Act of Valor Cast
: Active Duty U.S. Navy SEALs, as well as Roselyn Sanchez, Alex Veadov, Jason Cottle, Nestor Serrano Directors
: Mike "Mouse" McCoy, Scott Waugh Rated
: MA15+ Running Time
: 109 minutesSynopsis
: An unprecedented blend of real-world heroism and original filmmaking, Act of Valor stars a group of active-duty U.S. Navy SEALs in a motion picture unlike any in Hollywood history. A fictionalised account of real-life U.S. Navy SEAL operations, Act of Valor features a gripping story that takes audiences on an adrenaline-fueled, edge-of-the-seat journey through a dangerous and unpredictable world.
When a mission to rescue a kidnapped CIA operative unexpectedly uncovers a chilling plot with potentially unimaginable consequences, a team of the most elite, highly-trained warriors in the modern world is dispatched on a top-secret operation. As the valiant men of Bandito Platoon race against the clock in an ever-widening mission to hotspots around the globe, they must balance their commitment to country, team and their families back home. Release Date
: May 3rd, 2012
About the Production
In 2007, the Los Angeles-based production company Bandito Brothers filmed a short documentary about the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen. Descendants of the Vietnam era swift boat operators, the SWCC's primary responsibilities include inserting and extracting U.S. Navy SEAL teams from seemingly impossible destinations, where they carry out their sensitive and exceedingly dangerous work.
"We did a seven-minute piece on who these guys really are," says Max Leitman, a partner in Bandito Brothers and Act of Valor's executive producer. "As we got to know these men, we were extremely inspired by them and I think it showed in the work. We viewed it as a gift to them, something they'd be able to go home and show to family and friends to help them understand a little better. And the Navy recognised the passion we put into it."
Coincidentally, Naval Special Warfare, which includes the U.S. Navy SEALs and the SWCC, viewed the finished project just as they were considering giving their support to a feature film. "They had been approached for a ton of movies about the U.S. Navy SEALs," says Mike "Mouse" McCoy, who co-directed Act of Valor with Scott Waugh. "The Navy knew they had the bandwith to support one project only. Several production companies submitted proposals and ours was chosen."
Captain Duncan Smith, a 27-year Navy veteran and active duty U.S. Navy SEAL, was one of the key players in developing Act of Valor. "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," he says. "The idea had to be approved at a very high level. This is the first film to begin as a Naval Special Warfare project. 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."
The finished film is truly unique, he says, capturing the U.S. Navy SEAL ethos in a way that has never before been seen on film. "It's live fire, it's real operators-and not just U.S. Navy SEALs. The pilots and the aviators who were involved in this film, the people in submarines, they are all real military members. The script was written and rewritten to accurately reflect how operations are conducted. In terms of reality, it goes far beyond anything people have seen. No other movie has ever really captured the heart, the teamwork, the modern technology and the training that go into making a U.S. Navy SEAL."
Drawn from the Navy's most elite recruits, the U.S. Navy SEALs undergo unmatched training for missions on land, sea and air in small, highly mobile teams. Able to slip in and out of some of the most dangerous sites in the world, they carry out missions critical to U.S. interests. Each year, about 1,000 sailors start SEAL training, reputed to be the toughest in the military. Only 200 to 250 recruits complete the year-and-a-half course required before being assigned to a team, where they train for an additional year or more prior to first deployment.
A daring blend of reality and fiction, Act of Valor puts real-life active duty U.S. Navy SEALs in starring roles and presents the first authentic look behind the scenes of their world. To gather information for the project, Scott Waugh, Mike McCoy and their partners at Bandito Brothers were given unprecedented access to the military's most elite and enigmatic force as they created the script.
Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh spent months getting to know members of the elite community on their home turf in San Diego, California, the site of Naval Special Warfare Command. "We felt that the best way to tell our own story was by allowing in an objective observer who is able to see what we do for what it is," says Captain Smith. "The Bandito Brothers were the right guys to come in because they are, at their core, athletes. As former stuntmen, they are professionals who work in a high-risk environment every day, so they were able to appreciate what we do and who we are."
In that atmosphere, which encompassed the U.S. Navy SEALs' professional and personal lives, the filmmakers began to absorb the culture. "It was the men, first and foremost, that inspired us," says Mike McCoy. "They pulled the curtain back for us and allowed us to enter their world. We spent a lot of time finding out who these guys really are before we tried to accurately and authentically tell their story."
Behind that curtain they discovered a special breed of warrior-a surprisingly diverse group of highly intelligent, painstakingly trained and uniquely talented men who are deeply committed to their country and to each other. "It's a secret lifestyle these guys live," says Scott Waugh. "And it's pretty incredible. We're action guys, and this project was like being kids in a candy store. But we really didn't know much about the U.S. Navy SEAL community before making the movie.
"They're capable of doing miraculous things," he adds. "They have physical and emotional capabilities beyond what most of us have. I'm a former stuntman and a stuntman is required to be a Jack of all trades, master of none. You need to be able to do everything, whether it's ride a horse or a motorcycle, handle fire or do high falls. As a U.S. Navy SEAL, the discipline is very similar, except they're masters of all trades."
Lieutenant Commander Rorke, who appears in the film, felt previous film characterisations of his peers had been misleading and he was eager to share a bit of their lives with the filmmakers. "We're not a bunch of loud, obnoxious, aggressive guys," he says. "That component exists in our capacity for work and for aggression on the battlefield. But that's not who we are when we're back home. The U.S. Navy SEALs are mostly quiet, humble men who want to serve and do the nation's work."
Indeed, Scott Waugh says his preconceived notions about his subjects turned upside down. He admits he had imagined the U.S. Navy SEALs would be a platoon full of Terminators. "I thought they would be so highly disciplined that they wouldn't have much personality," he says. "By hanging out with them, we learned they were charismatic, wonderful guys. Maybe there's a time and a place for them to be like Rambo, but not 24-7. These guys are well-rounded human beings."
Mike McCoy concurs: "They were the opposite of the stereotype of a special operations warrior, intellectual and down to earth at the same time. And the stories they told blew our minds. The U.S. Navy SEALs in combat are far more than anything Hollywood could ever write."
The filmmakers used their unique access to rough out a script, conducting extensive interviews with the U.S. Navy SEALs, as well as with their families. As they became closer to the team, they eventually gained their trust. "We were having some chow, drinking some beers, shooting the breeze," says Mike McCoy. "They eventually got the idea that they were going to have an important influence on the way the movie developed and saw the value this would have to their community."
The U.S. Navy SEALs shared stories of survival and sacrifice that would seem outlandish to civilians, according to Mike McCoy. "In what other group would someone take a bullet to save their brothers? Where does that even happen? Well, it did actually happen to these guys. Those stories helped define the brotherhood for us." In the end, the directors found five particularly compelling narrative acts of valor they felt they had to weave into the script.
The film's narrative follows a U.S. Navy SEAL team on a riveting and action-packed journey around the world in pursuit of a dangerous adversary. But it starts with the men and their families at home in Southern California. "The heart of the film is the sacrifice made not only by the guys, but also by their wives and kids," says Scott Waugh. "They are able to spend time with each other maybe two months out of the year. If U.S. Navy SEALs are not in the field, they're training. The result is that their ability to keep going in situations that most of us would quit is astounding, as is the sacrifice that they continually make for their families and for the country."
Even a seasoned veteran like Captain Duncan Smith found some of the moments the filmmakers uncovered eye-opening. "The scene that struck me the most, the one that completely surprised me, was the Lieutenant's wife sliding behind the door crying when he left," says Captain Duncan Smith. "I had no idea that goes on. So I asked my wife about it. She said absolutely it happens. She said it's a sad day when we leave. It's frustrating and she's angry and lonely and upset. I just didn't know. So for me, Act of Valor has opened my eyes in terms of how my family and other families, particularly the wives, react when we deploy."
