Lone Survivor Peter Berg talks grunts and gunfights
He is best known for the overblown ‘Battleship’, but Peter Berg’s latest movie , ‘Lone Survivor’, is a far rarer Hollywood beast – a politically nuanced war movie. And it also contains what may be the greatest gunfight ever filmed
Peter Berg: “I was interested in trying to capture that fight as it was written in the book. Reading it, it almost felt like a piece of orchestral music to me”
Not out of the woods: Taylor Kitsch, Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch in ‘Lone Survivor’
Harken, fans of movie miscellany and listology. Pop quiz. Is the shoot-’em-up between Taliban fighters and a four-man Navy Seal reconnaissance team at the heart of US box-office smash Lone Survivor the best screen gunfight ever?
A flawlessly executed ballet of hardware, fight choreography and controlled mayhem, it’s hard to think of better one.
“I was interested in that extraordinary gunfight from the beginning,” says Lone Survivor director Peter Berg. “For me, as a film-maker, I was interested in trying to capture that fight as it was written in the book. Reading it, it almost felt like a piece of orchestral music to me. There were so many levels of emotion and incident. And I wanted to capture that without losing all sense of geography. So we broke the gunfight down into around 60 sequences. And each of those sequences is almost like a little mini movie in its own right.”
The book is the 2007 memoir Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwings and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10, written by former United States Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell. Detailing a failed 2005 attempt to kill Taliban leader Ahmad Shah during the war in Afghanistan, the book was once the subject of a major studio bidding war. And with good reason, says Berg: “The biggest hook for me was the incredible ethical dilemma these guys had – whether or not to kill unarmed civilians – knowing that if they let them go they will probably be killed themselves as a result. I knew there was a special movie in that.”
Before writing the script, the director visited the families of the fallen Seals depicted and became the first civilian to be embedded with a Navy Seal team.
“I’ve worked with the military before on The Kingdom and on Battleship,” notes Berg. “The main thing I needed help with – once I had spoken with all the families – was access. My main argument was that there has never been a good film about the Navy Seals. So if you give me access I can do research and try to make one.”
The finished product is thrilling, beautifully performed (by an ensemble featuring Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch and Taylor Kitsch) and more politically nuanced than last year’s comparably themed Zero Dark Thirty. We shouldn’t be too surprised. Peter Berg has a knack for depicting boys in uniform, whether they’re soldiers or footballers (see 2004’s Friday Night Lights). In common with Michael Mann, a film-maker Berg cites as a major influence, the Lone Survivor director does seem to be at home with robust, masculine themes. Correct?
“I keep saying I want to make a movie set in the south of France about a young couple in love sharing a bottle of Bordeaux,” he chuckles. “I keep telling myself that’ll be my next project. And then I end up shooting another bunch of guys with another bunch of guns. I guess these are the kind of stories I’ve always been drawn to. I’m interested in exploring the psychology of violence.”
To date, Berg’s career forms a chequered path. A native New Yorker and Taft School graduate, he had majored in theatre before relocating to Hollywood. He wanted to act but soon had to put those ambitions on hold as he worked his way around various film sets. Does that make him an understanding director, I wonder?
“It means I have a good understanding of all aspects of film-making,” he says. “So I’m generally more empathetic toward various people in various jobs around the set. That being said, if someone’s not doing their job, I know it. Because I used to hold that exact position.”
Almost inevitably, Berg’s first breakthrough as an actor came with a war film, 1992’s A Midnight Clear. But it was his recurring role as Dr Billy Kronk in Chicago Hope that made him a household name. Away from the limelight, Berg has continued to write, direct, produce and occasionally compose for TV and film. He has, accordingly, witnessed a massive culture shift in the nexus between those two media.
“We’re definitely experiencing a golden age in television,” says Berg. “Everyone is aware of it by now. I’ve just finished a pilot for HBO with Damien Lindoff, who created Lost. They’re not making us do 22 episodes like they used to. So David Fincher can come in and do an episode of House of Cards. That division between TV and film has been completely shattered. Matthew McConaughey is doing a HBO series right now. And he’s probably just about to win an Oscar.”
He may have directed Hancock and Battleship but Berg insists that he still prefers making smaller movies – well, smaller by Hollywood standards – or at least tightly focused projects, like Lone Survivor, to $200 million budgets.
“I always loved film-makers like Sydney Lumet and John Cassavetes and Hal Ashby, ” says the 51-year-old. “That’s where I think my instincts lie. With movies like Hancock, you spend so much time on stages and then you wait a year-and-a-half for the effects to get finished. It’s easier when directing is directing.”