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Edwards team stars in 'Iron Man' superhero movie

Lt. Col. David Coppler instructs actor Terrence Howard on the controls of an F-16 Fighting Falcon simulator to help prepare him for his role in the movie "Iron Man" at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Colonel Coppler is the 772nd Test Squadron commander. Parts of the movie are being filmed at Edwards AFB. (U.S. Air Force photo/Jet Fabara)

Lt. Col. David Coppler instructs actor Terrence Howard on the controls of an F-16 Fighting Falcon simulator to help prepare him for his role in the movie "Iron Man" at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Colonel Coppler is the 772nd Test Squadron commander. Parts of the movie are being filmed at Edwards AFB. (U.S. Air Force photo/Jet Fabara)

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AFNEWS) -- Edwards Air Force Base recently became a Hollywood set, as about 150 Airmen, about a dozen Marines and some of the Air Force's new aircraft shared the spotlight with Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard and Gwyneth Paltrow in filming Hollywood's next superhero blockbuster.

Director Jon Favreau and his cast traveled here for three days of filming for "Iron Man," an action-packed movie based on the 1960s comic book character, Tony Stark.

The story revolves around Mr. Stark, a weapons manufacturer and playboy billionaire loosely based on Howard Hughes and played in the movie by Mr. Downey, Mr. Favreau said. Mr. Stark is kidnapped and forced by his captors to design and build a weapon, but secretly creates a high-tech armored suit and escapes. After returning to the United States, he discovers a dangerous plot and becomes "Iron Man" to stop it.

"He's a vigilante on a global scale," Mr. Favreau said. "He will fly across the world to take care of business." 

At Edwards AFB, Mr. Stark and his sidekick,  Lt. Col. Jim Rhodes, brought their comic book characters to life against a bustling backdrop of high-tech aircraft, a dry lakebed that's a secondary landing strip for the space shuttle, and stretches of desert to be depicted in the movie as Afghanistan.

During the last day of shooting here, "Rhodie" led a group of about 20 Air Force "pilots" -- all active-duty airmen and Marines who auditioned to be extras -- through the base's Hangar 1820. The group paused between a sleek F-22 Raptor and a bulb-nosed Global Hawk, both dramatically lit by light balloons suspended above, as Mr. Stark approached Rhodie for a heated discussion.

The group rehearsed the scenario again and again as crews operating three separate cameras tested their shots and ensured the lighting was perfect. When the call went out, "Picture up!" and filming began, Mr. Favreau and his assistant producers watched from their director's chairs. Finally, after hours of set-up, practice and eight takes, Mr. Favreau called it a wrap.

Mr. Favreau raved about the cooperation received from base officials here and the 150-plus servicemembers hired as extras, or "background performers" in Hollywood parlance.

Home of the Air Force's Flight Test Center, Edwards AFB offers a dazzling array of aircraft Mr. Favreau said brought realism to his fantasy story. 

"This is the best back lot you could ever have," he said. "Every angle you shoot is authentic: desert, dry lake beds, hangars."

The Edwards AFB sets, from the scene at the hangar to earlier shots along the flightline and with aircraft not commonly seen even at Air Force bases, brought "a certain prestige to the film," he said.

But one of the best benefits of filming here, he said, was the opportunity to work side by side with and learn from the men and women in uniform. Their input was critical, he said, because most Hollywood people don't have a military background and need to absorb as much as they can to make their movies as authentic as possible.

"They're tremendous professionals," he said of the servicemembers hired for filming here. "Every background performer is a bit of a technical advisor. So there's a plethora of information available to you."

The extras all responded to a basewide casting call with hopes they'd be selected for parts. The lucky ones who got the hoped-for offer, took leave from their jobs and earned the going-rate -- just over $15 an hour, plus overtime -- as extras.

Some, like Staff Sgt. Joe Gambles from the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron, remembered passing on the tryouts when the soon-to-be-released "Transformers" movie was filmed here, and vowed never to do it again.

"I didn't think it would be that big of a deal, but my friends who got involved with it had a great time, so I didn't want to miss out on this one," he said.

As luck would have it, Sergeant Gambles wasn't to miss out this go-around. He played a pilot for one day, then an Airman moving vehicles around the flightline another day. On the last day of filming here, he again played a pilot, part of the group Rhodie led through the hangar.

"No other Air Force base has this opportunity," Sergeant Gambles said. "We're near Hollywood and we work with Hollywood all the time. I figure that it would be a waste of my time at Edwards if I didn't take advantage of this opportunity."

Tech. Sgt. Thoshiya Jones not only made it into the "Transformers" movie, but also got a coveted speaking part. Sergeant Jones performed his real-life job in the air traffic control tower and even wrote his own lines for a scene as F-22s scrambled below.

Now playing a pilot in "Iron Man," Sergeant Jones said he was delighted to get cast in not just one, but two Hollywood movies. 

"It's a real honor, and it's pretty exciting to see all the behind-the-scenes effort going on," he said. "You realize that it's not all glamorous. It's a lot of hard work."

A select few, like Capt. Byron Rose, got extra pay for use of their high-end cars on the set. Captain Rose said he was happy to get his flashy red Porsche in the movie.

"That way, even if I don't make it into the movie, at least I know my car will," he said.

If just one person sees him in the "Iron Man" movie, Staff Sgt. Danny Vaughn, an F-35 Lightning II maintainer with the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron, said his efforts here will all be worthwhile.

"This is a movie about superheroes, and my son might watch it," Sergeant Vaughn said. He's hoping 7-year-old Danny III will get to see his dad acting as 2nd Lt. Eric Huppert, one of Rhodie's pilots in the hangar, or as an Army special operations Soldier walking across the camera during the previous day's shoot.

Second Lt. Carsten Stahr, who shared the same scenes with Sergeant Vaughn, called getting to play "that tiny dot walking across the screen" in the "Iron Man" film the opportunity of a lifetime.

"Growing up as a kid from Nebraska, all I ever wanted to do was serve my country and get to be in a movie," said Lieutenant Stahr, the section commander and executive officer of the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron. "This is a childhood dream come true."

As he waited beside the F-22 to rehearse his scene, Lieutenant Stahr said he's been impressed with all he's seen here. 

"This is all pretty cool to be a part of," he said, watching the action around him. "It's definitely something to write home to mom about."

Master Sgt. Larry Belen, the superintendent of technical support for the Air Force Test Pilot School, said he auditioned as an extra to help show off the Air Force to moviemakers and the people who will go to see "Iron Man."

"I want people to walk away from this movie with a really good impression of the Air Force, like they got about the Navy seeing 'Top Gun,'" he said. "This is a chance to show people what we're made of and what we're able to do. It makes me feel proud to be a part of it."

Capt. Christian Hodge, the Defense Department's project officer for "Iron Man," said one of the biggest gratifications of his job is getting to see real servicemembers bring their expertise to a movie that does their service proud. 

"This movie is going to be fantastic," he said. "The Air Force is going to come off looking like rock stars."

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