Hollywood, Military Cooperation Often Mutually Beneficial
By Steven Donald Smith
American Forces Press Service
LOS ANGELES, Aug. 21, 2006 Hollywood’s depiction of the U.S. military is often laughably inaccurate to many Americans who wear their country’s uniform. This is not for lack of effort on the part of the military services and the Defense Department.
To achieve maximum accuracy in movies and on television, the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard and DoD have liaison offices to help guide filmmakers through the process. The services operate independently of each other in this endeavor but share office space on the same floor of a Los Angeles building. The Defense Department’s entertainment media division is run from the Pentagon.
“If we decide to cooperate on a project, we stay with them throughout all the scenes that have military or DoD depictions,” said Army Lt. Col Paul Sinor, a public affairs officer with that service’s Office of the Chief of Public Affairs.
This task covers a broad spectrum, from making sure uniforms and equipment are correct to coordinating filming on military bases, said Air Force Capt. Christian Hodge, a project officer with the Air Force Entertainment Liaison Office.
Both Sinor and Hodge are currently working on the movie “Transformers,” directed by Michael Bay, who previously worked with the military on such films as “Pearl Harbor” and “Armageddon.”
“Transformers” is based on the 1980s animated television series of the same name. The story focuses on dueling robot races from outer space who bring their battle to Earth. Part of the movie is being shot in the Los Angeles aircraft hangar where Howard Hughes built his legendary H-4 Hercules, better known as the "Spruce Goose."
Military involvement with a film project normally begins with script review. All projects must ultimately get DoD approval to move forward.
“The first thing we look at in the screenplay is the portrayal of the military to make sure it’s realistic, obviously within the parameters of the script,” Sinor said. “‘Transformers’ is science fiction. The Army has never fought giant robots, but if we did, this is probably how we’d do it.”
After reviewing the script, military liaison officers meet with producers or writers to make suggestions about how to ensure the military portrayal is as accurate as possible. “Sometimes the writer or producer really want those suggestions, other times there are creative differences and they want to keep it the way it was originally written,” Hodge said.
Sometimes filmmakers will get permission to film military ships and aircraft as they perform their regular missions. “But more often, the director wants specific shots, so then we go through the process of billing the production company,” he said.
For example, aircraft are billed at an hourly rate, and each comes with a different price tag. “We’ve got F-22s that run about $25,000 an hour to T-38s that are about $3,500,” Hodge said.
Hodge said spending in Hollywood reminds him of a quote from former pro basketball star Patrick Ewing. “He was answering a question about how much money players make, and he said, ‘We make lots of money, but we spend lots of money too.’”
Sinor stressed that no expense is ever incurred by the government or taxpayers. Servicemembers who serve as extras are on leave and are paid by the production company, as are crews who fly the aircraft. He also said military participation in films takes a back seat to mission responsibilities. A National Guard unit that was supposed to participate in the filming of “Transformers” pulled out at the last minute because of a mission requirement, he said.
Sinor has been at his current job for about a year, but has worked in the movie business for more than a decade. He retired from the Army in 1991, but was recalled to active duty in 2004. While in retirement, he worked as a screenwriter and taught the craft at the University of West Florida. He has had several scripts adapted to the screen, including “Dead Men Can't Dance,” about a covert military operation to destroy a North Korean nuclear facility.
Another aspect of Sinor’s job is ensuring that actors look and act like the real deal. He took a group of actors from “Transformers” to Fort Irwin, in the California desert, to get up to speed on how to properly handle a weapon, move across open areas, and clear buildings. “The kinds of things the script called for,” he said.
Actor Josh Duhamel, who plays an Army captain in the film, said this was a valuable part of the preparation process. “We wanted to look as realistic as possible and do the military proud. That was our main focus,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for the people in the military.”
Ian Bryce, one of the producers of “Transformers,” said DoD and the services have been good at providing what the filmmakers need to make the movie work.
“Without the superb military support we’ve gotten on this film, it would be an entirely different-looking film,” Bryce said. “Once you get Pentagon approval, you’ve created a win-win situation. We want to cooperate with the Pentagon to show them off in the most positive light, and the Pentagon likewise wants to give us the resources to be able to do that.”
Hodge agreed and said it’s been great working with both director Bay and producer Bryce. “They’ve been very receptive to a lot of our suggestions,” he said. “They took into consideration several of our suggestions and added some lines to the script to make it more accurate. That’s pretty cool.”
“Transformers” stars Jon Voight and John Turturro. It is scheduled to be released by Paramount Pictures in summer 2007.