“…and this is probably the lesson for anyone who’s transitioning is just be open to those odd conversations. I always say, I’ll always have the conversation.” — Mitch Hall on his career after the SEAL teams
Commander Mark Divine talks with former SEAL Mitch Hall about the role he’s played in the SEAL teams, their current role in Special Operations, and how he was able to effectively make the transition from military service to become a highly successful technical consultant in the entertainment industry. In his 21 year career with the SEALs, Mitch was deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, and various other locations. He has since consulted on the Hollywood hit “Zero Dark Thirty” and is currently consulting in the production of the series “Six” about SEAL team 6. What is his insight into current issues and how can you learn from his determination and his career as a SEAL?
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Transcript & Shownotes
Hey folks, this is Mark Divine with the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Thanks so much for coming back. I am totally stoked to have a former teammate of mine, and former Navy SEAL, Mitch Hall, with me today. Before I get going and we have a lively chat, I just wanna remind you to please go rate this show at iTunes so other folks can find it. And if you’re not on our email list please go to unbeatablemind.com/podcast.
So Mitch, thanks buddy. Welcome back. I know you just got back into town from another adventure back east, but how are you doing today?
Mitchell Hall: I’m good. I’m good. I just wrapped up a five month TV show in Wilmington, North Carolina and I miss San Diego very much, so it’s nice to be back.
Mark: You’re looking a little out of shape, by the way.
Mitch: Yeah, that’s what 12 to 16 hour days on set and no working out does for you.
Mark: Oh yeah. That sounds brutal. Listen, I wanna talk about that and we’ll let everyone know what Mitch is referring to. An exciting new show coming out on History? Is it History?
Mitch: Yes. History channel.
Mark: We’re going to talk about some other cool things first. So Mitch, I first met you in SEAL team 3, alpha platoon, back in the day… And affectionately referred to you as “fuzzy” ’cause a little bit of the peach fuzz on your face. I think you were 18 and a half or 19 at the time, right?
Mitch: Yeah. And I think that nickname came to me from a Viet Nam vet, Kirby Hurrel, who… yeah, because I couldn’t grow facial hair. Hence, “fuzzy.”
Mark: (laughing) So let’s talk about your path into the SEAL teams. What got you interested… where were you from and what got you interested in the teams?
Mitch: You know, the first thing I’ll say is that there was nothing exceptional or… there was no indication that this was coming. If you had asked my friends from high school if this guy had the potential to be a Navy SEAL, most would probably say no. But a switch flipped for me when I was sixteenish, a cousin of mine and his best friend started talking about this, at the time, somewhat mysterious group called the Navy SEALs. There was no internet to look all this stuff up and…
Mark: It was 1990ish?
Starting as a SEAL[2:49]
Mitch: No this was 1988 when I was 16. So and there was certainly no SEALFIT or anything… there was no way to connect to it and find out what the hell it was. So it was really kind of a mystery and a leap of faith, but it certainly captured my imagination.
And as soon as I was 18, I signed up and rolled the dice.
Mark: No kidding. So you just went to a recruiter and said, “I wanna be a SEAL?” They didn’t have any mentor program, or challenge contracts…?
Mitch: No, nothing like that. As a matter of fact, there was a lot more misinformation back then. I still remember my first day at BUD/S. After a guy named Senior Chief Macarthy just ripped us a new one within probably 15 minutes of being in the compound…
Mark: Dr. Evil.
Mitch: The very next day was the first full day of training and I was a decent runner, but I hadn’t done much swimming, and we did a morning swim in the pool, which… again, sounds kinda crazy, but I didn’t know how to swim with fins. I never did any fin-swimming leading up to it, and my feet were just destroyed by about 8:30 in the morning. And then we did a big soft sand run in the afternoon, and no one told me I needed to run in sand. And at the end of day one, I basically told myself, like, “What the hell of I gotten myself into?” It was… but being an 18 year old, I was rather resilient and I was certainly determined.
Getting through successfully[4:09]
Mark: So you woke up the next day and just…
Mitch: Yeah, you just keep adding the layers. You know, everyday you do it. And if there’s an easy part to BUD/S, if you can just wrap your head around it, you just say, “And the next day, and the next day.” And then everyone’s suffering together. You’re not by yourself unless you put yourself by yourself in your mind. But when your out there being surf tortured and you’re freezing cold, you just look to the right and left and there’s a dude suffering right there with you. So in that sense… and that’s kinda what I told the guys training for the show here… that to me makes it a lot easier.
Mark: Absolutely. So what BUD/S class were you in? Do you remember?
Mitch: I was in class 180. You can never forget your BUD/S class.
Mark: (laughing) Right.
Mitch: What were you in?
Mark: I was 170. So exactly ten after. So that was about three years, I think.
Mitch: Yeah, six classes a year, so yeah.
