Trump Stories: Bannon Now that Steve Bannon has left the Trump Administration, he says he is waging #war against the Republican establishment in the name of populist nationalism. But before he got involved in politics, Bannon spent decades in Hollywood, and his time there can tell us a lot about the origins of his beliefs. Follow Kelly McEvers on Twitter @kellymcevers, Tom Dreisbach @TomDreisbach, and Chris Benderev @cbndrv. Email us at embedded@npr.org and find us on Twitter @nprembedded.
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Trump Stories: Bannon

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Trump Stories: Bannon

Trump Stories: Bannon

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Start your day tomorrow with Up First, the morning news podcast from NPR. Apple Podcast reviewer Eve Bethel (ph) calls it concise and comprehensive. I listen to Up First every morning on my walk to work, she says. It gives me a great summary of the top news stories during the day and the upcoming week. Wake up with Up First tomorrow morning on the NPR One app and wherever you listen to podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Hey, everyone, just a quick heads up before we get started that there is some language in this episode that might be offensive to some people. It's in the first few minutes of the story. All right. Here we go.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

I'm Kelly McEvers, and this is EMBEDDED. So there's this movie that I had never heard of until we started reporting these latest episodes about Donald Trump and his closest advisers, a movie that does not seem like it could have anything to do with the news, but it does. It's called "The Indian Runner," and it came out in 1991.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE INDIAN RUNNER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) The Indian knew that deer moved in circles.

MCEVERS: It was directed by Sean Penn, and it's actually about this guy who comes back from Vietnam to his small Midwestern town and starts freaking out and having these hallucinations that he's a Native American messenger...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE INDIAN RUNNER")

VIGGO MORTENSEN: (As Frank Roberts) I'm an Indian runner.

MCEVERS: ...Who runs through the cornfields.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE INDIAN RUNNER")

MORTENSEN: (As Frank Roberts, shouting).

MCEVERS: Viggo Mortensen is the main character. His girlfriend is Patricia Arquette.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE INDIAN RUNNER")

PATRICIA ARQUETTE: (As Dorothy) I happen to love you more than anybody ever loved anybody before.

MCEVERS: The wizened bartender is Dennis Hopper.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE INDIAN RUNNER")

DENNIS HOPPER: (As Caesar) Can you boys watch the place for a minute?

MCEVERS: Benicio Del Toro is this weird drug dealer dude.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE INDIAN RUNNER")

BENICIO DEL TORO: (As Miguel, foreign language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEELIN' ALRIGHT")

TRAFFIC: (Singing) You feelin' alright.

MCEVERS: And the movie totally tanked. The budget was an estimated $7 million, but it grossed under $200,000. The reason we're interested in this movie is one of the people who helped raise that $7 million was Steve Bannon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: "The Indian Runner" was Steve Bannon's first-ever film project. He would much later go on to write and direct a handful of his own films, political films that promoted his particular kind of conservatism that's eventually what got him to Washington. Back in the '90s, though, Steve Bannon was a money guy in Hollywood, an investment banker who was just starting to dabble in films. That's when Mindy Affrime first met him.

MINDY AFFRIME: I've always raised money for the films I make.

MCEVERS: Mindy calls herself a big-time lefty, and she worked at the production company that made "The Indian Runner." And one day, Steve Bannon walks into a staff meeting.

AFFRIME: So everyone was sort of checking each other out. And Steve came down and sort of sat down next to me, and maybe we had met once, maybe we hadn't. I don't remember. And he start - he sort of cursed at me, basically saying, you know, who the fuck are you? And what the fuck are you doing here, kind of thing, you know? Who needs more creative - you know, something silly. And everyone was sort of quiet and I just looked at Steve and I said, you know, I don't know who the fuck you are. What the fuck are you doing here with that suit? And the two of us - and we just started laughing so hard, him and I. And that's how we became friendly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AFFRIME: I don't think anyone had ever said that to him. And all of a sudden he goes, oh, I like you. I said, yeah, why not, you know? After that, he never said a harsh word to me again. And I knew him for 20 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Steve Bannon grew up in an Irish Catholic family in a middle-class neighborhood in Richmond, Va. He went to an all-boys catholic military high school, then to Virginia Tech. Then he was a lieutenant in the Navy and eventually got an MBA from Harvard Business School. After that, he got a job in finance at Goldman Sachs in the late '80s when the company was looking to invest more in film and TV projects. So Bannon moves to LA and works in Goldman's office there. Two years later, he leaves Goldman, starts his own small investment company in Beverly Hills. And like a lot of people who come to Hollywood, Bannon wanted to be a creative type, too. He wanted to make stuff. Like, after "The Indian Runner," he and his brother started their own film company.

