Extreme Prejudice: Pirate Hunters

blog post photo

1st Blog entry for Pirate Hunters
by Hunt for the Somali Pirates Production Team

Prepping for 2 day shoot with former US Navy SEALS:

One week until the big shoot at a private shooting range in Alpine, CA- located about 30 minutes from San Diego up in the desert hills (hmm… sounds like a possible forest fire to me)…and I am on the hunt for things to be blown up by former Navy SEALs. Technically, anything could be blown up, but we are talking aesthetics here baby- so when we slow down the picture in edit we get the full effect. Watermelons- CHECK, Giant blocks of sculpting clay- CHECK, Pumpkins- CHECK…and of course the main event- large bloody chunks of beef that haven’t been refrigerated so they will be extra mushy when the bullet pierces through. I will make sure our PA has a strong stomach for clean-up…

Since joining Gordon at Pacific Coast Video, I have had my share of filming with the military- Air Force Pararescuemen, Recon Marines, ICE Special Agents…before that filming peaceful birds and sitting in plush air conditioned offices at 30 Rock were more my style.  But a lot of good learning comes with this type of territory, especially when most of the time you are the only woman around. You learn to always go to the bathroom before the shoot begins, so you only have to hit the bushes a couple times, eating MRE’s aren’t so bad except for the constipation, army cots can be comfortable when you are so tired you just pass out, screeching across the desert at night chasing armed- drug smugglers is somewhat exhilarating and now I own several pairs of ear-pro and a dangerous snakes of California handbook. After a week out on the road with whatever armed forces unit of the month it is…I always have a better appreciation for salads and hot showers.

So I figured another day at the range with a group of professional soldiers would be another interesting experience.

We are filming with former Navy SEAL sniper and sniper school instructor Brandon Webb and his colleague Glen Doherty, also a former Navy SEAL sniper. Together they now run Wind Zero, a defense and law enforcement school in Southern California. Brandon with his extreme knowledge of the art of sniping was our point man for discussing the anatomy of the shots it took for the Navy SEALs to kill the Somali pirates holding Captain Phillips hostage. For two days we will be learning how SEALs work in countdowns, sight their targets and take the shot while under pressure.

Tuesday September 22, 2009
It is already pretty hot out, no breeze in sight. A crew of Hotshot firefighters working nearby are staying at our hotel, never a good sign…hopefully the range will be intact.

Caravaning in several vehicles, we drive up to the range, climbing steep dusty hills until we hit a plateau and are welcomed by the ranch hand. The SEALs have been there for a while, bright and early and are setting up their weapons and technology. Along with Brandon and Glen are two former SEALs and friends of theirs- Eric and Larry.

We break into two groups- one camera goes for some range b-roll and Gordon interviews Eric about technology and tactics of blending into the missions. It is amazing how well a couple wigs, sunglasses and clothing can turn SEALs into your neighbor Joe Schmoe quickly.

After some interviews with interesting takes on the world of terrorism, we head out to the range for the real run and gun moments. Brandon has set up a stress course with several targets in place. One at a time, the SEALs will be given a weapon that he is not accustomed to and then as soon as Brandon yells go- they will push out 50 push-ups, sprint to each target and take a shot. The course is meant to stress the men by adding the physical cardio and then for them to use patience when sighting the new weapon.  Whoever gets the most hits in the least amount of time is the winner. I am not going to say who I have my money on, but I have a feeling here.

Filming is always tricky when dealing with live fire, and so is my part in this shoot- audio. One most always be alert to what is happening all around you and know when the shooter is about to pull the trigger so you know to keep the ear pro, turn the volume down and if time allows, take off the headphones!!!

All the guys do great and boy do they like a competition.  Glen is the winner, having hit the most targets in the least amount of time. He was my bet since he is an instructor with Wind Zero Group and I have the feeling he sees the most action out on the range. Each SEAL worked very hard to maintain their breathing and concentration while taking the shots despite crew members running after them with cameras and boom microphones, but again they are trained for much worse.

Next up is to show how an unsteady shot, such as the ones the Navy SEALS had to make out in the Gulf of Aden, firing at a rocking lifeboat in the ocean from another ship. Instead of shooting out on water, which opens up a whole can of liability issues, we decided to configure a set-up where the SEALs had to shoot at slightly moving targets- so we strung pumpkins up on a horse with string, so they would rotate ever so slightly and sat a tiny apple atop the pumpkins. Larry had the best shot, taking the apple right off with the first hit, upping the ante for the other guys. They first took shots at the apple, because as Glen said if you hit the apple no problem, the shooter’s confidence is up and the pumpkin is a large, easy target.

After the pumpkins, we put some melons on the targets but with the sunset approaching quickly, time is not on our side. The production assistants hustle back and forth down the range waiting for the clear command and re-stacking targets….everyones’ self-awareness radar is on high when live fire is involved. With sundown comes slight winds and sand and dust kicking up are never good for the equipment. We break for dinner before our last shoot of the night- when we need it to be pitch black with moonlight for re-enactment shots of the “snipers” on the USS Bainbridge.

Video Preview: “SEAL Sniper Team” — When a hostage crisis breaks, acutely accurate sniper teams are sent to take out the bad guy using only one bullet.

2nd Blog Entry for PIRATE HUNTERS
by Gordon Forbes

Goodbye Santa Barbara, I am Washington, DC bound to conduct several interviews with experts on Africa, Spec Ops, piracy and an active participant of the hijacking negotiations. EP Chris Valentini was kind enough to let us use an office in the National Geographic Building for the day instead of conducting the interview in a crowded, bland hotel room. Thank you again.

