Turnover at a major D.C. government department is raising questions about local businesses, political contributions and influence in city politics.
Hollywood has a long and complicated relationship with the Pentagon, from blockbusters like “Top Gun” and “Battleship” all the way back to the silent World War I era film “Wings.” The Defense Department frequently cooperates with motion picture studios, granting access to military equipment, locations and personnel. We chat with the Pentagon’s Hollywood liaison about what both sides get out of the relationship and how the military decides when and why they want to cooperate with different projects.
- Phil Strub Director of Entertainment Media, Department of Defense
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHollywood and the Pentagon have what you might call a close but complicated relationship. Some of the biggest blockbusters of all time were made possible with assist from the Department of Defense, access to locations, equipment, personnel. It's a partnership that gave us everything from the aircraft carrier footage in Top Gun to the F22 dogfights in the comic book film "Iron Man."
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut the Pentagon doesn't make its toys available to everyone. Some, for logistical reasons like requesting equipment for a shoot thousands of miles away from the United States, but other requests are denied because of the scripts themselves and whether they're unrealistic or unfriendly to the image of the United States military. Joining us to explore this relationship is the man who serves as the Pentagon's Hollywood liaison. Philip Strub is director of Entertainment Media at the Department of Defense. Phil Strub, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. PHILIP STRUBThank you for the invitation.
NNAMDIIf you have comments or questions for Phil Strub you can call us at 800-433--8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Have you ever been inspired to sign up for the military because of a movie you saw? What was it and how did it affect you? 800-433-8850. Phil, you're unofficial title is Hollywood Liaison for the Pentagon. How would you describe exactly what you do?
STRUBWell, I take action along with my colleagues and there are -- and I can talk to you about that later -- but I basically take action on requests that we get for military assistance in the production of Entertainment Media. Entertainment Media goes -- spans the arc from, say, feature motion pictures, episodic television, music videos, game shows, reality shows, quiz shows, webcasts on occasion. But I'd say that we spend most of our time on feature motion pictures and episodic television.
NNAMDIIt's worth mentioning that this is not a relationship that started recently with films like "Under Siege" or "Black Hawk Down." It goes all the way back to films like "Wings," which was made in 1927. What is your own sense of the history involved in this relationship?
STRUBWell, we think that the picture "Wings" was a real milestone. There's probably historical examples of cooperation prior to "Wings" but that certainly was a major milestone. And all you have to do is look at the title sequence and you'll notice right away that the film couldn't have been made without the army. There are army aircraft, army installations used to recreate training and combat from World War I. And if I understand correctly, the picture was an enormous success critically and commercially and a tribute to the fact that they got this kind of cooperation from the military.
STRUBSo you might say that in one respect, if it wasn't the earliest example, it certainly was the earliest important example of the paradigm that pretty much exists today as it did back then.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that you are one essentially of only two people to ever hold this position at the Pentagon. Tell us a little bit about your background.
STRUBWell, I should say that my alleged career leading to this was by no means planned. It's sort of a happenstance that my predecessor Mr. Donald Barouk (sp?) was the first incumbent and he was hired into that job when the department became a separate department in 1947 and held it for 40 years. I have no intention of trying to match his record, but he -- a gentlemanly sort of chap. I met him, I knew him, not well, but I knew him for several years. And when he retired, they advertised his job. And like many other people, I applied for it and happened to be competitive.
STRUBI had no idea I'd ever be doing this. It was kind of a surprise, but there you have it.
NNAMDIWell, you were competitive for a couple reasons. On one of them was that you served apparently in the navy as a ship driver in Viet Nam.
STRUBI did, that's true.
NNAMDIThe other's that you went to USC, the University of Southern California film school.
STRUBI did, yes.
NNAMDISo tell us a little bit about what kinds of projects you worked on when you were pursuing a film career.
