This story originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle in June, 2011.
One cure for missing Bin Laden raid footage: “Act of Valor” is a new feature film that shows active-duty SEALs in action
More than a dozen top national security figures gathered in the White House Situation Room to tensely observe as elite door-kickers from the U.S. SEAL teams took down über-terrorist Osama Bin Laden. President Obama and the others watched an aerial feed from an RQ-170 stealth drone, while CIA chief Leon Panetta narrated progress of the raid from Langley. Although on-the-ground, real-time images were being generated by tiny, “lipstick” cameras on each SEAL operator’s helmet, these were not rendered onscreen.
This spartan description of Sit Room media comes courtesy of a military source, as well as a journalist who regularly reports from Washington on military matters. Both prefer to stay anonymous, since details of this legendary mission remain sensitive and closely held.
However, as public fascination with all things SEAL subsequently explodes, a different sort of cinematic take on the work of these top-flight Navy commandos could rocket into high visibility. That’s a newly-completed feature film, “Act of Valor.” This movie takes the unprecedented and astonishing step of using active-duty Navy SEALs as its leading men. Maneuvers and fights are actual SEAL exercises. This film’s vivid scenarios will bring viewers as close as they can get to a SEAL mission without being commandos themselves.
“When these guys showed up on our set, just way they stood there holding their M-4’s (compact machine guns) was something you can’t teach to an actor. There are so many subtleties in the way the SEALs move or talk, they do a little magic for the camera all the time,” said Scott Waugh, a Hollywood stuntman who is one of the principals of the Bandito Brothers, a feisty, independent studio that produced Act of Valor.
Casting actual SEALs for an action film is an ultimate “get.” In many scenes from Act of Valor, Waugh’s point is quite evident. These men wield military weapons and slang with an ease that could only derive from steady, prolonged use. They carry themselves like confident athletes, like trained and dedicated gunslingers. There’s an air of moral assurance as well – they’re killers with a higher purpose. The tough, laconic ease they broadcast would be difficult for any actor to duplicate.
Still, sheer existence of this project raises a big question. Why would the Navy ever allow the Bandito Brothers to record the tactics and equipment, let alone the faces, of one of the most secretive military forces on earth?
Before examining the why and how of this production, let’s look at the movie’s storyline – since it provides the bulk of the explanation.
For two tense minutes during the middle of the film, the central front of the war on terror is not anywhere near Abottabad, Pakistan; it’s a dimly-lit, tactical command center on an American aircraft carrier. A pair of SEALs clad in beige camo tersely discuss a comrade who lost an eye in a recent take-down of a drug cartel base in a Columbian jungle.
Next, a senior operative strides into the steel chamber, exuding an air of authority. He explains that their cartel raid yielded a harvest of evidence that hints at something much bigger, a new terrorist plot, global in scope. A smuggler named Christo has teamed up with a jihadist named Shabal to bring highly destructive weapons into the U.S. via border contraband tunnels. America must now swiftly bring all assets to bear to get out in front of this plot and contain it.
The point: A SEAL’s work is never done. Another point: We’ll always need extremely talented and dedicated people to be SEALs. The first item comes courtesy of the Bandito Brothers, who crafted a script stitching all scenes of Act of Valor together; the second from Captain Duncan Smith, a senior SEAL in charge of outreach, who played a pivotal role in initiating this project, and getting it underway.
Widen the frame. Behind highly mobile, Canon DSLR cameras used to shoot Act of Valor, Scott Waugh and Mike McCoy, principal partners of The Bandito Brothers, scamper busily about. They participate in everything – coach SEALs on line delivery, set lights, even pump a smoke machine to create atmosphere.
To properly shoot a commando film, you need guerilla film-makers. Waugh, McCoy and their crew had to chase SEALs through desert, jungle and ocean scenes to get Act of Valor into the can. In their deal with the Navy, the studio improved training sites and provided realistic sets, such as the jungle drug compound, a terrorist camp on an isolated island, and a smuggler’s haven on a multi-million-dollar yacht. The SEALs deployed their tactics on these targets as cameras ran. The Navy can retain raw footage to use for training and other purposes, after the movie producers select and utilize the shots that fit their script. The Navy had authority to remove frames to address security concerns, while The Bandito Brothers retain creative control of the feature.
The result is a visually gorgeous movie that features mind-bending scenes like high-altitude parachute jumps, a SEAL platoon stalking bad guys through a jungle, a foray by the Special Boat Teams that support the operators in the field, and a submerged, mini-sub launch from a special hangar on the back of a huge SSGN – a ballistic missile submarine. For a Hollywood studio to attempt to reproduce such scenes, even with the aid of CGI, would be ruinously expensive. But through its agreement with the Navy, the Bandito Brothers was able to get Act of Valor shot for an estimated $15-18 million.
