Director Peter Berg Talks Understanding a Soldier’s Sacrifice in ‘Lone Survivor’ Interview

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When Peter Berg and Marcus Luttrell sat down in front of the press to talk about Lone Survivor, it was immediately clear that these two men couldn’t be any more different from one another. One was an acclaimed director of several successful Hollywood films, while the other was a war veteran and the survivor of a horrific tragedy. But there was a clear understanding between the two. And it is this very understanding, specifically of Luttrell’s experience at war, that Peter Berg sought to pass on in his latest film.

Lone Survivor, starring  Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch, and Taylor Kitsch, primarily tells the true story of Luttrell and his three brothers in arms. The men are sent on a mission that quickly goes south, and the four of them are slowly hunted down by the Taliban on the rocky cliffs of Afghanistan. But surprisingly enough, Peter Berg isn’t interested in the political and moral motives that sent those men up that mountain that day. Instead, his main goal is to impart understanding to the viewer of what Luttrell and the others went through in those trying hours. To convey, through film, the understanding that he’s gained from Luttrell in making this movie. Berg want to inform viewers that they’ll never truly know, never really feel or experience what it was to be Marcus Luttrell on that day, but for the next two hours, they’ll, at the very least, understand.

This idea of gaining an appreciation for the sacrifice of the men behind the story of Lone Survivor was something on Berg’s mind from the very beginning, and the filmmaker spent a great deal of time immersing himself in the culture of Navy SEALs before filmming. According to Berg, “Marcus made sure that I understood as much as I could, not by talking but literally by spending the time to be with those communities to understand, not just how they hold their guns, and how they put their equipment on, but how they talk about each other, and how they feel about each other, and he wanted me to get as comprehensive of an understanding of what that culture is.” But understanding what it’s like to be a Navy SEAL isn’t for the faint of heart, and Berg wasn’t given any special treatment when he signed on for the film. Berg says, “Next thing I know, I’m in a military plane with three marines sleeping on top of me, flying for 18 hours with an outhouse on board as a bathroom. Thank you, Marcus, for that.” Clearly, Berg had to earn the right to make this film.

And there is certainly a sense that Berg and the rest of the crew had to work for their stripes when shooting this film. The crew treated this project like something bigger and more sacrosanct than just another job. They regarded it as a privilege and a duty to serve the soldiers that have risked life and limb to serve them. The stuntmen especially felt the pressure to give their jobs their all, especially during the film’s gruesome cliff jumping scene. Berg says, “Because Marcus and other SEALs were there, these stuntmen wanted to push a little harder than they might normally. Often times, a lot of my job ended up being to calm people down because everybody wanted to get it right, and those stunts were done without any dummies, without any wire work. Those were human beings literally throwing themselves off of cliffs, and you know, some guys got hurt and some guys got bumped up, and a rib was broken, and 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.”

Even the actors themselves wanted in on the action. Berg goes on to say, “The actors would try and sneak in… I’d get a call that Ben Foster snuck in there and he’s trying to jump. We’d have to run over there and tell Ben ‘no.’ And then Marcus is of course going, ‘Go on, Ben, do it, do it.’ Everybody wanted to do it right. We knew we could never be Navy SEALs, we don’t have that ability, that’s not who we are, That’s who [Marcus] is, but we do have the ability to imitate and try and mimic, and that’s what we tried to do.” According to Berg, this strive toward authenticity is something that informs every frame of Lone Survivor.

But foremost, Berg doesn’t want to proselytize or preach with this film. When asked about any message that he hopes to express, he says, “I never really go into a film and say ‘Okay, here’s the grand thesis, here’s my goal.'” He wants to show, as purely as he can, what Luttrell and his fallen friends have sacrificed, and maybe give them a chance to show their gratitude “One thing that I think Lone Survivor does, and certainly its book did is give the audience a chance, in its own way, to acknowledge what these guys are doing and pay respect. To give people the opportunity to say, ‘Wow, thank you and I understand a little bit about what you may have gone through.'”