” says Solomon. “Two of the soldiers who were there helped train our guys, and they were on set the night we shot the raid, which was amazing. If any actor or crew member had a question about where things happened or what they’d be doing, the veterans could answer them instantly.”
In addition to soldiers and members of the Israeli government, the filmmakers contacted several of the surviving hostages. “What we learned is that everyone has a different story to tell,” says Padilha. “Going by the testimonies alone doesn’t give you an entirely clear picture, since they frequently disagree on key moments. Although we aim for the truth, what we’re really telling is a version of it. We tried to get as close as we could to reality, but I don’t think anybody can claim to know exactly what took place at Entebbe.”
Among the technical advisers on the film was Amir Ofer, a former member of the Israeli Defense Force and a veteran of the raid. “I was approached by director José Padilha, who told me he was trying to make the most accurate film about Entebbe possible,” says Ofer. “Of course, it’s still a movie, so there needed to be some additional material included. But he really was looking to create the most authentic depiction of the operation itself.”
While on set, Ofer assisted the actors with technical details like how to hold their rifles and how to aim at targets. “But what was even more important was to explain to them exactly where we stopped, the way we ran from the vehicles to the terminal, where we turned, where people died, and so on.”
Eager to include as many different perspectives of the event as possible, the filmmakers sought to explore the mindsets of the hijackers themselves. Since none of the terrorists survived the raid, Burke conducted research including speaking with individuals with direct knowledge of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and their political beliefs and motivations.
To help shed additional light on the hijackers thought process, Solomon and her team also turned to a 1990 documentary on the subject. “They managed to find the cousin of Jaaber, one of the original Entebbe hijackers,” says Solomon, “who talked about some of the things that were then included in our script, including what kind of person Jaaber was, how he loved his country, and how he felt he was a martyr.”
When it came to researching Germany’s Revolutionary Cells organization, Solomon was aided immeasurably by Dr. Katharina Karcher, a German studies professor at Cambridge University specializing in radical protest and political violence. “I attended a conference with the world’s leading experts on the subject, and discussed their findings with her,” says the producer. “She’s seen the film and is very supportive of it.”
A Healthy Argument
Reflecting on the experience of producing 7 Days in Entebbe, Solomon is convinced that the time is right to revisit this important story.
“Terrorism continues to occur, and Israel and the Palestinians are still very much in conflict,” says Solomon. “But by looking at this historical event through many different perspectives, we can better understand the decision making process that got us here.”
To illustrate her point, she points to a crucial moment at the very end of the film. “After the hostages have all been rescued, Yitzhak Rabin says that if his government doesn’t talk to the other side, they’ll never progress past where they are. So that’s one of the film’s biggest messages. You’ve got to talk to people.”
Like Solomon, co-star Brühl sees many parallels between the events depicted in the film and the world we live in today. “It’s fascinating to revisit the ’70s and see how incredibly relevant the subject matter still is,” says Brühl. “The issues we’re dealing with in this story have not been resolved, but perhaps you can approach them more successfully if you just have a look back.”
Bevan agrees. “7 Days in Entebbe is a political thriller about a world that’s not dissimilar to our own, and it offers insight into politics that are appropriate to our culture today,” says the producer. “I hope audiences get a visceral pleasure out of it because it’s exciting. And I also hope they go out and have a healthy argument about it afterward.”