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Under the Radar

Director Peter Berg Talks 'Lone Survivor'

Lone Survivor

Lone Survivor is the movie adaptation of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell's memoir Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10. It opens in New York and Los Angeles on Christmas Day and everywhere else on January 10th.

The movie stars Mark Wahlberg as Luttrell and features Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster as fellow team members Michael Murphy, Danny Dietz and Matt Axelson. If you read this site and go to the movies, you want to see Lone Survivor.

We sat down with director Peter Berg during the movie's press event in New York City in early December. Check back over the next couple of weeks for an interview with Marcus Luttrell, quotes from the actors and our film review. We're also posting videos from the actors and  Berg and Luttrell on our Shock & Awe video page.

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Before he became a film director, Peter Berg had a successful career as an actor that included five seasons as Dr. Billy Kronk on Chicago Hope. After making a couple of crime flicks that are both worth your time (Very Bad Things and The Rundown), Berg co-wrote and directed Friday Night Lights, one of  the all-time greatest sports movies. He followed that with military crime procedural The Kingdom and Hancock, the fallen superhero tale that may be Will Smith's best movie.

After taking on the challenge of Battleship, a military-versus-space-aliens blockbuster based on a board game, the director turned his attention to his passion project. He tells us about how he came to make the movie, what he thinks about the violence and how the real-life families of his characters have reacted to the film. We get some bonus insight about the risks and rewards that come from using a rock band to compose your movie score.

Lone Survivor

When did you first read the book?

Like five years ago.

Did you get the rights right away?

Pretty quick. Luttrell was in town, interviewing different directors and producers, and I read the book and was passionate about it. And met with him, showed him a rough cut of The Kingdom film that I did. He responded well to that. And we had a long dinner and at the end of the dinner he told me he was going to let me do it.

Did you go to the studios first? Even though the book was really successful, it's not really a traditional studio movie.

Every studio was aware of this book and the studios were interested in making the movie. My deal is at Universal so I talked to my people at Universal and said I want to go after this. Will you support it? And they said yes. So then I went to Marcus with knowing I had the backing of Universal and that they would pay him good money for an option for his book.

I’d guess that the movie you made is not the movie that a studio would have expected.

It is. It is.

You recently made a movie (“Battleship”) that reinforces all the Hollywood character archetypes and you did a good job of that and then this is something that goes in a totally different direction.

Yeah, but that’s okay. Studios are willing to move in different directions and take chances. Adam Fogelson, who was the President of Universal at the time I was writing the script, was one of the first people that ever read it. And he called me after he read this draft, first draft, which was not all that different than the movie you’ve seen. He loved it. He just loved it. He said we'll have to make it for a price. It's not going to get superhero money. He really believed in it, as did [longtime Universal Studios President & COO} Ron Meyer, who served in the Marine Corps.vAnd all the top executives at that studio really loved it on a creative level, but the business side of them said, all right, we've got to be responsible and careful about how we do this, which is reasonable.

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I thought the movie was a lot more violent than other war pictures. Is that something you set out to do when you started?

It's so funny because I don’t think it's that violent. People talk about how violent it is and I don’t see it.

You must have thought about this. There aren’t any Hollywood-style endings for these guys. The deaths are very slow. The men don’t die quickly. They die really painfully. There may be bloodier movies, but I think it's the emotional content of how these guys die that’s different.

You know, because I read the book and I saw the autopsy reports and I spent so much time with the SEALs and Marcus, I just told it the way it was. You know what I mean? So I didn’t think about other movies. I didn’t think about is it too bloody. Are these Hollywood deaths? This was exactly how Marcus wrote it. You know, I read Danny Dietz's autopsy with his dad. He was shot 11 times. I saw pictures of Matt Axelson's body. His head was off when they found them. Half his head had been blown up. This is how it really happened, so I never thought about doing anything other than just the facts, particularly around the gunfight.

Luttrell described those cliff jumps and I remember being in New York September 11th and watching people jump off the towers and that’s what I thought of. And I think that because it was truthful to the story, the script was truthful to the story that Marcus Luttrell told, nobody in Hollywood was going to stand up and say, well, it should be a little more this or a little less that. It's like, okay, this is what fucking happened. Do it. We're not going to give you 100 million dollars to do it, but you go ahead and do it. And I will say they were surprised at how well the movie was testing early on, in that woman in particular were not having any problems with the violence.

Lone Survivor

There's a difference between the guys who've actually lived the experience and what their families at home think they're going through. For some people, I think there's a real romantic notion of what their sons and husbands and brothers are going through versus the reality of what these guys know. Have you started getting any feedback about that yet?

Yeah, I mean I've shown that to all of them. I would ask you to talk to Dan Murphy or Mrs. Axelson or Mrs. Dietz or Mrs. Kristensen, Shane Patton's dad, any of the families of the Nightstalkers. We did a screening for the Nightstalkers Unit on the east coast about a month and a half ago. They’ve been largely left out of this and have not received the attention that they deserve. They're an extraordinary men and were great heroes. And that wasn’t the focus of Marcus's book, nor was it the focus of our film, but we knew who they were and we wanted to show the families our film.

