Creative Q&A: The Fuel behind SR-71 documentary

Fuel Creative’s Todd and Pam Hervey in front of the SR-71 Blackbird at the Science Museum of Virginia. (Jonathan Spiers)

When Todd Hervey learned that the Science Museum of Virginia was getting the SR-71 Blackbird model from the recently closed Virginia Aviation Museum, the self-described “plane fanatic” said he had no choice but to document the supersonic jet’s move across town.

A producer and director with Fuel Creative, the local video production company he co-founded and owns with wife Pam Hervey, Todd put the skills he usually applies to corporate client work toward the project in producing the documentary, “Blackbird: Legacy of Innovation.”

What started two years ago this month as a documentary about the jet’s disassembly, transport and reassembly inside the science museum building, where it now greets visitors suspended from the ceiling, evolved into a nearly hour-long film that covers the aircraft’s history, design and development in the 1960s, complete with commentary from former SR-71 pilots and experts including a CIA historian.

Spliced together with footage of the model’s move in early 2016 and featuring CIA footage never broadcasted publicly, the documentary premiered at the science museum this week and is set to be shown on Saturday, Veterans Day, with two screenings in The Dome at 1 and 3 p.m. The film is also set to be broadcast on PBS station WCVE. (Update: WCVE and WHTJ will air “Blackbird: Legacy of Innovation” on March 1 at 9 p.m.)

BizSense sat down with the Herveys at their office in Shockoe Bottom to learn about the film’s evolution, its production over two years and Todd’s creative approach to the film compared to his day-to-day work for Fuel’s clients. The following is an edited transcript.

Richmond BizSense: How did this documentary come about?

Todd: I’ve always been a plane fanatic, an aircraft enthusiast, my whole life. I was on a corporate video shoot and the director of the science museum was talking in the interview that they were going to be moving it. It was some kind of weird serendipity, because I’ve always been a huge fan of the airplane and there happened to be one in Richmond, at the aviation museum at the airport.

It was textbook, guerilla-style documentary. Rich Graham was a wing commander for them, and I googled around online and found him and saw his email address. I said I’m thinking about doing this, and he said, “Let’s do it.”

I did the first interview before they had even moved it, and I was just hell-bent on doing it whether anybody wanted me to do it or not. I found out when they were moving it, and I called the foreman on the job. He answered and said, “Yeah, we’re moving it right now. Come on down.” He gave me great access.

I sent a trailer to John Felton at PBS, and he liked my write-up and my samples and said, “When you finish this, we’ll air it.” That makes a world of difference. I realized you can’t do interviews at military installations unless you had a broadcast commitment. We’re one of the only crews to ever shoot inside (Lockheed Martin division) Skunk Works in California, the top secret facility where they made the Blackbird. That was a good day.

It literally started with me randomly interviewing a pilot, I thought I’d make it with him and one other guy, and two years later I’m doing interviews at CIA headquarters. They were the original customers for the plane.

RBS: How did the story evolve from the physical move to the Blackbird’s broader history?

Todd: The story is really about innovation. That’s what I wrapped it around, because I think the word gets thrown around a lot now. The interesting thing that ties the two together is, you look at a plane that was designed and built on slide rulers in the late ‘50s, and it’s still the fastest airbreathing (jet engine) plane ever flown. What happened? It was built in 32 months from go-ahead to first flight, and now it takes 20 years to get a fighter plane up. So I thought this was an engaging story, and sure enough, anyone who ever touched the program was so willing to talk about it.

Pam: It was a blessing and a curse that as he went along in production he had more people calling him saying, “What’s this documentary and how can I help, how can I be a part of it?” You had a lot of interviews to go through.

RBS: How long did the project take? When did you start and finish?

Todd: I started November of 2015. I went to Dallas and interviewed Rich. They started taking the plane apart at the end of December, installed it in February.

Pam: His last set of interviews was in June (this year). This is a project that’s been done on weekends, a long time, because we’re a working business. We have regular clients and are doing work during the week. We have an edit system at home, so while we were making dinner and doing homework with our children, he’s also going back and forth editing these pieces on Saturdays and Sundays.

RBS: How much did it cost? Were you paid for the project?

Pam: We paid for it ourselves. If you include Todd’s time, it was a little less than $100,000. Out of pocket, $25,000 to $30,000 in expenses to do it.

RBS: Are you hoping to get some financial return on it?

Pam: We haven’t gotten to that point yet. WCVE, when they air it, we’re going to have those discussions, because it might be something that other PBS stations around the country would want to show as well. But it’s not been top of mind.

RBS: What was your creative approach to the film? How was it different from your day-to-day video work for clients?

todd in studio

Todd Hervey working on the documentary. (Courtesy Pam Hervey)

Pam: This was shot a whole lot differently than how we do corporate stuff. He was shooting a plane, an inanimate object, that in the way he shot it, it looked alive. I don’t know how else to explain it.

Todd: I don’t fancy myself as a photographer by trade. This probably is just more telling of me being interested in something. I loved shooting this. It’s a revered piece of engineering in general, but it’s such a beautiful thing when people look at it. People think it was built five years ago.

It looks great at every angle, but having read the books, you can hear the echoes of history when you look at it. It changed the world, because the Russians knew we had it and couldn’t do anything about it. It served five presidents.

RBS: You’ve created a documentary division for Fuel called Nineteen Red, which produced this film. Has this project inspired you to do more long-form docs?

Todd: I made a lot of connections, and I’d love to move in the direction of doing more of that. In the future, I think one way for it to be sustainable is to create your own content. We’ve done that for a while, we create content for people. I might have an idea that I think is something that would be an interesting video, but I’ve got to find a way to make it be about … a bank.

When you finally get some traction on something, you realize it’s because people can see that you’re passionate about it. I’ve never come at this at trying to make any money, and it’s been the most rewarding.

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Sam Nelson
Sam Nelson
2 years ago

If you have not screen it, it is a must see. Go to the museum. An up and close view is required to appreciate the technological lines of the plane. Also, the way is it is exhibited is a fascinating, tight fit.

Doug Enroughty
Doug Enroughty
2 years ago

I watched the documentary when it aired last night. Very impressive! I love aviation in general and particularly the Blackbird. I learned quite a few things that I didn’t know regarding the plane’s creation and operation. A hearty “job well done” to the folks who put this together