CTAP Interview: Peter Berg, Director of Lone Survivor
This interview is taken from the collection of the Combating Terrorism Archive Project (CTAP).1 On 12 December 2013, writer and director Peter Berg came to Monterey, California, for a special pre-release screening of his new film, Lone Survivor. Based on the book of the same title by Marcus Luttrell, the film depicts Operation Red Wings (June 2005), in which Luttrell and three other members of SEAL Team Ten were dropped into the mountains near a village on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.2 Their mission was to capture or kill a Taliban leader who was responsible for the deaths of a number of Marines. Shortly after they landed, the team was discovered by three goatherds: an older man and two boys. The SEALs' decision about what to do with these villagers and the aftermath of that decision are at the heart of Luttrell's book and Berg's film. After the screening, Mr. Berg sat down for an interview with Rebecca Lorentz of CTAP and Elizabeth Skinner of CTX.3 Spoiler alert: This discussion covers many of Lone Survivor's major plot points, so if you intend to see the film, you might want to save this article to read afterward.
REBECCA LORENTZ: Thank you, Mr. Berg, for agreeing to do an interview with us. We just finished watching a screening of Lone Survivor. Can you explain what you were most nervous about when you got ready to screen the movie for the public?
PETER BERG: I think I was probably most nervous about the fact that we had a unique audience. We knew that part of our audience base for Lone Survivor would be the families, moms, and dads of the 19 soldiers who were killed: the men's children, their brothers and sisters, their widows. I knew they were going to see the film, and I wanted to make sure that they felt we had paid our respects, that we had done our work, that we had honored their sons. The other challenge was with the Special Operations community as a whole. I knew that Navy SEALs and Green Berets and PJs [pararescue jumpers] from the Air Force, Force Recon from the Marines, Delta, SEAL Team Six—we knew that these guys were all going to see the film, and they were going to have very strong opinions. If we were not accurate, if we hadn't done our work in advance and made a real effort to understand how that SEAL community operates, we would be ripped apart by that part of the audience. So we were very conscious that we had a very opinionated and involved audience that was going to see this film.
LORENTZ: When you began to make the film, what surprised you the most about delving into the military operations?
BERG: That is a good question. Everything was new to me as I started to research the SEAL community. I spent a month in Iraq, and I was able to embed in the Foxtrot Platoon in SEAL Team Five and see the closeness of the men, the brotherhood, the bond between men of different shapes and sizes and races and religion. The unity among men and the singular focus they have, the willingness to protect each other and the love they have for each other was something that I had never seen before. You know, these are guys who have problems with each other, they would argue. They didn't always get along; but when it came time to work, the level of professionalism and commitment and self-reliance was kind of mind-blowing to me.
LORENTZ: I have got to say, we just watched about a two-hour film, and it was really intense. My heart is still beating. How have you recovered from doing that film over four years, from that intensity?
BERG: It has been a really unique, special experience for all of us involved in the film. Again, these are 19 men who died, and we have come to know their families, we have come to know their friends, we have come to know their coworkers within the SEALs. It has been very emotional for all of us, and movies like this don't come along that often. I can tell you I am very emotionally connected to this film, very close to Marcus Luttrell and also the SEAL community in general. It is going to take some time to let this go, I mean, for me to find another project that will mean as much to me as this one has.
LORENTZ: Yes. There is the moment in the film when the SEALs have the goatherds, and they have to make a decision about what to do. How heavy do you feel that moment weighs with regard to ethical decision making?
BERG: The decision that Mike Murphy made to let those goatherds go and spare their lives—that was the core of why I wanted to do this film. I think it shines a very bright light on what we are asking our Special Operations soldiers to do today, and how outside of the box their thinking needs to be, how situationally aware they need to be, how prepared for the unimaginable they need to be. That captures so much about the story. Special Ops personnel are trained to do almost anything. Everything that happens to them in the field is new. It is not in books, and there is no manual. I could certainly form an argument as to why they probably should have killed those goatherds, and if I did, I would now have 19 Special Operations soldiers still alive. Trying to imagine what Mike Murphy was thinking, and what was going through his mind with zero information—that's out of my pay grade.
ELIZABETH SKINNER: Did the actors react emotionally, and how did you work with them to get them into that intensity?
