Peter Berg is a manly director. After shepherding such testosterone-soaked films as “Very Bad Things,” “The Rundown,” “Friday Night Lights,” and “Battleship,” the director has set his sights on bringing his passion project to the big screen, in spectacularly violent fashion. “Lone Survivor” is based on Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell‘s non-fiction account of how his elite unit was ambushed and fell in the rocky mountains of Afghanistan. As told by Berg, it is a film full of fire and fury and men doing incredibly manly things. We got a chance to speak to the director, who told us about pulling together his cast, what his thoughts on “Battleship” are more than a year later, the movie’s patriotic tone, and more.
“Lone Survivor” stars Mark Wahlberg as Luttrell, with Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Alexander Ludwig and Ben Foster serving as his band of brothers. (Eric Bana turns in a fine supporting performance as one of their superiors, and Berg himself even shows up for a brief sequence.) It would be easy to diminish the amount of skill required to play these men, since they’re mostly required to react to the crazy action that’s enveloping them, but that’s got to be tricky to because through those sequences of violence you’ve got to etch out a believable character.
Berg seems particularly drawn to characters under extreme physical duress, whether it’s high school football players or Navy SEALS, and as a person he comes across as sharp and to the point, a smart man who can’t be bothered to elaborate for unnecessary reasons.
What about this story spoke to you?
I thought that when I read Luttrell’s book, he did a great job of forcing me to turn off my phone and my computer and not be a victim of the fast news cycle and just spend time with these men, divorced of politics, who are willing go out there and put themselves into these sites. I feel that that’s important and I as an American support soldiers and I’m often at a loss at how to do that. And I think that Luttrell gave me the chance to pay respects to these men and hopefully the film will have the same impact on a larger audience.
Why do you think it was so difficult to get it off the ground?
It actually wasn’t that difficult to get the film made, financially. It took me a while creatively to get to a point where I felt comfortable making that film. I had to do research on that culture and what happened on the hill before I could be comfortable telling that story. We were able to put the money relatively easily.
You also put an amazing cast together.
We had plenty of actors who were excited to play these guys.
Can you talk about shooting these action sequences?
It was a huge part of this story—it was a very intense and complicated fight they got into. Because we had a limited budget we knew we had to be pretty organized and our approach to filming that action—we knew we would be up a mountain and the altitude would pose problems [and] the terrain was rough. And we broke the gunfight into about 25 different experiences and treated each moment like it was its own mini-movie and we had pre-production meetings on each sequence. The goal was to treat it like a symphony, where there are moments that are calm and quiet and other moments that are violent and intense. We all spent a lot of time in prep figuring out how we were going to do that.
You always have a clear geographic sense of where these guys are. Did you have any films that you looked back on to inform this?
Not really. I used Marcus’ description of the gunfight, which was so thorough and since I had Marcus there, I was able to build a model of the mountain and talk out where each person was. We had autopsy reports of all the dead SEALs so we were able to see where they were shot, what bones were broken, and identify where we wanted all of these events to return. If the first guy to die got his fingers shot off, we knew exactly where that would happen. And in doing that we made something that wasn’t geographically vague, but was very specific.
Did you ever feel too wed to the original story?
No. Because it’s real. We weren’t suffering from lack of drama or lack of action or intensity. It was a gift for us as filmmakers.
The work ILM did is amazing…
The helicopter crash is an amazing moment.
It totally was. Was it fun after doing “Battleship,” which was so huge and over the top, to do these subtle visual effects with them?
Even with “Battleship” we aimed for photorealism too but it’s just hard when you have so much CG. It was just nice having elements that you could focus on but really try to blend in with everything else.
You talked about not wanting to be too political with this. But it definitely has a kind of rah-rah American spirit. Did you worry about that?
