CIA Technical Advisor to Robert DeNiro breaks down how he does his job
Having done extensive work for the CIA, Milton Bearden was director Robert DeNiro's go to guy when it came time for him to put together his CIA opus, The Good Shepherd. The tumultuous early history of one of the most covert and powerful government agencies in the world is viewed through the prism of one man's life in this espionage thriller which stars Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie.
As the CIA Technical Advisor on the film, Milt Bearden recently sat down with us to discuss what it was like helping to bring this movie to the big screen.
Could you describe what a CIA Technical advisor does on a movie?
Milton Bearden: I have done Meet the Parents. I wrote some stuff for Bob when he and John Frankenheimer did Ronin. I really got deeply involved, from start to finish, on The Good Shepherd as a technical advisor. To tell you the truth, it covers everything. It covers working on the script, not so much the storyline, but does this make sense? Or, was it said this way? What do we say here? All of the fine tuning that one does there.
Then it goes into casting. To get guys that look like they can be a technical officer in the Officer of Technical Services. Or a young communicator, what do they look like? "In those days they were all ex-Navy and they've gotta look like this." This guys over here tend to dress this way that kind of makes them stick out. Then there's set decoration. Which you try to get it right. You try to make it look like something to where some old timer who worked for the CIA would say, "Well, I don't know? Maybe I had that office next to him?" To where they really believe it.
Then working on props that have to be right. Everything from how the safes look, the "OPEN" and "CLOSE" signs. A desk and where they put the burn bag. Opening and closing a safe. In this movie, even the color of the file folders was unique to the CIA. Sort of a seafoam green. DeNiro wants it right. I spent 30 years in the CIA... then you get into all the other little things of how do you burn your father's suicide note? I said, "Well you burn it this way." You fan-fold it and you light it across the top and then it burns, there's no smoke in the room, and it gets cold enough in the room and just floats up.
In your work on this films have you ever been put in a position where lets say Robert DeNiro asks you something and you've had to say, "Look, I can't answer that?" Does the agency keep tabs on what you do in that regard?
Milton Bearden: We have a prepublication agreement with the CIA where, I've written a couple of books and I write all the time for newspapers, so I have to submit that stuff because of an agreement 40 years ago. They look to see, not if they like it or not, if there's stuff that still might be compromising. I've never had any problem with that because I know what's compromising and what's not compromising. With DeNiro, who I worked with on this thing since 1997 he understands my position. I won't do anything that will hurt anybody. There are people out there that I could say things... that live outside of Moscow and you could get them compromised and in big trouble. Or, I won't do anything that makes the job particularly harder for the people trying to do it today.
Other than that, when you look at The Good Shepherd there's a lot of wonderful stuff you've never seen before, but it doesn't compromise anything.
When you watch movies about the CIA do you do so with a very critical eye in terms of accuracy?
Milton Bearden: Almost none of them ever try, by the way. So many of them, I've found, have been agenda driven, you know? We're gonna show you how bad the CIA or your whole government is... everybody can do anything they want but those are not usually very good and most people don't try to make a CIA Officer look like an officer. I think there's a new mood. Maybe there's more of these movies coming and people will want to do it?
Do you ever miss the work you used to do?
Milton Bearden: Not really because I was in from 1964 to 1994. Basically, that encompassed a great struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union in this thing we called The Cold War. It got very hot a few times. I did it from positions of running the whole operation of the CIA against the Soviet Union, or down in the weeds like over in Afghanistan; doing what it took to shove the Soviet army out of Afghanistan in 1989. By 1994, I was a Chief in Germany and we had to the last Tattoo in Berlin which was the British, the American, the French and the Russian brigades that had occupied Berlin since 1945, packed up and marched out in the last big celebration.
That was the end of it all. For me, I thought, why not do something I've always wanted to do since I was in high school and write books? So I retired and I was still young enough to start a Third Act of life.
How much different is the work you did on The Good Shepherd vs. the work you did on Meet the Parents?
Milton Bearden: I started off with DeNiro on The Good Shepherd. The thing had evolved over 7 years to become the Eric Roth script. Then I was brought aboard to do Meet the Parents with him as an advisor. It wasn't the in-depth involvement of The Good Shepherd where I was on the set the whole time.
The key thing that I like to tell... I was on a ski lift in Colorado while they were shooting. Jay Roach, who was the director, called me and said, "We're missing something in the house. What is it?" And I said, "You know, what we're missing is a secret room." He said, "Yes, what's in there?" I said, "His pictures and his stuff." And one of the pictures they show is a picture of me in Afghanistan with the Mujahideen and they doctored it up to make it look like DeNiro. Then I said, "I'd put a polygraph machine in there." And then Jay Roach ran with it and did one of the most beautiful polygraph scenes that's ever been on film. What people don't know about that scene is that it was done exactly right! Exactly how a polygraph operator would do it. Every other polygraph scene in film has been less well done.
The Good Shepherd comes to DVD April 3 from Universal Studios Home Video.
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