One of the most engaging people I met at the Military.com blogging conference in Washington D.C. last week was Scott Waugh, Director/Producer of the major motion picture Act of Valor. At first I was star struck talking to a movie producer. But as we chatted he became the guy in the room who makes you laugh by cussing like a sailor, and then almost makes you cry when he gets all sappy about something sentimental. I was lucky enough to meet him and his publicist in the hotel bar the night before he spoke at the conference. So in a departure from my regular writing, I’m publishing our conversation, interview style, for today’s post.
Lori: So where did you get the idea to do a movie about the Navy SEALS?
Scott: It actually came from one of the SEALS. I had been doing action movies and military commercials for the Navy, the Air Force, and the Army, and they apparently checked me out. It’s never comfortable when the SEALS are checking you out. But they must’ve thought I was OK, because they approached me to do the movie and I was like “Um, let me think … hell yeah!” Or I may have used a different word…
Lori: The story is “based on real events.” There’s so much sensitive information when you’re dealing with Special Operations forces. How did the script get written?
Scott: That’s a funny story. When they came to me with the idea I asked them about the story line they had in mind. They said they didn’t have one, they just liked the idea. So I spent time in Coronado with the SEALS, and I listened to their stories.
Lori: Yeah, Coronado. Heard of it. (After which we discussed my graduation from Coronado High School and how I climbed on the SEAL obstacle course as a kid.)
Scott: I spent time with their families, and I spent time just watching and interacting with them. That’s what led us to start the movie the way we did. If you notice, the entire first twenty minutes you won’t see a single uniform. We wanted you to identify with them as people – not military machines. So we took five real events and we weaved them into one story line. And that’s where the “true story” really emerged and we realized we couldn’t use actors. That’s when we asked the SEALS to consider actually being in the film. Of course, they all said no at first. But really, they are what make it so real.
Lori: The reality is certainly reflected in every detail. For me personally, since I’m a military spouse, the goodbye scene was pretty poignant. How did you capture that moment so accurately?
Scott: You know, I spent time with the spouses, too. For that scene I talked to a group of spouses, but I was especially moved by Rorke and his wife. In their case, she never goes to the hangar to see him off. They always do it at home, and so that’s where that scene came from where she slides down the back of the door. She talked about how you spouses hold it together, as long as you can, and then what it feels like the moment the door closes and the reality of what’s possible hits you. It really opened my eyes to the silent sacrifices the spouses make that we never really think about. I’m really happy with how that scene came out.
Lori: Was there a moment where you realized working with real SEALS was a bigger challenge than you anticipated?
Scott: Ha, well I had worked with the SEALS filming a “Swick Boat” piece, so I knew what it was like working with these guys, and what a challenge it was using real equipment and technology. But I do remember one scene in particular where I remembered how badass they really are and that I’m damn glad they’re on our team.
It was the interrogation scene where the SEALS drop onto the Cristo character’s yacht. Senior Chief [Miller] called me the night before and told me he wanted to lock the actor up overnight. I was like, “Senior Chief, we can’t do that. He’s an actor, man. There are unions and things.” And he finally said, “Fine. Then I want the temperature turned up. I want it hot in there.” So we did, we cranked it way the hell up. When you watch the scene you can see how they’re both really sweating hard. We all were.
Anyway, we only had one day to shoot on that yacht so things were a little stressful. And I’m calling for action and Senior Chief isn’t coming in. I mean, I’ve got film rolling and he’s nowhere to be found. So I go out to check on him, and he’s just sitting there, waiting. And I’m like “What the hell, Chief?” And he calmly says, “Yeah. I heard you. I’m waiting. I wanna be in his head.”
I had to remind him again that this guy was just an actor, but you know, he was really taking it seriously. Because that whole yacht scene, it was loosely scripted. I really wanted Senior Chief to do it the way he really would, make it realistic. That part where he clears the table with one swipe of his hand, that scared the shit out of us. And at one point we had to take a break, and I had to lean down and ask Alex [the Christo actor] if he was okay, because I could see he was really unnerved. It made us all appreciate that we would not ever want to be interrogated by Senior Chief. Ever.
Lori: Wow. Me neither. Given the unprecedented access you had to the SEALS, how was the process of getting a DoD buy-off on this kind of a film?
Scott: We developed the script with the SEALS, so you know from the beginning we knew that we were being both accurate and not violating any national security or anything. But when we sent the whole thing to the DoD, they just couldn’t wrap their arms around the idea that it was a full-on feature film because it used real SEALS and nobody had done that before. They kept referring to it as a documentary, which I tried to explain, but they didn’t quite understand. Then the commercials came out on Superbowl Sunday and I got a call from somebody surprised that it was an actual movie, not a documentary, and I was like, “hey guys, I have it in writing … you already approved this. The movie’s done.” They basically got a copy of the film and after an objection period passed it was okayed. But it was a hard concept for everyone to grasp.
Lori: What’s next for you and Bandito Brothers Productions?
Scott: Well right now we’re gearing up for the DVD and Blu-Ray release on June 5th, right before Father’s Day, which is really cool. I was involved in the editing of the movie, and there were lots of really great scenes we had to cut. But the DVD release gives us a chance to show people those extra scenes. There are interviews with the SEALS on there too which I really like, and you can see how we filmed with the real equipment. Because we didn’t use special effects for those scenes and it’s an amazing process to see. We decided this was a good chance to do something great for the military community, so we’ve decided that a portion of the proceeds are going to Operation Homefront for every DVD or Blu-Ray sale. We’re looking for our next action film but we don’t have anything in writing yet. I don’t like to jinx myself until the project is underway.
Lori: Fair enough. Well good luck with that. And thanks for all you did to bring this movie to American audiences. It’s really a testament to the warriors and their families. My Husband worked with some of these guys last year, and he was frankly amazed at some of the stuff you showed. He thought it was great.
Scott: That’s so great. I hope so. It was a privilege to make. And really, one of the things that surprised me most was to watch the silent sacrifice you guys, the wives and families, make year after year. So let me personally say thanks. I don’t think people realize.
There was a lot of this kind of sentiment in Washington D.C. because it was military spouse appreciation week, but I blushed when Scott said this, because he was a civilian, and he really meant it. I could tell. The next day at the military blogging conference, Scott spoke with Military.com editor Ward Carroll, and was asked again about the sacrifices military spouses make. Scott elaborated on this in a pretty moving way, and I think it’s worth posting here. If you scroll to minute 35 on this video, he discusses the military spouse sacrifice in a way that I think shocked even him:
Listen, I’ve only promoted one other film here at WLS, but if you didn’t get a chance to see this blockbuster when it came out in February, you should do it now with the DVD release. If you’ve got a Blu-Ray, you’ve gotta see it in super high definition because of all the action scenes. It’s gripping to see these guys in action, but it’s also such an emotionally charged film to watch. There probably won’t be another one like it. I’ll personally be buying a copy on June 5th.
Also, do I have to say this out loud? SEALS aren’t hard to look at. I mean, it’s almost Father’s Day. Don’t you think Husband would like to get a movie for Father’s Day? Ahem.