Not really. I hear things like rah rah or propaganda or gung ho America and these are always treated as pejorative terms. I don’t quite get that. I’m so not a fan of the politicians in D.C. on either side who casually go fight. But to not understand that there is evil in the world and we are lucky to have men and women who are willing enough to put themselves between us and that evil, to not want to acknowledge and respect that seems wrong to me. I personally don’t look at patriotism as being a negative. I actually believe in it. So I was concerned with presenting these men and the way these men died as honestly as we could. And it’s important we pay attention to that.
You pop up in the movie for a minute. Do you ever think more seriously about acting?
I’m ready. Tell Martin Scorsese I’m ready.
I was wondering if you could look back on the whole “Battleship” experience.
Obviously, it’s a big movie and I have a lot of different feelings. All and all, I am proud of the film. I wish it had performed better at the domestic box office. It didn’t. And I’ve moved on. There’s a lot about that film that I’m quite proud of.
One of the best things about that film is that it showcased Taylor Kitsch. What is the connection between you two?
I really like him. He’s a very interesting actor. He’s a good man and a good friend. And he’s somebody I believe in. When you make movies, it’s good to have your friends with you. People you trust, people you’ve been in it through good times and bad times. That’s how real friendships are formed. When you go through rough times and come out of it with that connection, that’s real friendship. And that’s what Taylor and I have.
There’s been talk here and there about a “Friday Night Lights” movie.
Kyle Chandler won’t do it!
Whenever anybody asks, we always point to Kyle Chandler and say he won’t do it. Which is only partly true. But he was the first one to say that we ended it really well and I agree. I think all of them as actors want to be able break free of that stereotype and that persona. I think that these guys like Kyle are working hard to have careers that go on beyond “Friday Night Lights.” I understand them not wanting to do a film. I can’t really argue with them too intensely with them. Personally, I would do it. But it’s not my face up there.
And you’re involved with Brett Ratner’s “Hercules” movie with The Rock.
Barely. I’m very removed from that. I did direct The Rock in a Super Bowl commercial for milk last year, which was fun, and I’m going to direct him in an HBO show called “Ballers” in January. We’re good friends. But with “Hercules,” I’m just an executive producer. It was something that I was maybe going to do a long time ago but they kicked me out. With all due respect. But I think Brett is going to do a great job.
Would you want to do a big historical epic?
After doing something like “Lone Survivor,” I’m looking for any kind of material that I’m as passionate about as “Lone Survivor.” Whatever type of film that affords me that connection is good.
Is there any genre you’re looking to explore?
I’m reading a lot of books. If you’ve got a good book, send it to me.
Speaking of books, you were attached to “Dune” for a while. What happened with that?
I was a big fan of the book. I thought it was a great adventure story. I thought David Lynch‘s version left room for a different interpretation. At the end, we just never got a script that was less than 200 pages. It was really hard to put that book into a 130-page script.
Were there any ideas that you took from “Dune” and put into “Battleship?”
I don’t think so. But that’s a good question.
There were actors in “Lone Survivor” who were new to your stable of actors. Are there any of them who you are now dying to work with a gain?
Ben Foster. I think he’s the shit. He’s an extraordinary actor. And hopefully I’ll be able to do a bunch of movies with him.
Why do you feel so strongly about him?
He’s a really unique actor with incredible sensitivity, a lot of range, he’s very dedicated, he’s playful, he’s fearless. He’s everything you could want in an actor.
Did you ever worry about people getting confused because all of the guys had beards?
[laughs] Yeah, I guess. Look, there were times on set when I was confused—I’d be talking to Mark Wahlberg for fifteen minutes and all of a sudden I’d realize I was talking to Taylor Kitsch. Yes, I was concerned about that. But look, I went to Iraq for a month and lived with SEALs and it was hard to tell them apart. That’s the reality. Thankfully I only had four guys so I was confident I’d be able to delineate.
What about those Navy SEALs did you look for in your actors?
A spirit of adventure. That’s maybe hard to articulate what that is. But when you see it you know it. But these guys have a real appetite for adventure and that’s what I found to be common with most SEALs. It’s not an appetite for violence or death, it’s an appetite for adventure.
“Lone Survivor” opens on December 27th.