Three big-name Hollywood talents huddle around a conference table and let the ideas fly.
“Apocalypse Now” co-writer John Milius sketches a soldier of the future with a Transformer-like weapon that doubles as a vehicle part.
David Ayer, who wrote “Training Day,” suggests building sensors that link every weapon system in the country.
Ron Cobb, the creature designer for “Star Wars,” describes a personnel carrier with four independent steering wheels that could “whip around and is buffered with lots of shields.”
This Hollywood brainstorming session will never produce something for the neighborhood megaplex. That’s because it took place not on a studio lot but inside a nondescript Army think tank on a quiet street in Marina del Rey.
The Institute for Creative Technology is the country’s only organization that draws on entertainment industry know-how to sharpen military training through futuristic games and simulation. The institute’s Hollywood consultants also write story lines for virtual-reality military training videos--plots with swirling suspense and drama that aim to make a soldier’s training more compelling.
Since it was founded in 1999, the institute has popped in and out of public view, vacillating between the military’s need-to-know tradition of secrecy and Hollywood’s need-to-dish culture. Most recently, it drew national notice when it asked screenwriters, producers and directors to generate terrorist scenarios in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Their ideas have been kept under wraps; one Army spokeswoman cited national security in declining to release them.
From the outside, the office building looks as forgettable as a 1970s bank. Inside is another story. The interiors were created by Paramount’s Herman Zimmerman, who was in charge of production design for several “Star Trek” movies and TV series. The blond wood walls pitch toward the ceiling, a la the Starship Enterprise, and automatic pocket doors pull apart down the middle and close back up again with that unmistakable shush.
While the institute has Hollywood and military consultants on retainer, there are 45 full-time scientists, researchers and administrators who work in offices equipped with bunk beds.
“They bring in people with diverse backgrounds: artificial intelligence, video game people, social research people,” Ayer said. “It’s like the most amazing dinner party.”
This “party” costs the Army $45 million in a five-year contract, and millions more come from other military branches. Hollywood consultants are paid anywhere from $500 to $1,000 a day, although most work only a few days a month.
“It’s decent pay,” Ayer said, “but it’s not Hollywood scriptwriting pay.”
In all, Ayer and his fellow out-of-the-box thinkers pull about $1 million a year from ICT’s budget. But the money moves both ways between the Pentagon and Hollywood. Paramount pledged $600,000 for a virtual-reality theater called ALTSim (Advanced Leadership Training Simulation); the studio can repackage elements of the technology into commercial games. And the institute already has received most of the $3.3 million promised for a game project by game developer Pandemic Studios and Sony Pictures Imageworks, one of the leading digital labs in the country.
Ties to USC
The institute is affiliated with USC, which has provided up to $2 million in graphics technology and dozens of student interns during the summer. The Army’s other futuristic university-affiliated research center is the Institute for Advanced Technology, founded at the University of Texas at Austin in 1994 with a five-year contract to study lethality and weaponry. While the Texas institution relies on medical, science and arms experts, much of ICT’s expertise comes straight from Hollywood.
“It says a lot about our military that they don’t feel sufficiently comfortable thinking out of the box and they have to go outside of themselves for that advice,” said Christopher Hellman, senior analyst at the Center for Defense Initiatives, a nonprofit, independent think tank in Washington, D.C. “They need someone without that baggage to think almost whimsically about their structure.”
The premise for this type of collaboration is not new; the military and Hollywood have long helped each other, most recently with extensive technical support from the Pentagon on military-themed movies like “Black Hawk Down,” “Behind Enemy Lines” and “The Sum of All Fears.” And just last week, the head of research and development at Walt Disney Co. announced he was leaving to head all research at the Pentagon’s National Security Agency.
The Army keeps tabs on ICT through daily e-mails with its executive staff and extensive monthly reports. Many of its Hollywood consultants say the institute provides welcome distance from the entertainment industry’s relentless emphasis on generating commercial hits.
