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Westover Air Reserve Base in MA has cameo in ‘Don’t Look Up’ movie with Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio

Westover Air Reserve Base (Alex McLeod/WikiCommons)

Westover Air Reserve Base and one of its C-5M Super Galaxy transport jets appears on screen with Oscar winners Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in the dark comedy “Don’t Look Up.”

Some Westover personnel can also be spotted in the movie, which is about a planet-killing comet about to strike Earth. The loadmaster seen activating the lever to lower the transport jet ramp is an actual airman for Westover’s 439th Airlift Wing. In another scene, Master Sgt. David A. Carpenter, a noncommissioned officer in charge of explosive ordnance disposal operations, drives a Humvee into the C-5M.

Westover officials are celebrating the release of “Don’t Look Up,” now in theaters and coming to Netflix on Christmas Eve, as well as their success in hosting crews and stars for 10 days last year while they filmed different scenes of the movie.

“It’s always fun to see your home represented in a major movie,” said Glen Roberts, chief of the Department of Defense’s entertainment and media division and a Chicopee native.

The movie, written and directed by Adam McKay (”Vice,” “The Big Short”), was produced by Hyperobjects and Bluegrass Films. In it, Lawrence, playing an astronomy student, and DiCaprio, playing her professor, discover a comet on a path to destroy Earth. No one seems to care, so they go on a media tour, including meeting with the president, played by Meryl Streep, to inform the world.

Much of the movie was filmed in the Boston area, with additional scenes in other places such as Fall River and Brockton.

Massachusetts has robust tax incentives for filmmakers, making it a favorable place for movies and TV shows. But to film on an air base takes even more logistical planning than usual, Roberts said.

“The planets do have to align in order for this to happen,” Roberts said (no pun intended). “It takes a lot of people to say yes, and if anyone says no then it doesn’t happen.”

The Air Force, Air Force Reserve and Department of Defense all review the script, or part of the script, to ensure the military is accurately portrayed, and there are multiple legal details to negotiate. In addition, no taxpayer money can be used in the filming, he said.

Scenes shot at Westover show Lawrence and DiCaprio inside a C-5M and on the runway, as well as the jets taking off and landing. The filmmakers also created a movie set in one of the hangars at the civilian Westover Airport and filmed scenes there with Streep and Mark Rylance, said Lt. Col Rodney Furr, chief of public affairs for Westover Air Reserve Base.

Furr said he was surprised at how similar military operations were to the logistics challenges the film crews faced. Both involve several days of setup. Filming or conducting the mission can take a day or two, and then it takes a few days to break everything down after the work is completed. There is a lot of planning for both, but changes often have to be made on the fly.

Film crews spent about 10 days at Westover, but most of the scenes were shot on Dec. 10, 2020, when Lawrence and DiCaprio were on base. Streep and Rylance were on location on Jan. 25. Planes were filmed taking off and landing on Feb. 11 during regular training for air crews at the base.

The scene of Lawrence and DiCaprio leaving the C-5M — which is seen in the film’s trailer — wouldn’t have happened without the help of 439th Airlift Wing personnel.

The studio originally planned to park a decommissioned C-130 Hercules at the civilian airport because it was the largest plane they could find, Furr said. But when filmmakers were in Chicopee for the initial “meet and greet,” Furr suggested substituting a C-5M. The Super Galaxy is the second-largest plane in the world, and it is not often readily available.

“It shows another aspect of the Air Force,” Furr said. “I think a lot of folks know about the fighter jets and explosions, but by getting the word of the C-5 out there shows the air mobility and the global mobility part.”

Between 10 and 12 movies and another about 140 documentaries are filmed on military bases every year. They can be a planning headache because there are so many details to figure out, such as ensuring there are enough port-a-potties and that trash disposal is readily available. There are also security and safety concerns, especially when filming on the flight line while jets are landing, Roberts said.

“It is a massive logistical effort to have a blockbuster movie on your base and they crushed it,” Roberts said, adding the public affairs department of Furr, Lt. Kristine MacDonald and William Pope were in charge of coordinating everything and ensuring it ran smoothly.

It wasn’t easy. Furr said there were a couple of 14- and 15-hour days when the main actors were at the set. In addition, it was bitterly cold and they had to take extra precautions because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Furr said he knew nothing about filming a movie and had to learn a lot on the fly. Roberts was on scene for the filming and available at any time to answer questions about legal issues, managing security and anything else.

When the actors arrived, Furr said he didn’t even have time to be star-struck because everyone — the film crews, the Westover crews and the actors — was working so hard.

“They are Hollywood talent and very famous, but we had a job to do and I had my hands full,” Furr said. “We didn’t have time to sit down and say, ‘Hey, that’s Jennifer Lawrence.’”

“It was more fascinating to see the entire process,” he added.

Coronavirus vaccines weren’t available at the time of filming. Multiple precautions were taken and anyone inside the filming zone had to be tested every day, Furr said.

“We didn’t have the opportunity to do handshakes and meetings with the Westover airmen,” Roberts said.

In general about 250 people, between the film cast and crew and Westover personnel, were in the “A zone” during filming at the base, and around 200 were at the civilian airport, Furr said.

Roberts said he has seen the movie in its entirety and, as expected, hours of film ended up on the cutting room floor. Scenes involving Westover last a minute or less out of the 2-hour and 18-minute film.

Still, neither Furr nor Roberts have any regrets, both saying they appreciate any opportunity to highlight the role of the Air Force reservist or “citizen airman” and to do a little recruiting.

For Roberts, who retired as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force entertainment liaison office, “Don’t Look Up” was his first film in his current position with the Department of Defense.

“When I heard about it, I smiled to myself and said I know that place,” he said, adding he grew up close to Westover, attended Lambert-Lavoie Elementary and Edward J. Bellamy Middle School and graduated from Comprehensive High School.

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