There’s no sitting through Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor without walking out deeply affected by the experience and if you read Marcus Luttrell’s book and/or this press conference transcript, you’ll understand why. The film is based on Luttrell’s New York Times bestseller and tells the tale of his true experience during a covert mission in the mountains of Afghanistan when he and three other Navy SEALs were ambushed by the enemy.
While in New York City ahead of Lone Survivor’s December 25th limited release, Luttrell himself sat down alongside Burg to run through the challenges of adapting his story for the screen, his experience working with stars Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster, and the need to work around classified information. Read about that, Berg’s extensive research, becoming the first civilian to embed with an active SEAL team, and loads more after the jump.
Question: What was the most challenging part about bringing this story to the screen?
PETER BERG: Every movie has its own unique series of challenges. For me probably the biggest challenge was because this was not made up, this is a real human being here, 19 of his friends were killed, I met the mothers and fathers of those men, I met their brothers and sisters, many of them had widows, I met many members of Marcus’ community, the Navy SEAL community and I knew that one day we would have a screening of this film and those families would all be in the movie theater and the lights would come up and I would look those parents in the eyes and I would know whether or not they thought we had gotten it right. That created an overreaching challenge that made me work very hard and made the actors all work very hard to try and make Marcus proud and make the family members proud.
How’d you go about filming the action scenes, and specifically the tumbling down the hill?
BERG: When I read Marcus’ book and I read those sequences – Marcus and his three brothers jumping off the cliffs – I thought of 9/11 and I was here when people were jumping off of the towers and I’m sure if anyone saw those images, they’re very searing and just brutal images. The idea that four men would be standing on a cliff and their best option is to jump, that was something that really penetrated for me creatively and emotionally. We worked with our second unit director and stuntman, Kevin Scott. We had extraordinary stuntmen and because Marcus was there and other SEALs were there, these stuntmen wanted to push a little bit harder than they might normally and often times a lot of my job ended up being trying to calm people down because everybody wanted to get it right. Those stunts were done without any dummies, without any wirework, without anything mechanical. Those were human beings literally throwing themselves off of cliffs. Some guys got hurt, some guys got bumped up and ribs were broken, a lung was punctured, some concussions, but these guys were determined to try and do everything they could to capture what Marcus described in the book.
Were they stunt guys?
BERG: They were stunt guys and we had actors. The actors would try and sneak in there. I would get calls because we’d be shooting in one spot and [second unit] would be up in the cliffs and I’d get a call that Ben Foster snuck in there and he’s trying to jump and I’d have to run over there and tell Ben, ‘No, no,’ and then Marcus of course is like, ‘Go on, Ben. Do it, do it.’ Everybody wanted to get it right. We knew we could never be Navy SEALs, we don’t have that ability. That’s not who we are, [points to Luttrell] that’s who he is. But we do have the ability to imitate and to try and mimic and that’s what we tried to do.
When you were watching this, what emotions were you going through and how’d your friends and family feel?
MARCUS LUTTRELL: I haven’t really talked to them about it. Most of my closest friends and my family won’t watch the movie. As far as myself, it plays over in my head everyday because I went through it in real life so when I watched it on screen, basically I would say to myself, ‘I remember that happening. I remember it being worse than that,’ or, ‘You missed something here,’ but what Pete did from what happened to me in real life to what he put on the screen, I’m absolutely overjoyed with what he did with it. He did a great job with it and the actors, the cast and crew and how they portrayed the whole scenario and how it played out. You have to realize, in real life, the gun battle lasted for over three hours and the movie’s only two hours long. My hat’s off to all those stuntmen who laid it on the line and hurt themselves doing what they had to do to get that done because in real life, we all died and the only reason I’m sitting here is because of modern medicine. I’m basically all titanium. People always ask me, ‘I don’t know how you could watch that, how that effects you,’ and I just tell them, ‘I went through it in real life so it’s like pilots watching a Top Gun movie or cyclists watching a bicycle movie,’ something like that. You know that that was as close as you could get, but you want me to take my shirt off and show you what it really looks like, but it’s a movie. It’s entertainment and that’s what it’s supposed to be. In real life it’s war and war’s not entertainment. War is old men lying and young men dying kind of deal. That’s a saying; I didn’t make that up. [Laughs]
What did you want this movie to be? When you looked at this material and decided to put it on screen, what did you want people to walk away with?
BERG: I never really go into a film saying, ‘Okay, here’s the grand thesis.’ One of the things that’s fascinating about making movies is a movie when it’s done and you start showing it to people, it reveals its impact, which is often times not what you thought. I bet other filmmakers would agree with this; you’re startled at what touches people or what the takeaway is, and you realize, ‘Well, okay, that is kind of what I meant. I’m surprised to hear it articulated.’ I knew that I wanted to pay respect to men who are willing to put themselves in between us and danger, evil. I knew that. I believe in that. What I also found when I read Marcus’ book, the news cycle that we all live in is so intense and it’s hard for a news story to stay current for four hours at this point. The churn is so relentless. We’re all so busy and everybody’s on this [holds up his iPhone]. It’s mind-blowing. Everywhere in the world people are just staring at these things, we’re so busy and we’re so stressed out and it’s very hard for us to just stop and settle down and be still with anything, much less something as important as the fact that great Americans die for us.
And what Marcus did when he wrote the book was he gave me the opportunity to settle down and experience what he and his brothers went through, and that meant a lot to me. Most people clearly understand why we need to respect men like Marcus. A couple of you have already stood up and said thank you and we want to do that. You see a soldier at an airport and he’s in uniform, you want to go up and say, ‘Hey, thank you.’ I find that people in general want to honor and want to acknowledge, but they don’t really know how to. They don’t have that much interaction with soldiers. You drive by military bases and you look in and you think, ‘Wow.’ Maybe you see someone at an airport, but one thing that I think Lone Survivor does, and certainly his book did it, is it gives an audience a chance to, in their own way, acknowledge what these guys are doing, and pay respect, sit for two hours. I’ve gone to five different pro football screenings and seen Peyton Manning wait in line behind 15 other people just to get a chance to talk to Marcus. To have the opportunity to divorce themselves from politics, divorce themselves from these politicians who are deciding where these guys go, that’s another [thing]. We’re not interested in that, but to give people the opportunity to say, ‘Okay, wow. Thank you and I understand a little bit now about what you may have gone through.”
BERG: When Marcus told me that he was gonna let me do his film – and believe me, he had many filmmakers he could have given it to – it was a great honor to me and he made it very clear that I was going to understand who he was and who these men were. Marcus arranged for me to meet all the families of the soldiers that were killed and Marcus arranged for me to spend a lot of time with the Navy SEAL community. I got to go all around the country to pretty classified facilities where the SEALs were training and then Marcus helped arrange for me to actually get an embed with a SEAL platoon in Iraq, which had never happened. I was the first civilian to ever embed with an active SEAL team. Basically, Marcus just made sure that I understood as much as I could not by talking, but by literally spending the time to be with those communities and to understand not just how they hold their guns and how they put their equipment on, but how they talk to each other, how they feel about each other and wanted me to get this comprehensive understanding of what that culture is. He just made sure that I had access and he’s so revered in the military community that Marcus Luttrell says, ‘I want this kid to go to Iraq,’ the next thing I know, I’m in a military plane with three Marines sleeping on top of me, flying for eighteen hours with an outhouse onboard as the bathroom. Unbelievable. I keep thanking Marcus for that.
[Top photo by Matthew Schuchman]