And this is basically what most of us know about Steve Bannon, right - spent some time in Hollywood making money, trying to make movies and eventually goes to Washington. But what we wanted to know is whether there were signs early in his creative work of the guy who would later help Donald Trump become president and, for a time, occupy one of the most powerful positions in the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Like, was he always this right-wing populist nationalist we know now...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE BANNON: We are declaring war on the Republican establishment.

MCEVERS: ...Now that he's out of the White House and waging hashtag #WAR against Trump's own party?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BANNON: Nobody's safe. We're coming after all of them, and we're going to win.

MCEVERS: Or is this just Steve Bannon's latest production?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: To try to find the answer, we're going to look at the films Steve Bannon wanted to make and at a film he finally did make, a film that totally changed his trajectory.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: So OK, it's the early '90s. Steve Bannon is this finance guy living in Hollywood, and he's looking for more creative projects.

DREISBACH: Check, check, check - there we go.

MCEVERS: Test, test, test, test, test.

DREISBACH: We are recording.

MCEVERS: Cool.

And one of them is this chicken project, which EMBEDDED producer Tom Dreisbach managed to unearth from the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

DREISBACH: And the title of the article is "The Famous Chicken Is Poised For Barney-Style Career Launch."

MCEVERS: Like Barney, the purple dinosaur. The famous chicken is also known as the San Diego Chicken, who, believe it or not, is one of the world's most well-known mascots.

DREISBACH: So the article describes how Steve Bannon and his brother Chris Bannon had actually created a film company together. They called it Bannon Film Industries, and they had just completed a 30-minute video about the San Diego Chicken.

MCEVERS: OK.

DREISBACH: And there is this quote by Christopher Bannon in this article. Quote, "ultimately, our goal is to build a Barney-the-dinosaur-like industry. This video is really just the gateway of it into the chicken industry, as silly as it sounds."

MCEVERS: And this chicken film is basically the highlight reel of all the silly things the San Diego Chicken would do at football games and baseball games. Bannon Film Industries - first words you see - in association with Funny Foul, Inc., presents "The Chicken's Greatest Hits."

DREISBACH: Bits.

MCEVERS: "The Chicken's Greatest Bits."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: And now he's, like, on the field being really silly. Wow. He's a mascot. He's a silly - oh, ha ha.

DREISBACH: Oh, God, he laid eggs.

MCEVERS: He laid some eggs.

DREISBACH: Which were baseballs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Tell me why I should care at all about this movie.

DREISBACH: Well - so, as they said in this article, this is the very first thing that had the banner of Bannon Film Industries, Steve Bannon's production company. And I asked other folks what the deal with this chicken movie was about, and they were kind of like, that's what everyone in Hollywood does. They just throw things at the wall, see what works, see what doesn't. I don't think the chicken movie worked. But, you know, that's who Steve Bannon was at the time, trying things out even if it had absolutely nothing to do with politics at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AFFRIME: My opinion about Steve and why he did anything he did while he was in Hollywood was it was the lowest hanging fruit.

MCEVERS: That's Mindy Affrime again.

AFFRIME: I think with Bannon he was really just a money guy who wanted to play in Hollywood, just like a whole lot of guys like him.

MCEVERS: And we should say here that some of Bannon's money projects did pay off, and they paid off well. Like, he got a small piece of "Seinfeld" before it went into syndication. Bannon's financial disclosures for the White House put his net worth between $11 and $49 million. So, yeah, he did well moneywise, but most reviewers and journalists say he failed creatively. Like, he never got to work on a big blockbuster movie or even a great independent one. Mindy says that's just the deal with Hollywood.

AFFRIME: He did not fail here because of a character flaw. He failed here because most people do and because it is really difficult to make it in Hollywood.

MCEVERS: So what does that tell us about him then? What do we learn about him from that?

AFFRIME: That he found a way, which is I think the most important thing about him. He found a way to still make it work. But if we look at the time he spent in Hollywood, no, he did not succeed, but most guys don't.

MCEVERS: Most people don't, and then most people will then move on and do something else. But he took that and thought...

