Becoming the Lone Survivor: Interviews with Peter Berg and Marcus Luttrell

Director Peter Berg and real life Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell sit down to discuss the Lone Survivor and its harrowing true story.

When attempting to tell any “true story” on film, there is always an obligation to responsibility placed on artists and filmmakers to get it right. But when that true story is the 2005 events of Operation Red Wings, SEAL Team 10’s tragic attempt to take out a Taliban leader resulting in the death of four of the five SEALs involved, as well many more from failed helicopter coverage, that obligation becomes a heavy burden. Based on the titular lone survivor’s book, Marcus Luttrell, Lone Survivor is the culmination of director Peter Berg trying to tell this story for six years. And he had finally achieved it when he sat down for a press conference interview in New York earlier this month, along with Luttrell himself, to discuss how they made this harrowing film. 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 actions scenes, and specifically the tumbling down the hill? PB: 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 [in New York] 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? PB: 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 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? PB: 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 Payton 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.” How’d you capture the comradery between Marcus and his brothers on screen? PB: 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 on board as the bathroom. Unbelievable. I keep thanking Marcus for that.  Is there any information that couldn’t be included in the movie? ML: Yes, ma’am. Some parts were classified, yes, ma’am. Absolutely. The same with the book. The SEAL team just said that we needed to put the story out to squash any rumors that were going around about what happened on the mountain that day, because the families would call me and say, ‘Hey, why didn’t you tell me about this? I didn’t know this had happened.’ I was in a hospital and then I worked up to trying to get back overseas to go fight, and I would say, ‘I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about, ma’am.’ That happened so much that our higher commander actually said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna’ declassify this. We’re gonna’ put it out to the American public, so they can understand what happened and then that answers the questions.’ But with that being said though, some of the stuff that was classified and we can’t talk about, we had to somehow make it so the book made sense where you could follow it and not get lost. And obviously, if you have read the book, there’s probably some chapters where you’re going, ‘Hey, wait a minute. There’s obviously something that had to have happened right here, but it’s not in here.’ It kind of got jumped over and that’s because it’s classified. The same way with the movie, ma’am. We could only take so much information. You’ve got to understand, 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 or something like that. So he did a great job with taking all the information that he had, condensing it and then putting it on the film, the same as we had to do with the book. And to backtrack to your question about how we made the actors a cohesive unit and to work together as a SEAL team and as a unit is basically we took them for a month and some change ahead of production and we beat the snot out of them. We worked them from sunup to sundown like a SEAL team, and the way that you forge a bond, the way that you forge a unit and a brotherhood is not in a peaceful environment, not in a loving environment. That stuff is forged in chaos. That’s how you create a brotherhood, through blood and pain and sweat. Everybody in here who’s married, who has a brother or somebody like that, the reason you love them is because you’ve been through everything with them, the highs and the lows, and it’s the lows that bring you closer together, because you know that they have faults; they have weaknesses and ‘the only way that I’m gonna’ be stronger is I’m gonna’ have that guy next to me. And I don’t have to look over there at him to make sure he’s gonna’ be there. He’s gonna be there, and the only reason he’s not gonna’ be there is if he’s dead.’ The reason I know that is because it’s been tested from day one, week one of training, every day until that very day that it happens because our training never stopped. The SEAL teams from the time we start to the time that we ether get out or we die, we’re training everyday or we’re fighting everyday, and that’s the difference between our unit and the other branches of the military, ma’am. What about the protocols? Has anything changed since the incident? ML: I don’t think I can talk about that, sir. That would probably be off-limits. I’m sorry. Peter, can you compare and contrast your approach to this versus The Kingdom? PB: My approach for most of my films, Friday Night Lights, The Kingdom and certainly Lone Survivor, has been research, research, research. The most critical aspect of prep for me when I’m doing a culture, such as a Navy SEAL culture, in The Kingdom it was an FBI foreign crime investigative culture, Friday Night Lights was the culture of Texas football, which in it’s own way is as intense as aspects of the military, believe it or not. They take the football pretty serious in high school football in Texas, as some of you guys know. If I’m gonna’ go on a film set as a director, as the boss, and I’m gonna’ be standing there with Marcus Luttrell watching me or Mike Murphy’s dad or the Axelson family or any one of ten SEALs that Marcus had on the set at any given time who were good friends with these guys, if I’m gonna’ go there and act as if I’m in a position to run that, I better have a pretty decent understanding of what that world is. 