STRUBWell, it was while I was on active duty in the navy that I decided to try to make a career in the film business. And in particular, I was really interested, even as a young man, in still photography and I was a great admirer of movie cinematography. And I had studied art history and I just felt that the visual world was right where I could make a contribution. So when I went to USC, that was my intention, to become a movie director of photography. And I really pursued that pretty avidly.
STRUBI eventually became the advanced camera and lighting teaching assistant, for example. And then I would hang out with directors of photography, if they filmed on campus, and I'd volunteer to help with student films. But I was lured away from that after about a year-and-a-half and I never went back to it really.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. We're talking with Phil Strub. He is director of Entertainment Media at the Department of Defense, often referred to as the military's Hollywood liaison. Let's look at the process here. If I'm a filmmaker and I'm working on a project, what are the steps that I have to take if I want to do something like film a naval battle in the San Diego area? I want access to the naval facility there.
STRUBWell, I should digress for a moment and mention that this is very much a team effort. Each of the military services, including the Coast Guard, maintains a small satellite public affairs office in Los Angeles, in West L.A. in fact. And so when filmmakers contact either those offices or my office first, one of the first things we ask is which service or services does this film portray? And often the military portrayal is vague or it's not -- you can't determine whether or not it's one service or another. Or it portrays the Secretary of Defense or the Pentagon. Those would probably come to my office first.
STRUBBut they can go either way and we work these as a team so therefore if there's a picture that involves the navy or the army, I'll be sure to let them know. We talk about these projects day in and day out. We have a very close relationship and we work these things together. So the first thing we ask filmmakers is, send us a script. Not just the pages that have military portrayal, but the whole script and also send us what it is that you want from us and when you'd like to get it.
NNAMDIWhat are the criteria you use for determining whether you'll work with a project? More specifically, what are the things that will give you the reason to say no?
STRUBWell, our criteria is very broad. Basically, we are looking for an opportunity to better inform the public about the U.S. military and also as a byproduct, perhaps help military recruiting and retention. But obviously these are very broad criteria so there's a lot of subjectivity in determining just how those are met.
NNAMDIIf you have an objection to a script, do you simply turn it down or do you ask the producers, the writers to change it?
STRUBWell, I think that depends, but most of the time we're trying to find a way to work on something. So that would be -- one of our first questions would be, are you up for negotiations? I mean, how locked into this premise or how locked into these characters or this plot are you? And if they say, well, it's pretty much carved in stone, there's really not much we can do with it and there's some problem areas that are a fundamental showstopper, then it's hard to go from there. I mean, you know, if the military is trying to take over the White House, there's not much point in saying, I think you have the rank, you know, in the wrong place.
STRUBSo that's kind of how it starts. Most filmmakers are willing to sit down and negotiate with us and it's often a process of accommodation. We have to give up something, they might have to give up something. But we try to provide suggestions to increase military realism that doesn't -- that interferes minimally to a character and to plot.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Our guest is Philip Strub. He is director of entertainment and media at the Department of Defense. How do you feel about the Pentagon's relationship with Hollywood? What do you think the relationship should be? 800-433-8850. Let us talk with Patti in Waterford, Va. Patti you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PATTIHi, Phil, we worked together on "Eagle Eye."
PATTIHow are you?
STRUBI'm fine, thanks.
PATTIGood. Well, I just -- Kojo, my comment has been, I've been in this motion picture business for over 25 years as a location manager in New York and as a producer and production manager and I'm now based around the D.C. area. And I've worked with the Pentagon on several movies and probably most intensely on "Eagle Eye," which was the movie with Shia Lebeouf that D.J. Caruso directed.
PATTIAnd I have nothing but, you know, the utmost admiration for what these guys do to help us and it was a great experience all the way around. And I just think that they're fantastic and really go a long way to, you know, to help us make a realistic story, even if it is fictionally based, which "Eagle Eye" was. I've never had a better experience filming and it was not easy.
NNAMDIYou mean you didn't have any fights with Phil at all?
