Operation Hollywood: SEALs in the Spotlight

Stand aside, Mark Wahlberg: The active-duty Navy SEALs who star in Act of Valor are taking your job

(Feb.27–Note: “Act of Valor,” which opened in theaters on Feb. 24, led the box office this past weekend with $24.7 million in ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada. Bloomberg Businessweek provides an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film in this story, published on Feb. 2.)

On Nov. 5, 2009, just after 9 p.m., seven Navy SEALs were seated in the belly of a C-130 cargo plane, M4 rifles cradled by their sides. Decorated veterans of multiple deployments—they had among them a Silver Star, two Purple Hearts, and multiple Bronze Stars—the SEALs were fully “jocked up,” prepped to parachute into a hostage rescue. A soft red light suffused the bare interior, the men’s painted faces obscured but for the whites of their eyes and the occasional flash of teeth. They looked terrifying.

“Is this a bad time to go to the bathroom?” asked one of the SEALs, directing the question toward a man in a white button-down at the rear of the plane standing behind a movie camera. The plane, parked on the edge of the tarmac at Naval Air Station North Island, in Coronado, Calif., had been turned into a film set for the night, abuzz with lights, cameras, production assistants, caterers, and makeup artists. The active-duty SEALs—whose names are being withheld by the U.S. Navy for operational reasons—were part of an unprecedented collaboration between the Navy and Hollywood. They were prospective action stars.

Act of Valor, in which most of the main roles are played by active-duty SEALs, is slated for a 2,500-screen release on Feb. 24. It was acquired by Relativity Media in June, amid the post-Abbottabad swoon of SEAL coverage, for $13 million. The company is putting more than twice that into marketing, recognizing in the film a potential hit at the nexus of action, patriotism, authenticity, and current events. (Late last month, members of SEAL Team 6 mounted a rescue of two aid workers in Somalia, putting the SEALs back in the headlines just as Relativity is cranking up the film’s marketing push.)

The outlook wasn’t always so rosy for the men who spent almost four years making the movie, the producing/directing duo of Scott Waugh and Mike “Mouse” McCoy, whose Bandito Brothers production company self-financed much of the initial shooting. Throughout the process, Waugh and McCoy, former stuntmen who had produced mostly commercials, struggled to find Hollywood backing for their unconventional project. “When we were pitching it, we told people we wanted to do this narrative film but we want to put the real SEALs in it,” Waugh says, “and they’d say, ‘Oh, so it’s a documentary.’ ” He and McCoy pieced together their shooting budget, largely from non-Hollywood sources, and kept working.

Spring of 2011 found the Bandito team sitting on a nearly finished film, strategizing about how to get distribution. “Then on May 1, 2011, the SEALs get Osama bin Laden, which changed Hollywood’s perception of who the SEALs are,” Waugh says. Others wasted no time promoting SEAL-centric projects, including a film about the hunt for bin Laden by Kathryn Bigelow (director of The Hurt Locker) and an adaptation of Lone Survivor, a book about SEAL Team 10, directed by Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights). But Waugh and McCoy hung back, knowing they had something none of the bandwagoneers did: a finished film, and one with a level of SEAL access unlikely to be offered to anyone else. Eventually, they screened their film for four suitors, and Relativity, Ryan Kavanaugh’s nimble studio, came out on top.

“The uniqueness spoke to us immediately,” says Relativity’s co-president, Tucker Tooley. “That said, we do have a process we go through on any film to make sure that it makes financial sense for us to negotiate a deal.” The Navy’s decision to sign on was driven by its own set of numbers. When they initiated the project in 2008, Naval Special Warfare (NSW) was trying to improve the way it recruited SEAL candidates as part of an effort to meet a 2006 mandate to increase the 2,500-man force by 500 over five years—a challenge given that less than a quarter of recruits tend to make it through basic SEAL training.

“Our question from the start was, how do we find more of the right guys for our training pipeline?” said Captain Duncan Smith, a SEAL and the director of NSW recruiting, over sushi in a San Diego mall two days before the C-130 shoot. The film began as an attempt to communicate the reality of SEAL life to a wider audience: the action, yes, but also the camaraderie, the values. It was also meant to wrest back the SEAL brand from its pop-cultural fetishization, adding just a little Hollywood polish for good measure.

To minimize the movie’s impact on Naval readiness, action sequences had to be tacked onto pre-existing training exercises, many of which were live-ammunition drills. That meant coordinating the SEALs’ schedules with training operations all over the country and with the movements of planes, ships, and nuclear submarines. All footage had to be “scrubbed” to make sure no sensitive information slipped through.

Though they worked off a script by Kurt Johnstad (300), the directors and the SEALs rewrote nearly every scene. “You can’t argue what they would say,” Waugh says, “because they’re going to tell you: I wouldn’t say it that way.” (That didn’t prevent some clunkers: “Lieutenant, prepare your men for a bigger fight than what you had imagined.”) The acting isn’t going to win any Oscars, but that’s missing the point. Waugh says: “If you’re coming to see this movie, and you’re expecting Daniel Day-Lewis, then you’ve entered the wrong theater. But I think these guys do an absolutely incredible job portraying themselves.”

Much of the film was shot on custom-rigged Canon Digital SLR cameras. This occasionally gives Act of Valor the look of a first-person-shooter video game, as the viewer is right there with the SEALs through firefights, explosions, car chases, sniper shootouts, helicopter combat, and high-speed amphibious assaults. “We would say, here’s your target, how are you going to take it down?” Waugh says. And a few minutes later, the SEALs would come back with an answer. “It was like a ballet: something that, as a stuntman, it would have taken six hours to coordinate.”

For all the realism it brought to the film, teaming up with SEALs poses a challenge to marketers. “We don’t have a traditional arsenal of stars,” says Terry Curtin, Relativity’s president of theatrical marketing, “so we can’t do what we usually do and trot people out on talk shows and do a full publicity campaign.” The always-reticent NSW community has become even more so in the wake of the bin Laden operation. The Navy also needs the film less now: Over the course of the project’s long gestation period, their recruiting efforts have largely succeeded. While Relativity might not have picked up the film pre-Abbottabad, the Navy likely would not have come aboard afterward.

Nonetheless, the Navy remains supportive of the movie, says Captain William Fenick, the NSW’s public affairs officer. “There’s a constant, steady state of affairs for NSW to ensure that we’re attracting the right folks, recruiting the right folks, and sustaining the force, and this movie should help in that regard,” he says. “But it is not the Navy’s responsibility to promote or market the film.”

The pulse-pounding trailer and pre-release screenings have been generating online buzz for months . Keith Urban is writing a song for the end credits. And Relativity has struck partnership deals with author Tom Clancy for a novelization of the film and with video-game maker Electronic Arts, creator of Battlefield 3. Between the two platforms, Curtin says, “we have the corridor from ages 17 to 60 pretty well covered.” Most recently, Relativity bought ad time for the film before, during, and after the Super Bowl.

Responses from SEALs who’ve seen Act of Valor have been positive. Some SEALs will have to wait a little while longer to deliver their verdict: Four of the total eight SEAL actors, all uncredited, are currently deployed overseas.

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