What struck the deepest chord in the co-directors was how little is known about the sacrifices made by the U.S. Navy SEALs and their loved ones. "We want the world to know what these guys and their families have done for us over the past decade," says Mike McCoy. "They've been at war for 10 years straight. They've had to forgo things we all take for granted in order to keep us safe." Ready-Made Stars
As they got to know the men of the U.S. Navy SEAL platoon in San Diego, Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh found themselves considering a new and untried option for their film. Instead of casting actors, they wanted to use real U.S. Navy SEALs in the lead roles. "It had become our mantra to make sure everything does service to who they are," says Mike McCoy. "We realised that actors could misrepresent the U.S. Navy SEALs, as they have before in film."
A scan of recent cinema history revealed that the last three major films featuring U.S. Navy SEALs starred Charlie Sheen, Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, says Max Leitman. "They are all fine actors, but they're not U.S. Navy SEALs. We really felt that going the star route wouldn't do them justice."
The more they talked about it, the more convinced Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh were that this was the only way to achieve the authenticity they needed to properly honor their subjects. "When you meet an active duty U.S. Navy SEAL, he has a look," says Scott Waugh. "He has an intensity and an aura that's almost impossible to replicate. He may have been training and on active duty for 20 years. How can an actor recreate that?"
Mike McCoy compares it to seeing a film about basketball in which the Los Angeles Lakers take to the court. "Would you rather see a bunch of actors who learned how to play ball a few months ago? It was the first time in our careers we were directing the actual characters, not actors playing the characters."
The hardest part, say the directors, was convincing the U.S. Navy SEALs to be in the movie. "Once we committed to using the real guys, they all said no," says Mike McCoy. "Their attitude was that it's not really what they do. It was cool to help us with our research, but they had to get back to work. But when they saw what we were all about, they really got involved. They felt that this was their time to set the record straight about who their community really is."
The U.S. Navy SEALs' history of quiet professionalism is an essential part of the fabric of their community, says Lieutenant Commander Rorke. "It was big leap to do something like this. But the small group of us that are the recognisable guys in the picture thought there was a unique opportunity there to tell our story in a way that hadn't been done before."
Although Special Warfare Operator First Class Ajay was recommended for the film by his commanding officer, he still balked at the idea. "At first, I didn't want to be involved with the project," says James. "I'm not interested in glamor or fame, but I would like to help shine a light on the different facets of the U.S. Navy SEALs. This is probably the most accurate depiction of how we operate that has been seen on film. The directors gave us a lot of room to create the story the way we wanted it told, which made a big difference to us all."
After an agreement was reached to honor Naval Special Warfare members killed since September 11, 2011, in the film's credits, a core group of men signed on to portray the film's combat operators. Naval Special Warfare and the U.S. Navy SEAL community gave the project unqualified support, but required the filmmakers to work around their schedules. "Obviously we weren't going to be pulling guys out of training or off missions," says Scott Waugh.
As in real life, the U.S. Navy SEAL team in Act of Valor is led by an officer, Lieutenant Commander Rorke, and a high-ranking enlisted man, Special Warfare Operator Chief Dave. "There is a relationship between the two leads that is really important," says Mike McCoy. "They happen to be extremely good friends in real life, but one is the boss of the other, and they respect each other. Exploring that dynamic was something we were interested in."
The Lieutenant Commander serves as the liaison between the U.S. Navy SEAL team and the Navy higher-ups. "The Lieutenant is what I think of as a man's man," says Scott Waugh. "He's very smart, very well read and has a Master's degree. He was in Ramadi in '06 and received a Bronze Star. This guy is a born leader and as good a gun fighter as anybody, and he keeps a strong hand on his platoon."
