Interview: ‘Act of Valor’ Stuntmen-Turned-Directors
Using Active Duty SEALS As Actors
Friday, February 24, 2012
KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando discusses what makes Act of Valor different from other Hollywood action films.
"Act of Valor" (opening February 24 throughout San Diego) is a fictional film directed by a pair of former stuntmen and using active duty Navy SEALS instead of actors. I talk with the filmmakers about what makes it different from the typical Hollywood action film. Watch my video feature or listen to my interviews.
Navy SEALS are a tightknit community that doesn't really welcome outsiders into its ranks. But Mike "Mouse" McCoy and Scott Waugh found a way in."
Being ex-stuntmen," says Scott Waugh, "really allowed us to have a common language that we communicate with so there was a common bond between us and the SEAL teams."
"But we've never seen anything like the brotherhood of the SEALS team, that was almost we thought only existed in mythology," adds Mike McCoy.
Putting that bond on screen was the starting point for the film "Act of Valor," says co-director Mike McCoy.
"We spent the better part of the year researching this project at Coronado, immersed in the community, hearing the stories connecting with the men," says McCoy, "And really understanding the depth of the brotherhood and the sacrifice that's gone on in the last ten years."
Early on they realized that the only way to make the film work was to use active duty Navy SEALS instead of actors.
"When you would watch a Navy SEAL walk around and he's in full armor and kitted out," waugh explains, "and you just see the comfortableness he has because that's what he wears everyday."
It's real in a way actors can't imitate.
The filmmakers wanted to create a fictional narrative but one based on real acts of valor by Navy SEALS.
"Stories that have actually happened to men on the battlefield that are really inspiring and truly amazing," McCoy tells me on the deck of the Midway, "almost unbelievable, and that really showcased the heart and the depth of the brotherhood of the community."
Then the filmmakers had to convince the higher ups to go along with the project.
"Once we figured out a battle plan that really augmented existing training evolutions," says McCoy, "so no assets were diverted to the making of this film. I think that really worked for everybody, it's also why it took two-and-a-half years to make."
Once the SEALS were onboard, they began to take an active part in the creation of the film states McCoy: "They would write the ops plan for every mission. So they would design the operation, we would build the camera plan, integrate, become really one platoon and go hit the target."
The target was to shoot the film as realistically as possible,
"We set out to make the first authentic action film," McCoy says, "So there's no CGI in this film, quite a bit of live fire."
Former Marine Sean McClean trained as a combat photographer and is now a filmmaker in San Diego. He had a film he worked on screen last month at the San Diego Black Film Festival. He was surprised that yhry ued live fire but appreciated the sense of realism.
"Everything that they did from the room clearing to the way they stacked up to prepare to enter the room was just spot on," says McClean
"We really wanted the audience to be immersed into their world," says Waugh, "Instead of sitting back and watching it we wanted to put the audience actually in the boots for a lot of the sequences so you can feel what it's like to be a Navy SEAL from their point of view."
"The way they held the shot long to show you how he came in the room and he did his sweeps of the room before engaging the target," states McClean, "When you go in there time kind of slows in a way. The adrenaline's pumping everything going on and you gotta process a lot of information real quick. I think they did a lot of shots that work well to kind of put you inside the SEAL's head in a way."
Some are calling the film propaganda for the military. The filmmakers deny that the project was ever intended as a recruitment film for the Navy.
"When you look at the film as filmmakers it's important to know we had complete creative control," McCoy says, "And we wanted to showcase and I think they did as well the sacrifice involved with this job, they wanted to show the risk involved. It's a really tough place to earn a living."
"I think they did bring some things to the table that a lot of other films don't bring," adds McClean, "They show guys going in they come back hurt, they come back dead."
But the Navy did put their seal of approval on the film and the portrait is ultimately positive.
"I think this might be the patriotic movie of this kind of decade," says McClean, "For those people who kind of like that lifestyle I think for that type of person that would definitely excite and turn that person on it probably even help make that decision that definitely this is something I want to do."
Scott Waugh says it's just entertainment. But he and McCoy did develop a deep admiration for the men, and they hope the film may change misconceptions about Navy SEALS.
"Before you think that they're just Terminator Rambos solo man going in on his own but you realize no," Waugh says, "It doesn't work that way it's a massive team effort. And some people say it's kinda like a video game. Their lives are not video games, there is no reset button."
The film avoids overt politics in order to focus on the men who risk their lives in service of their country. And while I may have complaints about how the government deploys some of the military, I have nothing but respect for those who put their loves at risk to serve. It gives us a rare glimpse into the world of Navy SEALS and while the active duty SEALS surpass actors in their ability to execute a mission, they come up short when they have to deliver lines. But what do you expect from a film made by former stuntmen and Navy SEALS -- these guys are all about the action, it's what they know and what they do best so can we fault them for making a movie that focuses on that? So is it great filmmaking? No. Is it effectively and even beautifully shot action with an eye for authentic detail? Yes.
In the end, "Act of Valor" (rated R for strong violence including some torture, and for language) delivers some spectacular and genuinely tense action, and makes us appreciate the unique skill set of Navy SEALS.
Companion viewing: "The Dirty Dozen," "Patton," "The Big Red One," "The Hurt Locker"