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Inside Spyex, an Agency That Connects Hollywood With Real-Life Spies
”If anybody in Hollywood is really interested in getting the technical details right, they need a consortium of people,“ says one TV producer of why he relies on Spyex
Hollywood has turned to individual experts in virtually every career field to advise writers on their scripts, and international intelligence is no exception. But the new agency Spyex hopes to become a centralized hub for experts to connect corporate and private clients — including those in the entertainment industry — to experts from the CIA, KGB, FBI, Mossad and other top intelligence agencies and institutions.
Since its launch in September, Spyex has provided expert advice on projects ranging from CBS’ “SWAT,” the Epix spy series “Condor,” Fox’s “America’s Most Wanted,” Netflix’s “Hit and Run,” MTV’s “Sabaya” and the Sony docudrama “The Lost Leonardo.” The company, which collects a percentage of consulting fees, has amassed a roster of nearly 100 experts — some of whom may not be marketed publicly.
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Among Spyex’s available experts are a senior CIA adviser who, it claims, “put Osama Bin Laden on the CIA’s radar” and the undercover FBI operative who led the capture of Robert Hanssen, a double agent who spied for Soviet and Russian intelligence services from 1976 to 2001.
Jason Smilovic, co-creator and co-showrunner (with Jason Katzberg) of “Condor,” said tapping real-life agents as consultants helps with more than the technical aspects of the gadgets and procedures involved in collecting secret information. “At the end of the day, you can come up with the most complex, insidious plot imaginable, but until you encapsulate it into a human character, it doesn’t really mean anything,” he said. “We get a lot of plot from our consultants, but they have been remarkable in helping us to meet those characters by articulating them to us.”
While there are a few former law enforcement and national social security experts who started their own consultancy firm, Spyex says it is the first independent agency to have contracted a wide range of experts from top intelligence agencies — as well as hackers, cyber security leaders and investigative journalists.
For Hollywood producers, the appeal of Spyex expertise is simple: authenticity. While some tricks of the trade will always remain secret, most of the experts can be open about their (usually) former role as operatives, lending their real-life expertise to storylines. And because most are now working independently of their former intelligence agencies, producers say they can trust that the operatives are not acting on behalf of those agencies.
“Without naming examples, there have certainly been high-profile Hollywood movies where the writers have gotten played by consultants and have ended up telling the story that the CIA wanted them to tell, which was not factually correct,” said “Condor” co-creator Katzberg.”That’s not something that we ever have to worry about with with the people that we’re working with right now. But the danger is that you don’t ever want to be a tool for a government agency.”
Nic McKinley, former CIA special agent and former U.S. Air Force pararescue officer, told TheWrap with a laugh that the word “spy” is a misnomer for most of those who serve as advisers for Spyex. Instead, many were operatives whose job was to reach out to the right “assets” to gather information, making those people the actual spies. He joined Spyex for the convenience of having an agency to handle his consultant bookings, he said, but noted that the advantage cut the other way too, a one-stop resource for screenwriters and producers looking for people with a rarefied skill set.
“If anybody in Hollywood is really interested in getting the technical details right, they need a consortium of people who can focus on each individual thing,” said McKinley, who noted that while his skills include firearms and rigorous fitness requirements, other former CIA operatives with Spyex are more adept computer and high-tech crimes than physical conflict.
Tricia Jenkins, professor of film, TV and digital media at Texas Christian University and author of the 2016 book “The CIA in Hollywood: How the Agency Shapes Film and Television,” said that producers are safer from CIA interference if they work with former intelligence agents rather than those who are still in the business. Jenkins, as well as other researchers and scholars, have detailed CIA involvement in such recent films as “Argo” and“Zero Dark Thirty” via the CIA’s 20-year-old official liaison office to Hollywood.
“The retired officer in Hollywood plays a profoundly different role from that of the CIA’s entertainment liaison officers,” Jenkins told TheWrap. “In general, the CIA’s liaisons can offer assistance to preproduction and production teams in the form of access to technical consultants, high-level personnel, the Agency seal, stock footage, props, shooting locations and even Agency employees as extras — all at little to no charge. But before agreeing to provide these services, the CIA will review each script to ensure that it presents the Agency in a positive light and will not undermine morale or jeopardize recruitment efforts. If it does not think the script meets these requirements, the liaison office will refuse to offer the artist assistance.”
