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Director Brad Bird answered questions moderated by the International Spy Museum’s founding Executive Director Peter Earnest. Brad talks about working with Tom Cruise, setting up the now famous stunt sequence as Tom Cruise scales the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, and how his experiences working on The Simpson’s informs his work to this day.
Dale Shelton – Technical Advisor Interview
Dale is a relatively slight man who fell somewhat happenstance into the role of technical advisor to some of Hollywood’s biggest productions over the last few years. In addition to providing technology advice on Brad Bird’s live-action directorial debut, Dale gave technical advice to Michael Mann on 2010’s Public Enemies and most recently consulted briefly on the upcoming Superman reboot, Man of Steel. Trained as a forensic accountant, Dale is quickly becoming a go-to contact leveraging his experience in SWAT, weapons, espionage technology and clandestine technique.
Dale Shelton and I spoke in a large but mostly empty room on the second floor of Washington DC’s International Spy Museum, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year (and celebrating the more than 7 million people who have taken the splendid tour).
HTF: Thanks for taking the time to talk to HomeTheaterForum today. What type of weapons expertise did you offer for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.
Dale: Well first let me say what I've done with prior films is really focus on weapons, tactics and weapon-related accessories, whether it's aiming systems or illumination systems or that kind of thing. Although I did provide some of that information for Mission Impossible I branched off from that. They had the good fortune of having Harry Lou and he is a fantastic wealth of information. I got more into other aspects of the film; biometric systems, the nano air vehicles and that kind of stuff. Some gadgets didn't quite make it in the film because the script evolves over time. There were some early versions of the script where we worked on target designators and fusion vision which is fusing night vision, thermal vision and that kind of thing. Also remote heartbeat sensors and a few other things
HTF: So did you keep them grounded in reality or were you there to help bridge the gap between some future-looking technology?
Dale: Well that was a question early on that we all needed to resolve. And ultimately that was a decision of Brad Bird and the decision was to try as much as possible to ground the technology with what we currently had available but take it another generation ahead. Now some of the technology in the film is admittedly more than one generation ahead like the sticky gloves, but even with those, there is research actively going into that type of technology, but it is a very long way off probably. Some of the technology is much closer such as the ability to take a mobile DNA sample, or do a retinal scan and have a result very quickly. We do have that ability with retinal scans but we don't have it with DNA yet, but it's getting very close. Who knows what the top secret units of the government that might be a lot like IMF are using (laughs).
HTF: So are you privy to some technologies that you couldn't share even if you wanted to?
Dale: I share what I can (smiles)
HTF: Delicately put. So, when you watch films do you ever get frustrated watching Hollywood productions that don't seem to have put in the time and effort that productions like Ghost Protocol did in hiring you?
Dale: Well, I think we all do. Whether you're an attorney or a doctor or a police officer or whatever you do for a living you're going to scrutinize. I do think that in Ghost Protocol they, they went the extra mile. I've been very fortunate for all the films that I've worked on that it has been important to the production. It's been important to the director. It's been important to the prop master or the property department to get it as right as you can within the parameters of what the director's trying to show in the film.
HTF: Right. So, were you on set? Did you do it in pre-production or, how did it work…
Dale: It has been different with each film but with Ghost Protocol it was not on set, although I was asked early on if I would be available to go wherever. I was told they're gonna be filming in various locations around the world and would I be available on very short notice to go and provide training, which I've done in the past to provide training on set. But for this particular film it ended up being Internet, telephone and some video chats in there.
HTF: And you're, you're working on Man of Steel now.
Dale: I had a very small job on that. I'm not really sure what I can disclose. Again, you sign these non-disclosure agreements
Dale: So I don't know exactly what I can say about it.
HTF: I won't ask you any questions to get you in trouble.
Dale: But I'm done with that film. It was a small peice of the film that I worked on.
HTF: Anybody talked to you about Mission Impossible 5 yet?
HTF: But you'd be willing to come back if they did?
Dale: I think that we have some technologies that may be good for Mission Impossible 5. We'll see.
HTF: Favorite movie?
Dale: Favorite movie…Any genre?
Dale: Other than Ghost Protocol? (laughs)
HTF: Obviously. (laughs)
Dale: I'm a big fan of Die Hard.
HTF: Ah, outstanding.
Dale: Yeah, a big fan of Die Hard.
HTF: So, was it Die Hard that got you interested in liaising with Hollywood productions, or were you just called out of the blue
Dale: It was literally out of the blue. I met someone and was introduced to Michael Mann and we started talking and he is very detail oriented and we spoke about the Colt Model 1911 A1 pistol – about different variations and advancements. We probably spent 45 minutes talking about it and the next thing I know I get a call asking me if I'd be willing to provide some assistance with a film. It's nothing I ever really aspired to so I thought it was a joke, quite honestly. But we got it worked out and and I worked on that film and, and met a lot of people through that film.
HTF: And were an extra on Public Enemies as well.
Dale: Uh –
HTF: At least you're credited as such.
Dale: Yeah. I actually appeared in a film and I got a SAG card and everything, so.
HTF: Quite the journey.
Dale: I had a line in a film and it was cut, but
HTF: Such is life.
Dale: – such is life.
HTF: Well, thanks very much for speaking with us today.
Dale: You’re welcome, thanks
Props from Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol - All Images Neil Middlemiss
Intelligence Community Q&A
A panel of experts in espionage, weapons, spy gadgetry and disguise took part in a Q&A moderated by Peter Earnest, the founding executive director of the International Spy Museum (and 35 year veteran of the CIA). The panelist included Dale Shelton, the film’s weapons and technical expert; General Oleg Danilovich Kalugin, retired Major General in the 1st Chief Directorate of the KGB, Jonna Hiestand Mendez, former Chief of Disguise for the CIA and specialist in clandestine photography, and David G. Major, former Director of Counterintelligence, Intelligence and Security Programs for the FBI)
Director Brad Bird listens as a handwriting expert details how his written word reveals a great deal of information about his personality. This image courtesy of Paramount Pictures (I can be seen in the background in the beige sweater .