Passionately standing behind your principles and duty, even in the face of extreme danger, showcases the ultimate sacrifices the military embraces and stands for during their time of duty. Resiliently standing behind that belief and code of honor is in part what captivated readers of former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell’s 2007 biography novel, Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10. The book has inspired the new action biography drama, ‘Lone Survivor,’ which was written and directed by Peter Berg. The film not only stresses the strong connection between the members of the American military, who would die to protect the men fighting alongside them, but also their driving desire to defend their country’s freedoms.
‘Lone Survivor’ follows the true story of four Navy SEALs-Leading Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Lieutenant Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Gunner’s Mate Second Class Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Sonar Technician Second Class Petty Officer Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster), who are let by Lieutenant Commander Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana) in Afghanistan. The four SEALs go on a covert mission to neutralize a high-level al-Qaeda operative, but are ultimately ambushed by the enemy in the mountains. Isolated without any means of help and surrounded by a large force of Taliban ready for war, Marcus, the leader of the SEALs, must make an impossible moral decision-he must either protect himself and his military brothers, or follow the American government’s protocol for the hostile standoff. As they confront unthinkable circumstances together, the four men must find strength and bravery within themselves to not only protect themselves, but also their country.
Berg and Luttrell generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Lone Survivor’ during a press conference at New York City’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Among other things, the director and former Navy SEAL discussed how the stuntmen working on the biography drama didn’t use any wirework or mechanics to perform the action sequences, as they wanted to honor Luttrell’s description of what happened in the mountains in his book; how Luttrell was happy with the cast and crew on how they portrayed the mission, but the watching the film didn’t entirely upset him, as he relives the incidents that occurred every day in his mind; and how the filmmaker and former SEAL worked closely together to make the drama’s story make sense, since part of what happened on the mountains is still classified by the government.
Question (Q): How did you go about filming some of the intense action scenes, especially the tumbling down the cliffs?
Peter Berg (PB): When I read Marcus’ book, particularly those sequences in which he describes, him and his three brothers jumping off the cliffs, I thought of 9/11. I was here when people were jumping off of the towers, and 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 was something that really penetrated for me, creatively and emotionally.
We worked with our 2nd Unit Director and Stuntman Kevin Scott, and we had extraordinary stuntmen. Since Marcus and other Seals were there, these stuntmen wanted to push a little bit harder than they might normally. Often times my job ended up being trying to calm people down, because everybody wanted to get it right. Those stunts were done without any dummies, wirework or anything mechanical; those were human beings literally throwing themselves off of cliffs. Some guys got hurt-ribs were broken, a lung was punctured and there were some concussions, but these guys were determined to try and do everything they could to capture what Marcus described in the book.
Q: They were stunt guys during that sequence?
PB: There were stunt guys, but we had also had the actors there. The actors would try to sneak in there. We’d be shooting in one spot, and the 2nd Unit would be up in the cliffs, and I’d get a call that Ben Foster snuck in there and was trying to jump. We would have to run over there and tell Ben “No!”
Then Marcus of course, was like, “Go on Ben, do it, do it.” Everybody wanted to get each shot right. We knew we could never be Navy Seals, as we don’t have that ability, and that’s not who we are, that’s who he is. We do have the ability to imitate and mimic, and that’s what we try to do.
Q: Peter, can you talk a little about getting coverage up on the mountains? You had the altitude and the terrain and then you had people falling down the hill.
PB: I’ve worked with the same crew for quite a while, and I generally shoot three cameras. The style of shooting that I generally use is we use Red cameras, so we don’t have to cut and reload. We can just keep rolling, and that worked very well for that environment.
My cinematographer, Tobias Schlessler, is a German mountain climber, and he was more dynamic up on that mountain than he was on a sound stage. In general, the crew we had was just a very robust and hardy crew, and they really got into it. I’ve worked on many films and generally film crews work hard, but it’s a job.
There was something about this film, and having Marcus and the guys on the set so much. Everyone had read the book, and everybody felt extremely passionate to work harder. So, we’d be up on the mountain and we knew we only had seven hours of light, and that the weather could come in at any time. We also knew that we didn’t have a studio behind us so, if we blew something, we couldn’t go to daddy for more money. Everybody worked very hard and was very focused, so we were able to get the coverage because everybody just leaned into it.
For lunch, Mark Wahlberg get on a chair lift with everybody else, and he put an egg salad sandwich in his pocket. We’d give him a piece of equipment, and he’d carry it up. It wasn’t like, “Okay, we’re going to stop for two hours and have lunch. There weren’t chairs up there, but there wasn’t a vanity squad, either.” One make-up artist would run around and try and keep everybody under control. So, we were able to just focus on the work, and it was a good feeling. At the end of the day, we’d come off real tired, go to bed feeling good, and just get up and hit it the next day.
Q: Marcus, what emotions were you experiencing when you were watching the film? How could you re-enact what’s up on the screen in your own mind? How did your friends and family they feel about the movie?
Marcus Luttrell (ML): I haven’t really talked to my closest friends and my family about it. Most of them won’t watch the movie.
