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Peter Berg Fought to Keep Brutal War Survival Thriller 'Lone Survivor' Real UPDATE

Photo of Anne Thompson 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." 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.
'Lone Survivor'
'Lone Survivor'

Is the movie true to the details of the Afghan villagers who saved him? 

See "60 Minutes." Gulab moved out of the village, they were attacked so much, they are now living in a city in Afghanistan. Gulab wasn't sure what to do with him for five days. They hid him, moved him into a cave. At some point the Taliban said, "you give us the American." He said, "if you give us Osama." Basically it was "fuck you." But Gulab never did it for money. Marcus was taken great care of by Gulab and that village code of honor: "If you come to me ask for help and I give it you, you are part of my family." He felt compassion for him and the village did not support the Taliban and decided to go on the line for Marcus.

Did you get cooperation from the SEALs? 

The key there was Army research. I spent months with active SEAL teams (but I was not allowed to film). I did go to Iraq. I was given permission by the SEAL community and special operations to go and embed. I am the only civilian to embed with an active SEAL platoon. Sebastian and Tim embedded with an Army platoon. I was in western Iraq with a 20-man SEAL Team Five platoon. That month I spent with those SEALs was informative for me. We had proximity to a lot of violence and I never felt like I was in danger, with 20 Navy SEALs. After I looked at where I'd been I realized I'd been in more danger than I thought. They were extremely competent guys and created an environment that felt secure. I worked hard to get the tactics right. We had a few SEALs on set at all times. 

Did you film the opening scenes that established the SEALs level of training?

That was training footage that the Navy commissioned. We shot a lot of footage internally off the book but the only easy way was we used pictures shot by a photographer, Richard Schellenberg. The challenge was that Marcus spends so much time in the book on training and selection, but I didn't want to spend 25 pages. It was a late in the game idea during the editing period, Ignition, who I work with a lot, did a great job of putting that together. 

You shot digitally? 

Nothing particularly innovative: we used the Red camera with a wide lens, Steadicam not handheld so it's not so disorienting and the audience won't turn off. I knew how long the fight had to be. The work ethos was we all got up on the chair lift every morning. We lost the light at 4:30 PM, so we had limited light. Mark Wahlberg was carrying lighting equipment up the chair lift. There were no bathrooms, just the SEALs and crew, we had consultants on all 43 days. Everybody worked harder than I've ever seen a film crew work.

How did you share the film with the families of the survivors? 

I spent time with almost all the families, mothers and fathers, widows, sisters and Marcus Luttrell and the SEALs community. Two months ago we flew in all the families of the soldiers killed and showed the film. I knew the parents would look me in the eye, knew that was coming through all the writing, prepping, shooting and editing. When the lights come up I was looking into the eyes of the SEALs and parents of the survivors. We got it right. When that day came I was pleased that the parents and family members friends almost to a man said, "this is right. " 

This article is related to: Interviews, Interviews , Lone Survivor, Video, Peter Berg, Awards, Awards Season Roundup, Academy Awards, Oscars

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.