Jenkins added, “Hollywood creators know that the CIA has a representative, but they often do not want to make a movie that obligates them to Langley’s point-of-view. Former CIA officers, however, can offer an unvarnished view of the CIA and that perspective is often more valued by artistic creators because it is seen as more authentic and less like propaganda.”
For Smilovic, using Spyex consultants has allowed the show to avoid serving as a mouthpiece for the CIA’s point of view while pushing the envelope in terms of authentic storytelling about intelligence work. “Every writer secretly longs to come into possession of a story that is dangerous, and that can change the world,” he said.
Borrowing from real spies trained in predicting the course of geopolitical history can lead to some very juicy — and prescient — storytelling, Smilovic added. For example, the 2018 first season of “Condor” got a boost from producer Ken Robinson, an expert in intelligence, counterterrorism and national security with 30 years of experience in special forces. When they were outlining a plot about a biological threat from a plague, Robinson’s knowledge of potential global pandemics led him to suggest that they go with an “aerosolized coronavirus.”
The “Condor” team also now tap the expertise of Spyex member Darrell Blocker, an eight-year CIA veteran who was on President Biden’s short list of candidates to lead the CIA. Blocker, who retired from active duty in 2018, said he was eager to launch a consulting career because retirement allowed him for the first time to drop his cover and talk about his work with the CIA, an agency of which he is immensely proud.
Blocker serves as CEO of Mosaic, a boutique strategic risk and crisis management, intelligence and security advisory firm, and said he jumped at the chance to share his expertise further through Spyex.
“Hollywood isn’t getting it right, but they’re getting it,” Blocker said. “They’re getting it better. And they’re more nuanced at it. But as I as I’ve explained to many, many studio folks, we don’t want you to get it right, because that will put us at a market disadvantage against everyone else in the world who could just turn on their TV and figure out how we do things.”
Of course, Hollywood producers are less troubled about revealing the details of spycraft. “Every writer secretly longs to come into possession of a story that is dangerous, and that can change the world,” Smilovic said. “I’m sure several technology startups right now are wrestling with the moral dilemma of, Do we pursue this technology, knowing the impact that the new technologies of the last decade or two have had on the world? Storytelling is a more inert form of that.”
One thing Blocker said Hollywood definitely isn’t getting right: shoot-outs and car chases. If an operative is pulling a gun, he or she is not very good at the job, Blocker observed. “For 28 years, I lived in worked in some dangerous, crazy places — Mogadishu, Somalia; Bujumbura, Burundi — and I never got in a gunfight, never got in a car chase,” he said. “I never picked up a phone inside of an SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility) which is a, you know, a secure facility to make a phone call… I love writers, but I think that’s lazy writing.”
That said, Blocker is a big fan of the fun stuff Hollywood can bring to the table, realistic or not. “I loved every single James Bond movie. That’s just me. I love all of them,” he said. “And Daniel Craig is as close to the Bond from the books as anybody. I thought Timothy Dalton might have been second. But I’m a Sean Connery man through and through.”
Beyond the techniques of spycraft, Hollywood writers frequently call on former operatives to help them understand what makes spies tick. Gina Bennett, a former CIA security analyst and author of the book “National Security Mom,” told TheWrap that the need for realistic character development is even greater for writers creating female intelligence operatives, who usually are portrayed as fighting machines with Ninja combat skills rivaled only by their sharpshooting expertise.
“Absolutely the women characters are even more sensationalized, and certainly more sexualized, than the men,” Bennett said. “When they portray a so-called female lead in intelligence or in national security, they tend only to appreciate a woman as strong and successful when she is demonstrating male characteristics.”
That misogyny is alive and well in the real-life intelligence community, Bennett said. During her offensive driving training, she said the instructor would require male trainees to provide distraction by sitting in the back seat and acting like children, screaming and yelling, “because he felt like that was what I was used to.”
Bennett’s interview with TheWrap took place by phone while she safely navigated a freeway in her own car. “I’m probably better at driving with a distraction than any male,” she joked.