Posted on Tuesday, October 11th, 2016 by Blake Harris
If you stick around and watch the credits of almost any movie featuring armed combat, you’re likely to find someone listed as that film’s “Military Advisor.” But what, exactly, does this job entail? And how much more realistic does their work make our movies?
To find out, we spoke with Jon Iles—a 25+ year veteran of the Royal Australian Navy—who has served as the Military Advisor on several films. An impressive roster that includes Suicide Squad, Mad Max: Fury Road and, of course, the movie it all began with: Stealth.
How Did This Get Made is a companion to the podcast How Did This Get Made with Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael which focuses on movies This regular feature is written by Blake J. Harris, who you might know as the writer of the book Console Wars, soon to be a motion picture produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. You can listen to the Stealth edition of the HDTGM podcast here.
Synopsis: A trio of Navy fighter pilots (Josh Lucas, Jamie Foxx and Jessica Biel) must stop an AI-controlled, top-secret stealth aircraft from starting the next world war.
Tagline: Fear the Sky
Part 1: Happy Days
Blake J. Harris: Thanks, Jon, for taking the time to chat. Before we talk about Stealth and your work as a Military Advisor, I was curious what led you to the Navy in the first place. Was that always the plan?
Jon Iles: I actually wanted to be a pilot when I was younger. In high school, all I thought about was airplanes. I wanted to be a fighter pilot. But when I went to go into the air force, they said I was colorblind. Because I failed an eye test, you know; the one with the colored dots. So I ended up joining the Navy because it was one of the only military units that would take me as someone who was “colorblind.” Except the doctor actually read the test wrong. I wasn’t colorblind.
Blake J. Harris: Oh really?
Jon Iles: Yeah! I could see red and blue and green. So one day I went back to the doctor and said, “You need to re-test me on this.” He sent me to a specialist and the specialist turned around and said, “Yeah, you have great color perception.”
Blake J. Harris: Wow.
Jon Iles: Cost me a year and a half in my career, but at the end of the day I was happy with where I went. To the Navy, the Frog Men.
More specifically, Iles became a member of the Clearance Diving Branch, an elite diving unit of the Royal Australian Navy.
Blake J. Harris: Flashing forward several years, you end up working on movies. The first being Stealth. How did that happen?
Jon Iles: Essentially…when did this happen? About 13 or 14 years ago now. I was 25 years old. And I got approached by a stunt coordinator who I was training with in the gym to come to a meeting for Mad Max. So I had a meeting with George [Miller], which was about six hours long, just discussing very generic military-type tactics and what soldiers would do; what an assault force would do against a truck. Obviously without giving everything away; because I was still bound by military law so I can’t give away the super secret stuff away, but the very generic stuff; you can give them some better ideas of how they would structure the attacks and such.
Blake J. Harris: Okay, gotcha.
Jon Iles: The meeting went well, but Mad Max didn’t take off at that time. But in that meeting, there was a stunt coordinator who was working there and two weeks later he called me up and said, “Look, we’ve got this other movie. It’s called Stealth. Would you mind coming in and having a quick look at some of the scenes that we’re about to do because we want to have a good idea of what the military would do. So I sort of walked in and had a look at the scenes, and it really started from there.
Blake J. Harris: Going into the experience on Stealth, what did you expect? And did it turn out to be what you expected?
Jon Iles: Do you know what? It was a big eye-opener because it was the first time I was on a large set. You know, I’d worked with smaller TV stuff before. I’d worked with battle of the forces. And a few other TV programs…so I’d seen how the TV industry worked. But to go through a larger movie set like that and see the amount of time that’s spent. And money. All of those things, all of those things that the military doesn’t have. They don’t have the time, they don’t have the money. And all that good stuff.
Blake J. Harris: That’s hilarious (and very sad).
Jon Iles: So it was quite a steep learning curve. Being a middle manager from the military for 30 years, you’re basically responsible for everything; how the operation goes? What happens in the event that there’s a man down? What happens when someone does get shot. So you control 80-90% of what’s happening in the field. But when you got into the movies, you don’t control any. You don’t even really control the people that you train. Because all you’re really doing is giving them ideas. Especially actors. You give them an idea of how it would work, and then they go, “No, actually, I want to play it this way.” And so they do it their way. But at least you’ve shown them how a real military person would do it. So at least they know. But you’ve got to come to terms with that. But you do give advice. And if 1 or 2% of it gets taken, the happy days.
Blake J. Harris: What type of advice do you give?
Jon Iles: The actual nuts and guts of what a guy does with a gun; how he holds it, where he carries it, you know? How would people be positioned and postured? How would cars move? How would they stop? Where would they stop? And of course that’s all intermixed with camera movement, and the director’s going “I need to see this” and “I need to see that.” So obviously you need to have a little bit of flexibility; it’s all about giving the director what he wants to see so he can tell a story. And that was a very fast learning curve. But if you can pick those things up quickly, then you can value-add to a project. That’s always been my philosophy: how can I add value to this project?
Blake J. Harris: Good philosophy…
Jon Iles: And I always give the director three different ways of doing something, so he’s never hemmed into one approach. I always give him the most Wild Wild West; machine guns blaring and guns blowing up everything. And I always give him the actual military version; the down and dirty and efficient way. And then I do something left of center.
Blake J. Harris: That’s really fascinating. Of those three versions, is there one that tends to be selected for the movie? Or does it vary by project?
Jon Iles: It really varies by director. What is your priority? Is your priority really good down and dirty hard fought military stuff? Is it very aggressive, quick and clean? Or is it showmanship? Do you want lots of bullets and shooting? Because then I can figure out: okay, how do we make fire reasonable. Because, you know, quite often in a movie, it’s not reasonable. You watch the action on screen and can’t help but think: They’d never do it that way! You’re just wasting bullets!!
Blake J. Harris: Ha!
Jon Iles: So at the end of the day, it’s up to the director. You might tell them, “they’d never do that,” and they’ll say, “Okay, but I still want 15 magazines unloaded.” And you just say, “Yup, Roger That.”