The military thriller topping the box office depicting a Navy SEAL team rescuing a kidnapped CIA operator began in 2007 as a short film project.
“We did a seven-minute piece on who these guys really are,” says Max Leitman, the executive producer of “Act of Valor,” which, though a fictionalized telling, uses real members of the Navy’s elite Sea, Air and Land teams, real equipment and tactics.
“As we got to know these men, we were extremely inspired by them and I think it showed in the work,” he said. The short showed the Special Warfare Combatants-Craft-Crewmen, the living legacy of the Vietnam War-era swift boat crews, who insert and extract SEAL team members.
“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 recognized the passion we put into it,” he said.
Coincidentally, the Naval Special Warfare Command, which includes the U.S. Navy SEALs and the SWCC teams, viewed the finished project just as they were considering giving their support to a feature film.
Navy Capt. Duncan Smith, a 27-year veteran and active-duty Navy SEAL, who was the liaison officer with the Bandito Brothers, the production company founded in 2006 by the film’s directors Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh, said the two men came to the Navy at the right time.
“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,” Smith said.
“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,” the captain said.
“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,” he said.
McCoy said something about the short impressed the Navy and the project was born.
“They had been approached for a ton of movies about the U.S. Navy SEALs,” he said.
“The Navy knew they had the bandwidth to support one project only. Several production companies submitted proposals and ours was chosen,” he said.
McCoy, who was professional motorcycle racer before injuries took their toll, said their access to the atmosphere around the SEALs helped them absorb the culture.
“It was the men, first and foremost, that inspired us,” he said.
“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,” he said.
“Act of Valor” directors Mike “Mouse” McCoy (left) and Scott Waugh
Waugh said 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,” he said.
“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,” he said.
“They’re capable of doing miraculous things,” he said. From their time embedded with the SEALs McCoy and Waugh were inspired to write the script based on their stories.
“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,” Waugh said.
“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,” he said.
Waugh said the experience turned his perceived notions upside down.
Before meeting the SEALs, he imagined them as a platoon of Terminators, he said.
“I thought they would be so highly disciplined that they wouldn’t have much personality,” he said.
Waugh, who is the son of Fred Waugh, the stunt man for the original Spiderman TV series, said, “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.”
McCoy said he agreed.
“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,” he said.
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, McCoy said.
The two men spent months getting to know members of the elite community on their home turf in San Diego, Calif., the site of Naval Special Warfare Command.
Waugh said, “The heart of the film is the sacrifice made not only by the guys, but also by their wives and kids.”
“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,” he said.
“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,” he said.
As they became closer to the team, they eventually gained their trust, McCoy said.
“We were having some chow, drinking some beers, shooting the breeze,” he said.
“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,” he said.
The SEALs shared stories of survival and sacrifice that would seem outlandish to civilians, the former motorcyle racer said.
“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,” he said.