PATTINever, not once, not even when I was...
NNAMDINot even a little dustup?
PATTIWell, you know, we did have, you know, Blackhawk and, you know, we landed it just in the right place so, you know, thanks to their expertise so there was no problem. No, it was really a fantastic experience all the way around.
NNAMDIThank you so much for your call, Patti. Where do you draw the line, Phil, between providing technical advice when it comes to a script or stuff like, you know, this pilot wouldn't have made that kind of maneuver or asking for scripts to be changed because they simply don't portray the military in a favorable light? And some would argue that that might constitute censorship.
STRUBWell, back to your question about technical advice. I think we regard that as kind of a public service that we would provide, whether or not they're asking for support or whether or not we intend to provide any or even imagine that we might. Of course, that would depend on who is submitting the script.
STRUBWe don't have a large staff and we don't have enough personnel to provide technical advice for people who are just writing a spec script unless, you know, they have a record of script-writing.
STRUBAnd as far as where we draw the line, people have asked about that before and they've asked, is the bar set too high? Is the bar set too low? Then our answer is the bar moves up and down. We don't have a fixed kind of chart that we go to that will tell us whether something will meet our criteria for support or not. It depends very much on the genre.
STRUBObviously, we're not going to look at a script that's like a "Transformers" script or even "Eagle Eye" in the same way that we're going to look at a script like "We Were Soldiers" or "Blackhawk Down." And so there is no easy answer as far as, you know, where is the dividing line. It all depends on that particular script.
STRUBAnd the thing is that, you know, you'll have filmmakers, there's a long list of filmmakers, studios and networks who have mixed results with us. That's the norm. We work on this project. We don't work on that one, and they come back.
STRUBAs far as whether we exercise any kind of coercive effect on the filmmakers, first of all, it's hard to imagine an industry least vulnerable to coercion than Hollywood, but other than that, there's a long list of pictures and TV shows and everything else that was made completely without any Department of Defense involvement.
NNAMDIAnd I think I have a caller about (word?) but first I'd like to go to Ron in Manassas, Va. Ron you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RONHi, Kojo, I love your show. I'm calling in -- I've never called into your show before, but...
RON...has anybody had a recruiting decision based on a movie? And I grew up in the Virginia Beach area and had always wanted to be a navy pilot. But I've got to tell you, when "An Officer and a Gentleman" came out in the early 80s and then a few years later when I was about half way through VMI, "Top Gun" came out. That cinched it. There was nothing else I could do in life but go and become a navy pilot. So it...
NNAMDII am so glad, Ron, that you raised that movie because my next question has to do with that. Where does recruitment fit into your decision-making process when you look at a script? When your office is presented with a project like "Top Gun," do you say to yourselves, this movie could basically be like a two-hour commercial for the navy? It certainly got Ron going, but what do you say, Phil Strub?
STRUBWell, first, I say, Ron, I hope that you achieved your dream of becoming a fighter pilot in the navy in particular.
RONI came close. I flew H60s and I was a flight instructor in the T34, but I'll tell you what, we don’t always get to achieve the perfect dream, but I got close enough and it was the most fantastic experience of my life.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Ron. Phil Strub?
STRUBWell, I've often heard it said that "Top Gun" resulted in a huge bump in recruiting and I've never seen any statistical evidence to prove that out. I mean, it's a lot of anecdotal comments that you receive from recruiters. I've heard, for instance, from recruiters that there were a whole lot of 18 and 19-year-old young men who came in wanting to become fighter pilots and they had to tell them, well, you need to go back out and get a college education for starters.
STRUBSo I think it's widely assumed that there is a causal relationship between some of these positive portrayals in recruitment and retention, but we just don't have any statistically-supported evidence to that.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue our conversation with Philip or Phil Strub. He is director of entertainment media at the Department of Defense, often referred to as the department's Hollywood Liaison. If you've got questions or comments, the number is 800-433-8850. Are there movies that depict the military in a way that you think borders on boosterism? Which ones do you think? 800-433.8850, send email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back, we're talking with Phil Strub. He's director of entertainment media at the Department of Defense, often referred to as the military's Hollywood Liaison and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Here is Tom in Clarksville, Md. Tom, your turn.
