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Exclusive Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh Interview on 'Act of Valor'

Behind the Scenes of the Action Film Starring Real Navy SEALs


Directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh at the Hollywood premiere of 'Act of Valor'

Directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh at the Hollywood premiere of 'Act of Valor'

Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Do you like your action films gritty and dangerous? Are you tired of CG-heavy action movies and ready for a more realistic movie-going experience? Relativity Media's Act of Valor fulfills all those requirements, plus it has the added bonus of real Navy SEALs in starring roles. And, those real Navy SEALs are firing real weapons, with live ammo upping the adrenaline level for those involved onscreen, behind the camera, and in the audience.

Directors Scott Waugh and Mike 'Mouse' McCoy are former stuntmen who've been involved in the entertainment industry for years and are partners in the independent production company, Bandito Brothers. Act of Valor, their first major theatrical release as directors, is set to hit theaters on February 24, 2012 and in support of the movie's release, the filmmaking team sat down to discuss why they chose to use active duty Navy SEALs in lead roles and how they were able to make the film as realistic as possible by shooting actual training missions.

Exclusive Mike 'Mouse' McCoy and Scott Waugh Interview:

Was there anything off limits?

Mike McCoy: "No, there wasn't anything off limits, but that was really by design. We showcased the SEALs' capabilities in this film, but we really made sure we protected for technique, tactic, and procedure. We as filmmakers had complete story control of the project, and the Navy had a scrub on what we call TTP - technique, tactic and procedure. They made sure we didn't give away anything classified or give the playbook to the bad guys."

How closely did the military monitor every shot?

Mike McCoy: "It's really important to note that all the operational planning was done by the SEALs. So, we would present story objectives and contact points for the story, and they would write the ops plan on how we would execute it. And, to continue that even further on, then scene-by-scene they would discuss what would really go on in those scenes. So, that really lends itself to total authenticity."

That's a really unusual way to make a film. Why go through all of this to make Act of Valor?

Mike McCoy: "Our goal, our mandate was to accurately and honestly communicate the lives of these men."

And in doing so, what stereotypes were you hoping to shoot down? Was there some misconception about the SEALs you were hoping, through the film, to set straight?

Scott Waugh: "I think it's really important that when Mouse and I approached the project, that's all we knew was the stereotype. So when we met them and saw that they were not the Rambo/Terminator guys, that they were real humans that were husbands and fathers of five children and they also have this incredible intellectual capacity, that's when we realized we needed to cast the real guys because their complexity of character is truly remarkable."

How quickly were you accepted into their community? I would imagine they don't open up to everyone.

Mike McCoy: "We spent the better part of a year researching the project, but earlier on we were fortunate that they were fans of our previous films. And with Scott and myself, both being ex-professional stuntmen and athletes, there was a definite commonality of culture. They said that there was a mutual respect overall, just based on our backgrounds, that let them open the door to us."

What hurdles did you have to get past with the Navy in order to find a common ground for shooting?

Mike McCoy: "It was really that we just explored how would this even go down. How would you go about telling their story in this way? We sort of came up with a guide track that didn't have any impact on their combat operations or their training cycles, and we were able to really integrate into that world and utilize it. We augmented existing training evolutions during the making of this film. No resources were moved for the making of the movie."

I'm sure that's a question you get a lot regarding the resources that were used during the shooting of the film, but nothing extra was done just for the film?

Mike McCoy: "No. The film took three years top to bottom to make, and two and a half years of principal photography. Quite a bit of that was waiting for assets to become available that were in existing training evolutions and deployment cycles of the men. Almost everybody in the film went on a full combat deployment and came back during the making of the movie."

That's a long period of your lives to devote to shooting one film.

Scott Waugh: "Yeah. The guys are active duty and it's not like they came back from deployment and went on leave. We had to work around their new work ops because they were getting ready to deploy again. That's why it was so spread out."

Mike McCoy: "And back to that point that you just made, once we connected with the men and we really understood the depth of this brotherhood and the depth of the sacrifices laid down by these guys, and you heard the stories...the film is based on real acts of valor, actual events that have happened to real SEALs on the battlefield...it just became a mission for us to set the record straight for these guys and communicate to the American public how much they've been putting out for our safety."

How difficult was it to whittle Act of Valor down to its finished length, given the amount of footage you shot?

Scott Waugh: "We have over 300 hours of footage, but we spent two years within the middle of the movie - we started editing while we were filming. It took us two years to get it to the shape it is. We finished a year ago."

And finding a cohesive story to tie the acts of valor together?

Scott Waugh: "We knew the story prior to even filming. When we did the research, we found five acts of valor that were really amazing that have happened to the guys on the battlefield. When we came back to Los Angeles, we hired Kurt Johnstad and said, 'Here's these five acts of valor these guys have told us that we love. We're going to weave a fictitious story thread through these five acts of valor.' So, he wrote the screenplay and then we knew what the whole heart of the movie was going to be."

[...]"Within those set pieces, of course, we had full creative freedom to really let the SEALs be who they are and operate how they would. As long as they ended up at 'z', that's all that mattered."

Talk about directing people who aren't actors. Is that a little difficult to do when they know so well their own world?

Scott Waugh: "First of all, we have a documentary background so we're very well-versed in talking to real people as opposed to actors who sometimes can be in a different mindset than a SEAL. But, they're playing themselves so they weren't acting. They're not playing a character; they're playing themselves."

They still have to say your dialogue.

Scott Waugh: "Yeah, but you're not saying it as you would if you were somebody else. You're just saying it like me talking to you right now. They have such life experiences, we just continuously encouraged them to do it how they would do it."