Mark: So, one day at a time. Check. I definitely agree with that. One evolution at a time, when things get really tough and your teammates are there suffering with you. Did you have any particular other strategies that you’re aware of now, that you think led to you being one of the guys standing there tall on the grinder, earning the trident? I mean, how did you manage your mental and emotional state as an 18 year-old kid?
Mitch: I played a little game with myself, and I will say this. Being 18 is a… I don’t know if I want to say disadvantage, but there’s a giant difference between an 18 year-old and a 22 year-old.
Mark: Absolutely. Yeah.
Mitch: A lot happens in those 3 or 4 years, but you know…. I felt… I played this game with myself, and I’ll say this, and some people may doubt that, but I never once considered quitting. Like it never crossed my mind. They were going to carry me out of here in an ambulance or some other way, but I’m not voluntarily saying, “I’m done.” And that doesn’t mean I didn’t have shitty days. I had a lot of them. There were days I’d do well.
But it never crossed my mind to quit, and that’s just a game I played with myself. I came from a questionable town, Waukegan, Illinois, and there was no way I was going back there. I was leaving furniture. And I just told myself, “There’s nothing back there for me. If I don’t do this, I’m gonna be, part of the fleet, which there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it’s not what I wanted. Or I’m going back to Illinois, and I didn’t want that either. So it never crossed my mind to quit. Not once.
Mark: Did you go in with that as a strategy? Or…
Mitch: I think it just developed. Again, I was… I think on some level the guys that make it through training have that going in. They have something about them that first of all, made them even try. Of course, there’s still a high attrition rate. But that strategy just showed itself to me very early on. Even that first day, when, like I say, I was a deer in the headlights. Like, “What the hell have I done?”
Mark: Macarthy was notorious. Like he was there when I was there. He was just notorious for being just vicious. They don’t allow instructors like him anymore.
Mitch: No. No, no, no. There were… not to shed the light too much on how the sausage is made, but yeah, there were a lot of things then that instructors could do that they can’t do now. Doesn’t mean training easier, it just means there’s less stuff happening outside the lines.
Mark: Right. A lot of the personality, not all the personality, but some of the personality and subjectivity is taken out. It’s really metrics driven. Much more metrics driven, much more professionalized. And it ways that allowed us to amp it up and go harder, and be more aggressive. And in other ways, you know, you’re not taking guys out back and beating them up behind the box like they were in the ’70s.
Mitch: And the other thing is too when you don’t have those guidelines in place, you can actually lose a guy that probably should have made it. You know, so I think there’s a happy medium. I think the instructors… and I was an instructor… we should have the means to do what we feel is necessary as the gatekeepers for training. But, you know, these guys are going to be teammates. And I remember I was third phase instructor, and we got some new instructors in, they were rather young guys. I went there after 14 years, I was an instructor. And some of the guys that came in after their 4-year mark or 6-year mark were rather… some of them, not all of them… some of them were pretty riled up, and they wanted to… it was their turn to beat down on students. And I remember having conversations with them, “Like, guys, number one we’re in 3rd phase, you’re not going to do anything to make these guys quit. This is about training them to be your future teammate. So let’s do less of the beat downs, and more mentoring, because this guy’s already proven he’s here. So now it’s about training him.”
But some guys would… they struggled to find that balance. But ultimately they did, it was just kind of a correction for new instructors.
Mark: Right. I’ve often used that with our SEALFIT trainees, saying you know, that this really is a teammate selection process. And you can look at the instructors as these god-like arbiters of your future, or you can look at them as your future teammates, and ask for help, and accept their guidance, and smile and be a good person. And there are cases where you have a talented athlete who’s meeting the numbers, but just is not a good teammate, and has a horrible attitude. The instructors will find a way to get them out of the training, ’cause they’re like, “You’re not gonna…”
Mitch: Yeah, that could be a performance draw for like leadership or just they see the writing on the wall, and this guy’s not going to fit. And those are harder to do, for sure. To make that case, if the guy’s making the numbers, but for some reason he doesn’t fit. But it’s still very possible. And it needs to be done, on occasion.
Mark: Yeah. You know, as a former instructor, and just putting your instructor hat on, what do you think about this notion… or the pending issue of women coming through training?
Mitch: You know, this could be rather unpopular. I actually did an interview for a local news station when that came down the pipe. What was it, 2 years ago? I think, we’re potentially tinkering with something that doesn’t necessarily need… it’s not broken.
And I think we’re talking about a group of women that is so small that it’s not a cost-effective or resource effective thing to pursue. I mean, when you really think about it, how many women out there, number one, want to be SEALs? Out of those women, ’cause there’s a high attrition rate even for males, right? So let’s just say in the nation… I don’t know… let’s just say in the nation there are 150 girls who even desire to be this person. Out of those girls there’s going to be a lot–I feel there’s going to be a lot higher attrition rate than for men. I think out of 150 you might get…
Mitch: 5. Yeah, 5. Is that where you want to spend resources recruiting and building new locker rooms and new facilities? Do you want to build new locker rooms? Or do they just do the same things that they’re going to have to do in the field, with the guys?
