WASHINGTON — Move over war corespondents, Hollywood just took the embedding process one step further.
Reality TV producer Bertram van Munster and the Pentagon have joined forces to grab a piece of the action in Iraq and capture history in the making. Unlike the journos, van Munster will be on the government dime.
The deal with the Dept. of Defense calls for van Munster to film the tumultuous aftermath of the fall of Baghdad for the next two months. When it finishes, Munster’s Profiles Television Prods. will then hand off the film to the U.S. government to use as it sees fit — something van Munster has no qualms about.
“The word propaganda is being used all the time,” he said. “We’re shooting what goes on. We’re comfortable with it.”
Van Munster and Pentagon special assistant for entertainment media Phil Strub referred questions about the price of the deal to the general press office at the Pentagon, which did not return calls.
Van Munster also defended his decision to sign up with the military, saying that he and his film crews are making most of the decisions about what they want to film. “We are independent film producers. This is just us simply sending some camera crews to Iraq.”
The television crew first caught the military’s eye when they created “Profiles From the Front Line,” a one-hour series that van Munster co-exec produced with Jerry Bruckheimer. That ABC series, which aired in February and March, dealt with the fall of the Taliban government in Afghanistan. But it was Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke who came up with the idea of hiring a Hollywood film crew to capture the war’s bloody climax and lingering chaos, according to Strub.
To Strub, hiring Hollywood to take pictures for the government was a prudent step to take. In the past, he said, the Pentagon has not maintained a very good record of wars and conflicts, and when any branch of the government wanted to use war images it had to call the major networks and hand over a huge sum for the right to use the material.
“If we wanted to use it, we would have to pay $50 or $60 a second, or whatever the going rate is.”
The military also has cut down on its combat camera crews in recent years. And those it does have are mainly still photographers, who Strub said are not usually trained in the art of asking questions. “We wanted to augment what the combat folks are shooting in the (military) theater with interview material.”
What exactly is the government planning to do with the footage? Strub said he has no immediate purpose in mind. For now, he’s just pleased the crew agreed to the government assignment.
Even though the relationship between the production company and the military is unusual, it is not unprecedented. During World War II , directors such as John Ford, John Huston and William Wyler flew in combat to make docus. As a real admiral in the Navy, Ford filmed several key battles of the Pacific, including 1942 doc “The Battle of Midway.” Huston’s documentary “San Pietro” captured a battle in which more than 1,100 Allied soldiers perished.
Doing their part
Others didn’t have any significant military background, but joined forces with the troops anyway. Frank Capra was responsible for the seven-part “Why We Fight” propaganda series in 1943, which the Army used as a training film before it was released in theaters.
While filming Special Forces units in Afghanistan after 9/11, the Profile Television crews were among the first to experience the embedding process.
Van Munster’s two film crews have been in Iraq for the last three weeks interviewing citizens of the war-torn country in Basra and Um Qasr, chronicling such major events as the intense hunt for war criminal suspects and the mass looting of the country’s national treasures.
The crews spend some time on their own and some time shadowing soldiers. Even though van Munster said they have wide latitude to cover whatever they see, they do coordinate with the military on a day-to-day basis about what type of footage they’re gathering.
And van Munster reports that the Pentagon has asked them to shoot footage of the U.S.-led reconstruction of the country’s infrastructure and humanitarian efforts.