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Working with Technical Advisors

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The first time I met Captain Dale Dye, he had fiftysomething film editor Patrick Kennedy doing push-ups in a Charlottesville, Va. hotel cocktail lounge. Dye was on location for the Damon Wayans comedy Major Payne, advising on military training for the underdog ROTC unit that formed the basic premise of the film and he was demonstrating his full immersion technique on the hapless editor.Dye is just one of the battalion of technical advisors that the film and television industry employs to make the technical premises in movie and television storylines plausibly accurate. There are medical and forensics specialists on series like the CSI franchise; shows, such as the perennial favorite Law and Order use law enforcement and legal advice; math professors are tapped for their expertise for films such as A Beautiful Mind; FBI consultants and military trial specialists work with production teams on projects such as Morgan Freeman’s High Crimes; a history expert helped select actual documentary footage of the Blitz for this year’s Judi Dench/Bob Hoskins starrer Mrs. Henderson Presents. And where would The West Wing and Commander-in-Chief be without in-the-know political advisors?In the past, a lot of dramatic license has been taken in film and television production, but as modern communications have made the public more savvy, people are demanding more realism in entertainment. Dye was one of the first to propose a change in how war stories are depicted.A movie buff, Dye found that the vast majority of films “pissed him off.” They were filled with stereotypes and inaccuracies that ranged from medals being worn on the wrong side of the uniform to haircuts that would not pass muster. He wanted to correct the erroneous depictions of the military and warfare. His guiding philosophy included the belief that reality was much more dramatic than Hollywood heroics. He also believed that by immersing actors in real military-style “bootcamps” they would learn the toughness it takes to be soldiers, lose the narcissistic tendencies the acting profession cultivates and begin to work as a team. Making the use of weapons second nature would also free the actors up to perform in character.“Young performers have been brought up in a business that is all about me, me, me,” says Dye. “That’s the antithesis of the military experience. You live and die based on your relationship to and the reliability of the men and women around you. That’s a very strange revelation for most people involved in show business. It’s always tough to instill that new philosophy, but it almost always changes their lives for the better.” A 20-year veteran of the Marine Corp, Dye served tours in the Philippines, Korea and Vietnam, where he received a Bronze Star for valor. His military experience includes assignments as an infantry squad leader, a member of a Marine rifle platoon, a combat engineer and demolition expert and a stint at the Pentagon. In the mid ’80s, Dye retired from active military duty. Deciding against moving into law enforcement because he had already “been shot too many times to be a cop on LA’s mean streets,” Dye was looking for employment. He started hounding movie producers with his ideas on how to make real war stories. His drill-sergeant technique of shouting his proposed method at these producers got him escorted off at least one set.Finally Dye read a blurb in Variety about a then-unknown writer/director Oliver Stone, who was doing a Vietnam War story based on his experiences as a combat infantryman. Dye decided this was his shot. He obtained Stone’s home number, “so I called him one Sunday morning out of the blue,” Dye recalls. “He liked my left-hand approach. I said, ‘You don’t know me and I don’t know you, but if what I read is true, we need each other.’ So we met. I explained my theories. Oliver absolutely understood.”A deal was struck and Stone turned his 30 actors over to Dye to take into the [Philippine] mountains for three weeks of physical and weapons training. The result was the Academy Award-winning Platoon. “From that point on the Dye method of doing things had a bit more gravity,” says the Captain. This experience also began a 20-year collaboration with Stone.Based on his belief that the “warrior spirit” is a common denominator over all time periods, Dye’s company has expanded to include experts in all aspects of military history, martial arts and weapons techniques. The team researches and consults on period, contemporary and futuristic films. Besides his work with Stone, he has accumulated numerous credits on projects such as Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans, Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers.According to technical advisor and mathematician, Gary Lorden, “nowadays, anyone can Google,” but although the Internet provides a valuable research tool and can provide the basic premise for a particular storyline to the writers of the television series, Numb3rs, “the math isn’t all in the books.” That’s where the expertise of Lorden and other mathematicians and computer scientists comes in.Inspired by real-world crime solving, Numb3rs tells stories in which FBI Agent, Don Eppes (Ron Morrow) and his mathematical genius brother, Charlie (David Krumholtz) decipher crimes through a combination of police work and mathematics. Besides contributing mathematical theories and episode ideas on how math fits in, Lorden faxes pages of equations and script notes to head researcher Andy Black before story meetings to finalize the math.When the series began, Lorden, professor and chairman of the Mathematics Department at the California Institute of Technology, spent time on set filling the blackboards with mathematical problems that Charlie could complete with a minimal amount of writing. Now Lorden tries to think like the character musing, “What would I do, if I was in Charlie’s place.” Most importantly he attempts to impress the carefully reasoned, logical, problem-solving thought process of a typical mathematician upon the writers and actors.Lorden has come to respect Krumholtz’s intelligence and dedication. In his preparations for the show, the actor visited the Caltech Math Department to soak up the atmosphere. He observed classes like a graduate student. The actor has gotten so comfortable in his role “he can now write equations on the board while reciting his lines”—no simple feat according to Lorden who says, “David loves playing a smart guy.” The actor is so convincing to math and science aficionados from his TV audience that he has been approached by fans that want to talk math and physics with him.As Lorden sees it, education gets the biggest benefit from math in the show. Just as the crime scene investigators on CSI caused an upswing in young people pursuing forensic science careers, Lorden hopes Numb3rs will have a positive impact—encouraging young mathematicians to follow their calling—because there are plenty of problems still to solve.Doctor George Rutherford also sees an educational benefit to the occasional consulting that he does for the entertainment industry—he tries to incorporate a public health message into the shows on which he consults.Rutherford is a professor of epidemiology at the University of California San Francisco. As part of his training, he went through the Center for Disease Control (CDC) two-year training program, and specializes in the causes and prevention of infectious outbreaks. He is currently working on scenarios for a possible bird flu epidemic.Rutherford’s background in public health came into play for a NOVA episode about typhoid and quarantine facilities that compared modern approaches to quarantine and early 20th century practices. Having worked at the New York City Health Depar
tment, he understands the inner working of New York City and quarantine law, which allowed him to contribute to the underlying legal story as well as the medical specifics.Rutherford’s involvement on the shows to which he consults generally occurs during the scriptwriting stage. “I never go on set, I just see paper,” he says. “Usually, I’m working with the writers. What I try and do is make sure it is technically accurate. Or if it is not technically accurate, to ensure they know that and it is done for dramatic purpose.”Rutherford sees most medical shows as a bit over the top, with many more critical situations occurring than would normally be the case. But he accepts the need for dramatic license as long as the actual cases make sense. He sees it as his duty to inform writers if the dramatic license is stretched too far. “I need to tell them if it passes the laugh test,” Rutherford explains. “On a pilot about the CDC the production was very pleased to have someone who had actually lived the life. To say, ‘tone it up here, ramp it up there, this is right, this is not right.’”The next time you are watching Grey’s Anatomy, ER or Without a Trace think of all those behind-the-scenes warriors fighting for truth and accuracy so that you are not only entertained, but maybe even educated too.

Written by Mary Ann Skweres

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