I think it’s a lot to chase for a little return. And they may not be a popular thing, but I think men and women are different. And I think that’s a good thing.
Mark: Absolutely. Well a lot of people, and a lot of listeners don’t really understand or realize that women serve alongside men in the special operations community already. And some of our most valuable intel assets are the females who can put a burqa on…
Mitch: Yeah, the logistics… I mean, you’re absolutely right. They’re already serving, but we are different. We’re different physically, we’re different emotionally. Historically throughout the beginning of time, and there are examples of women fighting, but generally speaking, elite combat has been a male arena. And I know it’s unpopular, I keep saying that, but I just don’t know if it’s worth tinkering with.
I can remember… you probably remember this too…
Mark: Let me get back to that. I don’t know if it’s unpopular. I think it’s just difficult to have a rational conversation about it.
Mitch: It is.
Mark: Because people just get wrapped up in their political correctness, and think,”Oh I’m not supposed to say that.” I completely agree with you. I think that you’re messing with 60 years of trial and error in creating the most elite special operations team in the history of man since probably the Spartans. And you don’t mess with that without a lot of testing and trial and error. And probably starting with other units where the capital cost as well as the cost of failure are much lower.
Mitch: And you could feel–if you were watching the media when this really gave way–you could feel the politics in it.
Mark: For sure.
Mitch: Even some of our top brass. You could tell they were almost forced to toe the party line, and then as soon as they were out of that seat, they rescinded that comment, you know, and they backpedaled.
Yeah, I can remember when women first went on carriers. I seem to remember, I think it was 4 or 6 women were on one of the first carriers. And it was something like… I could be speaking out of turn, here… it was a giant cost to retrofit the carrier to give them the facilities they needed. For a small return on the investment. Again, how many women… I would love to find out.
Mark: It’s a different discussion to say, “Can a woman make it through SEALFIT?” There’s definitely women who can.
Mitch: There certainly are. Absolutely. Is it worth chasing? Is it worth chasing for the amount of women that actually desire to do it? I would love to hear how many women… I would love to see some poll about how many women nationwide actually want to be a SEAL.
Mark: Yeah. Well, we might find out. Admiral Harward and I are working on a project called “A Few Good Women.” To test this.
Mark: It won’t be an ideal test because there’s no way we can recreate BUD/S. But we’re going to try to recreate the 3 weeks leading up to hell week and hell week. To the exact standards. And put 30 men and 30 women who want to be SEALs through. And this is going to be hopefully a uni project. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens. Because we don’t know the outcome.
Mitch: Yeah, I’m very curious. Let’s talk off-line about this as well. I want to know the…
Mark: The particulars.
Mark: All right. So… enough about BUD/S and women in the SEALs. We went down a rabbit hole quickly on that one, didn’t we?
Mitch: Yes, we did.
Mark: (laughing) That’s what I love about these conversations, you never know where they’re going to go.
Mitch’s SEAL Career[14:58]
So you served for quite a long time in the SEAL teams.
Mitch: 21 years.
Mark: 21 years.
Mitch: 21 years.
Mark: You got your start in SEAL team 3. Did a few jobs there and then where did you go from there?
Mitch: So I went to… after 6 or 7 years I went to Navy special warfare development group, which is now… the veils been lifted… which is now also known as SEAL team 6. Which only recently have I even been comfortable saying out loud. So, it’s not a secret anymore, it’s kind of foolish to even think that it is. We’ll keep the details of what they do relatively veiled, but to not say it is kind of foolish, I think, at this point.
But yeah, I went there, and I can remember that process as well. And actually Mark you would probably remember part of that decision making. I believe I wasn’t even fully aware that that place existed. And again, this 1991, ’92,’93, that time frame where I thought I’d reached the top rung. At SEAL team 3, becoming a SEAL, checking in on my first SEAL team, and then I think it was… there were rumors about the place existing, but I remember a newspaper clipping, literally a newspaper clipping on a bulletin board about Haiti, and about… you know, some vague report about this command on the east coast having a part in that. Or showing up there. And that was kind of the–as I remember anyway–that was the catalyst for me and a couple of other of our teammates to say, “That’s where I gotta be.”
Mark: Yeah. Well, they used to come… I don’t know how they do the selection now, but they used to actually have kind of like a recruitment period. And come out and do interviews and stuff. And I remember when you and Lou and a couple other folks did your interviews.
Mitch: Yeah, they would come to town once or twice a year. But even that was… again it was not like it is now, where it’s pretty official. You know they’re coming far in advance.
Mark: Yeah, it was very…
Mitch: I won’t call it secretive, but it just wasn’t talked about much.
