By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood January 8, 2014 at 9:59PM
I have long been a Peter Berg believer. He is a gifted director who can now be forgiven for "Battleship," a misbegotten Hasbro/Universal concoction that he agreed to direct so that he could make his passion project "Lone Survivor" (in most theaters January 10). The indie-financed Universal release is a tough, unremitting, authentic, and intimate Afghan war film starring Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch and Eric Bana.
When his producing partner Sarah Aubrey insisted that he read the memoir by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell during production on "Hancock," Berg locked himself in a conference room and finished Luttrell's recounting of the failed June 28, 2005 SEAL Team 10 mission "Operation Red Wings" in one sitting. Luckily Luttrell liked "The Kingdom" and the two men hit it off. While Universal did agree to distribute the movie, Berg had to raise financing overseas, which wasn't hard with this ensemble. They filmed with constantly moving Red cameras in the mountains of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, standing in for the craggy cliffs of Afghanistan.
The movie was a bitch to shoot--the four actors playing marooned SEALs on a remote mountain without radio contact go tumbling down rocky cliffs in order to escape a relentless Taliban assault. Berg makes it clear that the film is as authentic as it could possibly be. Consultants were on hand to verify and insist on accuracy. Luttrell was wary of Hollywood; he didn't want to see his character fall for a village girl.
Berg and his actors came through. The movie aims for the authenticity and intensity of the Afghanistan documentary "Restrepo," Sebastian Junger (who was consulted on the film) and the late Tim Hetherington's extraordinary portrait of one troop's experience. "Lone Survivor" reminds us of the sacrifices these well-trained and brave soldiers and their families make on our behalf in an unforgiving part of the world.
The filmmakers deserve serious kudos all around. Will Oscar voters agree? It's a competitive year. The directing, photography, editing and stunts are tops, as is Berg's rigorous and lean screenplay. He went to Iraq to observe up close before finishing the script. We talked on the phone.
How did you come to make "Battleship" if "Lone Survivor" was what you really wanted to do?
I was getting ready to make "Lone Survivor" in 2008 when I was asked by the studio if we could do "Battleship" first. "Lone Survivor" was in a rough state. I was excited by the challenge and Universal committed to do "Lone Survivor." They didn't renege. They asked if we used Randall Emmet's money would we be willing to put some money up. They guaranteed a domestic and UK release. From our standpoint as long as the money was there in some ways it was easier this way. We were left with tremendous independence. That's not to say it would have been worse if Universal financed it. But the way it worked for me, it was a great deal. Randall Emmet came through with the money, and Universal came through big time with distribution.
This was a gratifying experience. The lesson to be learned for me from films like "Battleship" is if you're trying to create something from scratch and build the DNA of a story, and your blood is not in that game, invested deeply, it's going to be challenging. The films I've made with a deep connection to the material are a more satisfying experience, when you have real blood in the game. Nobody puts a gun to your head and makes you do something. It's just better when you care.
How did you pick Mark Wahlberg?
I've known Mark a long time. He felt right, he had the right quality, and looked like the guy, and wanted to do it. Mark is a smart producer; he understands the business. He's a movie star who helps with financing. He's a good guy and I put that at the top, he's kind, he's generous, makes the younger actors feel comfortable and confident. He's comfortable with being in charge. He never complains, it really is all about the work.
Taylor Kitsch I've known forever; I thought of him as a Navy SEAL. Taylor is a wonderful actor, if anyone deserves some more time in Hollywood it's him. I was part of "Battleship" which didn't work out so well for him, sometimes these films don't work. I promise you Taylor Kitsch is in this for the long haul.
Ben Foster is one actor I went after, loved him. Emile Hirsch would be my crazy kid brother. You said 'no' ten times, he kept not hearing you. Finally his work ethic and determination worked. He has a big heart, and Danny Dietz was a small guy. With Hirsch it's the power of ignoring the word 'no' and willing it to happen. He'd stalk me and call me, while being sweet enough and charming enough that it worked.
That action sequence between the SEALs and the Taliban on the mountain cliffs was well-staged and intense. Did "Restrepo" have an influence on your approach?
I saw "Restrepo" for the first time as I developed the script. I've known Sebastian for quite a while. I admire him greatly as an adventurer, he's a special talent, and an incredible journalist. I remember the day after 9/11 day that Sebastian was on Larry King and seemed to know more about that part of world, Osama bin Laden and Al Queda than anyone. He had a unique perspective on that region, spent time with soldiers, the Taliban and Hindu Kush in the Korangal Valley. I worked with him quite a while doing initial research, he gave me insight into the operation from a different perspective. I thought "Restrepo" was an extraordinary film. I was sad to hear that Tim Hetherington was killed, we lost a great filmmaker.
It was a challenge. In the book the gunfight went on for 3 1/2 hours. I interviewed Marcus, reviewed the military reports on the terrain, the pitch of the hills and cliffs, the autopsy reports of the guys, and the footage the Taliban released on the internet of the Dietz and Murphy bodies, what they did to those bodies. Once we got the facts, we built in LA a model of the mountain that was four feet high and five feet wide. We broke down the fight into 30 segments or sequences. We treated each one as a mini film experience. I worked with Kevin Scott and the stuntmen and my editor Colby Parker and the sound designer to see what experience each stage would present, so that it was not just one wild exchange, but a piece of movement.
It was horrifying when the soldiers jumped off the cliffs.
That's how Marcus described it. The cliff jumps were reminiscent of September 11, jumping out of the towers. There was no better option, if you can't stay, go this way. "You gotta jump," look your buddy in the eye, and say, "Let's do it." That to me was so powerful. That these men would do that, fight for each other like that. I put a lot of work into getting it right.
In the editing, knowing it was such a long gun fight, it was about how to construct each piece so the audience didn't disengage or be repulsed or overwhelmed by the violence. We tried to find different tones within the one fight. Parker did a wonderful job, by himself.
Was Marcus's survival finally about being lucky?
Marcus, yeah, he was lucky. He'll tell you that the way he landed on the rocks was lucky, some bullets missed him, where he was shot, where not. He stumbled into an old Pashtun code of honor. He was beyond lucky. He had no more skill than any of the other guys. It was just luck.