So the dialogue was a collaborative process?

Scott Waugh: "Absolutely. That's what was fun about the project is we would give them the scene with the dialogue kind of as a placeholder. They would read it and say, 'I wouldn't say that, I'd say this.' It was always better than what we had written. It was fantastic."

How difficult was the process of convincing these SEALs to sign on to act in the film? This is not the world they're from.

Mike McCoy: "No. Once we met the guys and heard their stories and connected and we set course to use the real guys, they all turned us down. They said, 'We're not Hollywood dudes. We're not actors - we're Navy SEALs.' And then we really earned their trust and they started to connect with the movie and realize it was going to be in their own voice, it was going to be legit and authentic and pay tribute to their brothers. That's when they saw the value in it and joined on."

You said after you earned their trust. How long a process was it to breakthrough and get them to say yes?

Scott Waugh: "To get them to say yes was about four months. But we had known them at that point for about six months, prior to even asking them. We had become pretty good friends with them."

Are you still in contact with the SEALs you worked with?

Mike McCoy: "Absolutely. They're great."

Mike McCoy: "Truly they've become best friends with us. We just feel very fortunate to have friends like that in our circle."

It is a little strange to see real SEALs in a film, because the common perception is that they don't want to disclose their identities.

Mike McCoy: "We've talked about that a lot. When they're in operations, they're in uniform with a big American flag on their shoulder. So, certain guys go off into worlds where they have to be discreet, but in the case of these guys, they were confident that giving up their identities wouldn't compromise them operationally."

After being so close to these SEALs and really getting to know and understand them, what most inspires you about these people who choose to do this job?

Mike McCoy: "I think for us, the fact that these guys do such heroic things and don't seek recognition was a really amazing quality to connect with. And just the fact that they're probably some of the most humble men we've ever met who have done some of the most extraordinary things, we found a lot of value in that."

Did you expect them to be so humble?

Mike McCoy: "Once again, the American public's perception of these guys is what Hollywood's portrayed them as. We went in with an open mind and we were really pleasantly surprised that they weren't those characters that we'd heard about."

After the last shot was done, how tough was it to say good-bye to these men you had become so close to?

Mike McCoy: "It's a really funny thing. Mostly on a movie, people just want to go home. On this film, when we were coming to an end nobody wanted it to end. It was like, 'Can't we just write one more op? Can't we go somewhere else together?' We were having so much fun. It just was rewarding."

How does coming from a stuntman background affect your vision for an action movie?

Scott Waugh: "I think that Mouse and I have always wanted to immerse our audiences in the middle of things we've done. That's been an objective for us."

Mike McCoy: "We always wanted to communicate our lifes in action, and so it became a mission to put the audience in the middle of their world. That was a big part of using live fire as well."

Did you have any accidents?

Mike McCoy: "No. We had a perfect safety record. It was a fantastic challenge for Scott and myself, because we were on the main cameras inside the gunfights and in the most dangerous situations on this movie. It was great to tap into our background to deliver for the audience."

Scott Waugh: "First and foremost, these guys are training - and they train how they operate. They don't train with blanks, so we didn't want to affect that. We just wanted to be a part of that. But what was more important to Mouse and I on top of that was we knew onscreen it would resonate. When you see the real ammunition coming out of their guns, and when you see those real tracer bullets, it's pretty mind-blowing. It's very kinetic."

Have you ever seen a movie that's done that before, that's used live fire?

Scott Waugh: "Not since the 1920s. It's been almost one hundred years since they've used live ammunition in a movie."

It looked incredibly scary.

Scott Waugh: "At Bandito, we pride ourselves in doing everything in-camera - no CG. We just find that we would love the audiences to get back to the original action movies instead of an actor in front of a green screen."

Given your background as stuntmen, do you feel strongly about the amount of CG now involved in action movies?

Mike McCoy: "You know, in a lot of ways we made this film for ourselves. As Scott says, we want to get the audiences back to live-action films. And as stuntmen, we want to see that come back."

And because of the film's action sequences, the MPAA gave it an R rating. Does that worry you as far as reaching a bigger audience? It seems this would appeal to younger guys into action and/or the military.

Mike McCoy: "What's really rewarding for us is that we're doing as well with women - and women over 35 - as we are with young males. The film is being extremely well received because a huge part of the movie is about the wives and the families."

Scott Waugh: "It's really rewarding when a woman goes, 'Oh, this is going to be one of those movies,' and when they come out they can't stop talking about it."

Mike McCoy: "There's a heavy sacrifice there by the women. These women are true heroes. They're really holding together the home life while the men are off on gnarly combat deployments. We really have a tremendous amount of respect for them, and that's why we made that issue and put it in the movie."

Scott Waugh: "When you would ask the wives, like, 'How does it work when you guys say good-bye?,' what you see in the movie is pretty much 100% accurate to how it goes down. We didn't have to embellish anything because the way it really goes is so heroic. We just wanted to showcase that."

What was the purpose of forming your own production company?

Mike McCoy: "Well, Bandito Brothers is a true independent studio. We wanted to create an environment for filmmakers like ourselves to thrive and be able to do it their own way and take chances and move things forward. It's all about creative freedom."

How do you know which projects to back?

Scott Waugh: "We have a motto at Bandito Brothers and it's heartfelt, human stories immersed in incredible action. We really stay true to that. We're always developing and finding projects that fall within that format."

Is it difficult to find those projects?

Mike McCoy: "We're developing those projects quite a bit ourselves."

Scott Waugh: [Laughing] "We come from that world, so that's all we do talk about."

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