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, that obligation becomes a heavy burden.
Based on the titular lone survivor’s book, SO2 Marcus Luttrell, of the same name, Lone Survivor is the culmination of director Peter Berg trying to tell this story for six years. And he finally did that by assembling a strong cast to recount the harrowing story, including Mark Wahlberg as Luttrell, Taylor Kitsch as Lt. Michael P. Murphy, Eric Bana as LCDR Eric S. Kristensen, Emile Hirsch as SO2 Danny Dietz and Ben Foster as SO2 Matthew Axelson.
It was in promotion of that story that Wahlberg, Hirsch, Bana and Kitsch sat down with us earlier this month.
There is an emotional and physical toll that must have been on all of you. I’m wondering, with the families, how did they embrace you? Did you become like their adopted sons?
Emile Hirsch: [Danny Dietz’s] mother, Cindy, she actually jokes to me and calls me her adopted son now. Dan Senior, Dan’s father, says the same thing. Getting to know them and getting to visit with them, to hear their thoughts about their son has been a very special experience. We’re going to Denver on the twelfth and we’re going to do a big family screening. I’m really looking forward to that. I feel like getting to know the families has been a real privilege and an honor for all of us. Aside from being really wonderful people, they’re also really smart. They’re great people.
Taylor Kitsch: A week before we hit camera, I got to meet Dan Murphy, Mike’s father, and it’s been an amazing relationship to today. We e-mail back and forth. He’s been amazingly supportive, from that first dinner – from the first time I met him. I finally met the rest of Murph’s family at the premiere. Like Emile is doing now, I’m going to Long Island on Monday. It’s going to be an amazing night. The whole family, a lot of Murph’s longtime friends, the fire department, the police… It’s going to be a special evening.
Mark Wahlberg: Marcus doesn’t like me at all [Laughs]. No. For me, obviously, I had the good fortune of meeting the guy I was playing and spending time with him, having him kind of be there throughout the entire process and helping me with anything that I wanted or needed. He’s a very special individual. I wanted to know him and see the kind of man that he is. I’m certainly inspired to be a better man because of him.
There’s an intense scene in the movie where you rope down a cliff; it was crazy. How did you physically prepare for that?
MW: …Originally this was going to be a big budget movie so we would have had cables and green screens. But we did the movie for a price and that’s why I think it feels so intimate and real and authentic. The first stuntman to go down the cliff, when he landed on the bottom of the cliff, he was right on to the stretcher and right to the hospital. But everybody was there. The SEALs were there, so there was immense pressure to stand up and be a man, because everybody was really pumped. But, you know, we just did what was required. There were bumps and bruises, but we wanted it to feel real. It seems like it’s all been done before, but something so simplistic as that has an impact, because it’s pretty damn real. Because we have such a short amount of time as well, we have two units going at all times. If you were with second unit – our second unit director was the stunt coordinator – you’d be doing a lot of action stuff. The falls or certain parts of a gun battle. Then I would run back off to Pete, and we’d be in the village doing that stuff. It was kind of all over the place. So a lot of times you’re going to get your ass kicked. You knew it was going to happen, but every day it was rough. It was never about one individual; It was about telling those guys’ stories.
What is the emotional approach to playing a character that is real, as opposed to fictional?
EH: For me, playing Danny, some of those later scenes where he’s kind of on his last legs—the fact that I had talked to his mother and his father and his brother and his sister and his friends, and I heard so many great stories about him, I’d seen video of him—I knew how much people really loved him. When someone touches you in that way, there’s so much reality to that, and you have so much empathy for a person. I feel like that really influences you in such a strong way. You’re not like trying to find an emotion or something like that, because that’s already there. Your heart has already been filled up. You’re just doing a scene, and it’s so real because it is so real. You learn about what this person’s like. It’s hard to describe. You’re not trying to find some artificial way… You’re not thinking about the time your puppy got hit by a car or something like that.
TK: I’d echo the same thing. Knowing the families… Actually, a lot of those days, you’re trying to suppress it, because you get caught up pretty easily. Being opposite great actors too always helps.
