‘Patriots Day’ Director Peter Berg: How Terrorist Attacks ‘Strengthen Our Bonds’

Peter Berg Patriots Day
Courtesy of Lionsgate

“Patriots Day” isn’t just a film about the Boston Marathon bombing. It’s the story of a city coming together in the wake of a brutal attack that was meant to divide people.

At least, that’s what the director is hoping to convey. “Patriots Day” is the latest in a series of films by Peter Berg that follow everyday Americans who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. It’s terrain he mined to great box office success in “Lone Survivor” (2014) and with dispiriting commercial results in “Deepwater Horizon” (2016).

“Patriots Day” debuted in limited release over the Christmas holiday and will expand later this month. Berg spoke to Variety about his close bond with frequent collaborator Mark Wahlberg, how he earned the trust of the bombing victims, and the film’s political message.

With “Lone Survivor,” “Deepwater Horizon,” and now “Patriots Day,” you focus on true-life stories. What’s the attraction?

I’m drawn to working-class people. I like finding the drama in everyday, human, American lives. Telling these kinds of stories and doing the research and being able to meet the people involved is very inspiring.

After three films together, has Mark Wahlberg become your on-screen muse?

I didn’t expect that to happen. When we worked on “Lone Survivor,” we formed a natural friendship. I think we share similar views on the world and on filmmaking.

There’s a lot of anger toward law enforcement following shootings of people of color by police. Did you want this film to focus on some of the enforcers’ positive contributions?

We never set out to make a film that took a strong stance on some of the negative issues that are surrounding police officers today. What we saw in Boston — much like what we saw in Orlando or San Bernardino or Paris — was the very best of law enforcement. We see the very best of firefighters and EMTs. These are people running into danger and helping. And they help regardless of race, political affiliation, sexual orientation, or any other viewpoint. They just help. I think that’s a message worth putting out there, especially when we are focused so intensely on the negatives.

Were the bombing victims and their families concerned about the movie?

When I talked to the family members, I said I understood why there’d be uncertainty or reluctance. But I told them why I felt this was an important story to get out there. There’s so much fear; there’s so much violence. It’s important to know that the unintended result of these terrorist acts is that they strengthen our bonds and increase the love we have for each other.  This is about a bunch of people who came together in the face of real tragedy.

I did “Lone Survivor,” which is about Navy SEALs getting into a violent gunfight. I did “Deepwater Horizon,” which is about oil workers involved in a violent blowout. In those two cultures, there’s a certain inherent understanding that dangerous things can happen. But in the case of the Boston bombing, those people were normal folks, going to have a sunny, spring day at the marathon, and suddenly they’ve lost limbs or lost children. They were utterly unprepared for it.

Were you concerned that the film would glamorize Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the brothers who carried out the bombing?

It’s hard to not be intrigued by these two sociopaths. They were assimilated into Western society. One went to college. The other wanted to be an Olympic boxer for the U.S. They were the kind of guys you see at Starbucks every day. That made them interesting. However, I don’t consider these men to be righteous or particularly even Muslim — I consider them to be narcissistic sociopaths. Because of that, we were conscious of not glorifying them or giving them undue screen time in the film. We have no respect for these two men.