This Navy SEAL's intense boot camp prepares actors for movie combat
The reviews for “Suicide Squad” are in, and they’re a mixed bag, to put it politely. The film disappointed critics, but fans were more forgiving. What’s not in question, however, are military skills on display in the movie. That success is owed to Kevin Vance (of Vance & Brown Consulting), a former Navy SEAL and professional military advisor for the film industry.
“We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback there,” says Vance. “In terms of the gear we brought in, we had so much support. S&S Precision, Vickers Tactical — the list goes on and on.”
He doesn’t judge what’s “good” and “bad.” That’s not his job. He can, however, understand the decisions made by the studios. Vance believes they tried to make a movie for the fans of the comic, like filmmaker Kevin Smith (who called it “dope”).
“I just know David Ayer and the film he wants to make,” the Navy veteran says. “He’s made so many great films over the years and has such a unique perspective. If he sucker-punches you while he tells his story, so be it. He’s not going to do it simply for effect. He’s going to do it to kind of smack you and wake you up”
Filmmaker David Ayer is a Navy veteran who hired Kevin Vance to train the cast of a previous film, 2014’s “Fury.” That film was about a U.S. Army tank crew in World War II. In the film, the experienced crew looses their bow gunner and gets a reluctant replacement.
“What was fascinating to me was Wardaddy’s (Brad Pitt) job was to really dismantle this young man’s sense of decency,” says Vance. “The resistance to becoming a functioning soldier was going to get everyone killed. The sense of decency is what he to break apart.”
Vance put the entire cast – Brad Pitt, Shia LeBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, and Jon Bernthal – through a rigorous WWII-style basic training, complete with canvas tents, cots, and lanterns to protect from the cold, North Atlantic winds in the open countryside.
“I wasn’t there to train those guys to be soldiers,” the former SEAL recalls. “I was there to put them in a state of mind. I was there to make them fatigued, miserable, cold, hungry, pissed-off. I broke them down physically and mentally to build them back up. They suffered together to create a functioning group inside that tank.”
They did learn to work as a team in a real Sherman tank, Brad Pitt commanding.
“They’re tight because of it now,” Vance says. “They all still talk to one another; they do dinners together. I’m not saying that’s just because of me. That’s guys bonding.”
“Suicide Squad” was a much different animal in terms of mechanics, actor training, and weapons training. The film was about individuals being individual characters working together. Vance and his fellow military veterans had two weeks and $50,000 in blank ammo to drill the stuntmen and actors to move like operators.
“I was there to get these guys functioning on a level that the audience can truly appreciate, that our peers will appreciate, and then create scenarios where other movies have not performed,” Vance says. “We build this foundation of physical skills then move into this other space which the actor truly needs to perform well – and that’s that mental space.”
To Kevin Vance, that means combat mindset, leadership, and the emotional, psychological, or physical scars a character would have. Vance and his colleagues provide the actors with historical examples and personal examples from their real-world warfighting colleagues so they can take what they want and need for their character.
“Will Smith’s character [Deadshot] is very different from, say Flag [Joel Kinnaman] or Lt. Edwards [Scott Eastwood],” Vance says. “We’re all looking of that life-test. We’re looking to truly challenge ourselves. I didn’t know what that was. I just got very, very lucky when an old book landed on my lap in college when I was 19.”
That book was about scouts and raiders during World War II. It piqued Vance’s interest so much, he read more and more, eventually coming across books about Navy SEALs. One day he met a Vietnam veteran who inspired and educated him. One thing led to another, and Kevin Vance joined the Navy and served as a SEAL from 1994 to 2003. The frustrations of bureaucracy and war led Vance into entertainment.
“We used to have we called the ‘vent book,’” he recalls. “Guys can work out and vent. Guys can use conversation these different ways. So we created this book which turned into, something turned it into something really funny. It’s like how would you fight the war if you were Dirty Harry?”
The SEALs on Vance’s team got really creative with the vent book. Vance know some video game producers with the blessing of his team, decided to pitch the book to see where it led. That turned into Vance and his fellow Team guys writing a “Medal of Honor” game for Electronic Arts.
When I asked Kevin Vance for advice he could give separating military members on working in Hollywood, he was quick to remind me that his case is unique, he’s a “lucky guy,” and that he just came from a 48-hour shift at the local firehouse.
“If you’re getting out of the military, first thing first is to have a plan,” he says. “Don’t make Hollywood your plan A. Hollywood is not a structured environment like the military is, like a fire department is. You’re left to your own devices in a world that is unpredictable and unreliable.”
Vance says success in the film industry is also hinged highly on people skills and mission focus. The military from the garrison to the battlefield is one and the same with movies from set to screen. Veterans could use that same decisive skills set to engage, inform, and aid their own communities.
“I think people are hungry for a challenge,” he says. “Look at things like Mud-Runs, challenges you can pay to get. We ask 19-year-olds, men and women, to be soldiers, to be ambassadors, and spend a significant period of their adult years overseas. The people in our country need help. They need true leaders. We need people who can inspire other people and motivate other people. That’s what this generation of veterans has to offer.”