The truth is, I have absolutely no idea how authentic the new Navy SEALs-based film Act of Valor is. Like many people, I have never been a SEAL, or a Marine, or even a particularly good Call of Duty player. The closest I have ever come to serving in the armed forces was a year in Cub Scouts, during which I actually earned a badge for learning how to tie a neck tie. So forgive me if I don’t pretend to judge whether this film — a fictional story starring genuine, active-duty SEALs — is a realistic depiction of the lives of some of the military’s most elite operators. But talking to the movie’s directors, former stuntmen Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh, it certainly sounds like Valor captures the way modern SEALs work. Below, the directors talk about why they cast real SEALs in the starring roles, how they made the action feel so convincing, and why they couldn’t always get everything exactly right.
— The directors originally planned to use actors in the SEAL roles, but they quickly changed their minds. “As we set out on the research project, we met the guys and were just blown away,” says McCoy. “These were some of the most amazing men we’d ever met. They were so different from the Hollywood, popular-culture stereotype. They’re not Rambos. ‘Chief Dave,’ our lead in the movie [the SEALs in the film are not fully identified], he’s a father of five — just a great family man. They’re such humble guys. They’re actually the opposite of the Rambo character. We were like, ‘Wow, we need to let the American public know these guys are special.’ To properly tell their story, we couldn’t do it with actors. We just felt like it had to be from the men who’ve actually experienced it.”
— The film’s central action scenes were shot during actual SEAL training missions. The filmmakers beefed up the production values of already planned exercises, then filmed during the sessions. “For instance, the yacht takedown scene, they had a big amphibious exercise planned, so we provided the target package and wove it into the film,” says McCoy. “Normally they would just train on some tugboat or trawler or cargo vessel. We ended up renting a yacht and providing it as a target package. It was totally legit — a full, real operation. That’s where we’re pretty proud of how it was architected.”
— Shooting during actual training sequences proved challenging, and not just because the SEALs were firing — yikes — real bullets. “The hardest sequence to nail was the extract of the C.I.A. hostage,” says Waugh. “It was a three-week sequence that we needed to shoot completely in six days because of the availability of the guys. You’re talking about being in the jungle in the middle of summer — hot. And that jungle had four of the deadliest things on the planet: the recluse spider, the water moccasin, alligators, and another spider. I was laughing, like, ‘Oh, wow. What are we doing here?”
— There were a few situations where authenticity lost out to filmmaking necessity. While mapping out a hostage-rescue scene, the SEALs explained to the directors how they would go about entering the house. “It would have been very fast and dynamic, but the sequence would have been over in, like, five seconds, which would have been a very boring action sequence,” says Waugh. “It would have been all this buildup for five seconds. We were like, ‘Can we go to this side and make it a little bit more dramatic?’ They laughed and said, ‘We could do that. That’s definitely possible. But we would prefer to go this [other] way.'”