One of the more intriguing films being released in a year where found footage is king is Act of Valor, a new action movie following a group of Navy SEALs trying to put a stop to a terrorist plot that takes them across the globe. What makes this different from similar Schwarzenegger and Stallone movies is that in this case, all the soldiers are played by real active duty Navy SEALs, using their actual training exercises as part of the action, bringing an incredible amount of realism to their missions and the firefights that ensue.
It’s directed by Bandito Brothers Scott Waugh (left) and Mike “Mouse” McCoy, names that may not be that familiar even though they’ve been working as stuntmen and making commercials for many years, as well as having worked with documentary filmmaker Dana Brown on his films Step Into Liquid and Dust to Glory, acting as producers and second unit directors to help him capture the surfing and racing action, respectively.
ComingSoon.net sat down with the Banditos a couple of weeks back to talk about what was involved with recruiting Navy SEALs to take part in an action movie and what was involved with creating the unforgettable hyper-realistic action scenes that make up the bulk of their film.
ComingSoon.net: I know you guys have a background as stuntmen, so how did this come about? Was this something you put together and pitched to get made?
Mike “Mouse” McCoy: No, four years ago we were humbled and honored to be invited into the world of Navy special warfare, to take a look at their story. What would telling their story even look like? It was just sort of an exploratory situation, so we spent quite a bit of time inside the community, meeting the men and hearing the stories. From that, we started to really shape the potential for this film. When you start to hear these stories that have gone with the men in the last ten years, sustained combat deployments, it’s pretty unbelievable. I mean, we’re hearing stories beyond anything anybody could write that actually happened to men. It became pretty inspiring, and through that, you really start to understand the depth of brotherhood inside the community. That really became something we wanted to explore. What’s creating this brotherhood?
Scott Waugh: So when we got down there, we really wanted to organically conceive of the film from within rather than from an outsider, so with that, we wanted to find real acts of valor that have happened to the guys in the last 11 years. The guys really opened up to us after six months of really hanging out with them and when we found five incredible stories in particular that are in the film, we hired a writer, Kurt Johnstad, to architect a screenplay that would weave through these fives acts of valor, through these really amazing stories. That was kind of the genesis of the project.
McCoy: Once you’re inside, you really start to understand the depth of sacrifice that’s gone on with these men and more importantly, the sacrifice their families have gone through. That started to become something almost heavy, like, “Wow, this needs to be told. The world needs to understand how hard these guys and their families have been sacrificing for their freedom,” so we really set sail on doing that and then also, to pay tribute and to do justice to the community, we felt the only way was with the real guys. We had to use the real guys, we just couldn’t use actors.
CS: Was it just a general interest in the Navy SEALS that got you involved originally?
McCoy: The community really appreciated a few of the films that we’ve made. “Step Into Liquid” and “Dust to Glory” were well connected. I think there was a commonality of cultures. We just saw the world the same way, us coming from the stunt background and professional athlete background. We just connected with the guys early on. I think that was important in earning their trust overall. They respected us for what we’ve accomplished before, and also from our perspective, we wanted to communicate that immersive experience, what it’s like truly hanging out for real to audiences. Our stunt background really gave us that perspective and our knowledge of action, our understanding of it, we felt like we could communicate it in a fresh new way to audiences.
CS: So some of the real guys you used, were these guys ones who actually experienced these stories originally?
Waugh: No, they were either around the events or they knew about the events. It was really when we did meet and really became a part of their world and hang out with them for that long and see the complexity of their character was when (we thought), “How is an actor going to get the nuances of everything right?” They train and work in such a fashion at such a high level for so long, a two-month boot camp is not going to bring you up to sleep, it’s just not. It’s like trying to be a professional ice skater, what? An actor is going to go on the ice for two months? They’re going to have to pull him on a dolly track. Our brand of Bandito Brothers is about not faking it, our brand is about doing it for real in-camera.
