Philip Strub, right, the Defense Department's director of entertainment media, visits the set of Iron Man 2 — a hangar at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. — with two service project officers, Air Force Capt. Bryan McGarry, left, and Marine Corps Capt. Barry Edwards. (Defense Department)
Strub’s office also provides support to military-related television shows, including “NCIS,” “Army Wives” and “Hawaii 5-0.”
The U.S. military has played a supporting role in blockbuster films almost since the invention of the silver screen. The War Department, as it was then called, assisted in the production of the 1927 silent film “Wings,” which won an Academy Award for best picture.
Since 1989, Philip Strub has headed up the Defense Department’s Film and Television Liaison Office, where filmmakers can ask the Pentagon for assistance on their projects, from consultation on uniforms and military procedures to use of real military aircraft and equipment. Not every production gets the green light; Strub vets scripts to ensure they portray the U.S. military accurately and positively. In 2012, the Pentagon stopped working with Marvel Studios on its film “The Avengers” because it wasn’t clear how the fictional peacekeeping organization S.H.I.E.L.D. related to the U.S. military.
But frequently, Strub’s office gives filmmakers a way to portray what would otherwise be impossible: from the 2007 film debut of F-22 Raptors and V-22 Ospreys in “Transformers” to the appearance of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in the 2012 film “Battleship.”
Most recently, the Pentagon assisted with the Warner Bros.’ film “Man of Steel,” released in June.
Q. What’s the most unusual or challenging film you’ve ever been asked to consult on?
A. “Black Hawk Down” (2001) comes to mind because the filmmakers wanted to work in Morocco. Of course, that created enormous complexity for us. How do we get helicopters (four Black Hawks) to Morocco and keep them there for weeks on end? It was an enormous undertaking. We got all the approvals from the king and the State Department and from within the DoD. That was certainly the most ambitious project I’ve worked on.
Q. Your office made headlines when it was revealed the Pentagon was no longer cooperating with “The Avengers” movie. What criteria are you looking for when you decide to help a production?
A. Our criteria are very broad and rather subjective. We’re looking for an opportunity to inform the American public ... but we don’t apply the same mindset for every project that comes in. We take into consideration the genre. We’re not going to look at a “Black Hawk Down” script with the same mindset as a “Transformers” script, nor should we. At the same time, we look at whether we can support it logistically. We’ve been pretty busy.
Q. Some think the Pentagon can become too involved in Hollywood productions. How do you respond to the criticism that the military is too protective of its image?
A. I think the whole notion that we censor is so ridiculous that it’s hard to believe that people take it seriously. Hollywood ... has to be the most influence-resistant institution ever. The last thing they will tolerate is interference. Pictures (related to the military) are made all the time without support from DoD, for one reason or another.
Q. How important is realism in terms of getting uniforms right and depicting how a service member would act?
A. These are works of entertainment media, after all. Even with a film ... based on an actual incident ... we can’t make a film without some flexibility or a composite character. We always try to get uniforms right, grooming standards right. Equipment should run the way we expect it to, and people should operate it in a reasonably authentic way. My focus is less technical than the way people treat each other. ... Do I (as a viewer) feel a lot of cinematic kinship with them? That’s more of a concern to me than whether the ribbon rack is perfect.
Q. How many film projects do you provide support for every year?
A. I don’t count those; I stopped doing that a long time ago. Let’s say that there are a total of 15 requests that arrive here for support, and they all involve a relatively modest amount of support. It could look like I was really busy. But one “Black Hawk Down” would be so time-consuming that it might not be possible to do anything else during that time period.