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Spec ops screen idols: Film featuring SEALs began as recruiting ad, became passion project

Feb. 16, 2012 - 01:39PM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 16, 2012 - 01:39PM  |  
Navy SEALs are propelled in the air by an explosion in Relativity's Media's "Act of Valor."
Navy SEALs are propelled in the air by an explosion in Relativity's Media's "Act of Valor." (IATM LLC via Relativity Media)
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More troops in the film

Although the participation of eight active-duty SEALs in "Act of Valor" has generated no small amount of buzz, the producers were also able to enlist a slew of elite operators from all four services — and their hardware — into many of the combat scenes. "Everyone in the film that’s in uniform is on active duty," said co-director Scott Waugh.
Among them:
• CH-47E pilots and crew with the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
• Navy Special Warfare Combatant Craft crewmen.
• Sailors and Marines aboard the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard.
• The crew of the guided-missile submarine Florida.

Never mind Academy Award accolades or blockbuster ticket sales. The directors of a new Hollywood homage to Navy special ops featuring active-duty SEALs say success will be defined by a simple beer.

"We had one goal when we started this movie — that the guys would still want to have a beer with us when it was all over," said Mike "Mouse" McCoy, who co-directed "Act of Valor" with fellow former stuntman Scott Waugh.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, how the filmmakers managed to persuade a reluctant platoon of Navy ninjas to come out of the darkness of anonymity and into the bright light of the big screen in the first place.

The Navy has been guarded about letting the SEALs involved in the movie speak individually with the press.

"They've been back and forth on this," said one official close to the process. "First they can, then they can't. Honestly, I think they're waiting to see how the movie is received before they let any of them do interviews."

Navy spokeswoman Amanda Greenberg would say only that the service is "evaluating requests."

OFFduty did speak to one West Coast SEAL officer close to the process. "Our initial thought was ‘Who the hell are these guys?' " he said, referring to McCoy and Waugh.

Ultimately, the SEAL said, the Bandito Brothers won the community over through their passion to tell an authentic story.

Risk takers

After years working behind the scenes, McCoy and Waugh decided to start making their own movies, teaming up to form their Bandito Brothers production company. The pair earned street credit within the special ops community with two earlier films, in particular "Dust to Glory," a documentary on the off-road Baja 1000, and "Step Into Liquid," a doc on the elite ranks of top-tier surfers.

The Bandito Brothers' résumé was enough to garner an assignment from Naval Special Warfare Command in 2007: to craft a recruiting commercial for the run-and-gun fast-boat drivers who work closely with the SEALs.

"We did the shoot right before they were about to deploy, and we realized, ‘These are some cool dudes — let's make some kind of short film so they can show their friends and family what they do when they go to work,'" McCoy said. "So we shot that film when we were really supposed to be making a commercial."

The result impressed Navy Capt. Duncan Smith, the head of recruiting for Navy special ops and a 27-year SEAL veteran himself. As chance would have it, he was considering a much larger production along the same lines for his SEALs.

‘Top Gun' meets spec ops

Hollywood directors usually come to the military with hat in hand when they want realistic troops or military hardware. If the Pentagon thinks the movie will present the military in a positive light, it will usually provide support.

Smith, however, figured he could turn that around.

"This is the first film to begin as a Naval Special Warfare project," he said. "We needed a vehicle that would allow us to tell the story of who we are — and who we're not — in an authentic way.

"The idea had to be approved at a very high level," he continued. "The goal was to allow outsiders to come in and view us for who we are, with an emphasis on understanding the men themselves and the sacrifices that they and their families make every day."

In some ways, the concept is nothing new. During World War II, filmmakers were enlisted into the services to produce gung-ho flicks of fighting men, to make movies designed to rally support and boost morale. In 1986, "Top Gun" was said to have boosted recruiting by 500 percent after the Navy and Hollywood joined forces to put Tom Cruise in the cockpit of an F-14 Tomcat.

"‘Top Gun' is a movie we quote continuously for its cheeseball lines that are ludicrously unrealistic," said the West Coast SEAL officer.

