Act of Valor: Striving for Authenticity

Having the U.S. Navy SEALs serving as advisors was an indispensable resource for the filmmakers as they continued to develop the script for Act of Valor.

“At the time, the U.S. Navy SEALs weren’t in the public eye the way they are today,” says Leitman. “We were trying to figure out what the real threats in the world were. We learned some things about Northern Mexico and Chechnya. We learned how broad-based the threat to the U.S. actually is. There’s no war at home, so we don’t have a really strong sense that there are men and women out there protecting us.” 


 In-depth consulting with military sources and government agencies revealed a wealth of possible scenarios. “We decided to set up a story in which the homeland was threatened,” says McCoy. “So we looked at current threats across the board. What are the areas of operation?  What kinds of missions are the guys doing right now?  What assets and equipment do they work with?” 


When it came to playing their roles, the U.S. Navy SEALs in the film were given free rein to decide what was real and authentic. “For example, the way they speak in the movie is the way they speak in real life,” says Waugh. “They throw acronyms around and they have a certain vernacular. We tried to keep it authentic because we want the audience to experience what it’s like to be in their world. When we gave dialogue to them, they would often tell us, no, I’d say it like this. And what they would say was much better than what we had written.”


Just as important were the ways in which the U.S. Navy SEALs communicated while not speaking. When they are in the field, or “down range,” communication is necessarily silent. “Their subtle body language and their hand movements say so much,” says Waugh. “It adds the tension to scenes, because now the audience is truly just listening the way they listen. You may hear a tree branch breaking or the sound of an owl or a spider monkey in a tree making a growling noise—or was that the bad guy? We tried to capture those moments before all hell breaks loose.”


According to Special Warfare Operator First Class Ray, the directors were always aware of capturing the U.S. Navy SEALs at their best. “Scotty and Mouse were really flexible on adjusting to how we moved and vice versa,” he notes. “We actually had to slow down for some scenes. It’s in our muscle memory to do things in a certain way at a certain speed, but they knew how it would work best on camera and we had to trust them.”


Even the film’s extraordinary action sequences were designed by the U.S. Navy SEALs. “All the operational planning was done by them,” says McCoy. “There was no dude sitting in Hollywood in his underwear at three in the morning writing the ops plan for how to hit a target. This is the way it would really go down.” 


In order to execute those scenes, the filmmakers would outline a scenario for the U.S. Navy SEALs and ask them to plan the operation exactly as they would in the real world. “For instance, you’ve got a bad guy on a 180-foot boat in the Caribbean and he’s got two counter-piracy boats,” says McCoy. “They would get their white boards out and design the entire ops plan. We would develop the camera plan around that. Then we would become one platoon and go hit the target.”


The film crew took their cues from the impeccable teamwork their highly trained cast members demonstrated. “The U.S. Navy SEALs work together seamlessly without any ego in the middle of it,” says McCoy. “There’s really no room in a platoon for that. It has helped us to approach film making differently.”



In order to capture the action as realistically as possible, the co-directors employed up to 12 cameras at a time and often ran two first units, with each of them independently directing their own crew as they filmed different aspects of a single scene.

“Scott might have one unit shooting inside a location,” says Jacob Rosenberg, a partner in Bandito Brothers and Act of Valor’s post-production supervisor. “Mouse would have the other unit shooting outside. He could jump on a motorcycle and ratchet strap a cameraman to his back, then blow through a set with the cameraman shooting and doing pivot moves, which allowed us to capture super-creative stuff. Scotty would be very specific about the story points, things that needed to emotionally carry the movie. He was always on top of that.”

As co-directors, the pair had doubled up in the same way on earlier projects and knew they could depend on each to do what each does best. “That’s the greatest part about directing with somebody that you’ve known your whole life,” says Waugh. “I know exactly what he’s getting on his set. Mouse and I were able to document what was happening in one evolution. We wanted this thing to be a thrill ride, without stopping and cutting, so we came up with a full battle plan to tell the story in one take.”

“We could run a scene like a play,” says McCoy. “We would start at the beginning and go straight through to the end. It was a really fluid and dynamic way to shoot action, and we could only do it because the U.S. Navy SEALS were so good. We didn’t need to block every scene with them. They just did it.”

The Navy provided the filmmakers with access to their ranges, vessels, aircraft and other assets—but with several caveats. None of the filming was to interfere with previously established Navy training schedules and all would take place at no cost to the Navy. The coordination and logistics required to film around special operations aircraft is so time-intensive, says Captain Smith, it’s unlikely to ever happen again.

“In traditional war movies, you’ll have a military advisor,” says Rosenberg. “Occasionally, the military will provide a location or some assets to help lend authenticity. When we crafted the story, we wanted it to express the scope and reach of what the U.S. Navy SEALs are able to do. They do the most challenging and difficult things on sea, air and land. They have tons of tools and hardware, and the Navy allowed us to shoot all of these assets, some of which the public has never seen before.”