However, the Banditos had to fill in with two other types of compensation. The film crew over-invested in physical effort on exotic locations, and were forced to adapt to a dilated production schedule. Former stuntmen themselves, Waugh and McCoy are lean, fit, and eager to fling themselves into action.
“We had to figure out how to be as nimble and quick as the SEALs, just to keep up with them,” Waugh says. “Part of the solution was using those mobile Canon cameras, which just became available for use when we started. We also had to pick our personnel based on ability to meet severe physical demands.
“We assembled a fabulous crew, then stuck them in some incredibly nasty environments. The worst was a training area in a Southern swamp, right in the middle of August. A full week of pure hell.”
“A normal feature film gets shot in four months,” says Waugh. “This one took almost two years, because we had to piggy-back on the Navy’s availability. Take the submarine. That SSGN is one of the top military assets on the globe. We can’t say, hey, mind if we borrow your sub for a week? Instead, we had to figure out when their training evolutions would occur, and build our schedule and story-line around all that.”
Why would the U.S. Navy cooperate with this offbeat film studio to such an extent? To answer that question, wind the clock back 20 years. That’s when a young SEAL lieutenant named Duncan Smith went off active duty, and into the reserves. He founded an adventure racing academy in San Francisco. Promoting his school (which trained multi-sport athletes to participate in cross-country races like the Raid Gauloises) led Smith on into sports commentary and filmwork. He wound up hosting four different series and specials for the Outdoor Life Network, even winning an Emmy.
Then the 9/11 tragedy rocked the nation to its soul. Smith leapt back to active duty without hesitation. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld subsequently announced a plan to add thousands of elite troops to the Green Berets, Army Rangers, Navy SEAL commando teams and support groups. Rumsfeld’s order meant 500 new SEALs had to be added to a force of 2,450, in a tough recruiting environment.
Smith had put in time on deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, and other hotspots. In 2005, the Navy assigned him to SEAL recruitment.
In Smith, the Navy won an experienced entrepreneur who understood that competitive athletes were a natural pool to trawl. SEAL recruiters began showing up at events like endurance races, triathlons, water polo and lacrosse tournaments. Smith also knew it was high time a covert, secretive force “opened its kimono” to engage in outreach. Journalists were invited onto the SEAL compound for the first time in a decade. And a nimble production company called The Bandito Brothers was hired to make a film showing the activities of the SEAL support boat crews (SWCCs – Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewman teams).
Watching that process, Smith, now a Navy captain (a grade below rear admiral), began to conceive of a feature film that would convey in a way nothing else could, the realities of SEAL life.
“You know, a one-page story can’t get it all across,” Smith says. “It’s not a Rambo lifestyle. We don’t want SEAL candidates to ever think that way. We’re not about egocentric superheroes. It’s all brotherhood inside a team, followed by teamwork with other parts of our armed forces. We needed an extended piece that’s authentic, showing exactly who we are, even including some warts. A feature film could accomplish it, but the Navy doesn’t know how to make that kind of movie. We needed a studio that gets it.”
Four film studios were invited to submit proposals. The Bandito Brothers, an outfit which had already demonstrated an ability to record live-fire training drills without taking casualties, won. The Banditos’ studio originally came together on the set of “Dust to Glory” (2005), a documentary on the rambunctious Baja 1000 race. Its principals were creative adventurers, adept at covering risk sports like motorcycle racing and surfing, and able to compete in such activities themselves. Adding firearms and explosives did not seem like that big a reach.
But the biggest sticking point was obvious: How can one reveal genuine aspects of SEAL life, without stumbling into the pitfall of revealing too much? It’s not as if anyone wanted to hand the Taliban or Al Qaeda any sort of playbook.
The Navy’s solution to this dilemma, Smith says, was to institute a rigorous, TTP (Tactics, Techniques and Procedures) review, scrubbing out any classified or sensitive actions or view of weapons that might provide a tip to an enemy. In a few cases, out-of-date procedures were substituted for current ones.
When it came to putting real SEAL operatives on camera, hairs had to be split. The movie would not use the SEALs’ real last names, either in the film or on the credits. Though their faces might be recognizable, veteran SEALs would be selected who were closer to the end of their field deployment careers than the beginning.
That left Smith with one last, major problem: convincing SEALs themselves to participate.
“I conducted background interviews with fifty guys, and based on that, narrowed my A-list down to fourteen,” Smith says. “I invited all of them to join the project. Every single one told me, ‘No!’ They said they had joined the Navy and the SEALs to get real work done, not to be in Hollywood movies.”
Smith knew covert operatives reflexively shun the limelight; they regard the best recognition as a private hoo-yah or backslap from a brother in the craft. But this would not be a typical Hollywood film, he told them, something to feed macho stereotypes and bolster misconceptions about their work. Rather, it was an attempt to proclaim to America their actual mission, celebrate its importance, and show potential recruits a real-world view of the SEAL teams.
