FOR all its globalization and overexposure, Hollywood is still a place that runs on serendipity. Consider the case of David Ellison. Twenty-two, with the rangy, hands-shoved-in-his-pockets good looks of a Ralph Lauren model, Ellison is the son of Oracle CEO and founder Larry Ellison, a man known for his take-no-prisoners business approach as much as for his lavish lifestyle.
Two years ago, David Ellison thought of Hollywood as the rocks above which the sirens sang. From the high-tech Northern California cocoon of Woodside where he grew up, the entertainment industry seemed unacceptably risky, a place where most people failed and then failed again. He would venture south, yes, but only to go to Pepperdine with an eye toward a business major.
But that was two years ago, a lifetime, and things have changed. Filming has just finished on “Flyboys,” in which Ellison will make his feature debut -- as both an actor and investor, a dual role unusual enough for the scion of a famous actor or director, virtually unheard of for an industry newcomer. “Flyboys” is no video-shot indie; produced by Dean Devlin (“Independence Day,” “The Patriot”), it is a big-budget film that Devlin is hoping will become the first independently financed blockbuster.
So, no pressure on the new kid.
“I don’t know anyone else who’s done what I’m doing,” Ellison says, with what only can be described as a sheepish grin. “But I couldn’t have done it with anyone but Dean and Tony. And I wouldn’t have done it for any other movie.” “Dean,” obviously, is Devlin, and “Tony” is director Tony Bill, and the story of how they got Ellison to invest and star in the film that the two have been working on for almost 10 years is classic Hollywood -- it’s all about relationships, money and truly excellent timing.
Ellison and everyone around him are aware of how it looks -- it looks as if a rich wannabe actor decided to take a golden shortcut to stardom. But Hollywood has its own set of checks and balances; the most memorable person who attempted this type of double billing was Howard Hughes. And, as with Hughes, it all started with airplanes.
Ellison began flying planes, along with his father, when he was 13. He quickly became enthralled by the small and thrill-packed world of acrobatic flying, complete with competitions and air show demonstrations. When he told his instructor that he was going south to Pepperdine, the teacher said he had a student who lived in L.A. who might be able to help Ellison find a hangar for his plane. Then he gave Ellison Tony Bill’s card.
Bill, a longtime pilot and aviation enthusiast, was happy to help Ellison, and because Ellison at the time had no interest in filmmaking, the two confined their conversation to the joys of flying.
After a few days at Pepperdine, Ellison decided he had made a mistake -- the business world was not for him. He began taking acting classes for the fun of it, and eventually enrolled in USC film school because he “had always loved movies.” Meanwhile, back in the dream factory, Devlin was trying to put together financing for a film he had wanted to make for years -- the story of the Lafayette Escadrilles, a group of young American pilots who joined the French Air Service to fight the Germans a year before the U.S. entered World War I.
It was, he thought, a tale of the last “gentleman’s war”; the aviators on both sides were divided by much but united in their love of the newfound ability to fly. Bill had directed “Harry and Walter Go to New York,” for which Devlin’s father has story credit, and had directed Devlin himself in “My Bodyguard.” Devlin wanted to give Bill the chance for what he thought would be the director-producer-actor’s masterwork.
“No one knows more about these guys than Tony Bill,” he says. “No one cares more about the story than he does.” Finding money for a WWI pic with no big names attached, however, was a chore -- Devlin had it and it fell apart, had it again, lost it once more. Then one day Devlin’s attorney mentioned that he had a new client, someone who might be interested in investing in “Flyboys.” A guy by the name of David Ellison.
Ellison is a rich kid living in California, so this was not the first time he had been asked to read a script with an eye toward investment. But he had never fancied himself a player, and he wasn’t looking to lose money.
“Film financing is very risky,” Ellison says. “But,” he adds, “if you do things just for the money, it doesn’t always work.” When he read the script, he, as the story often goes, fell in love. Still, it was much more money than he had envisioned for his first film investment -- although no one will discuss particulars, Devlin says it was “less than 30%" of the $60 million in production costs. Ellison approached his father and, with the help of Jeffrey Berg at International Creative Management, eventually fashioned a deal.
Of course, when Devlin mentioned to Bill that he might have found the final chunk of money, Bill could not believe it. “I know that guy,” he said, and immediately asked to meet with Ellison.
“We came out of that meeting,” Devlin says, “and Tony says ‘He has to be in the movie. Because David is the closest thing to who these guys actually were that we’re ever going to find.’ ” Bill, who began his career as an actor and moved on to produce films including “The Sting” and to direct films including “My Bodyguard” and “Five Corners,” was quite used to working with novice actors; that Ellison had precisely one self-made student film to his credit was not a deterrent.
