‘It’s the greatest underdog tale’

By on June 2, 2023

Film students are bringing the Wright Brothers story to the screen

Writer and Director Bryce Ferendo says the Bicycle Experiment was key to the Wright Brothers’ success.

Despite their monumental achievement of inventing the world’s first successful motor-operated airplane and shaping the course of history, the story of the Wright Brothers has never been brought to life on the silver screen. Though there are movies on other influential figures from aviation history—like Howard Hughes, Amelia Earhart, and the Apollo 13 mission–Wilbur and Orville Wright, who made these other accomplishments possible, remain conspicuously absent.

But now, there’s a group of film students and recent graduates at University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts in Los Angeles who are on a mission to give the Wright Brothers the spotlight they deserve with a short-length feature film titled “A Thousand Years.” It chronicles their story for the students’ thesis project at USC in association with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, an organization whose aim is to support media that portrays science in a positive light.

“Everyone has this image of the Wright Brothers as mythical; They’re the two guys who made flying happen. And not many people know the intricacies of what they went through,” said the writer and director Bryce Ferendo, adding that the details of the kinds of experiments they were doing and the amount of money they had are crucial to their story.

“The larger picture of their story is that they are some of the most awesome underdogs. It’s like the greatest underdog tale,” he added. They didn’t even have high school diplomas. They were just using the money that they got from their bike shop. And they beat everyone.”

Ferendo graduated last May and has been fascinated with aviation since he went to airshows as a child. He wanted to become a pilot or an aeronautical engineer but hated math. He decided the next best thing was to make movies about it. When he saw the goal of the Edward P. Sloan Foundation grant was to portray scientists in a human way and combat stereotypes, he knew that was the grant he wanted to apply for. He got to work on the script and pitch deck to apply for the prestigious grant, which is only awarded to two students each year.

A major source for the filmmakers was this book containing numerous letters written by the Wright Brothers.

His research involved going through a book of thousands of letters written by the Wright Brothers called “The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright, including the Chanute-Wright Letters: Volume One 1899-1905, ” detailing their experiences and struggles.  Engineer Octave Chanute, a friend and supporter of the Wright Brothers, is considered by many to be the patriarch of America’s aviation pioneers. Chanute’s correspondence with the Wright Brothers consists of several hundred letters touching on every phase and stage of aeronautical development between 1900 and 1910.

Since the grant awards funding for a 20-minute film, Ferendo needed to zero in on a specific story. So he focused on the Wright Brothers 1901 Bicycle Experiment, which chronicles them returning to their Dayton bicycle shop that year defeated and ready to give up after a disastrous summer in Kitty Hawk testing their new glider. It features their struggles, including the financial weight of running a business and the heavily funded competition, which included Samuel Pierpont Langley, an esteemed scientist and secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and Wilbur’s own lack of faith.

“Wilbur Wright famously just wanted to quit. And when I read that in the history books, I was like, that is so relatable…And that was profound to me, because we all know that they ended up flying, but just to know that they almost quit because of their own minds,” Ferendo noted.

The film centers around the Wrights finding their belief that they could do it. They end up solving one of their main problems—involving the shape of their wings—using bicycles in their shop and going back to Kitty Hawk. “So that’s what it is about perseverance, believing in yourself. And I think it’s a really universal theme,” said Ferendo.

To write the script, Ferendo worked with an aeronautical engineer at USC to make sure the science was portrayed accurately, in addition to reading the letters. Once awarded the grant, he hired three producers who say they also joined on because of the relatability of the underdog story.

“It’s kind of like a quintessentially American story of just like making it work with what you have,” said Hatuey Rodriguez, who also graduated last May. “And I’m a big sucker for period pieces. I love the logistics around how do you shoot something when the world’s modern and try to find little bits and pieces of the past and convince people that it’s real.”

Ari Johnson, another producer who is entering her 4th semester, tells the Voice it was the positivity in the film’s message that got her attention.

“I was really drawn to the underdog aspect, and how it’s a story of hope. And it’s a positive story about science; We see a lot of stories that kind of have an unhelpful, dire ending. And this one isn’t that way,” said Johnson.

The film is currently in pre-production, with the team working on casting, finding locations, getting the crew together, and ensuring their budget is in order. In August, it will begin production, taking 10 days to film everything they need. The third producer, Bobbie Green, says it’s the way the team immediately worked well together that she wanted to join the film.

“I kind of talked to the team before joining on, and I just remember how kind of quickly we all kind of gelled and agreed on the philosophy of producing and philosophy of being on set and making a movie and how we’re kind of all of the mind of…making sure everybody has a good time and caring about people while working on the project,” says Green.

Ferendo, Rodriguez, Johnson, and Green have had their work cut out for them. One of the rules for accepting the grant money is that it must be filmed in Southern California, so their most recent challenge was scouting locations in Los Angeles that look like they are from a different time period and in a different place.

Ferendo explained that the film will be ready to begin the festival circuit in early 2024 and he and the producers will look for as many other venues to show it as possible. The ultimate goal, he said, would be for this short film to garner enough attention to be turned into a full-length feature film.

Their hard work could pay off. Previous Sloan Foundation-supported short films have screened at film festivals such as Sundance, Berlinale, and Telluride and have gone on to receive Student Academy Awards, Student Emmys, and DGA Student Awards.

The Wright Brothers went through failure and doubt before the famed first flight. (National Park Service)

Ferendo tells the Voice he’s incredibly excited for people from North Carolina to finally see the Wright Brothers on the big screen.

“It’s about hopefully showing this to audiences and [showing that] real people, regular people, working-class people can be scientists, can be innovators,” he declared. “You know, you don’t have to be this MIT, white lab coat kind of scientist. Anyone can discover things, and I think that’s so powerful.”