"Chief Dave is kind of his opposite number," says Mike McCoy. "Part surfer dude, part dad, and the epitome of a U.S. Navy SEAL, he's the most loving guy with his family and truly funny with everyone else. But I would definitely not want to be on his bad side. He's six foot six and ridiculously strong. Dave can flip tractor tires like they're like bicycle tires. His job is to interact with the platoon and with the Lieutenant. That's the chain of command."
Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh were surprised to see that when the uniforms were off, Chief Dave and Lieutenant Commander Rorke were friends and equals. "They were talking like Mouse and I do," says Waugh. "In the other military branches, enlisted men and officers don't mix much. But the minute the uniforms go on, Dave's very respectful. 'Yes, sir. No, sir.' That dynamic was really fascinating to see."
The other ranking U.S. Navy SEAL is Senior Chief Van O. "We nicknamed him 'Dennis Hopper,'" says Scott Waugh. "He is one of the original wild men and a thinker at a level that we're not accustomed to. It was sometimes difficult communicating with him, because he was breaking you down all the time, dissecting everything you said, even your body language."
The Senior Chief's instincts made him the focus of one of the movie's most compelling scenes. "I knew if we could unleash him in the right environment, he would be magnificent," says Mike McCoy. "And that is what we did in the interrogation scene."
In that scene, in which a prisoner has information that will save lives if the Senior Chief can ferret it out, the directors gave Van O and actor Alex Veadov their plot points. "And we left getting there up to them," says Scott Waugh. "We wrapped our cameras around them and let them go at it. The Senior Chief got inside the actor's brain and you could see him unraveling."
The filmmakers were able to put together a complete team that reflects the true diversity of the U.S. Navy SEALs. The differences between the men are what allow the U.S. Navy SEALs to build extraordinarily effective teams, they say, with each member contributing his singular talents in ways that complement the others.
"Each of them is unique in his own way," says Mike McCoy. "There are some five-foot-eight, 155 pound guys that can bring it and there are some that are six-foot-six and 245 pounds. That little guy is the one who can get through the window, while the big guy's breaching the door and kicking it in. There is no one stereotypical U.S. Navy SEAL."
To underscore the point, Scott Waugh points to Special Warfare Operator First Class Ajay. Before he enlisted in 2001, Ajay, who was born in Trinidad, had to get letters of recommendation from Senators and Congressmen and needed an age waiver. "Ajay has more appreciation for America than most natural-born Americans," says Scott Waugh. "He was a Muay Thai boxer and he's the funniest, most charismatic guy you'll ever meet, but you wouldn't want to tangle with him."
According to Ajay, failing to become a U.S. Navy SEAL was not an option. "There was no Plan B. Being a U.S. Navy SEAL requires honor, courage, commitment and brotherhood. There's no dynamic in any other activity I've ever done that equates to what I've been able to have here."
Then there is Weimy, the team's sniper. "His patience makes it possible for him to sit on rooftops day after day waiting for that two seconds when he can get his shot," observes Scott Waugh. "The guy just sees the world tactically. It's like he was born to be a U.S. Navy SEAL. And he has such grace about him."
Responsible for the team's communication is Ray, called "a walking oxymoron" by Scott Waugh because he is a man of so few words. "Ray is unbelievably good at everything he does," says Mike McCoy. "He's so well-rounded and a man of tremendous capability, but completely humble." The team "enforcer" is Sonny. "And he is truly one of the baddest dudes I've ever met," says Scott Waugh. "He's a really large guy who stands behind everything he does. Sonny is down to earth and always ready for a good time. Right before it's going to get gnarly, he's loose and free and smiling and joking."
There's also Mikey, who Mike McCoy says is the last person you'd ever expect to meet in the U.S. Navy SEALs. "He's an unassuming person who should be very assuming," says the director. "The guy is a world-class mountain bike racer. He's a surfer. He's a sailor. He's just a true outdoorsman and you wouldn't think this guy was ever at war. He also has a collection of random toys in his garage, like a boat that doesn't work and a Harley that's missing both tires. He's been a U.S. Navy SEAL for 21 years."