Still, he added, "When I went to the Naval Academy in 1994, I bet 80 percent of our class wanted to be a pilot based on ‘Top Gun.' I think [‘Act of Valor'] will … bring a whole new generation of interest in special ops."

Although it was easy to find plenty of willing fighter jocks to help film the action sequences for that movie, the SEALs pride themselves as the "quiet professionals" and are decidedly less interested in the limelight.

But eight active-duty operators were convinced to participate, and from among seven production companies, the Bandito Brothers was picked to make it happen.

Although the SEALs had agreed to be filmed during their training and to help the directors work up a script, none ever imagined actually acting in the movie.

"But once we started to meet the guys and get up to speed on the community and they sort of let us in, it was clear — without a doubt — that there was no way actors could play these guys," McCoy said.

One of the operators — an E-7 they refer to only as "Chief Dave" — made a particular impact.

"He was the catalyst," Waugh said. "We had gotten a chance to meet his wife and five kids. Watching him as a husband and father juxtaposed against seeing him as a SEAL operator and in such an intense fashion, there was just such complexity of character. That's when we realized an actor is not going to get this."

In the end, they reasoned, it would be easier to teach the SEALs how to act than to teach actors how to portray real SEALs.

"It was also a matter of wanting to show the world who these guys are and how they operate in a truly authentic way," McCoy said. "You just can't do that with actors."

SEALs say no way

Although the directors were convinced, the SEALs were not.

"All eight of them, individually, turned us down," Waugh said. "They were all like, ‘I'm not an actor. I'm not a film guy. I'm a Navy SEAL. That's what I do.'"

Besides the SEAL ethos that demands keeping secrets even from family members, it was easy to understand their reluctance.

"These guys have been so misrepresented by Hollywood, it's crazy," McCoy said. "They're not these twisted-up Rambo-Terminator dudes. They're good family men and really intellectual, smart and down to earth and incredibly humble."

It would take eight months before the SEALs finally agreed.

"I think we just drank enough beer with the guys," McCoy says. "I think they started to realize that this was going to be done in their own words in a totally legit way in collaboration with them."

Acts of valor

Filming between deployments and swiftly changing training schedules, the movie took four years to produce. Many of the combat scenes were filmed during live-fire training exercises.

Although the plot line is fictional, the directors insist every major incident is drawn directly from real-life battlefield stories.

"Everything that you see happen in the film has actually happened to a SEAL in combat," McCoy said.

Make no mistake, it's also a daisy chain of cinema war porn — tricked-out gear, sexy tactics and splay-legged bad guys — exploding from one scene to the next. The narrative ricochets around the globe with the feel of one of the lesser James Bond flicks, complete with a wealthy, evil genius and standard-issue henchman, but minus the dry wit dialogue and wet-bar sex scenes.

The Navy had final approval, which may explain why the film feels unnaturally antiseptic at times. The visuals are stunning, but the dialogue often seems stilted and stuffy, more like it was scripted by a Navy public affairs officer trying to put a squeaky-clean face on the down-and-dirty work of the SEALs.

In fact, the whole enterprise can be a little tough to take — until you realize the proper mindset may be to view it like a video game.

The producers freely acknowledge the film's first-person-shooter feel. So is this a case of art imitating life imitating art?

"We just wanted the audience to have a chance to experience what it's like to be in the boots of a Navy SEAL, and the only way to do that is in that first-person perspective," Waugh said.

One notable exception to the scrubbed-fresh sheen is a climactic scene in which a SEAL interrogates a prisoner. It was almost entirely ad-libbed.

"We rolled a bunch of cameras and just let senior chief go to work on this actor," McCoy said. "It was pretty fascinating to watch him dismantle the guy. He was just smoked. He got so twisted up, we almost had to go to his rescue."

As the cast and crew prepare for the film's premiere Feb. 24, the directors say they've met their primary goal.

"We're proud to say we're still drinking beer with the guys and having a good time," McCoy said.

It's an honor the Banditos say comes with more than the price of a bar tab.

"It's really heavy for us, because you make great friends with them and then they redeploy and you're really in tune with how hard they're going to be hanging out," McCoy said. "You just want your friends to come home."

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