EH: One thing I’d also add is that having the SEALs on set at all times, as well. And they have all had friends that have fallen. We would do scenes sometimes and Mark would do something, I would do something, Taylor would do something, and the SEALs themselves, you could just see it on their faces—how real it was for them, and how emotionally affected they were. It was such a reminder that this isn’t some action sequence to them. These are some of the hardest moments, emotionally, of these guys’ lives.
TK: [Peter Berg’s] process is a very enabling process for the actors. You’re so embedded in these characters that the trust is prevalent. Mark could improv something that could just pull something out of you right there that you weren’t ready for that will invoke something very, very, real. That really helped us as well.
This film really meant a lot to me. I saw it last night. I have a friend who has served in Afghanistan as a medic and you guys really nailed it. Thank you. Mr. Luttrell just told us how he sort of treated you guys like Navy SEALs and sort of put you through your paces. Do you think that any of you would actually go through real SEAL training?
Eric Bana: Which sucker is going to go first?
MW: I’m 42 years old so… As a man, I don’t want to sit on the bench; I want to be in the game. I would want the ball. So you would think. But it’s not a question of a physical ability. It really comes down to that mental toughness that I think sets those guys apart from a lot of other guys who can’t get through the training and graduate. So I don’t know. I have no idea.
EB: Marcus tells great stories of when he went through that. You’d look around the room and I.D. guys who would get through, just based on how they looked. They’d just look like cage fighters. And there was a guy in the corner, where he thought, “What the hell is he even doing? Did he come through the wrong door?” But those guys would get through and the guys who looked like they could take on the world would wind up crying after one or two days. As Mark was saying, it really is so much of a mental thing. I think that’s what’s so fascinating, when you read about the training. They’re just made of something else. Marcus’s book did such a great job of making you realize how big that gap is, between most of us and them.
EH: Marcus also made a really good point, yesterday to us. If the government can find out what makes a Navy SEAL a Navy SEAL, there would be millions and millions and millions of dollars saved in this training. There’s no way, really, of knowing what exactly makes a SEAL. You’re bringing groups of the toughest of the tough guys together and they still don’t know. It’s a unique type of training that just filters the SEALs from the non-SEALs.
This movie is so unrelentingly tension filled. It’s just a draining experience for the audience. I wonder, for each of you, why exactly you wanted to do this. What is the story you felt you’re telling with Lone Survivor? The people I have talked to have had all these different reactions about what the movie is about. What was it about it that made it so irresistible?
TK: This is a film that struck a chord with me on a very personal level. These are guys who are willing to put themselves on the line and fight for their country. To me, it wasn’t a political film. It wasn’t a film that was going into any kind of detail about the wars, or, “Should we be here? Should we not be here?” It wasn’t about that. This was about soldiers that were willing to give everything they had. The type of courage it takes to do that. Because, no matter what your opinion is on any one conflict, there are conflicts that need to be settled. There are ones that need to be there and need to happen. This is representative of the best guys that we have doing this. I think that guys like that deserve to be honored, to have their story told. We live in a world where there is a 24/7 news cycle. It’s so easy to have these guys be just another news story. I think this is an example of really taking the time to appreciate the sacrifices that they’ve made.
MW: Yes, I agree. I agree completely. Well said, my friend.
EB: I was a really big fan of Marcus’s book. I’d read it some years ago. And when I heard that they were adapting it, they called me and asked if I’d consider playing Commander Christiansen. And I said yes right away, because I’m not only a fan of Marcus’s book, I also have a bit of a fascination with the Special Forces community. They are all amazing people. They perform an amazing function. And not every film has this experience. We all make different kinds of movies all the time. And I knew going into this that this is one that would feel very different to make and feel very different ten years from now from the other films we make. That doesn’t come along every day. I think we all felt that there was that sense in this one.
MW: When I first heard about the idea and Pete asked me to do it, I said, selfishly as an actor, “What a great opportunity to play a showy part.” Then when I read it, I realized what the movie was about, my perspective changed. It was never about me after that again. It was really about the guys that we portray and every single person, both in front of and behind the camera, who felt that same thing. It was a very unique set of circumstances that I’ve never experienced as an actor before. Even when watching the film, I don’t think about what we did. I think about what happened to those guys and what Marcus was able to endure. To be able to survive and tell the story of his brothers, that was a very special thing. We were all very proud to be a part of it and we were embraced by the SEAL community and the military as a whole, because of everybody’s intention going in to make it a tribute, not only to them, but to everybody who has every walked into a recruiting office. It’s a tribute to their loved ones and anyone who suffered losses.