AFFRIME: He found a way to make it work.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: The person who watched Steve Bannon make it work is Julia Jones. She had just moved to LA around the time of "The Indian Runner" and the chicken project. She'd studied English at Harvard and figured she might as well give screenwriting a try. And she meets Steve Bannon at something called a full moon party that was being thrown by Michelle Phillips from The Mamas and The Papas.

JULIA JONES: I guess I got up from the party and I went up to the bar to get a drink. And Steve was there with his friends, and he was talking about Harvard. And I was a little homesick, and there he was talking about Harvard so, you know, I did go up to him and I said, hi, Harvard, I'm Harvard, too - (laughter) the most obnoxious thing to say probably in the whole world.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

JONES: He was just, like, very, very nice and very charismatic. Chinos, navy blazer, white shirt, loafers with no socks - not my type. I'm an artist, right? So he says like, well, what do you do? So like, I'm a screenwriter. So he's like, what are you writing? So I was like, I'm doing a screenplay on Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, and his eyes widened. He's like, oh, my God. I'm looking for a Shakespearean screenwriter. So I took his card, and the next week, I was in his office talking about adapting "Titus Andronicus" to be set in space. You know, Shakespeare meets "Star Wars."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: So by 1995, Julia and Steve become full-time writing partners. And this is good news for Julia who's a struggling screenwriter because it means a regular paycheck. Steve has office space, he has money, and he has enthusiasm. And most of their projects are like "Titus" in space. They are not overtly political, at least not in a right-wing way or a left-wing way. Julia says she and Steve were really into this Italian philosopher named Giordano Bruno who believed that there are an infinite number of worlds in the universe and who eventually was burned at the stake. So they kick around all kinds of ideas, and then in 2003, Steve says he wants to get serious. He asked Julia to come meet him at his daughter's soccer game.

JONES: And he said, OK, we're going to start our own movie - film company. So I was so excited. And we met a couple times after that and made lists of all the things we wanted to make and everything and...

MCEVERS: Can you tell me what was on that list of all the things you guys wanted to make?

JONES: Well, I remember there was a project that we always were interested in called "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?" It's a beautiful book about the Carter family by Mark Zwonitzer.

MCEVERS: Like President Carter?

JONES: No, no, no.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: June Carter.

JONES: June Carter - thank you.

MCEVERS: Yes. I was like, so it wasn't political. OK.

JONES: No, no, not at all - beautiful, beautiful.

MCEVERS: Julia gave us a copy of that original list of projects she and Steve wanted to work on with this new film company. Nobody's ever reported on this list before, and to read it now is to be inside Steve Bannon's head in 2003.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: So here's some of the stuff on the list and, remember, these are just ideas in Steve and Julia's heads. There's "Those Who Knew." It's a weekly TV show that Julia describes as a "60 Minutes" for great thinkers.

JONES: That we're entering the new millennium and people have to start thinking differently and that the greatest ideas are often the oldest ideas. The ancient wisdom, he called it - very into Plato, very into Marcus Aurelius.

MCEVERS: And then there are these really melodramatic stories that usually involve a naval officer. Steve Bannon, remember, was a naval officer. There's "Navy Cross" about a young couple who gets married. He goes off to sea. She gets pregnant. He dies in war. She dies in childbirth. Julia says that was totally Steve. And there's "That Hamilton Woman," which was maybe a remake of a 1941 film of the same name starring Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, and it's about this dance hall girl who marries a diplomat but then has an affair with an admiral in the British Navy. There's a project about infinity called "Dig Infinity," a project based on the Gospel of St. Mark, a project about the final hours of soldiers' lives on the battlefield and a lot more Shakespeare.

And there are a couple of projects that hint at the Steve Bannon we know today. There's "Weedpatch," a documentary series that would tell us what actually happened to the people the novel "Grapes Of Wrath" was based on, this family of farmers who were driven out of Oklahoma by drought, some populism there, some white working class. There's "Ark Of Blood" (ph) based on the story of a famous whale ship sailing off Nantucket in the early 1800s and how the crew killed all their officers at sea - a typical mutiny story but also a violent takedown of the elite.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: So yeah, bloody history, a lot of military characters, some big ideas, some melodrama but not some specific right-wing political agenda to be gleaned from this list - until the list totally changes because Steve Bannon finally gets to make a film that lets him put his ideas all in one place, a film about Ronald Reagan. And that film opens the door to a whole new thing. After the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCKAY DAINES: Hello, hello, hello.

