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Con Air: 10 Behind-The-Scenes Facts About The Nicolas Cage Movie

Nicolas Cage in Con Air
(Image credit: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution)

Con Air was released on June 6, 1997, and quickly became not only one of the most ridiculous (and ridiculously fun) action movies of all time, but also one of the essential Nicolas Cage films and a bizarre Disney movie. But while the movie, with its story about a group of convicted killers who take over a prison transport plane and remarkable cast, is absolutely nuts, some of the stories of how it all came together are just as insane.

In honor of the 25th anniversary of Con Air, I have scoured countless articles, interviews, and other resources to find some of the best behind-the-scenes facts from the production of the action-packed, star-studded, and sometimes head-scratching spectacle that will leave you asking, "How do I live without reading these stories?"

John Malkovich in Con Air

(Image credit: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution)

Con Air Was Inspired By A Los Angeles Times Article About Prisoner Transport Planes

Admittedly, Con Air has a premise that sounds like it was the direct result of a group of Hollywood bigwigs trying to come up with the most preposterous idea for an action movie, but the concept of a plane flying some of America’s most notorious criminals has ties to reality. 

During a 1997 appearance on Charlie Rose, Jerry Bruckheimer, the film’s producer and the person responsible for everything from Top Gun to Armageddon, revealed that former Touchstone Pictures Vice President Donald De Line read an article in the Los Angeles Times about the real Con Air and how the program transported roughly 150,000 prisoners every year, including Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Bruckheimer also noted that the U.S. Marshals, who run the program, wanted nothing to do with the movie.

Jason Isaacs as Lucias Malfoy

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Jason Isaacs Auditioned To Play Cyrus

Jason Isaacs is known for playing villains in movies like The Patriot and the Harry Potter franchise, but the prolific actor almost had another bad guy role to his name: Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom, the part that was famously played by John Malkovich. But that’s not even the craziest part of the story. When speaking with Collider in 2021, Isaacs’ history with Con Air was brought up, and the actor revealed a terrifying experience during the audition process:

You go to read the scene, and the scene was the character holding somebody up with a gun. So, I grabbed a pencil and I said, ‘I’ll use a pencil as a gun.’ The camera assistant, operating the camera, went, ‘Hold on. Hold on a second. Here, grab that,’ and held out a gun to me. I shat myself, obviously. He went, ‘Look, you're cool. The safety's on.’ My voice shot up three octaves. I went all Jerry Lewis, and I went, ‘Oh, my God! It's a real gun!’ I remember Simon being as wide eyed as I was. He'd been working with this guy for however long and didn't know he had a gun tucked in his belt.

Isaacs ended up not getting the part, but he wasn’t sure it was because of that incident or the fact Malkovich was born for that role.

Nicolas Cage walks towards an armed man with his arms open in Con Air.

(Image credit: Touchstone Pictures)

Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg Was Told Not To Make ‘Die Hard On A Plane’

In the years since Hans Gruber fell off Nakatomi Plaza there have been countless Die Hard copycat movies, which is something the powers that be at Disney wanted to avoid with Con Air. When speaking with the Kid in the Front Row Film Blog in 2010, screenwriter Scott Rosenberg explained that he was handed a copy of the Los Angeles Times article mentioned earlier and told come up with a story that wasn’t “Die Hard on a plane.” Eventually, Rosenberg came up with the idea of Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage) and his mission to get home and meet his daughter for the first time, and just went from there.

Nicolas Cage in Con Air

(Image credit: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution)

Jerry Bruckheimer Gave Nicolas Cage A Copy Of The Con Air Script While Filming The Rock

Jerry Bruckheimer and the other producers of Con Air wanted to cast Nicolas Cage as Con Air’s hero, Cameron Poe, from early on, and his dream became a reality because they were working on another movie together, The Rock, during the pre-production stages. During his 1997 interview with Charlie Rose, Bruckheimer revealed that during filming of the 1996 Michael Bay movie, he walked over to Cage’s trailer and handed him the Con Air script. Two days later, Cage called him and said the script was great and that he wanted to make the movie. 

Nicolas Cage in Con Air

(Image credit: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution)

Nicolas Cage Prepared For His Con Air Role By Going To Folsom Prison

In order to better prepare for the role of Cameron Poe, a man who spent eight years in prison, Nicolas Cage had to do a decent amount of research, which included going to Folsom Prison. During a 1997 interview with Bobbie Wygant, Cage described the process as being “intense” because when sitting down with several convicts he had to try and not freak out about the crimes they had committed and how they ended up in one of the most notorious prisons in the country. He eventually learned to ask certain questions about the inmates’ lives, both before they went to prison and their day-to-day lives behind bars. 