Mark: Yeah, well back in the day they would do this recruitment, and bring names back of guys that had passed the interview that they thought would be good operators and good teammates, and then they would literally “murder-board” them, that’s what they called it. Put your face up on the screen, and it was like an up/down vote. If you didn’t get all thumbs up, you didn’t get invited.
Mitch: Yeah, and once you get there your part of that. You find out, “Hey, we’re screening this batch of guys, from whatever command, do you know them? What’s the dirt on them?” And it’s… again, think about that… it is done in the corporate world, but probably not in the same manner. Not with the… I don’t know if I wanna call it ruthlessness, but it’s not politically correct. I mean, we’re dealing with lives here, and you wanna know that the guy coming in to that command is who he says he is, and you wanna know the dirt on him, and you wanna know if there’s going to be any backlash to him being there.
Mark: Right. Well, I think it speaks to the fact that in the SEALs, your capital is your reputation. I worked on Wall Street, as you know, before the SEALs, and I wasn’t a trader or anything like that. I was around, on the floor in the investment banking world. And these guys, they were just so intensely aware of what everyone else earned. And so that was the whole pecking order. And so I remember meeting a guy who was a total asshole, who earned 800,000 dollars in the year the I was there. And he lost the firm 800,000 dollars on one trade. So he was pretty a much a wash for that year.
Mitch: Net zero.
Mark: But… yeah, net zero… and he was just so arrogant ’cause he’s walking around thinking, “I earn $800,000 and you… you little boy, you’re an auditor and I know that you’re only earning like $40,000. You’re pretty much nothing and nobody to me.”
In the SEAL teams, it’s all reputation. How many tours you’ve had… now it’s how many combat tours you have. What was your performance in combat? It’s pretty interesting. And rightfully so. I mean, everyone earns the same amount.
Mitch: Yeah. And it’s not much.
Mark: It’s not much. And you’re not doing it for that, you’re doing it for obviously other reasons. What were some of… as much as you can tell… what were some of the most interesting things you did at Development Group.
Mitch: I’d say that the biggest takeaway from that place was… to answer your question directly, the squadron I was with, we were the first guys to deploy in 2001 to Afghanistan. Like, the very first guys. We had us, our Army counterparts, our Air Force counterparts and we were the very first push into Afghanistan. Before there was a Bagram, we were sitting in carrier off in the Indian Ocean, then went to a small island off Oman. Then ultimately pushed into Bagram. But it was interesting to be the first guys there and to figure how we’re going to prosecute this war.
We very early on…
Mark: At that point, did you have any interaction with the Green Berets who were facing the Northern Alliance, and…
Mitch: No, not much. Not much. We were very aware of what was happening there. And we actually… my squadron was the ones who pulled Karzai out before he was most likely KOed. But it was an interesting time, and I was super-proud of that. Not many military units get to say they were the first ones there. And we did some hostage rescue, early on… the very first hostage rescue of the op. It was just… it was interesting because you always… 9/11 happened, everyone was rather emotional. We were who we were, and we thought like, “Okay, let’s take the gloves off, and let’s go kick some ass.”
JSOC and the SEALs[20:46]
And it’s not that easy. You gotta figure out… war is 75% logistics. You gotta get in place. You gotta get a strategy in place before you just start, unleash the hounds. And we were young, emotional. And nothing had happened for years and years, and we were ready to go. Almost maybe too ready to go. So… and it was a very competitive environment between us and our army counterparts to see who was going to get the first op, or the most important op. Which is good. Healthy competition, but everyone was… and, you know, that place was the red-headed stepchild of JSOC. I mean we were absolutely… no one understood us, we spoke a different language. We used boat crews instead of teams. The Army and the generals that ran JSOC at the time didn’t know what the hell a boat crew was. Is that 4 guys or is that 60 guys? You’re speaking a different language.
Mark: How long had the unit been deployed under JSOC?
Mitch: Well, so Delta and Development Group had been a part of JSOC since right around 1980.
Mark: So that was early on.
Mitch: Yeah. So fast forward to 2001, not much had happened in those 21 years.
Mark: And JSOC had never been led by an admiral?
Mitch: No. And we still weren’t then. We had an Army general in place at the time. And we had to fight… first of all you have the maritime component to JSOC, which means we’re supposed to be in and around water. And in Afghanistan, there’s no water. So they looked at us, and rightly so… our Army counterparts, like, “What the hell are you doing here?” Especially because it was competitive. They didn’t want to share the operations with a maritime unit. So we had to prove ourselves, and we had throughout the years proven ourselves to be somewhat the black sheep of JSOC. We didn’t always wear our uniforms properly, you know… there was some unprofessional stuff we were doing that earned us that 2nd seat, but fast forward 15 years, and things have changed. And we’ve proven ourselves on land and in the water.
