Interview: Peter Berg on Following the Lone Survivor


Peter Berg is an interesting guy.

He’s certainly not the first guy who ever came to Hollywood to become an actor, only to then become more involved with writing, producing and directing both films and television, but his resumé as a director runs the gamut from dark comedies (Very Bad Things) to buddy comedies (The Rundown) to a serious look at high school football both on film and television (“Friday Night Lights”) and then big mega-budget blockbusters like Hancock and Battleship.

His latest film, Lone Survivor, may seem somewhat of a departure for the filmmaker after the movies listed above, being a serious dramatic military thriller based on the autobiographical telling by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell of how he and three other SEALs were left fighting for their life against the Taliban on an Afghanistan mountainside. Luttrell is played by Mark Wahlberg and he’s joined by Berg regular Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Alexander Ludwig and Eric Bana, and it’s a pretty amazing ensemble piece that really cuts to the core of what it means to be a soldier and a SEAL.

It’s probably one of Berg’s best films to date, as well. (You can read my review of the movie by clicking here.) got on the phone with Berg a few weeks back and learned that in the six years since we last spoke to him, he’s still a man of very few words Really enjoyed the movie. I was a big fan of “The Kingdom” and “The Rundown” and this one tops both of those.
Peter Berg:
Thank you, thank you.

CS: Even going back to “The Kingdom” and even in “Battleship,” I really feel that you have a connection and even a reverence to our fighting forces in the military, so is it a natural progression to go from something like “Battleship” to something more based on a real story about soldiers?
I was actually writing “Lone Survivor” before “Battleship” and was planning on doing it first and for a bunch of different reasons, did “Battleship” first. I read the book around when it first came out, when I was actually doing “Hancock.” I was on the set of “Hancock” and someone said, “You have to read this book now, it’s competitive and other people want it.” I read it and aggressively pursued Marcus Luttrell, because I connected strongly to the story and I wanted to be a part of it.

CS: One thing that’s somewhat unique about this movie is that it’s independently financed by a bunch of different companies. Did you spend a long time writing the script before you started to get the money together? How long did it take to get financed?
I wrote the script for Universal Studios and they optioned the book, and Universal was originally going to distribute it. They just did a negative pick-up through a financer named Randall Emmett–he raised the money through his sources–but we always knew that we were going to release it with Universal. We didn’t want to make a movie with a studio and we had enough money to make the film and maybe a few more producers than normal, but from my standpoint, the cast and crew, it was very smooth and it was no different than any other type of film, maybe a little less involvement from the studio as far as notes and that kind of thing goes, but it was a pretty experience.

CS: Did you spend a lot of time with Marcus either before or while you were writing?
Oh, I did. I spent a year and a half with him and I got to know him well. I got to know the families of the SEALs who were killed, and then I spent a lot of time with the Navy SEAL teams in the U.S. and got to go on different training operations with them and then I got to go to Iraq for a month and I embedded with a platoon from SEAL Team 5. I think I was one of the only civilians that would get to do an embed like that and I got to live with that SEAL team for a month and when that was done, I felt like I was ready to start writing.

CS: You’ve obviously established a pretty good relationship with the different wings of the military so was that crucial to be able to do that kind of thing and have that kind of access?
It certainly helped. I had worked with the military and the Department of Defense in the past, and I had good relationships with this U.S. military and they didn’t view me as a threat, but I think they felt I would be fair and my telling of the story would be fair, particularly if they gave me the access.

CS: I know a lot of filmmakers have to do that when they make military films, get a lot of approvals, so is that difficult as a filmmaker to add another set of notes when you have the Department of Defense involved?
(chuckles) You know, it was more about putting the time in. I think once they saw how willing I was to spend time with the SEAL community and that I was willing to go out for days and sometimes weeks, or in the case of Iraq, a month at a time, they thought that my intentions were good and that I was making an effort. I think where it gets tricky is that if we make up a bunch of stuff about the military and you don’t really do a lot of work and research and you just call and ask for access and it’s going to be more of a problem.

CS: I really liked the opening title sequence quite a lot, so was that filming an actual Navy SEAL boot camp that you shot?
That was all footage from what’s called “BUD/S” (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) which is the Navy SEAL selection and most of that was from part of the selection process called Hell Week, which is a five-day component of the selection process where over five days they get four hours of sleep total, two two-hour sleep periods and it’s designed to get people to quit and it’s extremely challenging.

CS: I would imagine. You’ve worked with Taylor before, but as far as casting the other guys around Mark Wahlberg–Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch–they seemed like unconventional choices when I first heard of their casting, but they work really well as a group. Can you talk about how the casting came together with Mark and the others?
They introduced me to some actors that I knew from my time with SEALs that they had the right looks. Most people think that SEALs are big giants?they’re not. They’re fit and they’re smart and there’s an alertness to them and a quality I felt that Eric Bana and Emile and Ben Foster, Kitsch and Wahlberg possessed, so I felt confident that those were the right guys. They were also willing to do a lot of the training and spend time with the real SEALs. We put together a pretty extensive training program and they were all willing to do that and I thought if they did that, it would work well.