“I don’t find the film entertainment world that liberating. It’s pretty formulaic,” said onetime Hollywood producer and writer Jim Korris, who serves as ICT’s creative director. “Entertainment companies don’t reward innovation.”
Some view the institute with suspicion, envisioning something out of the 1997 movie comedy “Wag the Dog,” in which the White House recruited Hollywood’s best spin doctors and a few technical wizards to stage a phony war to squelch news of the president’s mistress.
“There is a power elite, and it’s Hollywood-Washington-Pentagon,” said James Der Derian, author of “Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network” (2001). “They created this ICT to create scenarios for the future of war, but what Hollywood gets out of it, of course, is whiz-bang technologies.”
A. Michael Andrews II, the Army’s chief scientist and the institute’s founder, said one of its finest hours came after last fall’s terrorist attacks.
“Since we had such a very unusual action against the United States, I thought it might be worthwhile to look outside our normal way of thinking about the problem,” Andrews said. He asked ICT to corral entertainment industry volunteers who could dream up terrorist plot lines in hopes they might expose a weakness in the real-life anti-terrorism network.
This panel of about 30 Hollywood volunteers, some of whom were already institute consultants, met during two evenings in October, creating terrorist “characters” and then following the story lines through. They wanted to know what tools were available to the soldiers who would be exploring unlit caves. They also wanted to know what was being done to deter the hypothetical terrorist characters.
“It was ad hoc; a number of people asked to participate for a limited period of time,” said David Engelbach, a former writer for the “MacGyver” TV series. Engelbach, like several other writers contacted for this story, declined to discuss his contributions, saying he had been asked by the Pentagon to keep his ideas confidential.
Cobb, the conceptual set designer for sci-fi movies such as “Star Wars” and “Aliens,” said the sessions proved Hollywood’s dreamers could collaborate with the Pentagon’s heavyweights. “I think we impressed the military, who probably thought we were all flakes.”
ICT began, as most Hollywood projects do, with a “meeting on the lot.” It was 1999, and the lot was Paramount.
Andrews, who has a doctorate in electrical engineering, arrived with a picture of a bridge arching between the Pentagon and the Hollywood sign. To Korris, accustomed to high-tech gadgets and slick presentations, it looked both clumsy and endearing.
Andrews held up his paper-and-glue visual aid and explained that he wanted to immerse soldiers in training that would be as convincing as silver-screen entertainment. He wanted the soldier to feel, smell and react in real time to the scenario.
“The military had very accurate, big training exercises, but it wasn’t entertaining,” Korris said. “That’s a problem for the young recruits. Andrews wanted to come up with training technologies that might be more interesting.”
At its opening ceremony at the Marina del Rey offices on Sept. 26, 2000, the audience was packed with top military brass as well as Hollywood’s chief lobbyist, Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America. Within a few months, ICT had attracted an array of consultants who don’t fit neatly into Hollywood’s left-leaning image.
Ayer spent two years in the Navy as a sonar man aboard a nuclear submarine. Cobb fought in the Vietnam War. And Milius is a proud hawk.
“They haven’t sent me to Afghanistan,” Milius said, “but I’m waiting.”
Other Hollywood consultants at ICT include Paul De Meo, co-writer of “The Rocketeer,” and veteran director Randal Kleiser, whose credits stretch back to “Grease” and “The Blue Lagoon.”
They are overseen by Executive Director Richard Lindheim, the former executive vice president of Paramount Television Group. Korris, the creative director, is a former producer at Ron Howard’s production company, Imagine, and a longtime writer for episodic television shows such as “Murder, She Wrote,” “Simon & Simon” and “Miami Vice.”
But David Williams, vice president of policy for the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, is not impressed with the Tinseltown resumes.
Williams wonders how the Pentagon could justify spending a million dollars a year on Hollywood consultants.
“Aren’t there a few out-of-work writers who could do it for cheaper? A million dollars in the scheme of the federal budget isn’t much, but a million dollars is still a million dollars,” he said. “A few years ago, the Pentagon was working on caffeinated gum, and I put this in the same category.”