Working with these first-time actors was surprisingly easy, according to the directors. "I sometimes get in these long conversations with an actor about the character," says Scott Waugh. "On this film, we weren't directing an actor playing the character. We were directing the character. Am I going to argue with the character?"
The U.S. Navy SEALs who participated resist being called actors because they say they were merely doing what they do every day. "The hardest part was saying the lines," says Ajay. "Running around and shooting guns and moving and communicating, that's commonplace. That's nothing. Sitting there and speaking to someone and making it not sound fake was really difficult."
Watching himself on screen also took getting used to, says Rorke. "When you hear your voice on an answering machine, you generally don't like the way that sounds. I think everybody's had that experience, so multiply it by a thousand on a 50-foot high screen. In our work we expect a level of expertise that's close to perfection. In the end, I focused on the other guys and not myself, and they did a great job. I think we all feel good about the product and are excited about the way it turned out."
The non- U.S. Navy SEAL characters in Act of Valor are played by professional actors, including Roselyn Sanchez, best known for her long-running character on the television series "Without a Trace," and Nestor Serrano, who has appeared in dozens of films and television shows. "We tried to cast the most talented actors we could find, but for the most part we selected people who are slightly under the radar," says Waugh. "Those actors could really slide right into this film. Because the guys are just being themselves, the bar was raised for the actors."
One of the relatively unfamiliar faces in the film is actor Jason Cottle, who plays Abul Shabal. Waugh remembered Cottle, a veteran of the New York theater scene, from his own early days in the theater industry as a young actor. They had lost touch in the intervening years, but Waugh was able to track him down and offer Cottle the role. "He was one of the most remarkable actors I had ever met," says Waugh. "We needed to find somebody who was unfamiliar to film audiences and who would be truly scary to play this part. I immediately thought: Jason Cottle. The guy has so much intensity." A For Authentic
Having the U.S. Navy SEALs serving as advisors was an indispensable resource for the filmmakers as they continued to develop the script for Act of Valor. "At the time, the U.S. Navy SEALs weren't in the public eye the way they are today," says Max Leitman. "We were trying to figure out what the real threats in the world were. We learned some things about Northern Mexico and Chechnya. We learned how broad-based the threat to the U.S. actually is. There's no war at home, so we don't have a really strong sense that there are men and women out there protecting us."
In-depth consulting with military sources and government agencies revealed a wealth of possible scenarios. "We decided to set up a story in which the homeland was threatened," says Mike McCoy. "So we looked at current threats across the board. What are the areas of operation? What kinds of missions are the guys doing right now? What assets and equipment do they work with?"
When it came to playing their roles, the U.S. Navy SEALs in the film were given free rein to decide what was real and authentic. "For example, the way they speak in the movie is the way they speak in real life," says Scott Waugh. "They throw acronyms around and they have a certain vernacular. We tried to keep it authentic because we want the audience to experience what it's like to be in their world. When we gave dialogue to them, they would often tell us, no, I'd say it like this. And what they would say was much better than what we had written."
Just as important were the ways in which the U.S. Navy SEALs communicated while not speaking. When they are in the field, or "down range," communication is necessarily silent. "Their subtle body language and their hand movements say so much," says Scott Waugh. "It adds the tension to scenes, because now the audience is truly just listening the way they listen. You may hear a tree branch breaking or the sound of an owl or a spider monkey in a tree making a growling noise-or was that the bad guy? We tried to capture those moments before all hell breaks loose."
According to Special Warfare Operator First Class Ray, the directors were always aware of capturing the U.S. Navy SEALs at their best. "Scott Waugh and Mike McCoy were really flexible on adjusting to how we moved and vice versa," he notes. "We actually had to slow down for some scenes. It's in our muscle memory to do things in a certain way at a certain speed, but they knew how it would work best on camera and we had to trust them."