We did a screening for the Nightstalkers families. It was 48 people in the theatre on the east coast. The screening started at 9:00, and one of our guys from our company, Braden Aftergood, was there. At 11:30 the movie ended and the families were very moved. They were hugging Braden, thanking him, a lot of tears. And they talked for about 45 minutes and, finally, it was around 12:15am and Braden said thank you and he started to leave. While they were still in the theatre, one of the men came up to him and said, “Hey, excuse me, do you think it would be possible for us to see the film again?” And Braden said, “Sure, when do you want to see it?” And he said, “Well, right now.” And they stayed and watched the movie back-to-back. And I had never heard of that happening. I really never heard of that happening.

I’ve now had lengthy conversations with Dietz, Axelson, and Murphy’s family members. And, yeah, it's rough, but I think they appreciate getting to see a side of their sons and their brothers that they had never seen before.

Lone Survivor

There isn’t a Hollywood hero moment when these guys die. We've seen Special Forces movies over the last couple of years where people are really good on some of the mechanics, but very few of them are willing to portray the brutality at the end and how the guys who survive come through it.

Yeah, Marcus was talking yesterday about this. Someone was talking about the tragedy of the deaths of his friends and he told me that he doesn’t think of that as a tragedy at all. I mean these guys went out doing exactly what they wanted to do. These guys were gunfighters that wanted to die as gunfighters. Marcus says now he doesn’t get to do that. He's going to have to die probably of cancer or in an old age home where someone is taking care of him. And to him and to those guys, that’s how they wanted to die. Marcus said, “ wanted to be on that mountain.” It’s like he says: the coldest, darkest, meanest fight. They really want that.

I remember when I came back from Iraq with Team 5. It was the end of their deployment, so I left with them. And they went and did a decompression stop at this one town in Germany. It would be a funny TV show where there's this one town that has to handle all of the SEALs when they decompress. It’s a lock-up-your-daughters kind of a thing because the SEALs are going to be decompressing for three days.

But the first thing they did was we got everybody off the plane on a bus and they went into this room. And I was in there with them, where some psychiatrists were. And we had to fill out these forms about how many times did you fire your weapon, how many times were you fired at, how many kills did you have? And the people that had the highest level of stress were the people that put zero. Never fired my gun, never shot, never killed; those were the guys that were really struggling. Marcus will tell you that he wanted that fight. He got maybe a bit more than he bargained for, but he wanted it.

Lone Survivor

Is there a military history in your family?

My dad was a lieutenant in the Marine Corps, served in Korea. He was out by the time I was born, but we talked about it a lot when I was growing up. We had to learn the Marine Corps Hymn, “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli,” over and over and over and over. My dad is a very, very proud Marine and very pro-troop, pro-soldier.

I love the score to this film. I guess this is the second time you’ve worked the band Explosions in the Sky on a movie.

I just love their music. You know, they found a tone for Friday Night Lights that I was looking for that maybe was different than a traditional sports film, that felt a bit more emotional, a little more abstract, and a bit more tender, which I wanted for Lone Survivor.

They also worked with Steve Jablonsky on this one. He’s a really accomplished, very experienced composer. There's times with Explosions in the Sky, they're musical geniuses, but they're a band from Austin, Texas. It’s sometimes a little unnerving because you're talking to them and giving them all these different ideas and they're just like, “Yeah, cool, cool.” I'm ask if they want to write something down or take a note and they're like, “No, no, we got it.” And they really would have it, but it's nice to have the backup of someone like Jablonsky, who is just such a great guy. Steve’s ego is so cool. He was happy to share and say, “Keep all this music but maybe it needs a little bit of sculpting here or there.” So it was a really great kind of three way collaboration there.

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It's very brave of you to do it with a band.

Tell me about it. But they don’t think it's brave. I’ll say, “Do you understand how frustrating it is?” and they're like, “Dude, relax.” There's time crunches. If you're used to just going and sitting in the studio for four months waiting for inspiration to strike, that doesn’t work so well when you’ve got post production supervisors screaming at you. But they do it. They get it done. They did another film, that movie with Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd (Prince Avalanche), where the two guys are broken down on the side of the road. Explosions in the Sky live in Austin, they don’t have a big, slick Hans Zimmer-type studio or Steve Jablonsky-type studio and they do it their way. But the result for me is very unique, it's unorthodox, it's unconventional, it's kind of flawed, which I like. So I'm a fan.

What are you working on next?

I've just made this documentary show called State of Play that just premiered on HBO that’s about over-parenting and youth sports. We've got some insane parents. And we then do a roundtable afterwards where we discuss the issues. I love sports and I love documentaries, so I was kind of thrilled to get my own show. The next one is called Culture Shock and it's about the NFL trying to slow the game down, trying to basically save itself. And I got some really cool interviews with Commissioner Goodell like he's never given before. And the third one is called Broken and it's about athletes that become quadriplegics and how they mentally change their lives to survive. Pretty cool.

How many of those are you going to make?

We're doing four right now and now we're about to ask HBO and ask for a big order to make more. So they're really happy with this one and they’ll run them when we want to run them. We'll probably do one every three months, so we can spend the time to get the films good. It's like a passion project of mine, so then I feel very connected to it.

So I'm going to focus on that and I'm reading books right now, trying to find something that excites me. There's a book called Boys in the Boat that I like quite a bit about the University of Washington crew team that beat the Nazis in 1936.

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