MCEVERS: Hey, how's it going?

DAINES: Doing great, Kelly. How are you?

MCEVERS: Good.

The Ronald Reagan project started in 2003 when a guy named McKay Daines gets a letter from a guy who'd written a book about Ronald Reagan.

DAINES: And he said I believe they discussed this book, and I am sending you a signed copy.

MCEVERS: The book was called "Reagan's War: The Epic Story Of His 40-Year Struggle And Final Triumph Over Communism." It's by this guy who's a conservative writer and journalist, and it's all about how Reagan first battled communists in Hollywood and then eventually defeated communism in the Soviet Union and ended the Cold War. So McKay Daines teams up with another filmmaker named Tim Watkins, and they start outlining a pretty straightforward documentary based on the book, and they start doing interviews.

DAINES: And I'm looking in front of me because I pulled it out of my bookshelf, the original transcripts from February 2004 of all of my interviews with these remarkable men and women, I mean, from Caspar Weinberger, the secretary of defense, Edwin Meese, the attorney general, Robert Allen, who was the national security adviser. And so I was flying around with Tim doing these interviews when Tim made an association with someone in Hollywood that suddenly became involved in the production and his name was Steven Bannon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Tim Watkins is also a conservative, and an East-Coast Catholic like Bannon. He told the New Yorker he and Bannon connected when they were talking about this film. They agreed it was about something bigger than Reagan. It was about good versus evil. So Bannon says he'll help finance the film, and Tim and McKay keep working on it. And one day McKay gets a call from Bannon.

DAINES: I was on Constitution Avenue in D.C., I remember. I was going down to a meeting for something.

MCEVERS: How long was the phone call?

DAINES: Not very long. If you stayed on the phone with Mr. Bannon long, it was not - nothing was long. McKay, I'm taking this in a different direction, thanks for all your help - kind of attitude.

MCEVERS: McKay was off the job. He says he doesn't have any major hard feelings about it. That's just the way things work. But then, he says, the script changed dramatically from a positive thing to something else.

DAINES: Because Ronald Reagan, to me, was always this very positive "Morning In America," you know, person. But Steve, I think, saw hey, more deeper side of this can be shown that's bigger than Ronald Reagan.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "IN THE FACE OF EVIL: REAGAN'S WAR IN WORD AND DEED")

IRENE ZIEGLER: Republican Rome's most admired statesman, Cato.

DAINES: I would never in a million years open a documentary quoting Cato from the Roman Republic. That is pure Steve Bannon.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "IN THE FACE OF EVIL: REAGAN'S WAR IN WORD AND DEED")

ZIEGLER: Cato ended every speech with the same mantra, Carthago delenda est - Carthage must be destroyed.

MCEVERS: The person who wrote this new script with Steve Bannon was Julia Jones. She says Bannon outlined the story then he would dictate the narration to her while she typed, which means to watch this film, like reading that wishlist of Steve and Julia's projects, is a way to see into Steve Bannon's brain. And what you see there are starting to get closer to the Steve Bannon we know today, this idea that history is a struggle of good versus evil and the only way to defeat evil is to fight, not to negotiate.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "IN THE FACE OF EVIL: REAGAN'S WAR IN WORD AND DEED")

MCEVERS: The film starts with World War I.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "IN THE FACE OF EVIL: REAGAN'S WAR IN WORD AND DEED")

ZIEGLER: The 20th century began with a gunshot.

MCEVERS: The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "IN THE FACE OF EVIL: REAGAN'S WAR IN WORD AND DEED")

ZIEGLER: From this fever swamp grows a beast.

MCEVERS: And then it starts talking about this thing called the beast, this bad thing that happens every few decades - fascism, communism, Nazi-ism.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "IN THE FACE OF EVIL: REAGAN'S WAR IN WORD AND DEED")

ZIEGLER: Fascism, communism, Nazi-ism. The beast had always hated the same things - religion, a free press, intellectual inquiry, artistic expression, anything that elevated or empowered the individual.

MCEVERS: Eventually we get to Ronald Reagan as he arrives in Hollywood.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "IN THE FACE OF EVIL: REAGAN'S WAR IN WORD AND DEED")

ZIEGLER: Son of a distant, alcoholic father and a long-suffering religious mother, blown into town like so many others from anywhere, USA.