Mark: It turns out that that black sheep attitude can be effective in combat.
Mitch: Oh yeah.
Mark It’s kind of like the old adage of, “In case of war, break glass.” Keep the SEAL behind the glass…
Mitch: You know, all those forces under the JSOC umbrella are unconventional, but we were another level of unconventional. And sometimes it bit us in the ass, but I think most of the time it was to our advantage. We matured very quickly. And we are where we are now. And we could screw it up, by some bad decisions of course, in the near future. It’s good that we had the chance to prove ourselves.
Mark: I agree.
SEALs and Esprit de Corps[24:56]
Mark: What do you think about the O’Neill and that nightmare.
Mitch: It’s unfortunate that it went in the media, but of course the media’s going to dig that stuff up and sensationalize it, and over-report it so… And they’re going to pit the guys against each other as best they can to make more media out of it. So I don’t like the fact that they were bickering, or seemingly bickering, through the media. It was a great op. It’s one of the all-time great ops.
Mark: Classic. We’re talking about the bin Laden raid by the way.
Mitch: Any SEAL would love to be on that operation, but they did a kick-ass job and they put that storyline to bed. And it was long overdue. I’m glad we did it. I wish we could do it every year.
Mitch: Pull him out of the ocean, prop him up, and do it again.
Mark: Now you’ve been out just for a couple of years. What was the state of the teams, where were you at professionally and kind of from an esprit de corps standpoint? And where are we going? In a good direction? How healthy is the community right now?
Mitch: I think we’re very healthy, but we are in between conflicts. While that sounds like I’m wishing for another conflict, I’m not. But there is a retraction in these lulls. People get out, especially the guys that have tasted the fresh meat.
Mark: That’d be surprising for a lot of people to hear, because people are hearing that we’re kinda ramping things up. Iraq again, and we now have got guys on the ground in Syria, and it seems like… I mean, everything over there, all the years, 15 years of work, it’s just still a mess.
Mitch: Well, I’m not sure if this is going to address that exact point, but I will say that a guy getting into the SEAL teams right now, or a guy at SEAL team whatever, is not guaranteed a combat tour. Whereas for 12 years or more, you were almost guaranteed a combat tour.
But that being said the SEAL teams are a great place to be even in peacetime. And it’s fun, it’s fun to train, it’s fun to train hard, it’s fun to test new gear, it’s fun to test new tactics. All getting ready for the next one. And you need to be patient. And most likely, history says you’ll get your turn. If you go long enough. You know, and I in many ways–I guess I can say this because I gotta a big bite of it–but in many ways, I’m glad I didn’t go into combat when I was a 23 or 26 year-old. I went in with a more mature attitude, and I do think that’s a huge advantage.
The same way I said earlier there’s a big difference between an 18 and 22 year-old, there’s a huge difference between a 22 and a 32 year-old. And you’re dealing with complex situations on the ground where the decisions you make can win or lose wars. You know, you shoot the wrong guy because he was doing something that was questionable, whether you want to call it probing or tactically moving because that’s the gray area, there’s a huge gray area on the battlefield. If you make the wrong decision you can lose a village. And over there, you lose a village or a tribe, and now… maybe they thought the Americans were the good guys, or they were undecided. Now they’ve made their choice.
Mark: And that’s happened many times.
Mitch: So you need a mature person. Sometimes it’s just as important to know when not to pull the trigger on something. Even though everyone wants… they kinda measure their manhood on a kill. Which is, again, as a 32 or 40 year-old. For my part almost 44 year-old, I see that very clearly now. But usually a twenty something year-old will not see that, that clearly.
The Worst day[28:48]
Mark: Right. What was the most challenging thing that you had to encounter, or the toughest situation that you had to fight your way out of there?
Mitch: Well, that’s actually a very easy question. I was part of a… I was ambushed–our platoon was ambushed in 2007. And on paper it was supposed to be a very easy op. We were going to go get atmospherics in our region in Iraq. And we were just supposed to go in, have a look, and then see if there’s some work to do later on. But there were a couple of probably bad decisions made with our leadership–including myself–which led to us compromising ourselves. We were ambushed in broad daylight, and you know we had to fight our way out of it. And it was probably the only… one of two or three times where I felt like… and I’m totally serious when I say this… “I’m not sure we’re getting out of here today.” It was that bad. We were just absolutely pinned down. Getting fired on from two or three directions.
Mark: Was this urban? Were you in a town?
Mitch: It was rural. We were in a building, but it was not a downtown, or a heavily…
Mitch: So there was some fields, some buildings–definitely a rural environment. But we just got on the radio, called in some other people and just took it one bad guy at a time. Worked together, and we got out of there with one guy hurt. But that day had a lot of potential to go sideways and be one of the worst days in SEAL history. And we didn’t allow that to happen, so kudos to the guys on that mission.
