Every once in a great while, there comes a movie that changes the way we see the world. This Christmas, Lone Survivor hits theaters with the purpose of honoring the sacrifices that heroic men and women of our military make for our country. Although the film’s story focuses on just one tragic day in the life of four Navy SEALs, its overarching message will resonate with audiences long after they’ve left the theater.
Last week, Heavy.com sat down with Mark Wahlberg, Marcus Luttrell (the Navy SEAL whom Wahlberg portrays), and the film's director to learn more about the making of this powerful film.
The Director Is Inspired by the Moving True Story
The film is based on a New York Times bestselling book of the same name by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell. In the memoir, Luttrell documents the failed mission that he, along with three members of his team, was on to capture a high-level Al Queda operative. It is especially close to his heart because, as the name implies, he was the only one to survive. Nineteen soldiers were lost on that day, one of the worst losses in SEAL history.
This startling number includes those one who came to rescue the four men in the remote mountains of Afghanistan. The film serves as a tribute to the heroic acts of these soldiers, who epitomized true strength and bravery.
“It was about telling those guys’ stories,” said Mark Wahlberg, who plays Luttrell. “They deserved to be honored and have their stories told,” added Emile Hirsch, who plays fallen soldier Danny Dietz.
Director Peter Berg, of Friday Night Lights and Hancock fame, took on this project after reading Luttrell’s harrowing account. Luttrell selected Berg to tell his story from many other contenders.
Wahlberg Is Chosen to Play Survivor Marcus Luttrell
Since Luttrell is the only man to survive the battle, Wahlberg is the only actor who got to meet the man he was portraying. Luttrell was there for Wahlberg throughout the entire movie-making process.
“I’m inspired to be a better man because of him,” Wahlberg said.
Although Wahlberg was Berg’s choice for Luttrell, the soldier himself never gave any thought to who was going to play him in the movie adaptation. “I thought about everybody else, but the guy who was gonna play me,” Luttrell said. What he was certain of, however, is that he did not want an actor like Brad Pitt or Matt Damon to play him. He went on to explain that the four actors needed to be of equal distinction, so that the audience would not immediately realize which soldier survives.
“In real life, when the parents were at home just waiting to see which one of us made it off the mountain alive, nobody knew,” Luttrell said. As for the rest of the cast, Luttrell did make it a point to acknowledge Ben Foster for his compelling portrayal of his friend Matthew Axelson. “That’s Matt Axelson when you see him on the screen. That’s how he was. Just like Ben Foster. It’s the guy you wouldn’t take a second look at when he walked into a room. But when he threw his kit on and grabbed his rifle, he was the most lethal man you’d ever met in your entire life.”
Real SEALs Get Involved in the Filming
Berg said his greatest challenge was working on a true story that deserved his utmost respect and knowledge. "This is a real human being here,” Berg said of Luttrell. “Nineteen of his friends were killed." To fully understand the lives of Navy SEALs, Berg immersed himself physically, mentally and culturally. “I’d better have a pretty decent understanding of what that world is,” he said of his realization of his need to do his research.
Luttrell arranged for him to spend time traveling with SEALs to classified training facilities, a feat that was unprecedented. “I was the first civilian ever embed with an active SEAL team,” Berg stated. The SEALs were not shy in voicing their opinions on the production. Berg understood their concerns, “Particularly when you’re portraying their brothers who are dead.”
The Cast Visits the Families of the Fallen
A powerful result of the film is the relationship that formed between the families of the fallen and the actors who portrayed them. Hirsch spent time with Danny’s parents and friends, hearing stories and watching videos of the man behind the character he was about to play. “I knew how much people really loved him. You’re not trying to find an emotion, because your heart has already been filled up,” he said about getting into character.
The parents embraced the actors who played their sons on screen. “Danny’s mother’s Cindy calls me her adopted son now and his father, Danny Sr., says the same thing,” said Hirsch. “Getting to know the families has been a real privilege and an honor for all of us,” he added. Taylor Kitsch had a similar experience with the family of Lieutenant Michael Murphy. “A week before we hit camera, I got to meet Dan Murphy, Mike’s father,” he said. “It’s been an amazing relationship.”
The Actors Go Through SEAL Training
When asked how they trained these Hollywood actors to show the camaraderie of the SEALs, Luttrell answered, “Basically we took them a month ahead of production and beat the snot out of them. That’s how you create a brotherhood, through blood, pain and sweat.” Even the actors’ lunch breaks were taken like soldiers. “Mark Wahlberg would get on a chair lift with everybody else, and put an egg salad sandwich in his pocket,” said Berg.
Wahlberg added, “The SEALs were there, so you had this immense pressure to stand up and be a man.”
The Stunts Are Real
Everyone from the stuntmen to the actors was committed to making the major battle scene, which is the crux of the movie, look as true to life as possible. “It’s pretty damn real,” Wahlberg said.
Berg spoke about the stuntmen’s determination, explaining that no technology was used. "Those were human beings literally throwing themselves off of cliffs. Ribs were broken, a lung was punctured, some concussions."
The actors, who spent a month training with SEALs, tried to get in on the action as well, to the dismay of their director. "I would get a call that Ben Foster snuck in there and he's trying to jump,” Berg said.
Luttrell, who spent time on set, was appreciative of the men’s dedication. "My hats off to all the stuntmen who laid it on the line and hurt themselves in doing what they had to do to get that done because we all died. The only reason I'm sitting here is because of modern medicine,” he said. “The fact that I made it off the mountain was pure luck and God intervention, and a little bit of skill.”
Real-Life Lone Survivor Reacts
Luttrell, whose family and friends opted out of viewing the movie, has watched the doomed mission play out on screen. Although one would think it too difficult for him to return to that day, he assures that it is much worse in his mind.
"It plays over in my head every day because I went through it in real life. So when I watched it on screen, I would say to myself, ‘Even though I remember that happening, I remember it being worse than that.’” Berg did have to eliminate some parts of the book. In reality, the gun battle, which was only an hour in the film, lasted for over three hours.
Luttrell also bit his tongue in half and swallowed it, which wasn’t shown.
The Mission of the Film
By experiencing the raw emotion of the film, Berg hopes to give viewers the rare opportunity to pay respect to the military. Berg said, “People, in general, want to acknowledge them [soldiers], but they don't really know how to. It gives an audience, in their own way, a chance to acknowledge what these guys are doing and pay respect for two hours,” he said.
Eric Bana, who plays Lieutenant Erik Kristensen, knew this project was special from the start. “I knew, going into this, that this was one that would feel very different to make. That doesn’t come along every day,” he said. “It’s so easy to have these guys be just another news story, and I think this is an example of really taking the time to appreciate the sacrifices that they make,” added Hirsch.
Wahlberg acknowledges that his perspective changed after reading the script. “It never was about me after that again. It was about the guys we were portraying. It was a very special set of circumstances that I’ve never experienced as an actor before.”