“Act of Valor” features active duty Navy SEALS re-enacting some of their most dangerous missions. The situations are fictional, but the tactics and operations are real. So is the ammunition. Instead of blanks and squibs, the SEALS used live ammo, just as they do in their training exercises. I was privileged to spend a day discussing the film with some of the people behind the film and an extraordinary group of business leaders and policy makers at an event conducted by Ideas Salon. We discussed the film’s lessons on leadership, inspiration, communication, and integrity.
I also spoke to producer Max Leitman and co-director Scott Waugh of Bandito Brothers about making the film and what they learned from it. We began with some reflections on the Ideas Salon experience. “Relativity [the distributor] put it together because they thought it would spark some really great discussions,” Leitman said. Waugh agreed. “It was great to really hear people pull different things out of the film that really sparked conversation. I feel like these guys are a true representation of leadership, and it was really interesting to really dissect how they operate, to relate that to the civilian side, the private sector, and corporations, and all those things. It was really fascinating for me, too.” Leitman added, ” I think part of making a film is you work so hard on something — it’s sort of like having a baby; you put it out into world. It’s really interesting to see just how smart and fascinating people will react and see how your baby’s doing. That was just a thrill for us”
I told them that what fascinated me most in the film was the way the SEALS communicated with each other — the economy, precision, effectiveness, and sheer variety of the forms of communication. “I think what we were really after in the film was the authenticity of how their com talk is and how they speak to each other,” Waugh said. “We refused to dilute that process and have them speak in layman’s terms. So all of the acronyms are true and authentic. Sometimes the audience can get a little bit lost because they are not in the know, but in general they can follow it and they can appreciate that this is exactly how this guys communicate with each other, whether it’s through hand signals or through the radios.” Leitman added, “I think that, moving away from the actual mode of communication, there’s a great discipline that comes from having that group of guys trust you to tell their story. I think that they are just so honest, so straightforward, and authentic, that we all feel like we’re better people and try to live up to the standard than we have seen acted out in the last 4 years, by them in their personal lives. To me, that’s just a great lesson for how everybody can continue to live their lives and be better people.”
I asked how the men who face the direst physical danger every day felt about being in front of the camera and had to repeat scenes over and over again. Waugh answered. “We were augmenting their training, so they were in that mode already. We purposely really tried to film in a way to stay out of their way, and they were very good just being themselves. They do their job and they do it with such precision and such repetition that with us in front of them, they was really no distraction for them, and they were just truly incredible men and how they operate with us around them was awesome. You’ve got to remember when they train, they do evolutions even 15 to 20 evolutions of the same operation. That’s how they train, so we would get multiple takes on certain situations. The toughest part of the shoot was working on water, because you’re dealing with a moving mass that you can’t control and we are out trying to really find and locate the submarines. To me, it was always the most fascinating complicating piece of business because we had our own air assets and boat assets and they did as well. All those moving parts, getting the GPS coordinates, the time and location the morning of was really complicated, and I think Max and I are both very proud of what we are able to accomplish, with such limited knowledge prior to shooting it.” Waugh talked about working with the Navy to make sure that the movie was authentic but not revealing enough to give away confidential information. “They were so involved during the process that we never actually filmed anything that was not supposed to be filmed. So they did do a heavy scrub with every single frame that was shot afterwards. The greatest reward we had was after the scrub, nothing needed to be subtracted.”
“The most important thing we learned from the SEALs was the ability to adapt and change with your surroundings,” Waugh continued. “With us, with film-making, you usually have something set in your head before you get to the set. And when those things change on you, it usually can rattle you, and you think ‘That’s not the way I see it!’ In the field teams, they are constantly doing that, that’s because that’s the way life is. We feel that we’ve learnt so much from the field platoon that we’ve modeled Bandito Brothers and our film-making style around that approach.” Leitman added, “We started our company about 5 years ago, and I would say the best way to start a company is to go into business with the SEALs. You just learn a lot from them. And it recalls what you said at the Ideas Salon when you were talking about the secondary and tertiary extract. That is really the take away from who those guys are, adapting and having a plan and then making it work.”
Waugh talked about what led the SEALs to approach them about making a film. “They wanted their story authentically told. They have been misrepresented for so long that they really wanted the world just to know who they are and the sacrifice that involves being a Navy SEAL. Not only what they go through, but most importantly, what their wives and the children didn’t go through. They really wanted that told properly. My hope is that regardless of what branch the military you’re in, that people who see this film will take away that there’s so many men and women that are down range sacrificing for our freedom. That shouldn’t be taken lightly, regardless of your political opinion. We should respect those and honor those that do. When we see them coming back home, we should not only thank them for their service, but we should also open up our arms to embrace them into getting back into the civilian world.”