McCoy: Then when you get to meet these men, they are maybe smarter than they are tough, which is pretty interesting. They are some of the most intelligent, intellectual guys you ever met as well as being super-human physically. When you tie that together, well, how does that translate? What does that look like when they’re operating? So you really want to see what that actually looks like. That would be like if you’re making a movie about basketball and you have the Lakers in there versus having actors and stuntmen trying to play pro ball players and work together like a cohesive team. So you see the teamwork in this film as well, and the guys move like an organic machine. It’s pretty amazing to watch how graceful and poetic they are in their movement.
McCoy: Especially if you had a stuntplayer playing basketball, because you and I playing basketball would be pretty bad. (both laugh)
CS: How did you go about casting the SEALS? Were they people who were available for the time you needed? How did it work?
Scott Waugh: You know, they’re active duty, so they are either coming on workouts for deployments or coming back from deployments, and we were originally talking to all the operators. The ones that are in the film were really ones we just gravitated towards, just because they were very confident men, they had multiple deployments and they were very secure within themselves of who they were. We just felt once we had the idea to just use the real guys, at least these eight guys we met are awesome, let’s see if we can get them to be in the movie. When we approached them, all eight turned us down. They said, “No, we’re not actors, we’re not Hollywood guys. We’re Navy SEALs, we have a job to do.”
McCoy: Then eventually they realized that the film was going to be crafted with their own vision in mind and it was going to be authentic and true to the brotherhood, and they were going to have a hand in it. It was really important to know not only everything that you see actually happened to a SEAL in the movie, an act of valor that’s happened, but all the operational planning was done by the SEALs as well, so every big action scene was architected by the SEALS as it would really go down, so it’s a legit look at their world.
CS: I know the Marines have a division just to handle movie productions, renting out equipment and having consultants available, so did the Navy SEALs have a similar division?
McCoy: No, this entire film worked around existing training evolutions, so we augmented full-on high-speed live fire training environments, so we hopped in the stack with them.
Waugh That was definitely a completely different approach than a Hollywood studio was. It wasn’t “Okay let’s take 8 SEALs and bring them to our set.” It was the flip. These SEALS will be training in this evolution. “Okay, so can we come down there and augment your evolution and be a part of it?” So they’re still getting their training and we’re just filming, so it was a completely different approach. That’s why you’re really truly in the film getting that true authentic experience, because this is them in their environment with live bullets.
CS: Did you have to then go back and work on the script around what you filmed to tie everything together?
Waugh: Sometimes we would, yeah.
McCoy: Yeah, we would just present a story point or a context that we would want to connect with and they would go ahead and write the op, and then on the day, every day, we’d rewrite dialogue with them as it would be for that particular scene. They’d be like, “No, dude, we wouldn’t say that right now,” or “We wouldn’t say anything right now.”
Waugh: Yeah what we did is once we wrote the screenplay, there was really a skeleton plotpoint that we knew would be a great story arc through the film, but how we got from Point A to Z, we would really craft with the SEALs. We said, “Hey, plotwise, we need to get to here. How you want to get to there is how would you get to that boat that’s floating in the middle of the South Pacific?” “Okay, we would do this, this and this.” “Wow, can we be a part of that? Can we film that?” “Yes.” “Awesome, let’s go do that.”
CS: Obviously, the SEALs have things they need to know how to do in order to do their jobs, but there must be tactics and strategies that they wouldn’t want appearing in a film that could be seen by their enemy who uses it against them in later maneuvers.
McCoy: We showcase capabilities in this film but we don’t reveal tactics, so we don’t reveal how they actually do something. We just reveal things that are non-classified capabilities.
Waugh That anyone could find. The Navy, they had two mandates with us which were wonderful for our purposes. One was we were given complete creative freedom so they had no jurisdiction on our creativity, but they had full TTP scrap on the film tactics, techniques and procedures, so every frame they went through–and they were on-set with us obviously–and they would say, “Hey, we don’t want you to film this, this and this,” obviously for reasons we want to be respectful of because we’re on the same side as the fight. We don’t want to reveal those tactics to the enemy playbook as well, no way.