MCEVERS: And by now the beast is communism, and the rest of the film is Reagan's war against this beast. And when it sticks to Reagan's history, it's pretty straightforward if heavy handed, with some flowery language and all these titles on screen, like, "Word And Deed" or "Quotes From Nietzsche." There's Reagan in Hollywood in the '40s when he was head of the Screen Actors Guild.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "IN THE FACE OF EVIL: REAGAN'S WAR IN WORD AND DEED")

RONALD REAGAN: A number of motion picture unions and guilds were infiltrated and taken over by communist sympathizers.

MCEVERS: Then Reagan challenges Jimmy Carter as an anti-establishment candidate. You start to hear some stuff you might hear Bannon saying now.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "IN THE FACE OF EVIL: REAGAN'S WAR IN WORD AND DEED")

ZIEGLER: The salons of Georgetown, the seat of power for Washington's permanent governing class, dismissed President Reagan as nothing more than an amiable dunce.

MCEVERS: This salons of Georgetown thing comes up a few times.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "IN THE FACE OF EVIL: REAGAN'S WAR IN WORD AND DEED")

ZIEGLER: Congress with a massive rearmament plan.

MCEVERS: So does the fact that Reagan spent a lot of money to build up the military. Again, starting to sound a little familiar.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "IN THE FACE OF EVIL: REAGAN'S WAR IN WORD AND DEED")

ZIEGLER: Obsolete a generation of Soviet weaponry.

MCEVERS: And there's another section that really strikes me now about how Reagan had a chance to make peace with Mikhail Gorbachev but refuses.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "IN THE FACE OF EVIL: REAGAN'S WAR IN WORD AND DEED")

ZIEGLER: He had taken Reagan to the mountaintop, tempted him with all, to be a peacemaker, to win the Nobel Prize, to be an historic figure. Ronald Reagan refused.

MCEVERS: The gambit works. Gorbachev backs down. And by the time the Cold War is over, the film makes it seem like Reagan has saved all of mankind.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "IN THE FACE OF EVIL: REAGAN'S WAR IN WORD AND DEED")

REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

(CHEERING)

MCEVERS: And then there's this coda, which, by the way, Julia had no idea was in the film until she saw it at the screening. And the coda is all about 9/11 and terrorism, the new beast that is coming for us all. We see the planes crashing into the towers then we see Muslims praying.

JONES: I was just aghast. I mean, that the beast would be juxtaposed over Muslims praying.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "IN THE FACE OF EVIL: REAGAN'S WAR IN WORD AND DEED")

ZIEGLER: The beast had always hated the same things - religion, a free press, intellectual inquiry, artistic expression.

MCEVERS: Peace movements, speeches and petitions will not work against the beast, the narrator says.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "IN THE FACE OF EVIL: REAGAN'S WAR IN WORD AND DEED")

ZIEGLER: Carthago delenda est.

MCEVERS: Carthage must be destroyed. Reviewers said this film was preaching to the choir or that it was basically just propaganda. The film was released in just over a dozen theaters. It made about 100,000 bucks. And at any other time, that would've been that. Steve Bannon would have made this piece of what one journalist called agitprop, and then it would have just ended up on a shelf somewhere. But something else happened with this film. The year it came out, 2004, for the first time ever there was a film festival in Hollywood for conservatives.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: And there's a panel at the festival called You'll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again about how conservatives in Hollywood are basically treated like pariahs. And one of the panelists is Andrew Breitbart, a person who would later have a ton of influence over Steve Bannon. Back then, Breitbart was a blogger who lived here in LA. He'd worked for Arianna Huffington back when she was still a Republican. He'd worked for Matt Drudge. And at the time, he had just co-written a book called "Hollywood, Interrupted: Insanity Chic In Babylon - The Case Against Celebrity," which one reviewer said was all about runaway depravity in the entertainment business.

Anyway, at the festival, there's a screening of Bannon's Reagan film. Steve Bannon told reporter Josh Green that after the screening, Andrew Breitbart comes bounding out of the audience and gives Bannon a big bear hug.

JOSH GREEN: Big hug and was this, you know, exciting, charismatic figure. And Breitbart had this effect on a lot of people, not just Steve Bannon, the idea that he was this kind of pied piper who was doing something very fun and exciting and important and doing it, you know, in the belly of the beast in liberal Hollywood. Bannon was clearly attracted to that and instantly kind of fell into Breitbart's orbit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: It was right about this time that Breitbart was thinking about starting his own website, breitbart.com, which started as a news aggregator and eventually grew to be what it is now, which is one of the most influential media outlets on the right with millions of readers a month. Back then, Breitbart needed help with funding and office space - two things Steve Bannon said he was good at. And Breitbart was all about using the tools of Hollywood - storytelling, mass appeal - to take down with he saw as the corrupt elites of Hollywood and beyond.