Even the film's extraordinary action sequences were designed by the U.S. Navy SEALs. "All the operational planning was done by them," says Mike McCoy. "There was no dude sitting in Hollywood in his underwear at three in the morning writing the ops plan for how to hit a target. This is the way it would really go down."
In order to execute those scenes, the filmmakers would outline a scenario for the U.S. Navy SEALs and ask them to plan the operation exactly as they would in the real world. "For instance, you've got a bad guy on a 180-foot boat in the Caribbean and he's got two counter-piracy boats," says Mike McCoy. "They would get their white boards out and design the entire ops plan. We would develop the camera plan around that. Then we would become one platoon and go hit the target."
The film crew took their cues from the impeccable teamwork their highly trained cast members demonstrated. "The U.S. Navy SEALs work together seamlessly without any ego in the middle of it," says Mike McCoy. "There's really no room in a platoon for that. It has helped us to approach film making differently."
In order to capture the action as realistically as possible, the co-directors employed up to 12 cameras at a time and often ran two first units, with each of them independently directing their own crew as they filmed different aspects of a single scene. "Scott Waugh might have one unit shooting inside a location," says Jacob Rosenberg, a partner in Bandito Brothers and Act of Valor's post-production supervisor. "Mike McCoy would have the other unit shooting outside. He could jump on a motorcycle and ratchet strap a cameraman to his back, then blow through a set with the cameraman shooting and doing pivot moves, which allowed us to capture super-creative stuff. Scott Waugh would be very specific about the story points, things that needed to emotionally carry the movie. He was always on top of that."
As co-directors, the pair had doubled up in the same way on earlier projects and knew they could depend on each to do what each does best. "That's the greatest part about directing with somebody that you've known your whole life," says Scott Waugh. "I know exactly what he's getting on his set. Mouse and I were able to document what was happening in one evolution. We wanted this thing to be a thrill ride, without stopping and cutting, so we came up with a full battle plan to tell the story in one take."
"We could run a scene like a play," says Mike McCoy. "We would start at the beginning and go straight through to the end. It was a really fluid and dynamic way to shoot action, and we could only do it because the U.S. Navy SEALS were so good. We didn't need to block every scene with them. They just did it."
The Navy provided the filmmakers with access to their ranges, vessels, aircraft and other assets-but with several caveats. None of the filming was to interfere with previously established Navy training schedules and all would take place at no cost to the Navy. The coordination and logistics required to film around special operations aircraft is so time-intensive, says Captain Smith, it's unlikely to ever happen again.
"In traditional war movies, you'll have a military advisor," says Jacob Rosenberg. "Occasionally, the military will provide a location or some assets to help lend authenticity. When we crafted the story, we wanted it to express the scope and reach of what the U.S. Navy SEALs are able to do. They do the most challenging and difficult things on sea, air and land. They have tons of tools and hardware, and the Navy allowed us to shoot all of these assets, some of which the public has never seen before."
Act of Valor marks the first time that the Navy has made an SSGN submarine available for a film shoot. One of the most valuable of the military's assets, there are only four of the nuclear subs in existence and they are always in theater. "Getting access was extremely complicated," says Scott Waugh.
"To shoot that scene, we were given GPS coordinates in the middle of the ocean. We had to coordinate our crew to meet the sub and shoot the entire sequence within a very limited window." The submarines spend the vast majority of their time submerged. "The last thing those guys ever want to do is breach the surface," says Mike McCoy. "It gives away their position. The Navy told us they would breach for less than 45 minutes and that's all we got. We had to run it like a real mission out in the middle of the ocean on Zodiacs. I was in full camouflage holding a camera with the guys on the boats. Scott Waugh was in the helicopter above. Sure enough here comes that thing on time and on target. That sub comes out of the water, and we ran those boats right up on the back of that, popped off and ran in one take."
