Impressive Imposters

Federal agency flirtations with the film industry don't always end in collaboration. When federal agencies and filmmakers go their separate ways, the films get made anyway.

Film companies regularly hire foreign armies to impersonate the U.S. Army: Spanish soldiers played American troops in Navy SEALs, the Thai Army donned American uniforms for Platoon and Philippino Army recruits played soldiers on both sides in Apocalypse Now.

Military equipment can be rented from the arsenals of private collectors. The Defense Department may even tell filmmakers where to look. "We know organizations that have World War II aircraft," says Lt. Col. Bruce Gillman, director of the Air Force public relations office in Westwood, Calif. "We'll give the producers a list." DoD passed on Courage Under Fire, but helped the producers import tanks from Australia, which the movie crew touched up to look like American tanks used in the Gulf War.

DoD calls this kind of help "courtesy assistance," and the department extends it as a peace-offering to rebuffed filmmakers. "You never know when a script will come along that we'll want to support," says Gillman. DoD doesn't want to discourage filmmakers from approaching them for help in the future.

When federal employees won't talk, Hollywood producers hire retired feds to act as consultants on their pictures. For example, the Academy Group, a private, Manassas, Va.-based consulting firm staffed by nine retired FBI behavioral specialists, is on monthly retainer to Fox television's Millennium.

Filmmakers also rely on the talents of their design staffs. When the FBI wouldn't grant The X Files permission to use the bureau's logo in the show, the set designers created their own, reports Entertainment Weekly. Look closely: Mulder and Scully are agents for the "Bureau of Investigations," according to the seal on display in Mulder's basement office.

Filmmakers have been known to go on covert operations to obtain shots denied them. When DoD declined to provide Crimson Tide with stock footage of a Trident submarine-arguably essential for the movie, which is about mutiny on a Trident submarine-the film's producers found out when and where a Trident was sailing, hired a helicopter and filmed the vessel without DoD's permission. To escape the cameras, the commander of the sub ordered it to submerge, inadvertently supplying the camera people with the picture they wanted. The producers of Under Siege used a similar strategy to film the USS Missouri. No, it's not Defense Department policy to counterattack: "It's a free country," says Phil Strub, film liaison coordinator at DoD.

Occasionally, an impressive imposter can work better than the real thing.

Director Rob Reiner filmed The American President in a shorter and wider format than filmmakers typically use. Since the movie was shot on an enormous White House set built for the film, production designer Lilly Kilvert was able to drop the ceiling height so it would show. "When you see the ceiling, you can feel the building," she says. The lower ceiling also helped foster the idea that "the President is a prisoner, trapped in a beautiful palace," Kilvert says.

Splendor doesn't come cheap. "When I first saw their budget for the set, I said, 'you can't make a palace for this amount of money'," Kilvert recalls. Castlerock decided to invest more money in the set in the hopes that the company could recover their costs by renting it out later. The demand for White House sets has proved high, and the set has already appeared in Nixon and Independence Day.

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