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“Act of Valor” And The Art of War

Act of Valor–an action film depicting a Navy SEAL mission and starring real active-duty SEALs–not only gives a rare glimpse into the elite fighting unit, but created a new style of filmmaking. (It involved bullets.)

“Act of Valor” And The Art of War

You don’t know who they are. They form a tightly knit brotherhood that few civilians can penetrate. So when directors Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh found themselves gaining the trust of an elite unit of Navy SEALs, they not only decided to make a movie about their lives. They cast them as its stars.

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Act of Valor, which arrives in theaters Feb. 24 via distributor Relativity Media, is a charged fictionalized narrative of an eight-man U.S. Navy special operations unit that tracks a global terrorist network. But many of the scenes are drawn from actual situations faced during high-risk missions. The film was shot within real military exercises–using live ammunition–to accurately depict how they conduct their battles, and how that fighting looks from the inside.

“We felt we had to portray the community in an authentic way,” says McCoy. “We set out to create a completely different type of action film–the first real authentic action film. All the stories were woven from actual events and acts of valor. The only way to properly communicate that brotherhood, sacrifice, and complexity of character was to use the actual men. There’s no way an actor could really portray that.”

The film not only represents the U.S. Navy’s special operations force, its culture and high-tech tactics, but a new streamlined type of filmmaking. McCoy and Waugh–backed by Bandito Brothers, their Culver City, CA full-service production facility–filmed on three continents, using aerial, ground, and underwater shots of helicopters, yachts, submarines, armored vehicles, assault weaponry, and explosions for less than $20 million.

“We feel like big Hollywood is operating like the Cold War military did, and we’re more like special operations filmmakers in our tactics and efficiency,” says McCoy.

Of course, big Hollywood would think the whole shoot smacked of crazy (and others would call it one big promo for the Navy. Neither is entirely untrue).

Directing non-actors

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Crazy idea #1: Don’t use stars. Use non-actors who couldn’t be credited or publicized, because of the clandestine nature of their job. (Faces weren’t an issue since their Western features stood out in most combat regions anyway.) Make sure they’re active-duty SEALs who would deploy for months, stretching principal photography over two-and-a-half years, while the directors prayed they’d make it back. “In fact, one of the leads is back in combat, on a pretty gnarly mission right now,” says McCoy. Of the handful of professional actors employed, only one, Roselyn Sanchez, was popular from a four-year stint on CBS’ Without a Trace. “We didn’t want stars to be a distraction.”

What actually happened: SEAL training offered some unexpected parallels to acting. “They were being themselves inside of a mission,” says McCoy. “It wasn’t an actor interpreting a character. These were some of the most confident and capable men I’d ever met. They were used to doing things over and over, adapting to unconventional situations, and role-playing inside of their own training. So we knew they had it. No one wanted to be in a movie, but in becoming friends, and drinking a lot of beers together, they started to trust us.”

In fact, one of the film’s most arresting scenes involves a psychological parry between the operation chief, known as Senior, and a Ukrainian arms dealer, played by Alex Veadov. “The guy who plays Senior is the real deal,” says McCoy. “He ran it like a true interrogation. The person who played the bad guy was a professional actor. We made sure they didn’t meet beforehand, zip-tied (Veadov) to a chair, turned up the heat, and rolled the cameras. It really twisted that actor’s mind up.”

Shooting under fire…literally

Crazy idea # 2: Use actual military exercises (featuring actual bullets) to get immersive visuals and extra production values.

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“All the action shots revolved around pre-existing training missions, so no taxpayer dollars were used for the filmmaking,” laughs McCoy. “We’d present a story point, they would architect an entire operation plan on how they’d go about depicting it, we’d write a camera plan around it, and join as one platoon.

“We set out to create an immersive experience, but so much of the film had to be done in one take,” he adds. “There were assets available, but we didn’t own them. The submarine was on the surface for less than 45 minutes. Instead of blocking it scene to scene, we had to run it like an operation. We were in the middle of the action, in full body armor, doing camera work. My partner was in the helicopter doing aerial shots. I was in full camouflage on board a platoon boat with the SEALs, so I didn’t stand out. They were using live ammunition. It tested us physically and mentally, and brought in our skills as stuntmen.”

What actually happened: The filmmakers not only got millions of dollars’ worth of production values for free using military exercises, they created an immersive, videogame-like experience by revising their shooting methods and technology to adjust to the conditions. They used night-vision lenses and specially designed helmet cams to depict the SEALs’ viewpoints. And they used the video mode of a still instead of a film camera. Their weapon of choice: a high-definition Canon 5D SLR augmented with special Panavision and other cinematic lenses, augmented in post-production for final color and visual finishing.

“It changed the physics of filmmaking,” says McCoy. “We couldn’t carry a traditional film camera and be in the middle of a platoon with SEALs. It was a true game changer for us. It was like doing a film as a big R&D project. We created a process or model for action filmmaking that’s more efficient.”

Lean and mean filmmaking

The SEALs’ lean and mean operating style and self-sufficiency resonated with the filmmakers, given their own backgrounds in the action-adventure world. McCoy had been a professional motorcycle racer (where he got the nickname Mouse), stuntman, and stunt coordinator. Waugh had been president of Stunts Unlimited, a premiere organization of stuntmen and second unit directors, and a coproducer of 2003 surf documentary Step Into Liquid. He and McCoy–who had known each other since childhood–also produced Dust to Glory, a 2005 documentary on the Baja 1000 off-road race in Mexico.

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In 2007, they cofounded Bandito Brothers, a transmedia studio engaging in creative development, production, post-production, and visual effects that recently expanded to a 50,000 square-foot facility and has produced advertising projects for clients like Hot Wheels, Electronic Arts, Toyota, and the Navy.

After working with the SEALs on a short Navy training film, “we were interested in creating an authentic feature film that represented that community,” says McCoy. “But we didn’t know what that was. So we needed to immerse ourselves in the culture. That’s when things started to happen.

“We met some of the most incredible men we’d ever met in our lives–and so different from how the media and Hollywood portrayed them,” he says. “Not cold-hearted Terminator killer guys, but world-class athletes, intellectuals, and dedicated family men. They were equally talented mentally and physically. We started to hear unbelievable stories of their sacrifice during the last 10 years of sustained conflict, acts of valor to protect their fellow brothers in battle, and how hard it’s been on their families.”

From greenlight to release, Act of Valor took four years–2008 to 2012–with financing coming from undisclosed individual investors and Bandito Brothers. “We were able to keep costs down, because many of the assets necessary for filmmaking–creative development, production, post-production, and visual effects–were done within Bandito’s facility,” says McCoy.

On location, they would arrive with a skeleton crew and augment their team with locals. It not only kept costs down, but also added a level of authenticity to the final project. “In Mexico, we cast a lot from one border town where some scenes take place,” says McCoy. “That’s why some of those bad guys feel real. A lot of people thought we were nuts for that, but we wanted to get the real deal.”

The timing of the release was prescient, given the reduction in armed forces and their reentry into civilian life and workforce. “The intent of the film is to raise awareness for guys coming home in all services,” says McCoy. “We hope it will help drive resources to charity groups helping vets and the families of wounded and fallen soldiers.”

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.

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