Working that way opened Scott Waugh's eyes to new possibilities in the ways films can be made. "Hollywood has been making films the same way for the last 100 years," he says. "This inspired us to take an unconventional approach. We had to get things done efficiently and authentically without an arsenal of gear and technology. We had to really push the envelope, and do things that haven't been done."
Working with U.S. Navy SEALs also allowed them to discard some of the constraints of traditional filmmaking, says Mike McCoy. "It was never a lead actor in a part of the scene, and the stunt double in the rest. Our lead actors are right in the middle of the scene. They're on gun, on dialogue in the middle of the action at full throttle."
Director of photography Shane Hurlbut came to the set soon after completing the blockbuster feature Terminator Salvation and made an immediate connection with the directors when he suggested they use the Canon 5D, a small, lightweight digital camera that was then new to the market. "I immediately respected Shane Hurlbut," says Scott Waugh. "He's a passionate filmmaker who continually pushes the envelope with technology and cameras, which is exactly the way Mike McCoy and I work. We instantly became great friends. Mike McCoy and I both operate cameras as well, but it's something else to see a great director of photography. He's a master of the craft and a magician with light.
"Shane Hurlbut had some great ideas about how to use the 5D, which Mike McCoy and I were already thinking about working into our film," says Scott Waugh. "Once we spoke with him, we agreed there was no better better way to capture the U.S. Navy SEALs than with somebody like Shane Hurlbut. Shane Hurlbut's all about breaking with the norm to transcend into something new and fresh."
Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh knew they needed a camera platform that could change their physical approach to action filmmaking. After testing it at Bandito Brothers, they initially thought they would shoot the more intimate scenes in 35 millimeter and bring in the 5D for the action sequences. As the film progressed, they were impressed by the complexity and richness of the images produced by the camera, as well as its versatility.
"It gave us the ability to have all the cameras in the right places on the budget that we were handed," says Shane Hurlbut. "It could morph as big or as small as we wanted. We could put it into a crash housing and drive over it. We could mount one in a tree. I had a guy in the water in the underwater housing; I had one on a techno crane flying over on the side. "It was less about creating a particular look than it was about letting the audience sit back in their chairs, grab hold of those armrests and go, whoa," says the cinematographer. "When our guys are jumping out of an airplane at 18,000 feet, you will feel like you've just jumped out of it too."
Shane Hurlbut refers to the camera setups he improvised for the film as his cinematic guns. "We built a variety of different cameras from the 5D, each with a different application. What we called the stripper is very small. We were able to do tons of photography with just that stripper, mostly intimate scenes with the U.S. Navy SEALs in the back of the pickups or storming the yachts."
One of his most effective and dramatic innovations is a helmet cam that places the audience in the boots of a U.S. Navy SEAL mid-mission. "It gave us the ability to be one with the men, looking through their eyes," he says. "Helmet cams have been around for a while, but with a camera that weighs 25 pounds or more, the utility was limited. The 5D was small enough that we could use it to provide a truly immersive experience."
Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh can trace a pivotal element in Act of Valor back to the seven-minute swift-boat documentary they made. "It was the first time the Navy ever allowed filmmakers in a live-fire environment," says Scott Waugh. "Live fire in film hasn't been done since the 1920s. After seeing what real ammo and tracer bullets look like in the earlier film, we said, we've got to shoot this live fire."
Using live fire, for the U.S. Navy SEALs, is a regular day at the office, according to Denver. "For us, it's very comfortable," he explains. "We train to that standard because you want to train like you fight. I remember a scene we were filming with the boats that come in to pull us out of a hot target. And we did that swim. It comes down to trust. We trust the boat guys that are our brothers to shoot in such a way that we're taken care of. And they trust us to stay out of their way and let them do their job. It comes together in this amazing coordinated effort."