As far as me, it plays over in my head every day, because I went through it in real life. So, when I watched it on the screen, basically I would say to myself, “I remember that happening, I remember it being worse than that, or you missed something here.” I’m absolutely overjoyed with what Peter put on the screen; he did a great job with it.
I’m happy with the cast and crew, and how they portrayed the whole scenario. You have to realize in real life, that gun battle lasted for over three hours, and the movie is only about two hours long. So, my hats off to all of the stuntmen who laid it on the line and hurt themselves doing what they had to do to get that done, because in real life, almost everyone died. The only reason I’m sitting here is because of modern medicine, particularly titanium.
People always ask me, “I don’t know how you can watch that, doesn’t that affect you?” I just tell them, “I went through it in real life!” So, it’s like a pilot watching ‘Top Gun,’ or a cyclist watching a bicycle movie. Peter nailed it down as close as he could get it. It’s a movie, its entertainment; it’s what it’s supposed to be. In real life it’s war, and war is not entertainment. War is old men lying and young men dying. That’s a saying, I didn’t make that up.
Q: Peter, this movie is unrelenting in its tension and its brutality, and Marcus just said that real war is not entertainment. What did you want the movie to be? What is the story that you actually wanted people to walk away with?
PB: I never really go into a film saying, “Okay, well here is the grand thesis; here is my goal for it.’ A movie reveals its impact when it’s done, and you start showing it to people. Often times the impact is not what you thought. I’m speaking personally, but I bet other filmmakers would agree with this-you’re startled at what touches people or what they take away. You realize, “That is kind of what I meant, and I’m surprised to hear it articulated.”
I know I wanted to pay respect to men who were willing to put themselves in between us and danger or evil. I knew that I believe in that. What I also found when I read Marcus’ book is that the new cycle that we all live in is so intense, it’s hard for a news story to stay current for four hours at this point. The churn is so relentless.
It’s mind blowing everywhere in the world people are just staring at these things. We’re so busy and so stressed out, it’s very hard for us to just stop and settle down with anything, much less something as important as the fact that great Americans die for us.
The way Marcus wrote the book, gave me an opportunity to settle down and experience what he and his brothers went through, and that meant a lot to me. I realize that most people clearly understand why we need to respect men like Marcus. You see a soldier in an airport, and he’s in uniform, you want to go up to him and say “thank you.”
One thing I think ‘Lone Survivor’ does, and certainly his book did, is it gives an audience a chance in its own way to acknowledge what these guys are doing, and pay respect to it for two hours. I’ve gone to five different pro-football screenings, and seen professional football players wait in line behind 15 other people just to get a chance to talk to Marcus. They want to have the opportunity to divorce themselves from politics and these politicians who are deciding where these guys go, which is a whole other world, which I’m not interested in. But I want to give people the opportunity to say “Thank you, and now I understand a little bit about what you may have gone through.”
Q: There was camaraderie between the men in your operation, Marcus, as well as with the actors in the movie. How did that play a role in how you shot the film, and how did you foster that?
PB: When Marcus told me that he was going to let me do his film, which was a great honor, 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 who were killed. He also arranged for me to spend a lot of time with the Navy SEAL community-I got to go all around the country to some classified facilities where the SEALs were training. Then Marcus helped arrange for me to actually be embedded with the SEAL Platoon in Iraq, which has never happened. I was the first civilian ever embed with an active SEAL team.
Marcus just made sure that I understood as much as I could by spending the time with those communities to understand not just how they hold their guns, but aslo how they put their equipment on, how they talk to each other and how they feel about each other. He wanted me to get as comprehensive an understanding of what that culture is. He just made sure that IA had access. He’s so revered with the military community that Marcus said, “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 18 hours with an outhouse onboard as the bathroom. Thank you, Marcus, for that plane ticket.
ML: To make the actors a cohesive unit and to work together as a SEAL team, we basically took them a month ahead of production and beat the snot out of them. We worked them from sun up to sun down like a SEAL team. The way that you forge a bond and unit in a brotherhood is not in a peaceful and loving environment; that stuff is forged in chaos. That’s how you create a brotherhood-through blood and pain and sweat.
It’s the lows that bring people closer together, because you know that they have faults and weaknesses. The only way that I’m going to be stronger is I’m going to have that guy next to me. I don’t have to look over there at him to make sure that he’s going to be there; he’s going to be there. The only reason he’s not going to be if he’s dead.
The reason I know that is because it’s been tested from day one of training. Our training never stops, and from the time we start to the time we either get out or we die, we’re training or fighting every day. That’s the difference between our unit and the rest of the military.
Q: Marcus, did you have any say in the selection of the actors, did you know who you wanted to play you or your friends?
ML: In the beginning, that was tough because I thought about everybody else but the guy who was going to play me. Everybody was coming at me from all different directions, like you need to have whoever-Matt Damon or Brad Pitt. My reply to them was, “If I have somebody like that playing me and you go watch a movie called ‘Lone Survivor,’ who do you think is going to make it off the mountain?”
In real life, when the parents were at home just sitting by the phone waiting to see which one of us made it off the mountain alive, nobody knew. I wasn’t special, so the fact that I made it off the mountain was just pure luck and a little bit of skill.
