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Reel War

Two weeks ago, it would have been possible to use the name of the man interviewed below; indeed, it would have been expected, as he is no mere "spokesman," the only identifier by which he is to be referred. Two weeks ago, it would have been possible to point out the specific location of his headquarters, the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies; indeed, until last week, a detailed map and directions were provided on a Web site.

But that was before the October 8 issue of Daily Variety hit newsstands, before the Hollywood trade publication "broke" the news that military intelligence specialists were "secretly" meeting at the institute with Hollywood filmmakers to discuss "terrorist scenarios." It was before Army officials met with ICT officials and strongly suggested they adhere to military protocol when speaking with the media--meaning, no last names are to be used. It was before media from around the world vied for interviews with ICT officials, clogging the phone lines at the institute and its Los Angeles-based publicity firm.

In short, it was before all hell broke loose.

The Variety story, written by Claude Brodesser, suggested a sinister collaboration between the government and filmmakers--"a reversal of roles," Brodesser wrote in a story that contained no sources save for one "USC insider." He mentioned that among the moviemakers assembled by the military were those with "obvious connections to the terrorist pic milieu," among them Die Hard's Steven De Souza, Delta Force One and Missing in Action director Joseph Zito, and "more mainstream suspense helmers" such as Fight Club's David Fincher, Being John Malkovich's Spike Jonze...and Grease's Randal Kleiser.

Brodesser failed to mention that Kleiser has been working with the ICT for more than a year and that his being named as creative consultant on July 7, 2000, was accompanied by a press release. He also neglected to mention that other filmmakers have been part of the ICT fold almost since its inception two years ago, among them Apocalypse Now writer John Milius and Paul Debevec, who created the computer-graphic software used in The Matrix. He also failed to mention that the ICT's pairing of government and entertainment was old news.

"The relationship with the entertainment people has been the whole reason why the ICT was established," says the ICT's spokesman, a former studio exec. "That's the whole reason why it sits in L.A.--to have access to the people from the entertainment industry. And Hollywood people have been working with the ICT since its inception. The humorous "discovery' that "Oh, my God, Hollywood people are helping the military' is two years old, and it's not a one-shot. It's continuing.

"Initially, people in entertainment had a raised eyebrow. I did, quite frankly, when I was approached two years ago. When I was first approached, a friend said, "Why don't you come to this?' I said, "What do they have in mind? Propaganda films?' I'm not a military guy and have never been involved in the military at all. There was a certain level of skepticism: "Wait a minute. I'm gonna get involved with the military? Do I really wanna do that?' And then as people have come and seen what the projects are--this is totally non-classified, we're not doing anything in any way secret--and seen that we're really challenging their creativity, that attitude has changed."

Still, within hours of its publication, the Variety story was picked up by every major and minor media outlet in the country; most glared at it suspiciously, as though it heralded an unholy alliance. Headlines like "Hollywood Helping Out Pentagon?!" were the norm; one would have thought it was the second coming of Watergate. For a while, it even became one of the war-related items scrolling at the bottom of the networks' news broadcasts. Such attention made it difficult for ICT officials to do their jobs: They were swamped with calls and furious that filmmakers who had volunteered their services out of a sense of duty had been identified without warning or permission.

"Frankly, I think we all owe a debt to them that they would take time from their schedules, rearrange their lives to do this--and do it totally free," says the spokesman. "I think it's about respecting their privacy. They're not doing this because they wanted the press. They did this because they thought maybe they could make a contribution, maybe they could do something, and that's the real issue of their desire not to be identified."

Even after the September 11 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., the Institute for Creative Technologies conducted its business out in the open. It was no secret that Hollywood executives and video-game creators had paired up with the military to create lifelike, virtual-reality simulations intended to help soldiers train for combat on foreign soil. In August 1999, the institute opened its sliding doors--designed by Herman Zimmerman, who had art-directed five Star Trek films and three Trek TV series--and did so in grand style. On hand for the opening-day press conference were political leaders and entertainment executives, among them USC President Steven Sample, then-Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera and Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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