When a Former Navy SEAL Goes Hollywood
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this is what being a SEAL is really like.
By Barbara Fletcher
At first, retired U.S. Navy SEAL Mitchell Hall wasn’t interested in helping Hollywood. Back in 2011, he boarded a plane to Jordan after reluctantly agreeing to help make Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s action thriller dramatizing the manhunt for Osama bin Laden, more realistic. With no interest in entertainment, his approach was “to say yes, and I can leave anytime I want,” recalls Hall, whose 21-year career in the Navy saw him repeatedly deployed to countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. But stepping onto the movie set swept all doubts aside. “Everyone was amazing and the effort was awesome,” Hall says. What he expected to be a very negative experience was instead “a fantastic one.”
That experience also led to a new career as a technical consultant in the entertainment industry. Hall’s latest project is SIX, a HISTORY action drama series inspired by Navy SEAL Team Six, the secretive unit best known for killing bin Laden. OZY sat down with Hall to talk about his time in the military, the transition to home life and what it’s like creating military scenarios for the screen. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How did you become a SEAL?
Mitchell Hall: I grew up outside of Chicago, in Waukegan, a place most people haven’t heard of, and probably for good reason. In 1988, when I was 16, my cousin and his best friend somehow caught wind of this group called Navy SEALs. At the time, there wasn’t much information about it, no books or stories, so it was a mystery, but it surely captured my imagination. I rode that out for the next two years, but I knew it was what I wanted to do.
You’re sharpening your skills, training by yourself or as a team to become the best war fighter you can possibly be.
What are some of the more surprising aspects of training to be a SEAL?
Hall: The whole thing is a shock to your system, empowered by design. I can remember my first day, showing up there in Coronado, ready to check in and start training, and just getting ripped apart by some dude that I was pretty scared of, telling me all the reasons why I wasn’t going to make it and how I was fucked up — and it was a long list. There is a 75 percent or higher attrition rate for all the guys walking through that front door. But once you’ve been there a while, and proven you’re one of the best, you go through this selection process and join the Navy’s special warfare development group – more recently revealed as SEAL Team Six. There’s a difference in the missions those guys do, a difference in the gear they get, a slight difference in attitude and how they approach operations.
What’s a typical day? Is there such a thing?
Hall: As a SEAL you’re constantly in different environments doing different things. Between deployments you’re sharpening your skills, training by yourself or as a team to become the best war fighter you can possibly be. That means sometimes you’re in the water for three weeks, or skydiving, or training in some desert, jungle or urban environment.
How is SIX different from other shows?
Hall: We’ve all seen movies or read articles about what are widely considered these amazing things that Navy SEALs do. What sets SIX apart is that we’re showing the impossible balance of this guy being asked to do these rather incredible things and then coming home and trying to hold down the fort.
How much of what you do is based on your personal experience and how much is research?
Hall: A lot is based on my personal experience and also things I experienced through other guys. The thing I have to be very careful about is that some of this information will be considered sensitive by some people. So I need to be respectful of the guys still out in the field and strike that balance between giving the show something that’s unique, entertaining and authentic while also not revealing so much that I’m giving away tactics, techniques and procedures to the bad guys who’re still out there. It’s certainly not an instruction book of how SEALs operate, but it’s pretty cool stuff that the audience won’t have seen before.
We’re showing the impossible balance of this guy being asked to do these rather incredible things and then coming home and trying to hold down the fort.
What were the greatest challenges for the actors in SIX?
Hall: They’ll all unanimously say that the greatest challenge was the initial boot camp phase we put them through — someone even called it life changing. It was very much tailored after SEAL training: They suffered a lot, they were sleep-deprived, cold, constantly on the go. They were challenged mentally and physically and completely depleted at the end of it, to the point where they truly bonded.
When active, what’s the balance between work and home like?
Hall: It’s one of those jobs where you have to travel a lot. In some cases you’re away up to nine months a year, so it’s very disruptive and asks a lot of any family. Personally, I rarely had problems; I was always appreciative to come home and I never carried all that baggage with me too much. I didn’t have any of the classic movie moments where the guy is struggling to find his place back home.
That’s a common theme in military movies — soldiers feeling alienated from their families after a mission. Do you think Hollywood misses the mark?
Hall: It often does. Hollywood often takes the most extreme case and puts that on screen, but 90 percent or more, it’s a rather normal transition. And that’s what we try to portray in SIX. For people outside, what we do may seem extraordinary, and I guess in some cases it is, but it becomes normal. I don’t feel like I come home from work and think ‘Holy shit, I did all these Navy SEAL things, how exciting is that?” No, I just had a normal day at work. When you’ve jumped out of a plane 300 times, you’re not going to get the same rush that you got in your first five jumps.
So do you think Hollywood does a good job of showing the true story of life in the military?
In a sense I regard myself as a little bit of a gatekeeper. I think often Hollywood comes in with an idea and they will try to pump it up and make it something that it’s not or never really was. My job is to assist in making it authentic.
Find out what it takes to be part of Team SIX. Catch HISTORY’s new military drama series SIX premiering January 18 at 10pm/9pm central.
- Barbara Fletcher