CS: What about the personalities of the main SEAL characters? Were they sort of playing themselves?
McCoy: They are playing themselves
Waugh: That’s what was great and that was part of the selection process in our brain, was each guy was so different. They all brought so many different things to the platoon, and the relationship between the Chief and the Lieutenant, the officer and the enlisted guy, was very incredible for Mouse and I and we really wanted to architect the script around their two characters in general ’cause it’s different than most military branches with the SEAL team that we found. The officers and the enlisted side sometimes really blend together and they’re friends, and it was fun to watch Dave and Rourke during operations and training and in uniform, Dave would always address Rourke as “Sir” and giving him all the respect he’s supposed to give, and then the minute the uniform comes off, “Yo, bro, dude, what’s going on?” Because they’re really close friends and to see that complexity of a relationship was so fascinating to Mouse and I ’cause I was like, “I am never saying ‘Sir’ to you, brother.”
CS: We only really see them a few times out of uniform, because it mostly seems like all business with them.
Waugh Well, in the beginning, you see them out of uniform, you see them as friends. We really wanted that. Mouse and I really wanted to showcase these men as humans because they’re humans. They have human problems and
McCoy: Yeah, as I said before, these guys have been so misrepresented by popular culture and especially by Hollywood films. When you meet the guys, they’re some of the most humble, gracious dudes you’ve ever met, you’re like, “Wow, Hollywood has portrayed you like some crazy Rambo Terminator dude.” It was really interesting to see how misrepresented it is. It’s almost like a prejudice people would have against these guys that we wanted to undo.
CS: That seems to be the case with the police as well, and it seems like the more policemen are depicted in movies and television shows, the more actual police try to act like what they see. Did you feel that was happening with these guys at all?
McCoy: The exact opposite. They were just themselves, and that’s who they are.
Waugh Yeah, that’s funny. I never thought of it that way, but the guys are just who they are. We asked the SEALs, “So what do you guys think when you watch movies?” and they just say, “We know what it is.” They don’t criticize it, they enjoy it. They think it’s pretty funny that they’ve created this stereotypical over-the-top character of them. They don’t take offense to it, they just think it’s ridiculous. Mouse and I were able to really pull from our previous filmmaking experience on working with real people on documentaries. You want people to be themselves in documentaries and we wanted to stay true to that with these guys. It’s not a documentary, it’s an authentic action film but the guys still had to be true to them. “Don’t put on a character. You are you. Just be you in that moment,” and it was fun because I think they really were wonderful in the film and they were really able to be themselves.
CS: I have to say that the action is absolutely amazing. You see stuff this intense while playing video games but seeing it live on screen is pretty amazing, so was it dangerous to shoot that stuff?
McCoy: Oh, yeah, because we shot so much live fire. So many scenes were live fire and it was fantastic to be as challenged as we were physically and mentally, because we were running in real time with these guys and we were shooting the main cameras in the middle of the gunfights. We’re both shooters as well, so all the main situations where the cameras are in the gnarliest situations, he and I were (there). We’d never have our crew do something that was dangerous without us doing it first.
Waugh: You gotta think being in front of the guns with a Navy SEAL, they’re pretty good shots, so you don’t really have to worry too much. If they say, “Don’t be over there,” we’re not going to be over there but if they say you can be there, you’re confident with their shooting capabilities that you’re in a safe place to be.
CS: What about some of the more delicate scenes where SEALs are being killed? Without spoiling anything, people do die in this and it’s based on real events so I was curious how they handled that.
McCoy: Well, that’s what we were saying, that there’s quite a bit of sacrifice in this film and everything you see happen to a guy has actually happened in the battlefield. I think in some ways it’s emotional because they’re honoring some of their fallen and wounded brothers, but in a way, I think it was inspirational because people would understand what’s been going on.
CS: I’m sure you’ve heard the biggest criticism lobbied at the film, which is that it’s almost a recruiting film for Navy SEALs, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing because we need more brave men like this fighting to protect our country, but have you heard these criticism and how do you feel about them?
