The new film, "Lone Survivor," about the brutal, real-life 2005 mission in which three out of four Navy SEALs lost their lives, was years in the making for director Peter Berg, who embedded with SEALs in Iraq as part of his preparation and calls making it "a real honor and an inspiration."
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Berg was losing his voice as he told Moviefone how he had to tell his actors and stuntmen to take it easy in recreating the bone-crunching incidents from the mountain-top firefight as they tried to do justice to the fallen soldiers.
He also shared why Mark Wahlberg was the perfect actor to play sole survivor Marcus Luttrell and why he thinks Taylor Kitsch (who plays "Murph the Protector") will land on his feet after suffering three film flops last year.
Moviefone: You've directed your share of action films: How is it different when it's based on something that really happened?
Peter Berg: You have nineteen soldiers that were killed, and they all have moms and dads and brothers and sisters, and many of them have widows. These families are really close and very concerned about how their sons are going to be portrayed. That definitely adds a bit of pressure to the process. In the case of "Lone Survivor," you've got a second family, which is the Navy SEAL community, all the SEALs who were either very close to the soldiers who were killed or of that fraternity and those guys are obviously very opinionated and concerned with how they're portrayed. You add those two communities together... for me and the cast, we worked extra hard to make sure we were going to get it right.
How many of them have seen the movie?
All the family members have, and quite a few members of the SEAL community have, and we feel really good about the response. I think each family member has a different reaction. It's certainly not easy for any of them. Now we've show it to almost all of the families. Mike Murphy's mom hasn't seen any of the violence.
You also had some Navy SEAL consultants on set.
Yeah, they were on set every day.
Was Marcus on set?
Marcus was on set quite a bit. When we were filming some of the more violent scenes, he stayed away. I didn't want him to go and relive that, so he stayed away for most of the really violent stuff. But he picked a couple of SEALs to be there at all times, so if we ever had any issues or we were doing something that wasn't accurate, we had guys to straighten us out.
How brutal was this shoot?
The shoot wasn't brutal at all. It was hard work, and everyone was really invigorated. Most of the crew and certainly all of us were very passionate about this story. The crew was very excited to have Marcus Luttrell around and just in general to have members of the SEAL community around. I think we worked a little bit harder and enjoyed the challenges of the film. Certainly, when you're making a film about nineteen guys who were killed for real, it's pretty hard to think of the actual process of making a film as hard.
True. It's just when you're watching it, it felt brutal. The credits listed only twelve stuntmen but it looks like they took a real beating.
Those stuntmen were determined. Marcus Luttrell wrote specifically about those cliff falls. When I read the book, I was thinking about when I was in New York on September 11 and people were throwing themselves out of the World Trade Tower. The stuntmen read the book and had similar feelings and having SEALs around them, they wanted to go hard. We had a few injuries, but everybody settled into a groove and figured out how to make it as hard as we could without hurting anyone. Part of my job became trying to calm stuntmen down and actors who wanted to go so hard because of Marcus Luttrell. Half of what I did was, "Slow down, fellas. Slow down."
The four main actors really do resemble their real-life counterparts. How important was that in putting the cast together?
It wasn't critical to me that the physical resemblance be perfect. I think they're all close. But it was critical that the actors were all willing to go through the training that we put them through so that they could capture the essence of who these guys were, how they operated and how they fought, how they interacted with each other. All four of our main guys were very, very willing to do that.
You've obviously worked with Taylor Kitsch before, but at what point did Mark Wahlberg come in?
Really early. Mark and I have known each other for quite a while and been friends. We've talked about doing things, and after I met Luttrell, I think that Mark had the right qualities to play him. He's a strong guy, he's a tough guy, but he's also got a real sweetness to him and Luttrell's the same way. Ben Foster had a strong physical resemblance to Matt Axelson. I just think he's the best young actor working today. Mark and I talked about him early, and we went after him very aggressively. I'm a big fan of Emile [Hirsch]'s, and he worked hard and got in great shape and was determined to be a part of it.
What kind of training did the cast go through?
They went through a three-week training with a group of SEALs up in Albuquerque at the SWAT facility outside, where they learned how to operate as fast as they could. They didn't become SEALs, but they became good at imitating SEALs, and that was what was most important. And they also spent time with each individual's family members, of the SEALs that they were playing, doing everything they could to get as comprehensive an understanding of who they were playing as possible.
You spent a year with Navy SEALs yourself to prepare for this, right?
I did. Maybe a year and a half. The most intense component of that was permission to go to Iraq and embed with a platoon in Western Iraq for a month. I wanted to be able to write and then eventually direct a film about a specific culture and it was important to me that I understood as much about the culture as I could so that I could portray it in a way that felt real.
Three of the actors have death scenes. Was that heavy when you were filming it?
Yes. It's intense, but it's what happened. And we were all determined to be honest about that. I read the autopsy reports of all three soldiers who were killed. I saw how many times they were shot, how many bones were broken. I had a pretty good understanding how violent their experience was on that mountain and I felt it was important to capture it.
Marcus didn't actually see all of his teammates die, so you had to recreate their final moments based on best guesses.
Yeah, we had the autopsy reports from the Navy, so we were able to get a good idea of how brutal their deaths were.
You have an affinity for military settings. Is that something you've gone after, or has it sort of come to you?
You know, I want to do a love story in Paris with a young couple drinking red wine. That's what I really want to do. I just keep finding these violent military stories.
Well, you're good at them. Does anyone in your family have a military background?
My dad was a Marine, and I guess I've always been drawn to people who put themselves between us and violence, or between us and evil. That's something that's always appealed to me. I just have a lot of respect for those people, so I'm drawn to those stories.
You've worked with Taylor Kitsch quite a bit. Last year, you both took a beating over "Battleship," and he really got beat up for his other films that were considered disappointments. Do you think taking a supporting role here is part of his path back?
I think that anyone who wants to have a career in this business that survives and lasts over ten or twenty or thirty years has to be able to last over good times and bad times. That's just part of the process. I've had films that have worked really well and some that haven't, and I expect to have more that do and some that don't. I think Taylor's the same way. We're both in it for the long haul.
Did he take all the criticism hard?
No, I think he took it like a pro and he realizes that this is how life and careers go. For anyone who doesn't think they're going to experience some hardship or some failure, I think they're probably mistaken and Kitsch is very wise and has a good long-term perspective. He just does a great job in "Lone Survivor."
This film has taken several years of your life to put together. What has it meant to you?
This was the most inspiring and invigorating creative endeavor of my life. This has been a real honor and inspiration for me.
"Lone Survivor" opens in limited release on Christmas Day, and expands nationwide January 10.