TOMHey, Phil, I went to law school at Berkeley with Michael Schiffer who wrote the screenplay for "Crimson Tide" and that was an interesting hybrid project. It was a Disney project and initially the DoD didn't want to cooperate with them due to the fact that the theme was mutiny on a nuclear submarine.
TOMSo Michael wrote the screenplay. Eventually, the wheels around DoD said, hey, would you like to go on a nuclear submarine? And he said, sure. He hadn't. He'd been on a French aircraft carrier so he didn't bother telling them he'd written the screenplay, but he did ultimately get on a nuclear submarine, but I don't know if the movie was in the can. But there was an example of where the DoD originally did not want to cooperate and probably didn't very much.
NNAMDIWhat do you remember about that, Phil?
STRUBWell, I remember having a brief conversation with the director, Tony Scott and was talking about "The Caine Mutiny," which of course is a drama, not an action picture so the conversation didn't last very long. But in fact, we didn't officially work on it. I'm aware that he got some shots of a nuclear submarine, I think, getting underway or leaving port in Hawaii, but how he managed to get a camera boat out there, you know, it's something that he managed to work out on his own.
STRUBWe don't know exactly how that happened, but, you know, a film with -- this is an example of a film that has a premise in it that we just can't live with. Actually, there are two premises, one was the mutiny aboard a nuclear submarine and the other was the compromise of nuclear weapons. And when you have something like that, an entire picture is based on it, it's not like they can change it.
STRUBWe've had other pictures where there's been, say, a military character who is running rampant through the movie with powers of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff could only dream of and sometimes you can just wave a wand and make that person somebody else, you know, someone not in uniform. It doesn't really affect the screenplay at all. The filmmakers don't care one way or the other, but "Crimson Tide," unfortunately, wasn't one of those pictures.
NNAMDITom, thank you very much for your call. George is in Woodbridge, Va. Did Phil Strub just answer your question about...
GEORGEI think, yeah, he did. I was specifically going to ask (unintelligible) write scenes and I think he did partly.
NNAMDIOkay, good. Thank you very much for your call. We got an email from Mike in Fairfax who said, "There seems to be a lot of advanced military technology in the 'Transformers' movie series. Can you just comment on the extent to which the Pentagon collaborated on those movies?" The Pentagon did work with the "Transformers" films, which were about alien robots that change into things like cars and planes, but you halted your cooperation with the superhero film "The Avengers" because you found it too unrealistic. What was your basis for making that call?
STRUBWell, I know that it's a bit ridiculous to be talking about realism when we're talking about superheroes and giant robots from outer space. And we find it a bit ironic from time to time when we're saying, now we wouldn't confront this type of foe this way, we would do it that way. And then you realize, well, we don't exactly have battle plans on the shelf that we can pull down that cover that sort of scenario.
STRUBSo it is a kind of a difficult world to be in when you're trying to maintain some kind of realism in an unrealistic context, but we focus on how the military people, how the individual men and women react to each other, relate to each other, interact with each other, that's our principal focus, is how realistic is that. And do they conform to the men and women that we're familiar with?
STRUBAnd I think -- and organizationally I think the difference between the "Transformers" picture and "The Avengers" one that we didn't even anticipate, we had lengthy discussions with our counterparts in Marvel and we worked on the two "Ironman" pictures. We had a good relationship. But it came down to the relationship between the U.S. military and the SHIELD organization, which just, with its all-powerful international capabilities and weaponry that far exceeded our own, that we just couldn't figure out a way to dovetail those two. It just wasn't workable.