And suddenly, that list of dream projects that Steve Bannon and Julia Jones wanted to make changed and got very political. Here are some of the new projects - "Jihad: The War Against The West," "Michael Moore Hates America," "Is It True What They Say About Ann (The Ann Coulter Project)," "Do As I Say, Not As I Do: Studies In Liberal Hypocrisy." And then at the bottom of the document is this paragraph. The key to the success of the conservative documentary lies in tying together compatible funding sources - e.g. the NRA, church and political groups - while leveraging off the media base of AM talk radio and cable news.

Also right around this time, Julia Jones says Steve Bannon started spending a lot of time in Washington. At some point, he tells her he wants to be the Leni Riefenstahl of George Bush. Leni Riefenstahl was a German filmmaker considered to be one of the most effective propagandists of her time. She made films for the Nazis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: At some point, it all got to be too much for Julia. She worked with Steve for a few more years but then stopped when she says he just went too far to the right. Julia describes herself as left of Bernie Sanders. But still, she says she has mostly good memories of Steve Bannon, like the time he just gave her the keys to his condo - no questions asked - when she needed a place to live. But there is this one bad thing that Julia still thinks about. It happened one day at Steve's office in Beverly Hills on the second floor. This other company called Newmarket was on the first floor.

JONES: The back stairs were extremely steep, maybe - I don't know - 20 steps or more - extremely steep. And I was standing at the top of the steps, and I tripped, and I just went headlong down the stairs - just, boom, straight down. Luckily, my head stopped like four inches from the wall or I probably wouldn't be here. And I was lying there on the floor, and Steve was in the doorway talking to somebody at Newmarket I guess. And he looked down at me. He said absolutely nothing. He stepped over me, and he walked upstairs. So it was obvious to me Steve was saying I don't like people who fall down stairs. You know, there was just this like, oh, this just distain that kind of came over him. And I think he probably saw that I was breathing, so he just, like, walked - stepped over me and walked up the stairs without saying a word. He didn't say, are you OK? Nothing, nothing. So I think that that's a kind of elitism I think that was sort of always there. Steve had, like, a very, very low regard for people who were low intelligence or he didn't - I don't know how to put it. But, I mean, he was always an elitist.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: The Steve Bannon we see now, Julia says, this populist man of the people, is not the Steve Bannon she knew from the nearly 20 years she worked with him. We contacted Steve Bannon to ask about Julia's story, but he did not respond. We'll be right back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: OK, so this Reagan film opens the door for Steve Bannon to people like Andrew Breitbart who, by 2004, is this outspoken provocateur and inspiration to this new, young anti-establishment conservative movement online and on cable news. And it opens the door to funding. Like, Steve Bannon's film about Ronald Reagan did not win an Oscar, but at this point, it doesn't matter. Steve Bannon's Reagan film helps Bannon become part of a movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: James Ulmer documented this time in Steve Bannon's life. James is a journalist who covered Hollywood for decades. And James was introduced to Steve Bannon by Julia Jones. Remember how Julia said Steve wanted to be the Leni Riefenstahl of George Bush? She actually asked Steve if James could use that quote in a newspaper story. Steve said yes, but he wanted to change the quote.

JONES: And he said I want him to say I want to be the Leni Riefenstahl of the GOP.

MCEVERS: Because George Bush had just been re-elected.

JONES: So he modified that.

JAMES ULMER: You know, I don't normally do politics. I usually did film, but this is obviously film.

MCEVERS: So it's 2005, and James Ulmer decides to write a profile of Steve Bannon, this new conservative filmmaker, for The New York Times.

ULMER: So I went to his office.

MCEVERS: Ulmer says Bannon was one of the smartest people he ever met in Hollywood.

ULMER: Immediately, we hit it off. I mean, like two clams at high tide. I mean, it was really interesting. We started talking about a lot of kind of heady intellectual things. I mean, pretty soon, it became evident that, yes, Steve was interested in Shakespeare but, funny enough, in the very violent plays of Shakespeare. And the more I talked with him, you kind of get the feeling that you're getting - I don't know - you're gradually getting sucked down this really interesting rabbit hole because he's very persuasive.