Mark: Right. You know, I’ve heard variations of that story. Not your story, but variations of that, so many times. And it’s just something that’s a testament to the SEAL mindset, that starts in the training that we talked about earlier. BUD/S training. Of just, you know, when the shit hits the fan break it down to the smallest action to victory. And that means, find a bad guy and shoot ’em. And then find the next bad guy, and shoot ’em. And pause, assess the situation, and then do it again, and again, and again. With that mindset, right, guys have fought their way out of just unbelievable odds.
Mitch: Yeah, I completely agree. It’s just measuring, deciding and then taking action. And repeat. So…
Transitioning to civilian life[31:22]
Mark: Right. So let’s shift focus now. We’ve been going for about 30 minutes and I’m sensitive to your time. Let’s talk about your transition from the SEAL team to the civilian world. That’s a tricky one for a lot of SEALs. It’s difficult for us to find anything that’s nearly as exciting and adventurous. We’re not getting shot at in the civilian world, which is good for the most part, but…
Mitch: Well, you’re just not doing any of the cool training. It’s hard to find a job where you’re paid to breach doors, or paid to do a better operation, your skydiving or whatever, or shoot.
So in the transition for me was… I was going into this force production business. I ran Superfrog for Moki Martin, you know, an old Frog man who started… basically was the beginning of the sport of triathlon. Which is a sport that I love. Did for a lot of years, and still do. And I saw a lot of opportunity in that particular event. It was rather small at the time. And I just saw an opportunity there. So I worked with Moki to basically grow the event. And that was my plan. I was going to turn my passion into a business.
“Zero Dark Thirty”[32:38]
And then, I got an odd phone call from the entertainment industry for a movie called “Zero Dark Thirty,” and the writer wanted a technical adviser to help them make the movie real. And I was not even a little bit interested.
Mark: No kidding. Why’d they call you?
Mitch: I think a buddy of mine, Paul Tharp I think who you know. If I remember he was at a fund-raiser for the Navy SEAL foundation, and I think one of the producers or writers was there. And I don’t know why Paul thought of my name to this day, but he mentioned me. They got hold of me. So I had this conversation with a writer, who’s an academy award winning writer, but it just wasn’t a direction I had even contemplated.
But I heard the guy out, and this is probably the lesson for anyone who’s transitioning is just be open to those odd conversations. I always say, I’ll always have the conversation, I mean, unless it’s something obviously against my principles or something, but I always have the conversation. I’ll have that 15-minute conversation and say, “Okay, what’d the guy say? What does this mean for me?” I’ve been wrong enough times to where I owe it to myself to have those conversations.
So they needed me on short fuse too. They needed me, I think it was in Jordan for filming–it was something ridiculous like 4 or 6 days from the first phone conversation. So I’m thinking, like, “What the hell guys? You just found out you’re making a movie?” So I thought about it over the weekend, got back to ’em and said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” Thinking that I can always just get on a plane and leave if I don’t like it. And what happened was I… it’s funny, I tell this story a lot to some of my entertainment buddies now, but I figured I’d go over there and it would be just a bunch of Hollywood douchebags and I would hate it, and I’d be on a plane within days.
And it turned out I was exactly wrong. People were amazing. And I found that I had kind of a knack and really enjoyed blending the creative and authentic. And I was able to communicate with the director, in that case, Kathryn Bigelow very well, and we always found that middle ground. Good film-making is about exactly that. Blending… making something that captures the imagination, but making it also feel like it could be real, so you can connect to it.
Mark: Yeah, “Zero Dark Thirty” did a really good job of that.
Mitch: Yeah, I think so and I’m very proud of that movie. Of course, there are things that… a few things that are inaccurate. You can pick any film apart. But I think we nailed it. And I think most people agree that we nailed it. And I enjoyed the process, and that just opened the door, ’cause that film was critically acclaimed. It opened the door for me to look at other entertainment projects of all kinds.
You know, I’ve done “Call of Duty” video games, which… I don’t play video games at all. But I truly, truly enjoy that same process. It just has another twist on it. That’s even more we could push the limits of reality because in some cases it’s near-future, and we can think about a weapon system like, “What do I wish a gun could do? That it doesn’t do right now?” And, “Can we shoot around corners, shoot through walls.” Whatever it is. And we can actually make that happen in the video game, but we can make it seem plausible. And that’s cool. That’s really cool.
The Entertainment Industry and “Six”[36:02]
Anyway, I found myself in this entertainment industry and I love it. And I’ve met a lot of great people, people that are friends of mine now. And they were not the Hollywood douchebags that I thought they were going to be in the beginning.
Mark: Now let’s talk about your current project. Who’s the producer behind that?
Mitch: So, this project called “Six” is, as the name implies, it’s about Navy Special Warfare Development Group. It’s basically the story of these operators and their normal lives.
Mark: The human face of the SEALs.
