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Peter Berg on Directing Lone Survivor and Talking Taylor Kitsch Out of a Suicide Leap

Peter Berg. Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty

Fifteen years ago, Peter Berg was an actor with a few notable credits (among them, a regular gig on Chicago Hope and a supporting role in the noir classic The Last Seduction), but he’s since engineered an impressive career change as a film director, working himself up to Hollywood’s top tier after helming films like Friday Night Lights and Hancock. As he’ll be the first to admit, Berg needed every bit of that leverage to make his new movie Lone Survivor, adapted from the book by former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, about a harrowing Afghanistan mission that found Luttrell (played in the film by Mark Wahlberg) and his fellow SEALs (played by Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, and Emile Hirsch) stuck on a dangerous Afghan mountain, radically outnumbered and outgunned while awaiting rescue. Berg recently sat down with Vulture to discuss how he pulled it off, when he had to calm down his gung-ho actors, and what aspiring filmmakers ought to do before picking up a camera.

This film is a real tribute to the armed forces, and I know you count a lot of former SEALs as your close friends. Is that a life path you had ever wanted to pursue for yourself?
No. My dad was a marine … we never really talked about it. I grew up too young to go to Vietnam and just probably too old for Iraq. I grew up during a time of peace and my friends weren’t joining the military — it wasn’t something on my radar. But if you asked me whether I could go back and do it all over again now, and it meant I wouldn’t go into filmmaking, there’s a part of me that would have loved to try to be a Navy SEAL. I don’t know if I could have made it, but it’s a pretty extraordinary life.

Do you wish you’d moved into directing sooner than you did?
It doesn’t hurt to have a bit of experience under your belt. We have a bunch of interns at our company from NYU, USC, UCLA, and they’re all 19-year-olds who say, “I’m ready to make movies!” I’m like, “You’re 19. What the fuck do you have to say that anybody wants to hear? No offense.” And they get upset. I’m like, “You should get out of Hollywood, travel around the world, get your heart broken, get arrested, do some stupid things, fall in love, save a life, see some things, and get some perspective.” It certainly helps to have those experiences before you first start trying to make a film.

Is it true that Universal wouldn’t make Lone Survivor unless you agreed to direct Battleship first?
Generally, studios are adverse to making films about war in the Middle East. They’d much rather make a film with a superhero or an alien or a robot. This was before Zero Dark Thirty — but even if you look up the box office for The Hurt Locker, a movie that won Best Picture, it still had trouble performing financially. That makes these guys nervous.

There are two sequences in this film where the SEALs are surrounded on the mountain, and they have no choice but to throw themselves down cliffs to get to a safer place. Those falls … they’re incredibly brutal. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like them in a film before.
Yeah, pain hurts. When I read Luttrell’s description in the book, it was very immersive. He did a great job putting me on the mountain with those guys, and the cliff jumps in particular were reminiscent of 9/11, when people were jumping out of the World Trade towers, just throwing themselves out of the towers because it was the only option they had. That’s what it felt like to me, and the desperation of that act was powerful to me and the violence of the impact made a strong impression. So we spent a lot of time discussing not just the cliff falls but the gunfight in general and how we could present something that felt very experiential to the audience. And it was a lot of work figuring out how to pull it off.

I heard that those stuntmen threw themselves off those cliffs for real.
Oh, they went for it. Broken ribs, punctured lungs, concussions. A lot of my job was trying to calm them down, because they’d all read the book and a lot of them come from military families and there were SEALs on set while we were shooting, so everyone wanted to get it right. Including the actors! Particularly Ben Foster and Taylor Kitsch, I had to keep pulling them off the hill, because they wanted to throw themselves off. A lot of my job was just to tell them, “You’re not going to throw yourself off a twenty-foot cliff.”

This is a good role for Taylor, who took a bit of a beating last year in the press.
Taylor is a really good actor, and he’s very smart. He’s gonna be around for a long time. Anybody who wants to have a career in this business is going to have good days and bad days. You just play through that, and he’s playing through it just fine. We’ll work together a lot.

You’ve mentioned that a lot of your friends in the military scoff at the Hollywood movies that depict them.
It ends up feeling cliched to the guys who know, because the writers and directors aren’t given access for whatever reason — sometimes it’s the writers and directors’ fault, or other times it’s the SEAL community or the military’s fault. You’re trying to make a movie about a culture that you don’t know anything about. When I wanted to go to Iraq, I had to go talk to the admiral in charge of special operations, and I had to ask his permission. He said, “I don’t know why I should give you permission,” so I said, “Well, how do you feel about movies on the military?” He said, “They get it wrong.” So I said, “If you at least give me access like a journalist might, I have the chance of making a film that you will feel is credible.” And he accepted that argument and let me go.

You were embedded with a SEAL unit there. What did you take in that helped you make this movie?
It’s hard to articulate what I noticed about the equipment I observed and the helicopters I was in, the guns I saw being shot, the people getting killed. I saw all kinds of things like that, and they were all obviously intense and formative experiences, but really, as a journalist, if you just allow yourself to be in an experience for an extended amount of time, it’s all about the intangibles. You see how these men sit, how they look, what they’re like at rest, how they fuck around with each other, how they deal with their wives, how they do homework with their kids over Skype — it’s a true understanding of a culture. I don’t profess to be the world’s leading expert on Navy SEALs, but based on the amount of time I immersed myself in that culture, I was able to develop a deeper and more authentic understanding of these guys in all areas.

Have you let yourself get emotional while making this movie?
It’s different than any experience I’ve ever had. The first time I had trouble with the film emotionally was at the screening for all the families. We had about 80 family members whose sons were killed, and the Navy had sent these two grief psychiatrists to the theater who specialize in counseling and death notification. After the movie was over, there was so much emotion in the audience — I heard a mom start crying, and then I started crying, and I couldn’t stop. I let it out, because I had been holding it in for so long, and before I knew it, I had the grief psychiatrists on me! You know, as a parent, the idea of losing my son … I can’t think of anything worse than what these parents have gone through. So after watching the film, we’ve all grown very close.

Peter Berg on Lone Survivor, Taylor Kitsch