“He’s an interesting guy,” says Bill, “and my theory is that interesting people make interesting actors.” Devlin left casting up to Bill, asking only that they wait until the financing deal was nailed down before bringing up the acting possibility. And indeed, when broached about the possibility of playing Beagle, a young pilot on the run, Ellison was very, very hesitant.
“He said, ‘I don’t want you to cast me because you feel like you have to,’ ” Bill says. “Which wasn’t it at all.” Ellison was actually less concerned with appearances than he was with the bottom line.
“I didn’t think I was ready,” Ellison says. “I didn’t think I was good enough. And I didn’t want to be the one that caused the picture to bomb. Especially since I had invested in it. I didn’t want to shoot myself in the foot.” But Bill and Devlin managed to persuade him, pointing out that it was an ensemble picture, that the cast was full of pros, including Jean Reno and James Franco, that his aviation experience made him a natural and that he should just trust that Bill knew what he was doing.
So he did.
“At the end of the shoot,” Bill says, “I looked at him and I realized he was not the same kid. He was an actor now.”
TALL, blond and blue-eyed, Ellison is a young man markedly comfortable in his own skin. Though he has the subtle sheen money often brings -- a combination of excellent orthodontia, high thread counts, and quality products for hair and skin -- he also looks like the quiet but well-spoken guy who might lifeguard at your local pool.
Until he speaks, that is. Then it’s clear that he’s the guy who sits on the board that funds your local pool. “Dean has an amazing track record in film for a potential investor,” he says. “But it was the confidence he and Tony had that convinced me. People who are passionate are the people you can trust.”
No one else on the set was aware that Ellison was picking up a chunk of the tab. That, Devlin says, would have just made the situation more complicated than it had to be. So when giving his first interview about “the situation,” Ellison has a publicist present, though two minutes in it becomes clear that this is unnecessary. Ellison is an easy talker, natural and direct, with a very un-Hollywood habit of self-clarification -- “No,” he interrupts himself at one point, “that actually happened afterward” -- but also a clear sense of what he will and will not discuss. Like money; he won’t discuss numbers, how much was his, how much his father’s. “I coordinated the deal, with Jeff’s help of course, but it was an equal partnership,” he says with a polite nod as final punctuation.
Just one of the guys
TO an outsider, it might seem odd, then, to have this person who could buy and sell the whole darn show, on the set, taking direction, cooling his heels between shots, hanging out with the crew for three months. But the magic of Hollywood is that, on the set, anything is possible.
“I never thought about it,” Bill says. “When he was on the set he was just another actor. Who had prepared too much. I have never seen another actor prepare so much. I spent most of my time deprogramming him, getting him to throw what he thought he knew away.” For Ellison, the hardest thing was learning how to surrender -- to the character, to the group, to the process. In the months before filming began, he had crammed with two acting coaches and read volumes, so afraid he would make a misstep. And then he learned, he says, that the trick is to just let go.
“If you’re worrying about what you should have done,” he says, “then you’re re-creating rather than creating.” Although the film includes many live-action flying scenes, the insurance company would not let any of the cast or crew, including, ironically, Ellison and Bill, fly alone. “But I did get to go up with Nigel Lamb, the British acrobatic champion,” Ellison says, “so that was cool.”
The three months spent shooting in England was probably the longest Ellison had gone without flying acrobatically, so he recently flew himself home to the Bay Area to touch base with his flying partner and get back off the ground.
“Flying from A to B is not so interesting,” he says. His acrobatic plane, a CAP 32, on the other hand, is light and supple, “so responsive it’s like an extension of myself.” Two years ago, he was chosen as one of the Stars of Tomorrow, six of the best acrobatic pilots in the country who, among other things, displayed their ability to loop, roll, tumble and freefall high above the thousands gathered at the Oshkosh air show.
Now he is facing the next step of a film career that has begun like no other. There is no investment project at the moment, but he does have a personal film he is working on. “The script went through some revisions,” he says. “I need to go through it again. Now I’m just going out on auditions, seeing what’s out there.” His sister, meanwhile, has followed his footsteps to USC film school. While he hopes to act and perhaps produce, he says, she leans more toward writing and directing. Which makes them perfect business partners. Could he see them work on a film together?
“That’d be great. I can’t imagine it happening,” adds the man who two years ago thought he might just follow the old man into the software business, “but that would be great.”