Bases harnessed for double duty

Industry creatives enjoy military collaborations

“The Adventure of a Lifetime” might be a military recruitment slogan, but it could just as easily apply to filming on military bases.

“When you have a project with specific needs, collaborating with the military is a pretty exciting experience,” says production designer Chas Butcher, who did just that while working on “JAG” as well as “A Perfect Storm.” “In today’s world, we can do incredible stuff with CGI. But not even the best CGI on the planet can touch what it’s like to have a fleet of real F18s flying for your cameras. The real thing just leaves you speechless.”

Industry creatives looking for their own adventure of a lifetime need not travel far to get it. Southern California is home to numerous military bases. Some, such as Edwards Air Force Base (located outside of Lancaster), where “Transformers” got its butt-kicking military mojo, are still active. Others, such as George Air Force Base and the Norton Air Force Base (both located in the Inland Empire), are nonactive but still offer considerable authentic military machismo.

Both George and Norton hosted such projects as “The Aviator,” “The Good German” and “Jarhead.” Throw in filming at the combined Navy and Air Force bases located on Point Mugu in Ventura County, and the list of feature, TV shows, musicvideos, commercials and electronic gaming titles for which they served as backdrops appears endless.

In addition to active and nonactive bases, there are other properties once aligned with the military through the aerospace industry that are now owned by the private sector and open to filming. “These properties are everywhere from Camarillo to El Segundo, but they are like a little secret,” says Lisa Mosher, location resource specialist for the California Film Commission. “Most people have no idea — right in their own back yard there may be this incredible visual resource.”

That’s not just Mosher’s opinion. “These sites are something of a secret,” echoes location manager Marvin Bernstein, a former Navy man who served a nine-year term on “JAG.” “But the word is getting out. The visuals they have to offer are truly remarkable.”

One example is the former Nike-Ajax supersonic antiaircraft missile launch site, tucked away discretely off Mulholland Drive in the Santa Monica Mountains. According to the Dept. of Parks, which now owns the site, it hosts a new shoot almost monthly, with Jack Nicholson’s new film, “The Bucket List,” being the most recent.

Sometimes the secret lies with the filmmakers, such as Steven Spielberg and company, who have set up camp at Downey Studios to film portions of the latest “Indiana Jones” movie. The former NASA/Boeing site where the first four Space Shuttles were built boasts a cavernous 627,000-square-foot building, with ceiling heights as high as 45 feet. By contrast, the 34 soundstages on the Warner Bros. lot range in size from 6,000 to 34,000 square feet.

At the Downey facility, where the Spielberg film is referred to as “The Genre Project,” the production is akin to classified information, with nobody allowed to go on the record. What is official, however, is that the still-untitled J.J. Abrams project, a sci-fi thriller from Paramount, used the smaller of the two huge soundstages, Building 290 (122,000 square feet), for interior shooting.

With so much to choose from, deciding the best location for a project is simply a matter of storytelling. The difference between shooting on active vs. nonactive or BRAC (Military Base Realignment and Closure sites) property is in the number of strings attached. Active sites fall under the authority of the Dept. of Defense. As such, it has a say in how a particular division of the military is portrayed.

“We are not in the real-estate rental business,” says Phil Strube, the man in the Pentagon who reviews and approves any script wishing military access. “We’re here to make sure the military is portrayed with authenticity. I am not saying that everyone in the military has to be a good guy. But their actions must be plausible, otherwise we’re just body bunting, and what good is that?”