When producer Steve Tisch ("Risky Business") saw Janet Harduvel interviewed on "60 Minutes" in 1987, he knew he had to make a film of her story.
"She was a very strong and committed and focused woman," Tisch said. "I made a commitment to her. I said, 'You know Janet. It is going to be tough because it is hard to get any movie made in this business, but I am going to get this picture made. Luckily, she felt I was professionally sincere and personally sincere."
The film is the true story of a flyer who is killed in an F-16 crash that the Air Force blamed on pilot error. The man's wife refused to accept those findings and cleared her husband's name after taking the F-16's manufacturer, General Dynamics, to court.
Little did Tisch know how difficult it would be to bring "Afterburn" to the screen. "Afterburn" was originally slated to be a feature film for Disney and Tisch was in pre-production when the Gulf War erupted. Disney felt the timing was inappropriate to make the movie and pulled the plug.
HBO quickly picked up the project. "One of the biggest obstacles for me was when the project was at Disney it was budgeted at about $14 million," Tisch said. "HBO said they wanted to make the movie, but I would have less than $5 million to make it. It was exactly the same movie, but it all worked out."
Neither the Air Force nor General Dynamics lent their cooperation.
"It is frustrating," Tisch said. "But, at the same time, knowing that the government and General Dynamics don't want this movie made makes me even more passionate. ... (and) makes it even more rewarding to me personally to know that I pulled it off."
So making "Afterburn" became a tremendous challenge for the filmmakers.
"The main thing was the Air Force would not allow us to use any of their stock footage of their F-16s," said director Robert Markowitz. "So we had to shoot miniature airplanes. Even on a big screen you can't tell. It was brilliantly done by the special-effects people. We even investigated the possibility of getting an F-16 from some other foreign country and the Air Force got wind of that. ... We had to be extremely imaginative."
It was up to production designer Donald Harris to solve most of the problems, including building an F-16. Harris was able to find the first 20 feet of an F-16, including the cockpit, from a Los Angeles company called Producers Air Force, which supplies filmmakers with mock-ups of different airplanes.
"What we added was the difficult part, the last 30 feet of the aircraft which included the landing gear and the tail," he said.
In Texas, they found the landing gear, which, he said, "is a very difficult part of the plane to reproduce. It had been in an accident."
Building an airplane was a first for Harris. "I am a production designer," he said. "I am designing scenery, dealing with walls, windows and doors. I can't say I designed this airplane; I replicated it."
The plane was built of of wood "the way they build the plane out of metal. It was the lightest-weight, most cost-effective flexible material we could use other than real metal. In fact, it actually was much easier to deal with wood than metal in terms of fabricating it."
The fake F-16 had an internal structure of steel that supported the landing gear and the main body of the frame. "We just hung the wood shape on the steel frame," he said. "It was an incredible effort. It was like a giant jigsaw puzzle."
Because the plane had to be moved from location to location, it was built to come apart into about 30 pieces. "We loaded them into two separate trucks. It took a forklift and a scissors-lift and about six men five hours to assemble it and about two-and-a-half hours to disassemble it."
The production, Harris said, had to create its own military bases. "We never got to a real military base of any kind," he said. "Some of it is the Van Nuys Airport and some of it is Mohave Airport. We had to put up quite a bit of our own signage and be very, very careful in designing our angles so as not to reveal things we didn't want to be revealed."
Tisch said he "can't wait" for the Air Force and General Dynamics to see the finished product. "I am very anxious to hear their reaction," he said.
"I think they will be very upset," Markowitz said. "But they should be. I think if they had cooperated, I think they may have been happier only in that more of their side of the story perhaps would have happened (in the film) because it would have been available to us."