The Location Guide talks to Lieutenant Colonel Glen Roberts, Director of the United States Air Force Entertainment Liaison Office
Based in the heart of Hollywood, the United States Air Force Entertainment Liaison Office works with multiple filmmakers on a daily basis. We spoke to Lieutenant Colonel Glen Roberts about the process of lending US Air Force equipment to productions.
I'm lucky to have what I consider to be one of the best jobs in the Air Force and I think most of my teammates here will tell you that too. It's a dynamic job, working with talented, motivated and creative people and it's a great environment to work in. I'd like to tell you that I have some special skill or experience that qualified me for this gig, outside of the normal experiences that most of our peers in the public affairs career field have, but honestly luck and timing played a role more than anything.
Any success I've had in my career is owed directly to the officers, enlisted members and civilians who took the time and interest to mentor me and show me the way. I've known about this job since I was a young Lieutenant in the mid-1990s when Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck came to Cape Canaveral, Florida to shoot the movie Armageddon, but never in a million years did I see myself working in this industry. It just wasn't on my radar.
The Director's job here is a public affairs billet - all the billets here are, actually - so you do have to have a communications background and it helps to have a wide breadth and depth of experience doing public affairs in various types of Air Force missions. There are great stories everywhere but most officers rotate jobs every two or three years and when I was due to move in the spring of 2013, this job happened to become available and the planets aligned. I'm just really fortunate to have landed here and I mean it when I say I'm grateful every day that I did.
What is the main function of the USAFELO and what type of support does it offer?
Our job is to project and protect the image of the US Air Force and its Airmen in the entertainment space. That includes scripted and unscripted television, movies, documentaries, reality TV shows, award shows, game shows, sporting events and even video games. Our objective is to represent the Air Force and its people in a credible, realistic way and to help professionals in the entertainment industry navigate the process to get access to Airmen, bases and equipment if they meet certain standards set by the Department of Defence. We also help with research by providing subject matter experts on any of the 200+ jobs we do in the Air Force. It’s important to note that we have a mandate to do it all at zero cost to the American taxpayer.
How can a production go about obtaining military assistance?
We work hard to make the process as easy as possible. If someone visits our website, they'll find a request sheet. It only takes three minutes to complete. Then we'll assign a project officer to work with you and our higher headquarters in the Public Affairs Office of the Secretary of Defence, to vet the project and see if we can offer official support.
Mr. Phil Strub who oversees all scripted movies and television shows for the Department of Defence has been in that office more than two decades and we're fortunate to work closely with him every single day. Most studios know Phil personally and he provides excellent direction and oversight for all four branches of the service when it comes to scripted movies or TV. The US Coast Guard has an office too but they fall under the Department of Homeland Security. We work closely with them but their approval process is slightly different from ours. Our offices aren’t conjoined but we have a fairly unified vision about what we can and can't support.
What costs can productions expect?
Most of our services are free. Production costs on the other hand can vary widely for each different project, just as they do in Hollywood. There are of course, private companies out there which are usually owned and operated by experienced military veterans and who will charge for consultation - and they're very good at their jobs. Some have been doing it a long time and are very experienced but to work directly with the military is absolutely free and of course, some things you can't get anywhere except from the military like modern bombers, fighters and aircraft carriers.
Studios and producers only pay for certain services they might need. For example, if a company wants to shoot on an Air Force Base in New Mexico, as a requirement we'll require them to send two project officers from our office in LA to that base to coordinate the shoot. They cover air fare, lodging, industry standard per diem, a rental car, and fuel costs for each day we're required to be on set. If it's a small production, we may only send one project officer. If it's a big production and you'd like to have a giant aircraft like a C-5 or C-17 fly around so you can capture it in flight, you'd need to pay all the associated costs with it including fuel, ramp fees and anything else that might be required.
