Filmmaking Fumbles

“MP Captains don’t have goatees!” “Wasn’t there anyone involved with…

“MP Captains don’t have goatees!”
“Wasn’t there anyone involved with the film who knew anything about the (fill in the blank: military? Firearms? Police work?)” Well, yeah, in most big budget film and television projects, they do hire actual Military Advisors. Only it’s one thing to know what to do, and another thing to actually do it. For example, the quote above (from one of my favorite internet reviewers) deals with the issue that the MP Captain in Murder At The Presidio, played by the wonderful actor Eugene (lead zombie in Land Of The Dead) Clarke, should not have had a goatee. That’s right. Actual MP Captains are not allowed to sport a goatee. Only Clarke was going from his work on our film back to the Broadway show, The Lion King, where the goatee was necessary. His agent would not allow him to shave. So even though every Military Advisor and even the Director knew it was wrong, it had to be that way.

T/A’s: Hired To Be Ignored!
The job of a Military or Police technical advisor (T/A) begins as soon as there is a script. The T/A will take the scenes apart for inaccuracies in terminology and procedure. This sometimes presents ideas for new scenes or dialogue to clarify problem points. Once in pre-production, the T/A often gets involved with the departments that procure costumes, vehicles and weapons.

Why, after all that care and hiring a T/A, would a captain’s bars be upside down, or a soldier be wearing the wrong cover or carrying the wrong weapon? Simple: Film making is messy! Things change when you get to the actual location and find out there’s NO RIVER for them to cross. In a way, it’s like combat. All the planning in the world, but on the day hundreds of people are trying to work in cooperation – and things fall through the cracks, like extras showing up with shiny Timex wrist watches in Civil War movies. As hard as they try, they can’t catch everything. On day’s when shooting is as accurate as possible, sound effects and dialogue are added maybe months after the T/A is gone and poor schmucks like me are forced to write cockpit dialogue for Blackhawk drivers on the spot, with imaginary call letters and imaginary protocols.

DoD Rules!

When a project’s subject matter concerns the U.S. Military, and especially depicting an historical event, the film company will often contact the DoD for help. The DoD maintains an office for all branches of the armed forces in Hollywood to deal with film and TV requests. These folks not only make sure that you are not fudging the facts, but they must be satisfied as to your seriousness if you wish to use any actual U.S. Military bases or material in the film. The road to gain DoD approval for assistance in a film, television or media project is long and arduous, but worth it in the long run. A film doesn’t actually rent from the military, but gets tasked equipment, personnel, and facilities as long as they do not interfere with the operational tempo of the affected units. The individual units are reimbursed by the production for all costs associated so that the taxpayers carry none of the burden. These military project officers are assigned and go through a vetting process for the script and actually command any real troops on set. DoD gets pre-screening approval of the finished product to ensure that no mistakes were made in the portrayal of the military in the edit. The general criteria for script approval is that while a film does not necessarily have to show the military in a good light, the representation must be true and according to regulations and the UCMJ.

But most films don’t see Military accuracy as that important and therefore do not seek DoD support, they will dress and equip their actors solely from the civilian sector. Dramatically, it may sometimes be necessary for recruits to have what would normally be prohibited contact with their officers (think of Richard Gere Kung Fu fighting with his DI in Officer And A Gentleman) in order to tell the story the filmmakers are writing. At times like that, T/As have to reassure themselves by thinking of just how bad the finished product would be if they weren’t there at all. A movie is only a few hours long, unless you’re making a sprawling epic like A Bridge Too Far, events which took place over months must be compressed into seeming like days, to keep the drama moving. Such conflation requires combining characters, even making up characters.

And it’s not just T/As that can be called into action. “There must not have been any technical advice from the National Park Service, National Interagency Fire Center, or any legitimate wild land fire fighting organization.” That’s from one of my favorite reviews of the fire docu-drama, Firestorm, Last Stand At Yellowstone. This was made for A&E, sticklers for historical accuracy. The T/A, Rocky Barker, was the man who wrote the book (literally) on the real blaze we were dramatizing, the man who’d been there fighting it on the ground, and he read every draft of the script, and fixed every technical error.

And you know what? A boatload of factual errors got into the film.

Cop shows like NYPD Blue and The Shield, which have current and former police officers on their staffs, but feature Detectives regularly physically abusing witnesses and coercing confessions! Stephen Downing, a former LAPD Chief who has moved into television production (Robocop, F/X The series) shakes his head at that, “It’s the kind of stuff we would have been thrown off the force for in real life.”

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