Mark, you said the film weighed heavily on you because it was so intense. You had your family close by on set. Does that help, when you come home at the end of the day and your family is around?
MW: Yeah. It does. It’s really interesting to hear Marcus and other SEAL guys talk about when they go home to their families and they can’t discuss what they do. It’s just like trying to shut off what they just came from. They’re on a special op then all of a sudden, they are at home and they’re taking their kids to school and they’re helping their wives make dinner. It’s always comforting to have your family there. They’re here now, which is nice. I asked if they wanted to come to work and they said, “Daddy, your job is so boring. Absolutely not.”
What was the most difficult part, in portraying these characters and bringing this real life story to life again? Do you know if that part with the duck really happened?
TK: I don’t know if there is one specific part. I don’t know. When you meet the father and you really get so deep within the community. Maybe it’s the pressure you put on yourself to make it potentially what it deserves to be. It’s really hard to pinpoint what it is.
EH: I think that one of the elements that was a challenge for us was, in the beginning, when we all first got there to training with SEALs. We were on a SWAT range in Albuquerque. When we first started working with the M4 rifle. The way the SEALs had it organized, we were training with live fire rounds, with these M4 rifles. So we were all blowing through over a thousand rounds a day of real bullets. I think that was just us jumping into the deep end and working with targets. It was a lot of fun, and we had it really quickly ramping up in intensity, because it was about a week and a half at the SWAT range. We all learned to trust each other really quickly because we had to. Everybody just had to be really on point, because these are obviously incredibly dangerous weapons. When Mark Seamus, one of the SEALs who was instructing us, said, “These weapons don’t just kill things, they destroy things.” They used the word “destroy.” They don’t use that word lightly. That was something that was challenging and also a bonding experience for all of us. We learned quickly that we could trust each other. And that meant a lot to us.
You all did an amazing job and I understand that you all read the book before taking on your roles. Did it alter you thinking on wars after playing these characters?
MW: I didn’t read the book before I made the movie because I had read the screenplay version. I’ve been in situations many times where you adapt a piece of material and you always feel like some things have been left out. I think we did a really good job writing the screenplay. I was completely submerged in the world and felt it so I didn’t want to then go back and read the book and start complaining about why this or that isn’t in there. I read the book after and I do feel like a lot was missing in there, but that’s how it goes. I don’t like war but I love soldiers. They’re not the guys who decide whether or not they’re going in and they don’t really care. They have a job to do and they go and they do it. Would it be nice to live in world without it? Absolutely. I don’t want any of these guys going out and risking their lives, but that’s what they do and that’s why we made this tribute to all of them.
TK: It’s a heavy appreciation and it’s such a different level becoming close with Marcus and the whole community and still being close with a lot of SEALs now. You’re more connected so yeah, it’s definitely changed.
Can you talk about working with Peter as an actor’s director? I read that he was communicating to you through a bullhorn so I imagine that he couldn’t give you notes then?
TK: He could still give notes through a bullhorn.
EH: I think the fact that Pete comes from an actor’s background, and I had a similar type of experience working with Sean Penn, is there is sometimes a lot more badass in the way that they can communicate with their actors. I think because they were actors, there’s not this ‘Oh I can talk to this actor and be really sensitive.’ It really cuts through a lot of the bullshit. There were times where if I were doing something that Pete wasn’t happy with, he would let me know very directly and very quickly. And he did. That’s something for me as an actor that I appreciate. Knowing he was also an actor, it makes that type of director communication really safe, and I’m ok with that. But he also was able to know when to leave us alone and to push us to improvise and to be in the moment and all those things you hope to be able to do as an actor. He has all that understanding already.
MW: There’s no room for sensitivity up on the hill. You can cry like a baby if you want on the way down the mountain at the end of the day. Everybody loved that. Everybody was there for the same purpose and whatever we had to do to get it done, whether it was Pete barking at you or the SEALs, it didn’t matter. Everyone was there for the same reason and we’re all on the same team and trying to do something unique.
*** Images courtesy of Matthew Schuchman