Despite their background as stuntmen, Scott Waugh and Mike McCoy discovered live fire was unlike anything they'd done before. "It adds an intensity and a level of respect for what you're doing like nothing else in the world," says Mike McCoy. "We had 3,000 rounds a minute coming out of one mini gun. It adds a charge and energy to the film. Everybody's on point. If you get it wrong, people die."
But the visuals justified the risk, says Scott Waugh. "It's a different flame thrown out of the barrel. It actually throws out farther. And I think everyone handled their weapons differently, knowing that they were holding something that could kill people. It's not like any Hollywood film you've seen."
The choice took their director of photography by surprise. "When they told me, I said 'what do you mean live fire?'" recalls Shane Hurlbut. "'Well, that's where they shoot live ammo.' 'So, where am I going to be?' 'You're going to be right there. We'll give you a flak jacket and you're going to be fine.' And I'm like, 'what about ricochets?'"
Shane Hurlbut soon saw for himself the realistic quality live fire gave to the battle sequences that could not have been matched by blanks. "There were some serendipitous moments during filming. A gun might jam so someone had to reload. You can actually see the bullets fly. It is really visceral. It was nice knowing U.S. Navy SEALs rarely miss."
Scott Waugh, an experienced editor in his own right, cut the film in tandem with veteran editor Michael Tronick, whose previous work includes The Green Hornet and Iron Man. "Michael Tronick is old school," says Scott Waugh. "And I said, meet the new school. He and I went at it all the time, which kept each us both in check in the edit bay. I would really always push the envelope with new-style editing, and he made sure we kept the story going, so it was a wonderful balance."
Michael Tronick was taken aback at the freshness of the film. "It has something I have never seen before in terms of content, action and performances. I've cut action movies before with stars from Steve Segal to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Eddie Murphy and Brad Pitt. The action here is more intense and more intimate because of the use of the 5Ds with their flexibility and ability to get close. "It is unexpected and very, very well designed," he adds. "There's an immediacy to it that isn't enhanced artificially. The choreography of the action sequences is exquisite. When I first saw the shot of the submarine surfacing and the guys parachuting down, it took my breath away."
That Act of Valor was a once-in-a-lifetime experience is something everyone involved with the film readily acknowledges. "I don't think there's been a film like this before," says Mike McCoy. "We feel it's an entirely new genre of film, the authentic action film. People in Hollywood thought it was just crazy to do this. But when they started to see the footage, they were completely blown away. Even inside the U.S. Navy SEAL community they're saying, 'wow, this is pretty high speed, man.' And to those people who were worried about whether the U.S. Navy EALs could act, we say, check it out. It's on the screen."
Looking back over the four years it has taken to bring the movie to theaters, both directors feel humbled and honored. "We were invited into a really special community," says Mike McCoy. "We were allowed to immerse ourselves in it. We discovered an unbelievable level of brotherhood and sacrifice."
According to Scott Waugh, making this film has been the biggest thrill of his life. "It has given me a deeper, more profound appreciation for the men and women who continually risk their lives for our freedom. This movie is apolitical. All it is has to do with is supporting our women and men down range."
Act of Valor also has special resonance for the military men involved. "When I saw the film for the first time, I got chills," says Ajay. "It's a gripping and poignant and well-told story about real heroism. A lot of true stories have been woven into this fictitious tale. We all hope it brings respect and honor to our community."
Rorke adds: "I worry that the public forgets that there are still guys in harm's way. We never forget. We've been living for a decade and beyond of sustained combat against our nation's enemies. And the fight continues. Our brothers are there right now. Guys from this picture are overseas in the fight right now. The honor and loyalty and teamwork and commitment and love we have for each other, for our country and our families come through on the screen. If people can recognise that, then I think they will have gotten the point of Act of Valor. It's not about the gun fighting. That stuff will be exciting, but there's a higher purpose. If we can share that, I think we will have achieved something special."