One SEAL who gradually came around to Smith’s way of thinking was a Lieutenant Commander named Rorke (his first name is used in the film). A man with broad shoulders, close-cropped hair and an air of calm intensity, Rorke was a fine arts major and a top lacrosse player at an East Coast college. After reading a biography of Winston Churchill, he decided that a military career was the best way to earn his place at the table in American society.
“I’m a hyper-competitive person,” Rorke says. “When I heard that 80 percent of applicants don’t make it through SEAL training, that sounded like fine odds to me.”
Rorke graduated with SEAL class # 224 in 1999, and served on counter-narcotic deployments in South America. Then he went on a legendary Iraq deployment in 2006, when SEAL teams were sent in to break the back of the swelling insurgency in Ar Ramadi province. During that deployment, Mike Monsoor, an automatic weapons gunner with a SEAL sniper team, threw himself on a grenade to save the lives of his teammates – although he himself could have escaped. For his heroic and selfless act, Monsoor was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. This deed is one of many from actual SEAL history that are represented in the film, “Act of Valor.”
“When Captain Smith approached me to be in the film, I initially refused,” says Rorke. “Our ideal is to remain a quiet professional. It feels unnatural to advertise or publicize our work. Plus, there’s not much precedent for movies presenting an accurate view of the SEALs.
“But then I met The Bandito Brothers. They seemed like genuine guys, not part of the glitzy, fake world that I had imagined Hollywood to be. They push the limits of film work, and have an extreme sports lifestyle themselves, which is somewhat similar to our discipline. We enjoyed some commonalities. And it became obvious that they wanted to make a film about the brotherhood, not just a gunfight movie. Of course, gunfights need to be part of it. But mainly, they were going to focus on the teams, how much we love our families, love each other, and love our country.”
Rorke is a large, tough-looking man. But his feelings run close to the surface, and he’s unabashed about expressing them. He tears up when he talks about the close bonds forged while serving with people like Mike Monsoor. His eyes water again when he describes how everything comes to a halt on a base when the nation’s colors are run up the flagpole.
“I want people to think about how amazing that flag is. We’ve seen our buddies in caskets draped with that flag. They didn’t end up there because they were chasing a paycheck. You know your brothers on the teams have your back, and you’ve got theirs. You will give up everything for each other, and for this country, so we can move the ball down the field for a better world.”
Such sentiments mean that audiences for “Act of Valor” will see neither pretend tactics nor fake patriotism on the screen. They’ll be watching a tribe of men for whom both are the real deal.
“When I was talking to Warner Brothers about distribution, one issue that came up was, can the SEALs act? And my answer was, well no, they don’t have to act, since they’ll be playing themselves!” says Scott Waugh. “However, that does put a burden on my shoulders. These guys are ultimate warriors, but they’re no Terminators. They are some of the most intelligent, physically capable and emotionally stable people I’ve ever been around. The challenge is making that an integral part of an action film.”
Rorke’s concerns not only included a desire that the character of SEAL brotherhood be accurately rendered, but also that the savage chaos of a real gunfight be properly represented, and that nature of genuine threats to our nation’s future be clearly revealed.
“Based on all my experiences, I’d say that this film ended up unbelievably realistic,” Rorke says. “Not many other stories show the way that true evil remains alive, well, and at work against us. The filmmakers designed their story line to shock you a bit. But it wouldn’t take much for it all to come true a hundred different ways, and rock the foundation of who we are. I hope it wakes people up.”
“Act of Valor,” with a current running time of 100 minutes, will be released on a date yet to be determined in 2011. No matter how successful the film proves to be with domestic and international audiences, the Navy won’t make a dime from it. The Navy’s share of the harvest will be all the raw footage it can put to other uses, as well as the outreach value of a clear portrait of its mission.
The Bandito Brothers self-financed this project, to win the freedom to make it in exactly the way that they wanted, without creative direction or control from either the Navy, or major studios or distributors. If the movie does well, the company will prosper. Regardless, Waugh says, even if it takes off in a big way, they plan to donate 10 percent of the company’s profit to the Naval Special Warfare Foundation – which supports returning soldiers and the families of fallen warriors.
“My major take-away from this project is the way it’s deepened my view of the people who serve in the military. We may have a free country,” Scott Waugh says, “but we take our freedom much too lightly. We take it for granted. I now feel that all young people should serve our nation in some capacity for at least two years.
“Otherwise, I’m happy that we got through all this without any major injury to our crew, or a SEAL. Only two of our cameras got destroyed. One’s at the bottom of a river, the other one was lashed to a tree during a live-fire drill. It took a bullet for the company.”