STRUBSo that was where we fell out with "The Avengers" picture. We did provide a modest amount of support at the end with some Army National Guard troops, but you're right, it's just one of those things that just couldn't come together.
NNAMDIHow do you respond to the charge, the allegation made in David Robb's book among other places, that the military is negotiating with script writers over exactly what their scripts should be is a form of censorship?
STRUBWell, I mean, I challenge the concept of calling it censorship because censorship implies that there is some kind of coercive influence that we can have or there's some way that we can interfere with the progress of the production and that's certainly not the case. I mean, as we've just learned with "Crimson Tide," I mean, it's a question of negotiations. And the filmmakers and we do not see eye to eye, we are certainly free to go our separate ways and we often do.
STRUBAnd often same filmmakers, same studios, same networks come back to us.
NNAMDICome back later.
NNAMDIOn now to Ben in Baltimore, Md. Ben you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BENHi, I just had one or two questions. I wanted to know if you had a chance to review the script "Windtalkers" with Nicolas Cage.
STRUBYes, yes, we certainly did.
BENOkay. And I wanted to ask you about a specific scene and to see if you had any involvement with this part of the scene, a scene where one of the windtalkers is captured and asks his commanding officer to shoot him, rather than the commanding officer just shooting him while he's being captured, to prevent the code being broken because the windtalkers were, I believe, if I'm not mistaken, they were the Navajo and they had a certain kind of code that the Japanese were not able to break.
BENAnd was there any manipulation -- or I don't even know if that's the right word to use -- with that script in order to represent what was done or how that particular event was viewed from your office.
STRUBYou know, I'm sorry to say I just don't remember so -- there are so many pictures and so many years have gone by. I'm sorry. I just can't comment.
NNAMDIThe one specific scene, during the past year or so, we've seen films with even more direct participation from the military, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus had a cameo role in the film "Battleship" earlier this year. The film "Act of Valor" had active duty Navy Seals on camera and granted producers access to one of the more, I guess, secretive wings of the military. What is it that's causing you to saunter into that territory?
STRUBWell, I think that "Act of Valor," when it had its genesis, the Navy Special Warfare community was under pressure to increase its numbers. They were getting more and more missions and they were under-manned and they needed to do something about that so recruitment was very much an issue. And I think for that community, the opportunity presented itself. I mean, they were hoping for an opportunity to present itself whereby they could become involved in a feature motion picture that would be a kind of recruiting vehicle.
STRUBAnd so to encourage filmmakers to want to participate in something like that, they held out the possibility of embedding them in actual training. But the caveat was it was going to take them years to get involved in all that training because it would have to be regularly scheduled training which didn't occur every other month.
STRUBSo in reward for their patience at spreading the production over a period years, which most companies could not accommodate, they were able to embed them in some actual training where they might -- a particular training evolution four or five times and maybe one they would embed the camera crew.
NNAMDIIs that a move in the direction of the navy making its own movies?
STRUBOh no, no, definitely not.
NNAMDIHas there been any significant challenge to the system for approval for these movies? Has there been any challenge coming from the Congress? Any organized challenge coming from the movie industry at all?
STRUBNot that I'm aware of. I mean, we've had a period years ago that was a kind of a challenge to us, which was the computer-generated imagery. When that technology reached its maturity and we began to see films with all kinds of CGI material in it, we thought this might be the end of our active involvement in movie-making altogether because filmmakers having the capability of using computers to generate their own aircraft, their own hangers, what have you. We just thought, well, I guess we'll be relegated to just providing technical advice and maybe script research so it was somewhat of a surprise to us that that proved not to be the case at all.
NNAMDIPhil Strub, thank you for joining us.
STRUBYou're quite welcome.
NNAMDIPhilip Strub is the director of entertainment media at the Department of Defense. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff and Tayla Burney with assistance from Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. The managing producer is Diane Vogel. Our engineer is Andrew Chadwick. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones. Thank you all for listening, I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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