Russ Maheras may have the coolest job in the world. As an Entertainment Liaison for the United States Air Force, he's tasked with bringing together our nation's best aviators with film and television production and development teams. He leads base tours as well as interacting with filmmakers anytime they have questions about how the Air Force works or would like to shoot on a base. How did he get this job? He told us that story and many others…
Tell us about your background. How did you end up working in the Air Force Entertainment Liaison Office? What did you do before you joined that office?
I spent 20 years on active duty in the USAF as an aircraft avionics technician (13 years) and as a public affairs specialist (seven years), worked in the private sector from 1998-2002, and then returned to the USAF early that year as a civilian public affairs specialist. Originally, I was assigned to the USAF’s National Civic Outreach Office in Chicago, but when that office closed in 2009, my position moved to the USAF Entertainment Liaison Office in Westwood, where I became chief of documentary and special projects. That worked out well for the USAF because I already had an informal four-decade background in television, film, and comic books, and had many friends in those industries. It also helped that I was a long-time gamer, as our office fields video game support requests as well.
What does your job entail? Have you yourself provided technical assistance -- or do you serve as a coordinator between Air Force personnel and Hollywood writers and directors? Can you tell us who you've worked with, and which projects you've worked on?
When any production company wishes to film a nationally distributed entertainment (non-news) project on an Air Force base or interview any present USAF personnel, our office is the gateway for approval and access. This includes documentaries, which make up the majority of our requests. I am a project officer, and while I handle mostly television documentaries, I also help out on feature films, video games, and reality/game shows. Primarily, I coordinate with the producer/director and approve support for projects, but with more than 30 total years with the USAF in both operations and public affairs, I can, and do, provide technical assistance at times. I’ve worked on hundreds of projects in the nearly three years I’ve been assigned here, so listing them isn’t practical. My most recent project that aired was a very popular six-part series on the Weather Channel titled Hurricane Hunters, which showcased the unique and dangerous mission of the USAF’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi.
What kinds of assistance does the Air Force provide?
We provide technical assistance, advice, access to b-roll, and access to USAF installations for approved projects. We also coordinate with the entertainment liaison offices of the other services for projects that have a “joint” (multi-service) theme.
How often does the Air Force get requests from filmmakers and producers? Why is the Air Force eager to help them?
We probably average about 250-300 support requests per year. There are a number of reasons the USAF thinks it is important to “project and protect” the USAF image through popular culture vehicles such as films and television. Most people have never been on an Air Force base, so their only exposure to the USAF is through popular culture conduits or the Internet. If we are involved in a project, even if it’s fiction, we can help ensure that our portrayal is both accurate and authentic – which benefits us and the production company. For documentaries, our support has a number of benefits. First, it helps taxpayers understand what their USAF’s mission, people, and equipment are all about. Second, it helps recruiting-age people who may be weighing career choices or considering vocational training to better understand the USAF option. Third, Airmen around the USAF are very proud of what they do, and mission allowing, they often love to have the opportunity to show their fellow Americans (or international allies) the remarkable things they accomplish on a daily basis.
Do you turn down a lot of requests? What would cause a request to be turned down?
We disapprove a fair number of requests. The main reason we turn down a project is because it is not funded and/or it has no distribution. We are not going to invest a unit’s time and energy on a project in the pitch stage for the simple reason that the vast majority of pitches are never picked up. Our Airmen are working real-world missions, and diverting resources to support a project that will never air is counterproductive.
Has the Air Force ever been disappointed in the finished product of a project for which it provided assistance and/or technical advice?
Occasionally, but our screening process usually prevents such disappointments. We have been misled on rare occasions, which can be a show-stopper for any future projects with that production company.
How important is it that audiences see the military portrayed accurately in film and television?
As I alluded to earlier, it is very important, since in many cases, our on-screen persona for films and television programs will the only exposure people get to the USAF.
In looking at a list of recent projects, one stood out as being quite different from the others. What role did the Air Force play in the series Top Chef on Bravo?
The producers wanted to cook for the troops, so after we reviewed and approved their request, we found a volunteer base to host the Top Chef cooking team. Then, on the day of the filming, a large and grateful group of Airmen at the base got to sample some great cuisine.
What has Hollywood done right and what has it done wrong in portraying the military?
Hollywood has done quite a few things right over the years, but there still seems to be a strong tendency to equate “realism” with “negativism.” The USAF, like any service, has its problems, but I think the positives greatly outweigh the negatives – something that is not clearly evident in a significant number of films made these days. Some recent films a few of my film-savvy friends cite as “positive,” such as We Were Soldiers, or Blackhawk Down are, in reality, about military operations that went terribly awry – not exactly a ringing endorsement. Another common, perhaps even universal, stereotype Hollywood seems to give its military heroes these days is the “maverick” persona. But in the real world, mavericks get killed, get their fellow Airmen killed, get innocent bystanders killed, or simply aren’t all that good at getting the mission done. That’s not to say individualism is a bad thing. Historically, individualism and initiative have actually been one of the US military’s strong points during conflicts. But a maverick who is too much of a maverick can be a huge liability during any military operation.
Have the Air Force Entertainment Liaison Office and The Exchange crossed paths?
Yes. Our missions overlap and complement each other to some degree, and when we have the opportunity, we enjoy helping Exchange members learn more about the mission, people, and equipment of the USAF.
You're an accomplished cartoonist. How did you get started? What do you find appealing and challenging about this form of expression? Where do story ideas come from? Where can your work be seen?
I’ve been drawing for about 45 years, and have been a professional since 1974. I enjoy drawing comics because I find it a rewarding and fulfilling creative outlet. It’s never been my “day job,” but that was an intentional decision I made in the late 1970s, and one I haven’t regretted. Story ideas have never been a problem for me because I’ve always been a strong student of science and history, I’m a news-hound, and I’ve lived all around the world. A tiny, tiny sampling of my art can be found via a Google search, and most recently I did original art sketch cards for the Topps Company pertaining to two of my favorite science fiction franchises: Mars Attacks and Star Wars. I bought the original Mars Attacks trading cards when they were released 50 years ago, and they kick-started my life-long love of science fiction and drawing comics. Then, when Star Wars came out in 1977, it boosted my interest in space travel and drawing science fiction to new heights.
Have you been able to put your artistic and literary skills to work in your job for the Air Force?
Absolutely. The USAF has tapped my art skills everywhere I’ve been stationed since 1978. I’ve designed and drawn art for unit patches, brochures, booklets, posters, aircraft, newspapers, magazines, plaques, t-shirts, belt buckles, flyers, mugs, doors, walls, jackets, invitations, award certificates – you name it! I’ve also done quite a bit of writing, of all types, for a myriad of reasons.
Image credits: U.S. Air Force