MCEVERS: James would hang out in Bannon's office and Bannon would go on these really interesting rants about how a major shift was happening, a culture war, Bannon said, that Hollywood was just starting to wake up to.

ULMER: So he'd go to this whiteboard and he'd - and I wrote about this in the story. I mean, he had the word Lord on the whiteboard, and he circled it, and there were all kinds of other circles on the whiteboard leading to different names or different movies. And I said, what's that? He said, well, think of it, James. He said, 2004 February 25, seminal watershed weekend in the history of the Hollywood right. I said, what do you mean watershed? And he said, well, "The Passion Of The Christ" is released on Ash Wednesday and then four or five days later you have one of the great Christian allegories, "Lord Of The Rings," he said, was at the Oscars and won 11 Academy Awards. He said - now that's, he says, an example of the great Sodom and Gomorrah of Hollywood bowing to the Christian God.

(Laughter) I just kind of rolled my eyes, and I said, really? He said, yeah, but do you guys in the media ever take notice? He said, no, because 99 percent of the content of the media - of the media's sewage pipes, as he called it - is a culture of death, not life. And I just kind of thought, OK, that's a quote.

MCEVERS: The other thing that was happening at the time was Michael Moore, who had just had this huge success with his anti-George Bush film "Fahrenheit 9/11." It won best picture at Cannes. It made over 100 million bucks.

ULMER: That was a real game changer in Hollywood because for the first time it rallied all these little Republican groups that many of whom didn't talk to each other, many of whom didn't like each other, many of whom were establishment versus anti-establishment, Christian versus Catholic, Jews versus Christian, money versus no money. They had no leaders. Steve wasn't their leader, but he was putting all these little pieces together slowly.

MCEVERS: All these pieces meaning all the closeted conservatives in Hollywood.

ULMER: Steve called them friends of Dorothy (laughter) because it was like...

MCEVERS: Oh, my - you're kidding me.

ULMER: No, friends of Dorothy. That was his...

MCEVERS: What a complete - you know, a complete rip-off.

ULMER: A complete rip-off of, you know, the code word for...

MCEVERS: Being gay.

ULMER: ...If you were a homosexual in the old days, yeah.

MCEVERS: Wow.

And Steve Bannon wanted all these friends of Dorothy to join forces.

ULMER: He said, but, dude, what connects everything here, with all these people I'm showing you to, whether it's Hollywood or D.C.? What connects them is the culture of life. OK. That's where the money was.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: That money came from right-wing organizations and from private donors. The Washington Post found Steve Bannon eventually made millions of dollars in fees to make films that usually went straight to video or were excerpted on Fox News. One of his main backers was Citizens United, which made its own films that were critical of Michael Moore and Hillary Clinton. Bannon met the head of Citizens United around the same time James Ulmer was writing about him. Citizens United, of course, is most well known for winning a Supreme Court case that allowed corporations to engage directly in campaign spending.

And Bannon's plan, learned from Andrew Breitbart, was to beat Hollywood at its own game, to take money from the right and use the tools of the left to take down the left. Bannon and Citizens United never had as big a hit as "Fahrenheit 9/11," but again, at some point, it doesn't matter. They were becoming part of something much larger.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Then comes 2008, the election of Barack Obama, and now the movement has an enemy. And this is when Steve Bannon starts writing and directing his own films. It's his most productive time as a filmmaker ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "GENERATION ZERO")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Financial Armageddon, $25 trillion, $50 trillion.

MCEVERS: In 2010, he makes "Generation Zero" about the economic crisis, the fault at the banks and the rise of the Tea Party.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BATTLE FOR AMERICA")

NEWT GINGRICH: I shudder to imagine what an unchecked, unlimited Obama radicalism would be like in the next two years.

MCEVERS: And "Battle For America," anti-Obama film ahead of the midterm elections.

(SOUNDBITE OF "BATTLE FOR AMERICA" DOCUMENTARY)

MCEVERS: And then Bannon starts to get even more directly involved in politics. In 2012, he makes a film called "The Undefeated" about Sarah Palin...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE UNDEFEATED")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: She was a champion of our ideals.

MCEVERS: ...Who he had backed for president until she decided not to run. There was "The Hope And The Change" about people who voted for Obama but were disappointed.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE HOPE AND THE CHANGE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Des Moines, Iowa.