Interviews with Dr. J. Peter Pham and Lt. Colonel Rudy Atallah

Tuesday September 29th, 2009

9 AM: My first interview of the day is with Dr. J Peter Pham, the Senior Fellow for the Africa Project at the think-tank, the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. He is a specialist on US Foreign Policy and defense and has worked with the Joint Spec Ops University among other military schools, so he is very aware of how special forces such as the US Navy SEALS operates. This knowledge combined with his deep understanding of the part of the world the hijacking incident occurred in is why we pursued him as a contributor.

During the day I also interview two other experts, who unfortunately due to length of the documentary and context did not make the final cut. Martin Murphy, Senior Fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budget Assessments and Kevin Doherty, a former Marine now CEO of maritime security company, NEXUS.  We appreciate their time and enthusiasm.

My final interview of the day is the one I have been waiting for- Retired Air Force Lt. Colonel Rudy Atallah.  A native of Beirut, Lebanon, Rudy most recently served as the Pentagon’s Director of Counter-terrorism for Africa. He was on-hand as part of the negotiating team at the Pentagon speaking with his contacts in Somalia that were in direct contact with the elder clansmen of the pirates onboard the Maersk Alabama’s lifeboat. It amazes me that within hours, Rudy found out the ACTUAL names of the pirates holding Captain Phillips hostage and was able to send messages to them through an interpreter aboard the USS Bainbridge. His interview is insightful and will definitely act as the main voice that moves this piece along.

Video Preview: “The Surgial Sniper” — In a coordinated volley attack, a team of snipers must act in unison with the precision of a brain surgeon.

3rd Blog Entry for PIRATE HUNTERS
by Katie Szopa

Re-enactment Shoot in Long Beach, CA on the SS Cape Isabel

Thursday October 15th, 2009:

5 AM: It is an early morning start for our crew as we head down to the Long Beach Pier for our ONE day of filming on the SS Cape Isabel. The drive from Santa Barbara is about 2 hours long (crossing my fingers we don’t get stuck in LA morning traffic, ha). I load up our rented dummy AK-47s (had to make sure the neighbors didn’t see that) and gear along with one of the actors and our researcher Shannon- plus lots of coffees before we head out.

730 AM: We arrive to the pier and the SS Cape Isabel (an immense 700 foot ship that at one time was a commercial cargo ship now owned by the government as part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet). I was so lucky to find this ship that also contains the same TELB (totally enclosed lifeboat) that was used aboard the Maersk Alabama. Filming outside and near water is always tricky, but then add on to that setting up shop with gear and food and places for the crew and actors to sit on a pier covered in smelly seagull guano with the wind blowing every which way- slightly challenging.

Today’s filming will involve getting our five actors (Captain Phillips and the four Somali pirates) out into the lifeboat and then aboard the SS Cape Isabel. Weather is in our favor today, for besides a little wind the water is relatively calm and getting down and onto the lifeboat isn’t as hard as it could be. With our ace cameraman Stuart Asbjornsen on the scene and Gordon calling the shots, we should have a pretty productive and successful day. I do start to worry when two of our pirate actors tell us they can’t swim, good thing we have some seasoned lifeguards/producers on hand.

11 AM:
A couple hours of filming have passed and some of our actors are in need of a break. The inside of the closed lifeboat heats up very quickly, even with the top hatch cover open. I think of the pirates holding Captain Phillips hostage in there for 5 days rolling around out in the Gulf of Aden with hardly any food or water and it makes me nauseous. Unfortunately, rolling around in the Long Beach harbor has also made some of our actors ill- so we get them on land for a break, as we still have a long day ahead of us. The crew of the SS Cape Isabel is extremely friendly and interested in the shoot- they watch intently and help us the entire time (also I’m sure they don’t want their very expensive lifeboat ruined!!).

2 PM:
After lunch we are joined by former Navy SEAL Brandon Webb, our sniper expert, to give us some insight on the situation for the SEALs waiting to take the shot from the distance they were from the lifeboat considering the factors of visibility and motion. Brandon also takes us inside the lifeboat for his take on the scenario of how desperate and tired/sick the pirates were getting, making them less aware of their movements- Sitting ducks for the snipers.

The day is flying by and we find ourselves behind schedule…finally we get onboard the ship for the shots of the pirates climbing up the ladder, boarding the ship and throwing the grappling hook (we almost lost a crew member on that move). The actors are holding up well especially the pirates whose backgrounds range from Ethiopian to Jamaican. As hard as we tried to cast actual Somali men, no luck in that department. I feel that it may have been a sensitive subject for Somali actors to be involved in.

6 PM:
Sun is setting and before we break for dinner we get Brandon to lay prone on the deck of the ship for some great over the shoulder shots down range on his weapon pointing towards the lifeboat. The sky turns orangish purple and a flock of pelicans soar by overhead, a beautiful moment. I can see why people love working out here in the shipyards, as busy as the channel be can when you are aboard these tall ships it feels isolated.

8 PM:
Dinner consumed in the pitch black with sun guns lighting up the table, we set up for our final shot of the day. Back in the lifeboat the actors take turns popping out of the hatch cover and back door as I slowly pan this gigantic light across the water and lifeboat to create the effect of a searchlight. From my vantage point the shot seems to be working, reflecting off the water with the moonlight.

9 PM:
It’s a wrap and time to wrangle all the gear and garbage from our day. We bid the crew of the SS Cape Isabel goodbye and a huge thank you for all their help on the ship- there is no way we could have done it without them, and I believe they enjoyed the day. Then I learn that a few music videos have been shot around the vessel- so they are seasoned in the world of television!  We depart Long Beach Harbor around 10:30 for the journey home….once again loading up on coffee!

Don’t miss Hunt for the Somali Pirates premiering August 23rd at 8P et/pt.


  1. opus74
    September 5, 2011, 10:00 pm

    I have a question…
    Have all of four former Seals been in the rescue operation for captain Phillips?