CS: I would imagine they have to be in a good shape. That scene when they throw themselves down the side of the mountain, twice actually, the reactions to that scene when I saw it with an audience – I’ve never seen that kind of reaction to that scene with bones breaking. It seemed very real to me.
We worked hard on that one. When I read the book and the way Marcus described it, reminded me of when I was in New York for 9/11 when people were jumping out of the World Trade Tower and the idea that these guys were in such a rough spot their only option was to literally throw themselves off cliffs two times. That made a big impression on all of us, both me and the stuntmen. We had many kind of stuntmen with strong connections to
the military, and those stuntmen wanted to go hard and they did.

CS: I took a friend of mine to see the movie who had been stationed in Afghanistan. He wasn’t in Special Forces or the SEALs and he recognized the airbase right away, so how much shooting were you able to do there? Are you able to shoot there?
We didn’t do too much but we were able to recreate the base. We used CG to recreate it. Actually there were two bases–Bagram and Jalalabad–and we were able to use photos of those bases and recreate it.

CS: That’s impressive because my friend turned to me and said he’d been there, so you obviously fooled him.
That’s good, I like it.

CS: What about finding locations where to shoot this, because Afghanistan seems to have a fairly vast variety of landscapes. I mean, I’ve never been there obviously, but it has a distinctive environment, because you have deserts and forests and mountains.
Right, that’s why New Mexico is the perfect place to use because the low altitude around Albuquerque was very good and then the higher altitudes at Ski Mountain in Santa Fe worked very well for some of the higher altitude aspects of the story so the photography and the look of the trees and the stones was very accurate.

CS: Again, without knowing where it was shot, I had to do a double take. When you shot “The Kingdom” was that in Jordan?
That was in Arizona and Abu Dabi.

CS: It’s pretty amazing how you recreate those environments. Had you ever been to Afghanistan yourself? Can you even go there?
No. I’d been to Iraq, but I’ve never been to Afghanistan.

CS: As far as Marcus’ involvement, once you started shooting was he on set a lot?
He was on set. During some of the more violent moments of the film, he was not there, but never had fewer than four SEALs on the set at all times and we had great consultants, and Marcus helped us put together a great team of current SEALs and guys who had just gotten out to make that we had them available to resource whenever we needed it.

CS: I hope this isn’t a sore point, but I saw the movie completely fresh, not having read the book. I didn’t know anything about it or read anything about it beforehand and I liked it but while I was doing research, I found out there were some questions about the size of the army they faced and the factual stuff in the book. What was the balance in terms of being true to Marcus’ book and making an exciting movie?
As far as the number of Taliban soldiers, Marcus estimated that there was somewhere around a hundred to one hundred and fifty. That number might have been high. My answer to that is that there were too many. People ask, “Actually, how many were there?” and I say “There were too many.”

CS: I liked that you brought back Ali Suliman from “The Kingdom” as well.
Yeah he’s a great actor.

CS: Maybe I’m alone, but I really liked “The Kingdom” a lot and I like that this acts as book ends to that movie in some ways.
Why, thank you. I’m a fan of “The Kingdom,” too. I like it.

CS: Do you feel at this point you’ve gotten all of the military things, at least in terms of filmmaking, out of your system or do you have more you want to say about the military?
For me, it’s all about the story. If I find a story that I can connect to like I did “Lone Survivor” and it’s got a military component, I’ll do it.

CS: These days are you still generally bouncing between TV and film? What’s your next step?
I am. I have a new series on HBO called “State of Play,” it is a documentary series, the first one aired last night and I’m working on that right now.

CS: What’s the general premise for the series?
Well, each episode, we remake a different documentary. The first one was called “Trophy Kids,” it was about overparenting in sports, so we showed the documentary and then we did a roundtable and have discussion about the themes in the documentary.

CS: That sounds very cool and do you have other scripts you’ve been developing over the years that you’re ready to get back to now that you’ve finished this?
We have a couple scripts but I don’t really let them (out into the world) because it just starts rumors.

CS: Well if you say something about it, it’s not a rumor, it’s true.
Put it this way, there’s nothing that’s going right now. As soon as something’s going, I’ll tell you.

CS: Gotcha, gotcha. I asked you this before, but having finally done this after finishing “Battleship,” was it a fairly natural progression for you?
It was an easy progression. They were completely different movies, but I was excited to get into “Lone Survivor.”

CS: Were you disappointed by the reaction to “Battleship”? It definitely had its fans including a friend of mine you might have spoken to earlier.
You know, I felt like I’ve commented on it as much as I want to at this point. It is what it is, and there are things about it that I’m very happy about.

CS: I asked you this when we spoke six years ago and I’m going to ask you again and I’ll probably ask you again in six years, but are you ever going to make a sequel to “The Rundown”?
(chuckles) I want to. We’re actually talking to writers right now. I really do want to.

CS: I feel like “The Rundown” really started Dwayne on this path he’s on now.
Yeah, I’m a big fan of his and I’d love to do a sequel to that.

Lone Survivor opens in New York and Los Angeles on Wednesday, December 25, and then expands nationwide on Friday, January 10. Look for our interviews with Taylor Kitsch and Eric Bana before then.