Saber Ops: Military Advisors to HAWAII FIVE-0 and Beyond
How cool is it to watch McGarrett (Alex O’Loughlin) singlehandedly gun down bad guys each week on Hawaii Five-0 with his weapon of choice? Pretty cool, huh? I think so too. That’s why I made no hesitation when my chance came along to talk with a member of the Saber Ops team. After all, Saber Ops is the military advisor team who gets all the credit for that larger-than-life motion- picture feel on Five-0’s Season One.
I’m chatting with David B. Johnson, who joined Saber Ops about eight years ago with now business partner and founder Mike Gilmore. Johnson says frankly, “We were not planning on getting into the production aspects of the business. We were actually just trying to develop a consulting service. When Mike was contacted by Warner Brothers, he was only given a number to call. It was really covert and we weren’t exactly sure what they needed. Alex Kurtzman was working on a feature called The 28th Amendment and needed some first hand experience.”
A Cool Beginning
That initial meeting with Kurtzman was epic. Johnson says, “We sat across from Alex for about three hours discussing how the main character, a Special Operations soldier, would handle certain situations -what he would say and do, how things worked. It was funny cause we were all just asking each other questions; it was more like an interview. Then, Alex looks at the producer, nods his head, like he’s good with us. I’ll never forget it. We were in the Dreamworks Building on the Universal lot. We had no idea who Alex Kurtzman was at the time. When it was over, we realized what just happened, we walked out and went, ‘holy crap.’ 28th Amendment hasn’t been made, but it certainly opened up a door for Mike and I.”
“After nine months working closely with Alex on The 28th Amendment, the studio put a stop on the project. Needless to say, Mike and I were bummed. Then shortly thereafter, we got a call from Alex directly. They were putting together the remake of Hawaii Five-O. It wasn’t just another cop show. McGarrett was now a Navy SEAL and Alex wanted our help.” Alex would call or email us with questions, ask for suggestions and ‘how do they’s’. Several weeks later, the pilot script was complete, production was ordered and we started working on pre-production concerns. I can tell you the final cut is way different from the first draft we started with. But anytime you see gun play or any type of shooting or fighting in that first season, we had a hand in it.” Peter Lenkov was on board as the showrunner and as things moved along we started communicating directly with him on future episodes. The season progressed as we went along. Peter always knew what he wanted to do. He would pick our brains about how to do stuff. It was really cool.”
Late in the first season of Hawaii Five-O, Alex and Bob (Orci) reached out to us again. This time they were developing a pilot for Fox. A CIA team gets deployed when other CIA operations go bad. Their mission is to extract those involved and clean up any evidence from the operation. Our job started with the script. Alex had brought on a new writer, David Guggenheim. We were again, giving our expertise to the script development. Alex and Bob were giving us our shot, and we could have totally messed it up. Anyway, during the eight months we were working on Exit Strategy, we started working with them on the writing side, then when the pilot was ordered, we picked up more of a pre-production role, assisting set designers, wardrobe, props, and training. This was a great experience; we got to see first hand what it takes to pull it all together. We started out with the basics and by the end were very involved in the whole process. Fox didn’t pick it up, but it was an amazing experience none the less. From there, Alex called us for another job, and we moved on. One of the best experiences on that project, by the way, was working with Director Antoine Fuqua. He’s such a good guy, and he really cares about what he does.
Introducing Saber Ops
The Saber Ops team is composed of military personnel, but veterans and active duty members. They serve as technical advisors and consultants to the motion picture, online, and television industries. I graduated from the Naval Academy and was in the Navy, and then I switched to the Army. Mike was in the Army his entire career. He was a helicopter pilot. In our network, we have a Navy SEAL, a Marine, DOD (Department of Defense) guys, basically people in all different disciplines. We have built a network of pretty much every job description you can have in the military. Mike and I are the only full-time employees. The majority of work we’ve done for Alex has been on the pre-production side. Get it right up front, with the writing. If we know what they’re looking for, it’s easier for us to break it down on set.”
Bumps in the Road
Johnson admits that one of the misconceptions that development teams usually have about Saber Ops is that one guy does everything. “Writers always want to build a character who can do everything, and we try to tell them in reality, in the military, not one guy does everything.”
There were some bumps in the road. Johnson explains, “We had military assistance from the Department of Defense on set, and there were times where the Navy people would look at our scripts or our choices and balk, ‘Well, that’s not by the book. That’s not what happens.’ We realize that, but we’re civilians now, so we can kind of do our take on things. And the choices for doing things a certain way were made for good reasons. They may not have been rule-book correct, but they’re the decisions we made to make the scene work. We had a couple of moments like that. There was never any animosity and we all ended up being really good friends. In the end, we totally got it all worked out. Neither of us was wrong.”
In the Know
One of Johnson’s favorite scenes he has worked on with Five-0 has been the pilot’s opening sequence. “I keep going back to the pilot,” he says, “because pilots are usually a bigger deal. The opening scene in the pilot episode is a big-action sequence, where the convoy gets attacked. We had a lot to do with that and, I was really happy with the final cut. I was there, working with the stunt men, the actors and on last minute changes to the script. The director, Len Wiseman, was big on accuracy. It was just really, really cool, like a movie opening. I thought Alex (O’Loughlin) looked good with a gun, and he really got into it. Later, Peter invited us to the screening at Paramount. It was really neat because we could see the moments in the final cut where we gave Alex (O’Loughlin) in-the-know things to say and do to make it all feel real and look authentic. We were very happy. We learned a lot from the pilot.
Some scenes can only be labeled as “Hollywood” though. In Season One, Episode Two (“Ohana”), “There’s a moment when Alex (O’Loughlin) swings down on a chain simultaneously shooting his weapon. On set, I work for the director and the producer, so I’d say, ‘If I were going to do it, this is how I would do it. In reality, though, you’re probably never gonna swing with one arm from a chain while you’re shooting your gun. You’re probably never gonna do that. But, I would tell them, ‘If I were doing it, I would hold the weapon like this and wrap my leg around like that.’ “There were a lot of times during that first season where we’d really be particular about how things were done. In one episode, the actors playing the SWAT team really acted like they knew what they were doing. Seeing their performance on the screen felt good. That means I’ve really done my job.” We had a lot of questions coming from the writers as well and we’d always find a positive solution. Some they took, others they didn’t. Still, it was an amazing opportunity and I’ll never forget it. I really do consider Alex and Bob my friends. They’re both great guys, family guys, and very down-to-earth. It’s been so great working for them.”
Two New Projects
Up next for Saber Ops is a remake of Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy, on which the team will again work with Kurtzman.
“Saber Ops is also working on an 82nd Airborne movie that’s gonna be filming in Europe in the future. We’re really excited about it. It’ll be a full-on boot camp film with 100s of extras. It’s a grand scale war movie, and, though it doesn’t usually work like this, it’s actually about the unit I was in. It’s a dream come true, and I am super, super excited about it. All in all, in the world of entertainment, I guess having two projects set back-to-back is pretty good. I really do love it.”
You can see all the Saber Ops Five-0 action on the Season One DVD or check out what they’re up to at www.militarytechadvisor.com. Catch Hawaii Five-0’s new episodes Fridays on CBS at 9 P.M.