'Act of Valor' Premiere Enlists Navy SEAL Talent Showcased in Film

Act of Valor Premiere Parachute - P 2012
David Livingston/Getty Images

Act of Valor Premiere Parachute - P 2012

“Nobody from Hollywood wanted us to make it,” filmmaker Scott Waugh tells THR, after SEALs parachuted onto Sunset Boulevard.. “That’s why we ended up funding it ourselves and finding private equity and why we really made a truly independent film with this.”

Six Navy SEALs dropped out of the night sky over Hollywood on Monday, parachuting onto the red carpet in front of the Arclight Theater for the premiere of Act of Valor. Now the question is whether audiences will turn out beginning Friday for a movie about Navy SEALs that has no stars with name recognition, that isn’t based on a popular book and isn’t the latest installment in a franchise.

What Act of Valor does offer is intense action packed story about real terrorist threats based on true stories starring actual Navy Seals.

Whether that is enough is a question that almost kept the movie from being made, according to Scott Waugh, who co-directed and produced with Mike “Mouse” McCoy, who are known collectively as the Bandito Brothers.

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“Nobody from Hollywood wanted us to make it,” says Waugh. “That’s why we ended up funding it ourselves and finding private equity and why we really made a truly independent film with this.”

His pitch to Hollywood at the time fell flat, but it is now the basis of how Relativity Media is marketing the film. “We said to Hollywood in the beginning we don’t have stars,” says Waugh. “We have heroes. They are real heroes. I think some eyes got opened up over the last year about our statement.”

A year ago, with the film completed for under $20 million, the Bandito Brothers were ready to show it to distributors, looking for the right one to pick it up for distribution. Then in early May, a month before they were to unveil their project, Osama Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, taken out by a team of U.S. Navy SEALs.

In short order, a number of projects were snapped up in the wake of the death of the Al Qaeda leader. . Universal is developing Lone Survivor, about a SEAL who fights against terrible odds in the mountains of Afghanistan. Sony won the bidding for a movie about the SEALs who got bin Laden from Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal. Bruckheimer Productions is working with ABC on a TV pilot about the Seal’s family life and missions.

But while some might have considered the burst of publicity that swirled around that death  a way to boost the prospects for an action movie about Navy SEALs who fight real world terrorists (but not Bin Laden), the Bandito brothers were put off. “We actually pulled the picture for over a month,” recalls Waugh. “We wanted the SEALs to have their glory, not somebody else grabbing the limelight so we pulled the picture down and said no were not selling it right now, not until the heat has calmed down. A month and a half later we said now we will have a onetime screening. “

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This time Hollywood was interested. It wasn’t just the death of Bin Laden, but the intensity and level of realism and action in the movie that caught their interest. “All the distributors showed up,” says Waugh. “There was a bidding war and Relativity Media won.”

“We look at it as a new breakthrough in filmmaking,” says Relativity CEO Ryan Kavanaugh, “and a new way of giving people an experience that is a combination of football and video games. No one has ever done a movie where they have followed the best of the best into the field, who are actually not actors. We didn’t tell the SEALs what to do. We followed the SEALs and tried to keep up.”

Relativity paid a reported $13 million for the rights but Waugh insists it wasn’t about the money. “We were really confident in their marketing plan,” he explains. “They didn’t want to make it into something that it wasn’t. It’s not Seal Team Six, the movie that you hear about. We really appreciated their approach. That is why we went with them. It wasn’t about the money. It was what they wanted to do with the film.”

The movie was scripted but the co-directors worked closely with the SEALs for more than a year in advance and incorporated many of their ideas and stories into the script, which actually condenses four real life incidents into one movie.

“There was a script,” says Kavanaugh, “but shooting the action (the SEALs) weren’t trying to keep up with what the director was telling them. The director and cinematographer were trying to keep up with them. They are indeed the best athletes in the entire world, literally the strongest people n the world. It’s like they aren’t human.”

“We set out to make a movie but we discovered a brotherhood of men we thought only existed in mythology,” says co-director Scott “Mouse” McCoy, “but they existed in the world.”

“There was live (gun) fire in this movie,” says Relativity President Tucker Tooley. “These are real Navy SEALs doing what they do, based on real stories, and the families in the movie are real as well.”

Except for one actress who plays the pregnant wife of a real Seal, the rest of the family casts are real.

The SEALs, says Waugh, weren’t originally to be in the movie at all. They had originally been approached by the U.S. Department of Defense about entering a competition to be the producer who would make a movie about the Navy SEALs, whom the government officials felt had operated in the shadows for so long people did not really know what they did, or how much they sacrificed for their country.

“They felt like they’d been misrepresented for so long,” says Waugh. “They said would yyou guys make a film about our community. And I said, to be honest I don’t know much about your community. We would need to spend a lot of time down there. We did. We spent a year getting to know them.”

Down there was the Navy Seal base in Coronado, California, not far from San Diego.

After working with them for a year, the brothers decided that instead of casting actors to tell the story, they would cast the SEALs themselves, and then sprinkle in a few real actors around them.  Waugh says the SEALs were hesitant at first but were eventually convinced. Besides a guarantee that they would tell real stories without phony visual effects, the six SEALs who star in the film would only cooperate on the condition their names would not appear in the credits or be known. Instead, there is a crawl at the end of the movie with the name of about 60 SEALs who have died in the line of duty in recent years.

Even though the movie did not go through all the normal Defense Department channels when it was made, they had the cooperation of the Navy, and got unprecedented cooperation and access, which made the production possible on the relativity low budget on which it was produced.

“After the fact (the Defense Department) looked at the movie and determined that nothing in the movie was an issue or threat,” says Tooley. “They really liked the message of the film, the accuracy, the strict specificity of the SEALs and what they did. They were very supportive.”

The biggest break was getting to shoot on a real nuclear submarine, which Waugh says is the first time anyone has been allowed to photograph one up close. However, it took months of requests and negotiations and when the time came, the filmmakers were given only one day’s notice to be ready to travel half way across the world.

“They would only tell us the day before what ocean it was going to be in,” says Waugh. “That day they said ‘OK here’s your grid course and time locale. Show up. Be there at 1600 hours. You have 40 minutes to work while we surface. Once we go down we are gone.’”

That meant doing what would normally take 4 days in 40 minutes. Kavanaugh says in actuality after they got there and got set up, they had more like 14 minutes to get their shots. “It’s the first time in movie history, in any movie, that they shown an actually nuclear submarine,” says Kavanaugh.

Tooley says two weeks ago they screened Act of Valor in the White House for the first family. The president told him, recalls Tooley, “these are my guys, referring to the Navy SEALs. He was very complimentary about it.”

Katherine Bigelow’s movie comes out in October, just before the presidential election, which has Obama’s critics complaining that the story of the SEALs is being politicized and raising charges that Hollywood is trying to give Obama a boost just before the voting.

Kavanaugh is adamant that is not the case with Act of Valor. “We not putting a political message out,” says Kavanaugh. “That was never the intent of the filmmakers, the studio or the SEALs. This is about pushing the envelope in filmmaking and creating a new experience for the audience. We are bringing real life events and watching the best of the best do what they doo, in an environment most people never get to see.”