McCoy: One, the Navy doesn’t have a recruiting problem. The biggest issue is downsizing, so that was not the intent of this film. Anybody who reads the papers knows that we’re downsizing the entire military, so it’s the opposite of that, and it’s not about that, it’s really about an honest look at this community. But if you were to look at it from that perspective, if you’re promising that much sacrifice–because this film is all about the risk involved with that–and the guys especially said, “Yeah if a guy was to see this film, he better know how hard it is to earn a living here, how much risk is involved,” so it would actually be the opposite of a recruiting piece. Instead basically saying, “If you’re even thinking about this or you’re a young man playing video games, playing ‘Call of Duty’ all day long, and you see this movie, there’s a cost of doing business that’s pretty heavy.” I think all the guys really wanted to communicate that. You don’t just press “reboot” and start the video game over.
CS: Our country’s take on the military is an interesting one because since 9/11 and our time at war, it’s been important to support our troops and soldiers, and then you have games like “Call of Duty” where you can pretend to be soldiers, and I was curious how you feel a movie like this might be seen by younger people. Whether they’ll think “Oh, I have to join the military” or whether they’ll understand the point of the movie is to get across what that’s really like.
McCoy: Absolutely, it’s about sacrificing, it’s not about anything else.
CS: Do you guys have any idea what you want to do next? This movie could do really well, so would that make you want to do another movie with the SEALs? Do you have more stories to tell?
Waugh: Well, we have several things we’re developing right now that we’re just still staying true and focused on this film, so we’re not really coming out with what we’re doing next ’cause we’re still on this.
McCoy: We’ll be making authentic action films for the rest of our careers. That’s really what we do. Bandito Brothers is about heartfelt stories wrapped in incredible action.
CS: Have you been doing other movies like this one since we last spoke for “Dust and Glory”?
Waugh We do a lot of commercials.
McCoy: We do commercials all the time in between films.
Waugh: I think that’s been the misconception because we’ve done a lot of military commercials for three of the branches: Navy, Marines and Air Force, so I think because of our advertising backgrounds, “Oh, this must be another recruiting/advertising piece.” And that was a problem, it was just miscommunication.
McCoy: And we did that work during a much different time in America. That was years ago that we were doing those ads, when the country was fundamentally different, and as I said, now it’s about downsizing.
Waugh: Yeah, between ’05 and ’06 was when we were doing all those ads.
CS: I gotta say that the ads for your movie during the Super Bowl were pretty effective.
Waugh: What is funny is that people keep asking me what it was like be at the Super Bowl and I keep saying it’s really interesting to see our little independent film compared to these fantastical superhero studio movies.
McCoy: CGI movies.
Waugh: Those worlds are so over-the-top, anything can go, nobody dies, because we’re all in CG world, and here’s our little authentic action film mixed into the pie.
McCoy: Just remember that this film is totally indie. I mean it’s a quintessential indie film. It was self-financed. We financed a good deal of it and it was private investors on an indie film play so there was no studio involved in making this movie. We’re pretty proud of it so we were able to craft it and control it overall.
CS: Have you ever thought of bringing what you do into more of a fantasy setting? Like bringing realistic action into a setting like a “Lord of the Rings” where it uses real weapons of the time?
McCoy: Well, we have a concept called creative engineering. You engineer the creative for the maximum potential you can put on screen, so sometimes in the big fantasy worlds like that, you’re like “Where are we going to get 500 horsemen?” So you have to really engineer things that are possible and doable overall I think and the stunts that can be executed for real.
Waugh We just want to bring back the real action genre. It’s been gone for over a decade, and it’s really all these big tentpole superhero movies. I think audiences are ready to get back to real movies. When you look in the camera and you see someone jump the car and wreck it, you know that car is not going to get back up on its wheels and get going again. It’s like, “Nope, that’s right. The car’s done.”
Act of Valor opens nationwide on Friday, February 24.