But, Cage wasn’t the only one with questions, as several inmates asked the Academy Award winner for advice on getting their foot in the door in Hollywood.

The prison transport plane in Con Air

(Image credit: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution)

Director Simon West Used Old Police Cars And Planes To Give Con Air A Timeless Quality

Unlike other movies released in the mid-90s, Con Air has aged really well over the past 25 years, at least in terms of visuals, and a lot of that has to do with deliberate decisions director Simon West made during production. During a 2021 interview with Reel Talker, West explained that he tried to make Con Air “timeless and classic” so that it was hard to pin down the era in which the film takes place, down to the design of the plane and police cars:

The airplane was not what they actually fly prisoners around in, it wasn’t a 737 which is what they really fly around. I said I want an old plane that looks like a prison bus so you know it’s more styled on a prison bus from the ‘50s than it is from a plane. And even the police cars I chose were not from the ‘90s, they were from the ‘70s and ‘80s because I didn’t like the Crown Vics from the ’90s, they’re too round and I didn’t like the style so I actually chose police cars from the decade before.

Even when it came to the movie’s visuals, West and the production team used very little CGI, insisting on using practical effects and miniatures for the explosive action sequences.

Cameron Poe (and bunny) reuniting with his family in Con Air

(Image credit: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution)

Con Air Started Out As A Small ‘Character Piece’ Before Becoming A Summer Blockbuster

In the 25 years since its release, Con Air is remembered for its over-the-top action sequences and that final stretch of the movie where the plane crashes on the Las Vegas Strip (more on that later). The movie originally started, however, as something much more intimate and was a “small character piece,” according to director Simon West. When speaking with Den of Geek in 2013, West revealed that although Scott Rosenberg’s original script was much smaller, he was able to find different ways to make it into a “big summer action movie,” with explosions, gun battles, and all those other unforgettable moments sprinkled throughout.

The Jail Bird landing in Con Air

(Image credit: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution)

Many In Las Vegas Thought A Real Plane Was Crashing During Con Air’s Production

The shot of the Jail Bird plane in Con Air smoking as it fell from the sky above the Las Vegas Strip is one of the most iconic of the movie and looked like an aircraft making an emergency landing. The spectacle was so realistic, multiple people in the Las Vegas area called authorities to report a smoking plane. In September 1996, a spokesperson for the McCarran International Airport told the Las Vegas Sun that they received “lots of calls” about a plane that looked like it was in distress. Concerned citizens were freaking out about it, but the FAA and the control tower at the airport were well aware of the shoot and had no concerns.

Jail Bird crashing into Sands Casino in Con Air

(Image credit: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution)

An Actual Full-Sized Plane Crashed Into The Sands Casino

When the plane finally comes down in Con Air, it crashes into the Sands Casino before coming to a stop (and setting off a slot machine). Surprisingly enough, this was not filmed on a soundstage or backlot but at the actual casino, as Jerry Bruckheimer revealed in a 1997 interview with Bobbie Wygant:

We were kind of fortunate because they were going to tear the Sands down and demolish it in October [1996] and we were going to film there in September [1996]. At the time it was just perfect for us to get in there and land our plane in their lobby before they blew it up themselves. We helped them along the way a little bit.

This is similar to what happened during the production of Army of the Dead, which made use of an abandoned casino before the structure was demolished.

John Cusack in Con Air

(Image credit: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution)

John Cusack Came Up With The Idea Of Vince Larkin Wearing Sandals

Con Air is full of some pretty unique characters with all kind quirky personality traits, not not just the convicts who take over the plane. One of the most memorable characters is U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin, which just so happens to be one John Cusack’s best performances. What makes this portrayal even better is how Cusack helped shape Larkin, specifically with his wardrobe, as he revealed in a GQ video breaking down his best characters:

I thought what I’ll do is, I’ll be the first non-biblical action star — Charlton Heston did a lot of stuff with no shirt and sandals, but I’ve never seen a modern movie with an action star wearing sandals. So I wore Birkenstocks, and that was sort of the extent of my thinking on that one. Once I had the sandals, I think everything came from there.

Cusack also came up with the idea of quoting Dostoevsky in the beginning of the movie when he talks about judging a civilization by looking at its prisoners.

Hopefully all of this makes you even more excited to celebrate Con Air on its 25th anniversary. And, while it’s not yet on Disney+, the 1997 action thriller is currently streaming on a couple of different streaming services.

Philip Sledge
Philip Sledge

Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop yelling at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.