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Man On A Mission - Brian McLaughlin Works To Win Hearts And Minds For Vets In Entertainment

Posted By Katie Grant, Wednesday, October 17, 2018

“I know it’s a fault. I’m a compulsive volunteer, and almost always there’s not any kind of recognition. So if you’re doing it for the recognition, you’re probably going to be disappointed.” Brian McLaughlin, PGA member, producer, writer, one-time actor and proud Army veteran, has a candor and off-the-cuff humor that’s at once reassuring and refreshing.

In a black vintage Captain America T-shirt, McLaughlin explains, “My parents volunteered for everything. There was a time we were at meetings probably four times a week—the PTA, the planning commission for the city, church things. They [even] volunteered at the prison. I just do it because I feel like so many people have helped me.” As a Notre Dame grad and MBA from Boston University, McLaughlin was always a go-getter. He learned about discipline and hard work from the Boy Scouts, his time as a college gymnast and from his father, who attended West Point. That drive also came from his stint in the Army, where he reached the rank of Major, with 20 years total in active duty.

McLaughlin says, “People think, ‘How can we help the veterans?’ And to me, veterans generally don’t want that. They’d rather we say, ‘How can veterans help them?’” 

When asked why he chose the military, McLaughlin explains, “Part of it was, of course, it would pay for college. I always thought that would be a good thing for service to country. I thought it was good for me and I did it for fun.”

He continues, “I was a business major in college, and I was going to be a finance corps officer. Then between junior and senior year, we went to what we called ‘summer camp.’ They showed us all the jobs in the Army, had us do these things, and I was like, this is so much fun.” He ended up in Special Operations as an Airborne Pathfinder.

McLaughlin is quick to highlight the transferrable skills vets have that make them a perfect fit for the entertainment industry. “They bring good things to the production—strengths like leadership, teamwork, perseverance, responsibility, calmness under pressure, planning and organization, problem solving and confidence.”

McLaughlin believes he already possessed those skills even before entering the military. “I think some of it is why people get drawn to the military,” he reflects, “because they have those tendencies anyway, like leadership and work ethic and organizational skills and supervisory skills. But the military reinforces that.”

However McLaughlin doesn’t typically lead with his vet experience. “When I got to LA, I didn’t think of myself like ‘I’m a veteran,”’ he recalls. “But then I got involved with Veterans in Film and TV, which is now Veterans in Media and Entertainment. [VME is] a great organization for networking and training, especially if you’re fairly junior.

“In addition to the majority [of members] being in LA, they have New York, D.C. and Atlanta branches. So if you’re going to shoot something in those locations, then veterans can be a really good resource.”

His contributions to VME include securing Peter Berg as a mentor for two veterans. Back when Lone Survivor, Berg’s true story film based on the book of the same name, was in production, McLaughlin’s PGA mentor suggested he reach out to Berg about working on the film. After multiple attempts, McLaughlin realized he wouldn’t be hired and instead offered his unsolicited professional advice on accurately filming a few of the scenes. Authenticity was a special priority for him in this case; Erik Kristensen, the basis for the character played by Eric Bana, was a friend of his.

He remembers making recommendations like, “Please don’t have them rappel or fast-rope into an open field where you could just ram a helicopter and have everyone hop out more quickly than having to go down a rope.” This garnered a response from Berg saying, “Thank you for these tips. I think we’re on the same page.” The two established a rapport. After that the director readily agreed to mentor not one, but the top two qualified applicants chosen.

Besides sponsoring a few fellow vets for PGA membership, McLaughlin serves on the Guild’s Education and Diversity Committees, organizes volunteers (many of them vets) for the Produced By Conference, and helps recruit members by inviting fellow vets to the Emmy and Oscar watch parties.

He’s also an organizer of the Producers Roundtables. Half of the participants at the Roundtable are PGA members, while the other half are vets who are, indeed, vetted to attend. Interested veterans must fill out an application demonstrating their commitment level in the business, complete with an essay question about why they should be chosen.

One of the highlights of McLaughlin’s military career that merged his two worlds was acting as Media Production Advisor to General David Petraeus in Afghanistan, in support of the then-new counterinsurgency movement the General is now widely known for. McLaughlin produced a set of short films to educate and win the hearts and minds of the locals and current active military over there.

“My boss said, ‘Go do whatever you think has to be done’” he recalls. “And [my predecessor] was making shorts so that was part of the job already. I just found other stories to tell.”

McLaughlin produced a documentary about a woman from the Department of Agriculture who found a way to spend thousands instead of millions of dollars. “She was giving the Afghans what they wanted, instead of what somebody else wanted to give them, and it was turning them to support our cause like crazy. So that was screened for the Department of Agriculture and [the leader] said to the people there, ‘You don’t have to do what she’s doing, but if you don’t do what she’s doing, you’d better have a better idea.’”

For most of McLaughlin’s life, film was just a form of entertainment. “I’ve always loved going to movies. It seemed like every Saturday we piled in the station wagon with the Smiths across the street, and they’d dump us [kids] off at the theater, and we watched whatever matinee they had going on.

“Here’s the irony,” he smiles. “My grandmother grew up in the industry. She was an artist, a sculptor, for all her life. I guess she saw a way to actually make money off of sculpture. But none of us [kids] had the slightest bit of interest in what she did in the film industry. I don’t think I ever thought to go to set.”

Madeline McLaughlin worked on the alien in Alien and the eel from The Deep, among other props. McLaughlin and his siblings would go see her movies but that’s where it ended.

Once out of the Army, McLaughlin moved to Arizona for work in finance. It wasn’t until after answering an ad for actors in a local Tucson paper, just for fun, that McLaughlin ended up with an agent. His first gig was on William Shatner’s film, Groom Lake, and Shatner himself called McLaughlin in to read. He got the part, but SAG refused to Taft-Hartley him on the grounds of his having no previous experience.

Shatner personally apologized to McLaughlin and kept him on the film anyway, using him every chance he could. Agreeing to be an extra was an easy call. “You mean can I just go spend four days working on a William Shatner movie?” he laughs. “Yeah, I think I can do that.”

From there McLaughlin got the bug and began studying everything he could about filmmaking. He realized he loved producing the most and although he’s dabbled in writing and was a quarter-finalist for the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards, producing is where he feels most at home.

He believes the storytelling process helps veterans in particular. “Some of the [vets] I know have been in plays and particularly plays that let them tell their own stories, or whatever story they want to tell. They talk about how cathartic it is, how therapeutic it is, and how being in that kind of communal environment, working toward a mission, is very similar to what they experienced in the military. But in a way that doesn’t involve people shooting at you, generally,” he deadpans. “Unless it’s a really bad play.”

Early on, McLaughlin’s film community included none other than Roger Corman, who sponsored McLaughlin for PGA membership. “Patrick Roddy had worked for Roger out of college, so he sent Roger the first two films I produced and he directed. Roger loved them and said, ‘These are better than my films.’ One was made for $70,000, and he said, ‘Seems like a three to five million dollar film,’ which was high praise. That was Good Boy.”

McLaughlin met Corman at the very first Produced By Conference in 2009 and Corman remembered his film. They stayed in touch and, “When it came time for sponsorship of my membership, I just emailed him.”

McLaughlin has now produced four features and has seven in development with his company, Emerald Elephant. He continues to pay it forward, creating opportunities for veterans and young filmmakers alikementoring, volunteering and organizing whenever he can. As McLaughlin says, Its so great to be involved in everything, instead of just involved in nothing.


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