Mitch: Yeah. We’ve seen the super-human aspect to it, but the reality is these guys are normal, and they go to Home Depot, and they mow their lawn just like everyone else does. But when they go to work, they do this exceptional work. And it’s a story in a lot of cases about the cost. You can’t ask most people to do that job without them paying the bill. And, they go overseas, they see a lot of different things over there. They’re hard-charging. But they have to come home. They have to keep families together. They have to pay bills. And they try to have kids. They’re normal, they’re just like the rest of us, even though most people look at them and think that they’re not normal. They have the same exact problems we do, all of us do.
Mark: We’ve often said that you know, you could be sitting next to a SEAL in church and not know it.
Mark: How about how much of the show is action, guys doing ops? And how much is the guy, you know, coming home, kissing the wife…
Mitch: I would say, 65/35. Maybe slightly… And that’s operation to home life.
Mark: So it definitely has an adventure-action edge to it.
Mitch: Sure. But I think… we’ll see where it lands in the editing room. But we’re pushing for closer to 50/50. That’s always a discussion that creators have with the executives and they bounce that off what they think the audience wants.
Mark: Do they create, like, early episodes to kind of test that balance?
Mitch: No, what they do is in post-production they edit it in a way that is balanced one way or the other. They watch that unfinished episode, and they say, “What do we like here? What do we not like?” It’s actually… I’m learning a lot. It’s quite a process. And there are struggles just like in any enterprise where you have the creator struggling with the executives. And again, they find that happy medium. Just like we do with the creative versus the authentic. You know, you’ve gotta blend the two and I think we’re doing a really good job at it. And I think we’ve found that middle ground that everyone can feel confident about.
Training the actors[38:52]
Mark: Now these actors, right, are gonna portray elite Navy SEAL commandos. So how did you go about preparing them for that job, for that role?
Mitch: So the funny thing is casting went really, really late. Again, kind of like that phone conversation to ask me to go to Jordan to help with Z.D. Thirty. The casting came down to the wire. We had the show, they bought all 8 episodes. But casting literally came down to… I think we wanted to start our bootcamp phase of training these guys on Monday, and I think casting literally went down to the Thursday before. We try to find the right characters, the right people for each of these roles.
So as we are kind of forming this idea and finding out who we were going to cast, in the meantime, in parallel, we knew we had to train ’em. And one of the producers on the show had also been part of “Band of Brothers.” He had done a lot of work with a boot camp-like experience for those actors, for “Band of Brothers.” And “The Pacific,” which are exceptional shows. And it was easy to know that we had to do something similar for these guys considering who they were portraying. So instead of reinventing the wheel, I knew you… and you live literally a mile and a half from my house. I was like, “I could recreate this experience, or I could send them to the factory that’s literally down the street from me.” Why reinvent the wheel? And you had the means, the personnel to actually pull this off, where I’d have to start from scratch.
So you and I started talking about it, and determined that we could pull this off. And got these guys in rather quickly. I think… trying to think of how long it took for us to put this together. It was… I knew we knew we were going to do it weeks in advance, but we didn’t know who was attending.
Mark: We didn’t know who, and the time frame kept shifting. ‘Cause we wanted them for longer…
Mitch: Right. Yeah, we wanted 5 days…
Mark: We wanted to make it longer and harder…
Mitch: And we ended up with 4 days. My hats off to each of the actors, because they had almost no prep. It’s not like they had been working for this goal for 8 weeks or something. They had days. So we had to feather the training accordingly so we don’t break ’em. But as we were talking about before we started recording here, they look back on that as one of the pivotal experiences of their lives, coming to SEALFIT. And getting their asses kicked. And learning a lot in preparation for the roles that they were going to do. So we did 4, 5 days here, at SEALFIT, and then I took them with some other teammates and we did some tactical training, shooting guns. And some basic, basic tactics, just to get them moving like we do. And that gave them the initial training so that they could portray these guys. But the fact is, we tweaked it. Every episode we would have these rehearsals where we’d discuss a scene, and go through all the minutiae because it’s really… when you’re portraying an elite force like that, it’s really the details. You can get to 80% rather easily. It’s that last 20% that’s going to separate us from every other show.
Filming action scenes[41:49]
Mark: A dynamic scene, like an intense house entry that turns into a goat rope and firefight, and an extraction, that might take in TV-length a long period of time. Let’s say 5 minutes or 6 minutes. I don’t know. That seems like a long period of time in the show.
Mitch: That is, in TV.
Mark: Is that… how long does it take to film that? And how much start and stop is involved?
Mitch: A tremendous amount. For any… basically, for any comprehensive or exceptional action scene that you see in any film anywhere, it’s amazing how inefficient the process is. And I say that tipping my hat to the process. For something you see on TV that’s kick-ass and action packed, it may last 2 minutes. That’s in TV time. That could be an entire day of shooting it. An entire 12 hour day. Or more.
