Peter Berg is staring at an elegant, wood-carved memorial that dominates a wall of Engine 53/Ladder 43, a firehouse in New York’s Spanish Harlem. The memorial is a tribute to Lt. Michael Patrick Murphy, one of the 19 U.S. Navy SEALs and Army Special Operations officers who died during Operation Red Wings, a 2005 mission in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan designed to eliminate a high-ranking Al Qaeda operative.
“This is the closest I’ll ever get to Mike Murphy,” says the director, one day after the New York premiere of “Lone Survivor,” his film version of the bestselling memoir by Marcus Luttrell, the only member of Murphy’s team to make it out of Operation Red Wings alive. Universal Pictures will debut the picture, which stars Mark Wahlberg as Luttrell, on Christmas Day.
It was the unshakable immediacy of Luttrell’s writing that made Berg want to make the film. “We read in a newspaper that three soldiers were killed in Iraq, seven soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, four were killed in Somalia, and we can’t process it,” he says. “It’s not our fault; we’re too busy and we’re too detached from it. What Marcus did so well was to force me to not be able to detach from what happened to those men, and to be in the experience of what happened to them. I felt like, with this film, I might be able to give people an opportunity to acknowledge that and to pay respect.”
In doing so, Berg (who also adapted the screenplay) hasn’t sugar-coated anything. Starting with its title, “Lone Survivor” announces the outcome will be grim, a fact Berg emphasizes by opening the movie with images of the badly wounded Luttrell being airlifted to safety, before flashing back to the start of the story.
It is pointedly not a suspense film, though Berg does ratchet up an almost unbearable level of tension during the central set-piece — a beat-by-beat reenactment of the firefight in which Murphy (played by Taylor Kitsch), Luttrell, Gunner’s Mate Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Sonar Technician Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster) found themselves trapped in rugged terrain and badly outnumbered by Al Qaeda insurgents.
“Lone Survivor” was made for $48 million, put together by producer Randall Emmett and his longtime partner George Furla, and shot over 42 days in New Mexico, where the high-altitude terrain doubled for the Hindu Kush. Universal, which has distributed five of Berg’s seven directorial features, acquired the U.S. film rights as a negative pickup.
“Not having the studio there every day … I respect Universal and get along great with them, but we were on our own completely,” Berg says, “and in many ways, it was a more autonomous experience.”
Berg knows of what he speaks. His previous two features, “Hancock” and “Battleship,” were studio tentpoles with nine-figure budgets — the first, a worldwide hit; the second, a headline-grabbing train wreck that felt like a punchline from the moment it was first announced.
“I think there were many, many problems, starting with a script that wasn’t ready,” he says. “There was no DNA, so we tried to create it; we rushed that. We shouldn’t have moved as quickly as we did. But once that money starts flowing and the sets and special effects are under way, you’re off and running, and it’s virtually impossible to course-correct. I think we all learned a lot of lessons from ‘Battleship.’”
Still, Berg says, there are scenes in the finished film of which he’s proud. “For people who are furious at me for doing it, OK, I’m not sorry, I’m not going to apologize to them. To my studio who put money into it, I am respectful and very appreciative of what they did. These are good people who tried, and now we go forward. The lesson for me is that I will not get involved again with something that I do not really feel deeply, deeply connected to starting with the story and the script.” For Berg, “Lone Survivor” has made that connection.