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Was Steve Bannon Always The Person We Know Today?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is waging what he calls a war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: Bannon is vowing to challenge anyone who is not upholding President Trump's agenda. He became an influential force for the far-right as the head of Breitbart News, but he was not always a hardline nationalist. Our co-host Kelly McEvers tracked Bannon's ideological shift during his time in Hollywood. This is from the new episode of her podcast Embedded.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: The way we were able to see into Steve Bannon's brain during his time in Hollywood was to look at a list, a movie and another list. It starts in 2003 when Steve Bannon was working here in Los Angeles as an investment banker. But he also wanted to be a creative type. His writing partner was a woman named Julia Jones, and she gave us a list of film and TV projects that the two wanted to work on, a list that hasn't been reported on before now. So here's the list. It starts with "Those Who Knew." It's a weekly TV show that Julia describes as "60 Minutes" for great thinkers.

JULIA JONES: 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 usually involving a naval officer. Steve Bannon was a naval officer. There's "Navy Cross" about a young couple - he dies in war; she dies in childbirth - and "That Hamilton Woman," a remake of the 1941 film with the same name.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THAT HAMILTON WOMAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Do you know what they'll say in London, Sir? It wasn't the royal family you went back for. They'll say you went back for Lady Hamilton.

MCEVERS: It's all about a dance hall girl who marries a diplomat during a war with Napoleon but then has an affair with an admiral in the British Navy. There's "Weedpatch," a documentary series that would tell us what actually happened to the people the novel "Grapes Of Wrath" was based on. So there's some history here, some populism, too.

But this list does not give us the worldview of Steve Bannon, the right-wing nationalist we know today until this list totally changes. And that happens after Steve Bannon makes a film about Ronald Reagan.

MCKAY DAINES: Hello. Hello.

MCEVERS: Hey. How's it going?

DAINES: Doing great, Kelly.

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

DAINES: And he said, I believe they discussed this book, and I am...

MCEVERS: The book is called "Reagan's War: The Epic Story Of His 40-Year Struggle And Final Triumph Over Communism." So McKay Daines teams up with another filmmaker named Tim Watkins, and they start outlining a pretty straightforward documentary based on the book.

DAINES: ...When Tim made an association with someone in Hollywood that suddenly became involved in the production, and his name was Steven Bannon.

MCEVERS: Tim Watkins and Steve Bannon agree the film is about something bigger than Ronald Reagan. It's about good versus evil. Bannon says he'll help finance the film. And one day, McKay Daines gets a call from Bannon.

DAINES: Yeah, (laughter) 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 Daines was off the job. He says he doesn't have 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" 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")

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")

IRENE ZIEGLER: Carthago delenda est. Carthage must be destroyed.

MCEVERS: The film starts with World War I...

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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, Nazism.

(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: Eventually we do get to Ronald Reagan and his fight against the beast that is communism. We see Reagan in Hollywood in the '40s when he's 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: We see Reagan challenging 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 dismissed President Reagan as nothing more than an amiable dunce.

MCEVERS: The film basically argues that Reagan defeated the Soviet Union by not backing down, not negotiating, that he won by building up the military.

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REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

MCEVERS: Reviewers said this film was basically propaganda. It was released in just over a dozen theaters and made about a hundred thousand bucks. And at any other time, that would have been that. 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 conservative filmmakers. And one of the people at the festival was a conservative blogger at the time named Andrew Breitbart. Steve Bannon told Bloomberg Businessweek correspondent Josh Green that after a screening of the Reagan film, Andrew Breitbart comes bounding out of the audience and gives Steve Bannon a big bear hug.

JOSH GREEN: ...And was this, you know, exciting, charismatic figure, the idea that he was this kind of pied piper who is 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.

MCEVERS: Breitbart was already thinking about starting his own website, breitbart.com, and the two started working together. And this is when that list of films that Steve Bannon and Julia Jones wanted to make changes and becomes a lot more political. Julia gave us the new list, too. Here are some of the projects on it. "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."

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." Steve Bannon is eventually paid millions of dollars in fees to make right-wing films from groups like Citizens United, films that usually go to video or excerpted on Fox News.

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NEWT GINGRICH: I shudder to imagine what an unchecked Obama radicalism would be like.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: On day one, Governor Palin...

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: She was a champion of our ideals.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The radicals behind the Occupy movement...

MCEVERS: And then in 2012, Steve Bannon eventually takes over Breitbart News after Andrew Breitbart dies. And we all know the rest. Bannon helps Donald Trump win the presidency. He goes to work in Trump's White House. And now he's out of the White House and waging hashtag war against establishment Republicans. Steve Bannon did not talk to us for this story, but it turns out his entree into this world happened in a very unlikely place - Hollywood.

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SHAPIRO: That's our co-host Kelly McEvers from her podcast Embedded.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.