Screenwriters and directors are hoping life stops imitating art
Credit: Illustration by Christoph Neimann

by Allison Hope Weiner and Daniel Fierman

As they watched planes slam into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Americans said it over and over: It looked like a movie. Nobody could have envisioned the tragedy happening in real life — except perhaps the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT).

Since 1999, the ICT has been operating as a brain trust for the U.S. Army, working in conjunction with academics and unpaid volunteers from the entertainment industry, including directors David Fincher and Spike Jonze as well as special-effects gurus like Ron Cobb (”The 6th Day”). The institute, headed by Richard Lindheim, a former executive at Universal and Paramount, helps create virtual-reality training experiences for soldiers. (The ICT is operated by USC under a five-year, $45 million contract with the Army.) While terrorism has long been on the ICT’s agenda, industryites have met since Sept. 11 to intensify their brainstorming about possible attack scenarios.

Why would the military turn to Hollywood? While most details about the ICT remain hush-hush, Brig. Gen. Stephen Seay, commander of the Army’s Simulation Training and Instrumentation Command, believes the program has real merit. ”In the current world situation, we get called upon to execute a wider set of training challenges than ever before,” he says. The chief lure of showbiz types is simple: ”They’ve got creative, inquisitive intelligence,” says Seay, also crediting the industry’s high-tech expertise.