MCEVERS: "District Of Corruption," an early drain-the-swamp manifesto arguing that elites in both parties are corrupt.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "DISTRICT OF CORRUPTION")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Crony capitalism.

MCEVERS: "Occupy Unmasked" about how the Occupy movement was radical and dangerous.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "OCCUPY UNMASKED")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Of the radicals behind the Occupy movement.

MCEVERS: Also in 2012, something else happens. Andrew Breitbart suddenly dies of heart failure. He's 43 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Steve Bannon takes over as head of Breitbart's website and revamps it with millions of dollars from the family of billionaire computer scientist Robert Mercer. And according to emails recently obtained by BuzzFeed, Breitbart News and the Mercer's money help mainstream white supremacists and neo-Nazis who, starting a few years ago, called themselves the alt-right.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: And we all know the rest of the story, right? 2016, Bannon takes over Donald Trump's campaign. Donald Trump wins. Bannon joins the White House. And then he starts producing the biggest story in the world. He helps write Trump's inaugural speech about American carnage. He pushes executive orders banning people from several majority-Muslim countries. And he's behind the speech in Poland where Trump celebrates Western civilization, which many considered to be a dog whistle to the alt-right. This past August, Bannon leaves the White House, goes back to Breitbart News to wage what he and other Breitbart staffers call hashtag #WAR. His goal now is to totally disrupt the Republican Party by helping right-wing populist candidates defeat traditional establishment Republicans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BANNON: There's a time and season for everything. And right now, it's a season of war against a GOP establishment.

(APPLAUSE)

MCEVERS: Steve Bannon often tells reporters that he has been a populist nationalist all along. But our reporting suggests something different. We found that it was only after he made his Reagan film and found himself in the orbit of Andrew Breitbart that he started moving toward his latest political incarnation. And we contacted Steve Bannon to ask about all this, but he did not respond to multiple requests. Still, this political transformation of his makes me wonder, did he really believe all this stuff those later films were about? Or did he make this stuff because it put him at the center of this new movement, stuff that was going to get him funding to make more stuff? Some people say Bannon has been Bannon all along. Like, he's always been a serious Catholic and a student of history and that 9/11 and the financial crisis only sharpened his beliefs that we should curb immigration, put America first and defend Western values.

But after doing all this reporting, we think what Bannon does is often tactical. And this issue came up at the end of that recent BuzzFeed story I mentioned - right? - the one where they obtained emails showing how Bannon and the Mercers actively supported with publicity and money people tied to white supremacists. Like, maybe he doesn't really agree with those white supremacists who helped with the rise of people like Milo Yiannopoulos, the rise of Breitbart News and the rise of Donald Trump. Maybe those people are just numbers to him. I mean, I guess if you're down with white supremacists, you're down with white supremacists and no one should care why you're down with them. But if you are tactical, that means you can change.

You wanted to be the Leni Riefenstahl for George Bush, then you wanted to be the Leni Riefenstahl for the Republican Party. Now you want to blow up the Republican Party. The world moves fast. The attention span is not long. I mean, this is a guy who's invested in Biosphere 2, nasal spray, the San Diego Chicken and "World Of Warcraft." Like, maybe after he gets tired of hashtag #WAR, Steve Bannon will move on to something else.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: This episode was reported by me and Tom Dreisbach, and it was produced by Tom. It was edited by Yowei Shaw, Neal Carruth and Jane Marie and Dann Gallucci of Little Everywhere, with help from Chris Benderev, Brent Baughman and Arnie Seipel. Our technical director is Andy Huether. Thanks also to Susan Streitfeld and to Joshua Green. He's the journalist you heard talking about Steve Bannon and Andrew Breitbart's bear hug. He's a correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek, and his book is called "Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump And The Storming Of The Presidency." It is available now.

Digital production for this episode was by Alexander McCall, fact-checking by Greta Pittenger. Our lawyer is Ashley Messenger. Our theme song is by Colin Wambsgans. Additional music is by Jonathan Hirsch. EMBEDDED is executive produced by me, Chris Turpin and Anya Grundmann. You can hear more NPR on your local public radio station on another show I host called All Things Considered. Next week on EMBEDDED, we will look at another top Trump adviser who is still in the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JARED KUSHNER: My name is Jared Kushner. I am senior adviser to President Donald J. Trump. When my father-in-law decided to run for president...

MCEVERS: That's all for now. Thanks for listening.

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