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, that I know enough to at least understand what a good question is versus a stupid question, and I have to be able to manage it, you know? It’s not easy to manage these guys. They’re a very strong-willed, I don’t know if you can tell [laughs], but rather dynamic individuals and they’re not shy. 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, and 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. Marcus, did you have any say during the casting process? Were there any actors you had in mind to play you or your friends? ML: In the beginning, yes ma’am, that was tough. I thought about everyone else, but the guy who was gonna’ play me. Everybody was coming at me from all different directions like, ‘You need to have Matt Damon, Brad Pitt,’ and my reply to them was, ‘Okay, if I have somebody like that playing me, and you go and watch a movie called Lone Survivor, who do you think is gonna’ make it off the mountain?’ Because 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. I wasn’t the best frogman out there. The fact that I made it off the mountain was just pure luck, and God’s intervention and stuff like that, and a little bit of skill. When I was talking to Pete about it, I was like, ‘You need to blend the cast with all actors on the same level, so when it goes down and the last guy’s standing, you’re like, wow, I didn’t see that coming.’ He picked Mark Wahlberg. I didn’t have a problem with that. When it came down to it, basically I was the professional at what I do, and he’s the professional at what he does, so really I don’t have that much capability to tell him what to do. It’s like telling a heart surgeon how to work on your heart and like, ‘I don’t think you should cut right here. Let’s go over here. I’m a little sensitive.’ [Laughs] Ben Foster was the guy that I really kind of gravitated towards, and when I saw him in the movies that he was in, I mean, that guy is probably one of the best actors in Hollywood in my opinion. Nothing against the other actors – Taylor and Emile, I love those guys like brothers for what they did – but there’s something about Foster. It got so intense that when he portrayed Matt Axelson, that’s Matt Axelson when you see him on the screen. That’s how he was. He’s just like Ben Foster. He was real quiet, it’s the guy you wouldn’t take a second look at when he walked into a room. You’d be like, ‘Hey, that’s a good looking guy, whatever,’ he’s standing there quiet, doesn’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; it was one thing that comes down the pipe. He’s standing or your standing and that’s it. In the SEAL teams, it’s real important, attention to detail. We throw that line out regularly, and it really does mean something. Attention to detail doesn’t mean pay attention to detail. Like, move your shirt over a little bit because your button’s not in line with your belt, that’s attention to detail, and Ben captured that. He was always asking those questions like, ‘What do I do here?’ And when we got up to filming, literally, if we got into a scrape or something went down, I could throw Ben a rifle and he could go to work. He’s that good. One of the things that really got my attention is that he wanted to learn everything and really learn it. [Laughs] We put a live weapon in his hand, and he was shooting at a target at 25 meters, and I was like, ‘Okay, if you can hit that target at 25 meters, you could hit that target at 700 meters. Let’s do it. You ready?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m ready.’ Took two or three shots, he missed, I said, ‘Concentrate. Breathe. It’s not like 25 meters. Just think about it like that.’ And then when he got done, he was shooting targets at 800 meters, just painting it down the line and then moving, shooting, communicating. I don’t know if you’ve seen the film ma’am, but then you kind of understand where I’m coming from with that. And he never stopped. After the film, while filming, before filming, he’s always questions, questions, questions. All of them really put out like that and it was a blessing. But as far as the actor to play me, I probably could have just been like, ‘You need this guy to play me,’ and it was like that never happened, ma’am. I stayed back from that and let Pete do it. ***First photograph by Matthew Schuchman.  

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