Those larger items can run into the thousands of dollars but most projects don't run that high and we try to use military training opportunities to the extent that we can, but the minute a director or DP says: “can we do that again?” or “can we fly the jet from South to North, instead of North to South to get better ambient light in the shot?”, then that's no longer training. Now we have to charge you for that entire sortie.
To come onto base, productions also need to have insurance. If a light pole blows over in the wind and pokes a hole in the side of a USD100 million stealth aircraft, I don't want to have to pay for that repair out of my production budget or worse, my own pocket. Subsequently we require a certain amount of insurance coverage but most productions have that anyway, so it's not too much of an issue.
What is the process for deciding which films to either accept or reject?
It's more art than science, really. The script generally needs to portray the men and women of the Air Force in a positive light. That's not to say there can't be Air Force villains, but they need to get what's coming to them in the end. The important question I ask myself when I read a script is whether or not this depicts our Air Force as a whole, adhering to our core values: integrity, service and excellence. We're not afraid to show bad guys or gals in Air Force uniforms but we want to balance that by upholding the integrity of the institution that is our Air Force.
Men and women die in this uniform, doing the business of our nation in dangerous, faraway places. We owe it to them and their families to protect the image and the sacrifices of service-members everywhere. We also don't want to be portrayed generally as incompetent technicians. We're not afraid to show Airmen getting pulverised by Superman for example. In Man of Steel, Superman destroys some A-10s and in Iron Man, Tony Stark brings down an F-22 whilst wearing the suit. That's okay. What we don't want to portray is incompetence, because that's not what our men and women embody. They're trained professionals who are highly competent in whatever craft they're undertaking, or they wouldn't still be in uniform.
The other thing we guard against are ‘location-only’ shoots. Shooting on base and using military equipment affords great advantages to filmmakers. Privacy, security, low cost access to amazing technical equipment that can't be found anywhere else - but for us to undertake that, there has to be a payoff for the American taxpayer. Sometimes filmmakers want a C-130 or an F-16 but there is no mention of the Air Force or Airmen. We can't approve shoots like those and it's generally not enough to have an actor in an Air Force uniform in the background for a brief second. We need the Air Force to have a logical role - an honest portrayal that makes sense and shows what we do. It doesn't have to be a big role; it can be a few seconds but it has to make sense.
Why does the military provide assistance to filmmakers?
We provide assistance to filmmakers because we want them to get it right. We have a vested interest in how we're portrayed in film and television. Few things can influence culture as quickly and deeply as TV and film. To this day, at almost thirty years old Top Gun is still a recruiting aid to both the Navy and the Air Force - and the latter had nothing to do with the movie! If I had a dollar for every person I met who told me they joined the Air Force because they saw Top Gun, I'd be a wealthy guy. Nature hates a vacuum and if we don't help tell stories about ourselves, someone else will.
That's a great question and we can. In most cases it’s foreign productions coming to the US for assistance but it just so happens that we go overseas at times as well. Not long ago we finished a Hungarian project on A-10s. The costs are generally higher overseas, so we honestly don't get too many requests that way, but just today I was working on a major franchise movie that wants to do a scout at a base in England, so it definitely happens. I'd have to say that the example of Menwith Hill isn’t too likely due to its particular mission set, but more traditional air bases? Sure.
Based on your experiences, what are some of the similarities and differences that you have found between the military and the film industry?
This is a great topic that we've talked about on set a lot. There are at least as many similarities as there are differences. Filmmakers are perfectionists and so are service members, I've seen some directors shoot thirty takes on a scene. The lighting gel has to be perfect, the nuance of the actor’s tone has to be just right and the background noise to be purposeful. They pay incredible attention to detail and so do military members. Military cops for example might come in off a long day and still stay up late cleaning their service weapon perfectly so they know it's going to work when it has to. Maintainers work the flight line all night long to ensure that aircraft is going to take off perfectly, safely, on time, and without a hitch so the mission gets done.