When I was talking to Peter about it, I was like, “You need to blanket the cast with just all actors on the same level kind of deal. So when it goes down and the last guy is standing, you think, I didn’t see that coming.”
Peter picked Mark Wahlberg, and I didn’t have a problem with that. When it came down to it, I was the professional at what I do, and he’s a professional at what he does, and so I really don’t have that much of a capability of telling him what to do. It’s like telling a heart surgeon how to work on your heart, like “I don’t think you should cut right here, let’s go in over here-I’m a little sensitive.”
Ben Foster was the guy that I really gravitated towards. The guy is probably one of the best actors in Hollywood in my opinion. Nothing against the other actors, like Taylor and Emile-I mean I love those guys like brothers for what they did. But there’s something about Foster when it got so intense, he portrayed Matt Axelson in a way that that’s Matt on the screen. That’s how he was; he was just like Ben Foster.
Matt was real quiet, and was the guy you wouldn’t take a second look at when he walked into a room. He was a good looking guy who was also quiet and didn’t say much. But when he threw his kit on and he grabbed his rifle, he was the most lethal man you ever met in your entire life. He doesn’t cut you any slack; either he’s standing or you’re standing.
In the SEAL team, it’s really important to pay attention to detail. We throw that line out regularly, and it really does mean something. Attention to detail means hey, move your shirt over a little bit because your buttons are not in line with your belt. Ben captured that, as he was always asking those questions left and right.
When we got done filming, literally if we got into a scrape or something went down, I could throw Ben a rifle and he’d go to work, he’s that good. One of the things that got my attention is that he wanted to learn everything and really learn it.
We put a live weapon in his hands and he was shooting at a target at 20-25 meters. I was like “Okay, if you can hit that target at 25 meters, you can hit that target at 700 meters, so let’s do it, are you ready?” He said, “Yeah, I’m ready.” He took two or three shots and missed, I said “Concentrate, breathe, it’s only 25 meters just think about it like that.” Then when we got down to it, he was shooting targets at 800 meters. Before filming and while we were shooting, he was always questioning, questioning, questioning, questioning. All of them really put out like that it was a blessing.
But as far as the actor to play me, I never said to Peter, “You need to get this guy to play me.” I stayed back from that, and let Pete do it.
Q: Was there anything that happened within your story that could not be put on screen and have any new protocols gone into effect since your story has come out?
ML: Yes, there were some things that were classified and couldn’t be featured in the book, which was the same with the book. When the Navy came calling, the SEAL Team said that we needed to put the story out to squash any of the rumors that were going around about what had happened on the mountain that day.
The families would call me and say, “Hey, why didn’t you tell me about this, I didn’t know that this had happened.” I was in the hospital during a work-up, trying to get back overseas to fight, I would say, “I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. So that happened so much that the our higher command actually said “We’re going to declassify this, and we’re going to put it out to the American public so that they can understand what happens, and that answers the questions.”
With that being said though, with some of the stuff that was classified and we can’t talk about, we had to somehow make the book made sense, where you could follow it and not get lost. If you have read the book, there are probably some chapters that you’re going through where there is obviously something that had to have happen, but it’s not in here. It got jumped over because it was classified.
It was the same with the movie-we could only use so much information. I was out there for five days, and to make a movie like that would have been probably a mini-series or two-part series. So Peter did a great job with condensing all the information that he had and then putting it in the film, which was the same as what we had to do with the book.
Q: Peter, can you compare and contrast your approach with this film as compared to a film like ‘The Kingdom?’
PB: My approach for most of my films, including ‘Friday Night Lights,’ ‘The Kingdom’ and certainly ‘Lone Survivor,’ has been research, research, research. For me, that’s the most critical aspect of prep-when I’m dealing with cultures, such as the Navy SEALs culture for ‘Lone Survivor,’ the FBI Foreign crime investigative culture for ‘The Kingdom’ and the culture of Texas football for ‘Friday Night Lights.’ That culture is in its own way as intense as aspects of the military, believe it or not, as they take their football very seriously in Texas.
If I’m going to go on a film set as the director, with Marcus Luttrell, Dan Murphy (Mike Murphy’s dad), the Axelson Family or anyone of 10 SEALs that Marcus had on the set at any given time, who were good friends with these guys, watching me, I’m going to go there and act as if I’m in a position to run that. I better have a decent understanding of what that world is, or at least decent enough so that if I don’t know something, I can look at Marcus and go, “Hey man, I don’t understand this, can you explain this to me?” In a way, that makes him still respect that I’ve done the work, and I know enough to at least understand what a good question is, versus a stupid question.
You know it’s not easy to manage these guys, as they’re very strong-willed. I don’t know if you can tell, but they’re dynamic individuals. They’re not shy, and if you get it wrong, they will not hesitate to tell you that you got it wrong, particularly when you’re portraying their brothers who are dead.
So for me, research was everything. It took a long time to make this film. One of the reasons was I needed to have as good an understanding of what their world was as I could before I felt confident enough to go on the set.