In films, in feature films, they often have a lot more time. For “Zero Dark Thirty” that action sequence took–I think it was 6 weeks. 5 and a half, 6 weeks to film. For 15 minutes.
Roughly 15 minutes.
But in TV time that schedule is accelerated considerably. But the one thing we were able to do with “Six” is find, again, that happy medium. You know, we shot it like it was a feature. To the best of our ability within time and budget constraints. And that’s going to show. There’s some pretty amazing stuff that we were able to pull off without the means in some cases. That’s a tip of the hat to the writers and the directors we pulled in. And of course, the crew that helped us pull it all off. But there were long, brutal days and Wellington got pretty hot there at the end. And the crew suffered. We suffered. The cast suffered, but we pulled it off.
Mark: Was it all done CONUS or did you have some…?
Mitch: Yeah, everything happened in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Mark: That’s cool. So when’s this show due to go live?
Mitch: We were initially going to go July 18th. As a matter of fact, there was the beginnings of a marketing campaign pushed out there early on.
Mark: I remember seeing something, but…
Mitch: And it was a very aggressive schedule for everyone. For the writers, for post-production–getting all the visual effects, doing all the… just the chopping of the show. And I think that the studio made a great call in pushing that too, right now, it’s an undetermined time. I think we wanna… for a new show you don’t want to go up against the Olympics, and we just wanted time to chop this show up properly. Instead of just being under this really compressed timeline. So we went from July 18th to probably something in the fall. And we’re still trying to find what that date is, so you guys’ll be the second to know, when we find out what that is. But it’s actively being discussed as to what the right time to air is.
Mark: And this project hopefully will be an annual thing for you? If it’s re-upped and…
Mitch: I’m pretty confident we will have a second season. I mean it’s to A&E and History’s credit, you know, they’re leaning forward on it. And it’s a pretty rare circumstance where those entities will just jump in with both feet and buy all 8 episodes. Usually, there’s a pilot and they watch it and they weigh it. Then they either go for it or not. But I think everyone felt confident enough in the story, in the writers, in the producers and the teams to just go for it. It’s something I know Harvey Weinstein wanted to do for a while now, so I’m pretty confident we’ll be back at it again next year.
Attention to Details[45:28]
Mark: And you’re work isn’t done, I mean, you’re still needed for the editing floor and…
Mitch: Yeah, you know, we’re trying to nail everything. And I’ll use a show that imagine you saw, “Heat.” I can remember as a young SEAL going to all these action films and just wondering why they didn’t get all these details right. And “Heat” was one of the first times we saw… this is going to sound goofy now, because a lot of people have done it–but we saw a magazine change for the first time on film. And we always used to make the jokes about Hollywood guns, where they had an endless supply of bullets and they never had to teach an actor how to change a magazine. And that detail and many others were just glossed over. But we’re trying to nail those details, as well as other things that are always glossed over like the visual effects. You know, what does tracer fire really look like? What does an ion laser really look like? What are some of the air assets and some of the things they provide to us on the battlefield? What does it look like under night vision? All those things most people just either take for granted, or don’t really just sit down and spend the time to nail. And so in post-production, we’re going to try to address each one of those. So not only are you going to see authentic stories, you’re going to see all the details. That last 5% addressed. And I think that’s what separates good from great. In everything, really, not just in film-making, but in life. It’s that last 5%.
The Last 5%[47:00]
Mark: Hooyah. Yeah. I think we’ll leave it there. Last 5%. That’s where the money’s made. That’s where the success is. Elite level success. Good luck with it. We’ll be watching for it. We’ll help promote it. Mitch, thanks for your time.
Mitch: Thank you.
Mark: Super appreciate it.
Mitch: And I’ll thank SEALFIT yet again for getting our actors prepped.
Mark: We hope we can do it again. Maybe be some annual thing. Every time the show kicks off with new actors, we’ll train ’em.
Mitch: The actors can’t stop talking about it. And they insist that any new cast member that ever comes along has to do it. And that’s the way it should be.
Mark: Yeah. In fact, I remember… I forget the guy’s name. The guy from South America–Bolivia.
Mitch: Juan Pablo. The guy from “Narcos.”
Mark: “Narcos” yeah. He came up to me afterwards, and like gave me a hug, and said that’s the most profound experience that he had had. And these guys have been through a lot. But they’d never been through anything like SEALFIT or Navy SEAL training.
Mitch: No. They bonded… and that was the unique thing that the show will show us is that bond that was created in part because of the training they went through here.
Mark: That’s really cool. All right, thanks again Mitch.
All right folks, you heard it. Mitch Hall. We’ll wish him good luck on his show “Six.” And everything else that comes after that. Maybe we’ll have him back later on. Once we can watch the show and see what’s going on. And learn some more. So until next time, thanks for your attention. Stay focused. Train Hard.