BERG: We had Marcus Luttrell come to the set about a month before shooting. He came with eight Navy SEALs—four current and four who were retired—and we set up a training facility in Albuquerque, New Mexico. For a month, the actors lived with Marcus and eight SEALs, all of whom knew the guys who were killed. That was a very formative experience for those actors. Prior to that, they had met the families of the SEALs they were playing—so Taylor Kitsch spent time with the Murphys, and so forth. I tried to immerse the actors into the families as much as I could and then into the SEAL teams as much as I could. They got it. It is impossible to read Marcus's book, spend time with the SEAL families, and spend time with the SEALs, and not get very emotionally connected. So those actors were very, very invested in what they were doing.
SKINNER: You were creating the illusion of extreme violence and this combat experience that none of you who were involved in the filmmaking had actually experienced. You were involved with the SEALs to get a sense of how that felt, but as a director, you tried to create a reality and present it to people who have been through it. How did you gain that perspective on how that violence should look?
BERG: Good question. In the book, Marcus described that gunfight in vivid and graphic detail. It was a five-hour gunfight in reality, and the first thing I did was really analyze what Marcus had written. I invited him to my house, and for a month, I sat with Luttrell and ran through that gunfight beat by beat. Those cliff jumps, tree by tree. Those injuries, bullet by bullet. I sat with one of the men's fathers, and he read me the autopsy report of every injury: every bone, ankle, knee, thigh, groin, stomach, throat. I was trying to educate myself and get as complete a knowledge as I could. I tried to be as comprehensive and understanding as I could have been about the reality of that gunfight.
We tried to be very specific about every gunshot—where someone was getting hurt. Every hit, every injury. The makeup guys were very specific about what these injuries would look like, the sound guys about what they would sound like. We tried to go into the detail of that violence and not just throw it at the audience.
LORENTZ: Is it difficult to direct a movie that has such a varied audience? You know that the Special Forces will see it, but you know American citizens will see it who have nothing to do with the war.
BERG: Directing any movie is difficult. It is always tricky to figure out who is going to like it and who is not going to like it. You know, generally, I am willing to kind of take the Serenity Prayer and say there is only so much I can control.4 But in making Lone Survivor, knowing I was going to have to see each mother again when this film was over, knowing that I was going to have to see Marcus Luttrell again when this film was over. . . . Knowing that I am going to come to places like this [Monterey]—this is a very unique audience. To have elite members of Special Operations Forces from all around the world, warriors and families of warriors and academic soldiers—people who are going to look at this with a very unique and critical eye—it didn't make it harder to make the movie, but I was certainly aware that these types of screenings would occur, and it probably made me work a little harder to at least be able to justify my choices. It made me want to do things like go to Iraq for a month and live with the SEAL platoon, so that at the end of the day, if a Navy SEAL comes up to me—which has happened many times—and says, "Why did you make this choice?" I can have an answer.
SKINNER: Do you consider this an anti-war movie?
BERG: People have asked me if I am pro-war or anti-war. I am anti-war. I mean, who in their right mind would be pro-war? I have had friends who have died. I have been to many military funerals. I have enough respect and appreciation for what we ask these men and women to do. These men will fight, and these men will die very, very painful and bloody and gruesome deaths. I think it is important for any citizen—everybody should understand what the costs are. If we are at war where people are dying, we need to have an opinion, whatever that opinion is. If you are supporting it and believe the cause is right, you then support it and make sure that our soldiers come back home, and support them. If you don't support it and you think it is wrong, then do something about that, too. For me, it is not pro-war or anti-war. I think we as citizens have to look at the reality of what it means to send soldiers to war.
About the Author(s): Peter Berg is an actor, writer, and director who has been working in Hollywood for more than 20 years. He wrote and directed the feature film Friday Night Lights (2004) and the award-winning TV series of the same title.
Rebecca Lorentz is the manager of CTAP.
Elizabeth Skinner is the managing editor of CTX.
1. The Combating Terrorism Archive Project aims to collect and archive knowledge on strategy, operations, and tactics used by military and other security personnel from around the world in the twenty-first-century fight against global terrorism. Collectively, the individual interviews that CTAP conducts will create an oral history archive of knowledge and experience in counterterrorism for the benefit of the CT community now and in the future.
2. The other members were team leader Mike Murphy, communications officer Danny Dietz, and navigation specialist Matt Axelson. Luttrell was the team's medic.
3. This interview was edited for length and clarity. Every effort was made to ensure that the meaning and intention of the participants were not altered in any way. The ideas and opinions of all participants are theirs alone and do not represent the official positions of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. government, or any other official entity.
4. A common variant of the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr begins, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,/ courage to change the things I can,/ and wisdom to know the difference."