The level of secrecy can also be intense in both worlds. There are projects we closed out a year ago and ones that we're negotiating on now that we can't talk about. We read a lot of scripts and whether or not we end up working on the project, studios and producers and directors have to know that we can be trusted to keep secrets. People aren't going to die if you reveal the plot of a movie, unlike if you reveal sensitive military operational details but divulging movie secrets can impact studios financially and we'd never be trusted again in this town. The military is good at keeping secrets when it has to and so does the movie industry.
What advice might you give to a veteran looking to transition out of the military and into the film industry?
I'd offer a few things to a veteran seeking advice about breaking in to this industry. First, join one of the many veteran organisations that represent vets in film. While I don't necessarily think you need to have a formal film-school background to succeed in this town, you do have to know a lot about this industry. Read everything you can get your hands on: Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Deadline, blogs, etc.
Ask a ton of questions to anyone you can talk to, go to events and engage with people in every job. I learn as much from grips, armourers and craft service people as I do from producers, directors, actors and screenwriters.
What advantages are there to hiring a veteran on a production?
The obvious advantage is the incredible work ethic veterans have. People outside the industry think our job is glamorous but what they don't know is that we ourselves joke that a big part of our job is ‘toilets, tents and trash’. We make sure those things are taken care of on the set, too because they have to be. With veterans, no one sits by and waits for someone else to take action. It's not in our DNA.
It should go without saying that veterans are disciplined. I've been outside during shoots in freezing temps for 12-15 hours at a pop, just to get the right light or the perfect take. Filmmakers will stay as long as it takes to get the shot. If they're looking to surround themselves with talented, innovative problem-solvers who are willing to suffer silently for their art, they could do a lot worse than to hire a veteran. Veterans are about putting the mission and the team first, above personal comfort or gain. It's not a characteristic that goes away when you hang up the uniform, it stays with you forever.
You recently lent a U-2 Spy plane for Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies. Can you talk about that process and the other projects you've worked on?
What an honour it was to work on that film, with that incredible crew and cast. Even though we had just a small part, we were so proud to see it nominated for Best Picture and to see Mr. Rylance win for Best Supporting Actor. Our Deputy, Develyn Watson handled that project for our office, working closely with Producer Kristie Macosko Krieger along with the men and women at Beale Air Force Base, north of Sacramento. The scenes we shot there were small parts of the film but they were important sequences. We wanted to get those right to honour U-2 Pilot Francis Gary Powers, especially with his son and daughter visiting the set.
We shot for about a week in December of 2014. Mr. Spielberg was there the whole time, as gracious as could be during the shoot and he even brought his own father out to see the U-2 Spy Plane. This was another example of a master craftsman paying incredible attention to detail to get things perfect. The Art Director, Adam Stockhausen was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Achievement in Production Design on that film, and rightfully so.
The U-2 that Gary Powers flew in is dramatically different from the U-2 flying today, in design, the interior and in capability. The flight suit that Austin Stowell (the actor portraying Powers) wore in the movie wasn't real - but it was created based on pictures from that time period that our historians provided to the production. The whole DreamWorks team worked hard to make everything look as authentic as possible. They shot in and around a real U-2 and we were needed for the movie’s final scenes. Most military personnel don't even get to go that close to the U-2 but because this was a true story, Develyn was able to get the clearances we needed to make the shoot happen. Overall it was a great experience for everyone involved.
As to other projects we've worked on - there've been several. Some we can't talk about quite yet, until the various studios announces our participation but the ones that are already out include Lone Survivor, Man of Steel, Godzilla and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. We've also worked extensively with Michael Bay on the Transformers franchise and with Marvel studios on the Iron Man movies. Regarding television, we've worked on NCIS, Hawaii Five-0, MythBusters and for the first time ever, we brought a documentary crew out on Air Force combat missions in Afghanistan for National Geographic’s Inside Combat Rescue.
Glen, thank you for your time.
You’re more than welcome.
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