The director, who brought 'Lone Survivor' to the big screen from beginning to end, and actor Taylor Kitsch share how it all happened.
NEW YORK - One day, a few years ago, director and sometime-actor Peter Berg picked up a copy of Marcus Luttrell's searing Lone Survivor, detailing the former Navy SEAL's horrific ordeal as part of Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan. As you might ascertain from the title, Luttrell was the only soldier who made it home.
'When I read the book, I was pierced by the realization that I don't do enough to acknowledge the fact that men and women are dying. We don't understand anything about that. We don't understand who they were. That's bad on us, bad on me,' says Berg. 'We're not paying more attention. I wanted to give more people that opportunity.'
So he embarked on an odyssey to get funding for Lone Survivor, the film that opened in December for awards consideration and goes wide on Friday. The first person he approached to anchor the cast was his Friday Night Lights running back Taylor Kitsch. This is their story.
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The book: Berg, a maestro of thoughtful action films (2004's Friday Night Lights, which he later adapted for TV in a series featuring Kitsch, and 2007's The Kingdom), says reading the book punched him in the gut. He knew he had to get it made, and even though studios aren't throwing cash at non-moneymaker war films, he pursued financing and finally pulled it together. Along the way, he helmed 2012's Battleship, which probably won't wind up on his best-of reel. But his focus remained on Survivor. 'I knew families of the dead soldiers would see this. Marcus Luttrell was going to see this. I was concerned that (it would) go well and that the families felt honored. That's very real. We were not (expletive) around. It's just different. We were focused. We did not ever take this lightly,' he says.
Director Peter Berg and actor Taylor Kitsch are frequent collaborators, most recently teaming up for 'Lone Survivor.'(Photo: Todd Plitt, USA TODAY)
The prep: Immediately, Berg though of Kitsch for the role of leader Michael Murphy, a thoughtful man who has to make some agonizing decisions literally at gunpoint. Both physically and mentally, he felt Kitsch had what it took to pull off the role. 'You asked me why? I've seen him with his friends. He plays ice hockey. He has the team mentality,' says Berg. 'He got it. From the moment he knew the movie was happening, his training was 100%, his focus was 100%. He just fell very effortlessly into that role and that energy.' Kitsch, for his part, says he was 'more honored (than daunted)' by the prospect of tackling the story. 'This is an incredible challenge and I felt, let's meet it head on,' he says, referring to the workouts he started immediately to get into stellar shape and the time he spent with Murphy's family to get to know the man.
The shoot: Berg and his cast (including Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster and Mark Wahlberg) had SEALs on set as technical advisers. They didn't waste time, didn't screw around and didn't do anything halfway. The mantra, for everyone, was to keep it as real as possible. 'There's a tone set from day one that was matched every day,' says Kitsch. 'Every actor was willing to do (expletive) anything. Let's do this right. And (Berg) was just dauntless. We were all in.' As for Berg, his special kinship with Kitsch helped keep things going smoothly. 'It was great to be on the set and I look at my friend and he looks at me and I know he feels alive and inspired and very proud to be doing what he's doing. That's a very special feeling,' says Berg.
The aftermath: Berg and Kitsch say they're intensely proud of the film. And for Kitsch, who last headlined two 2012 duds, the egregiously expensive flop John Carter and the forgotten Savages, it's shaping up to be a fairly momentous year. On the heels of Survivor, he also has HBO's The Normal Heart airing this spring, which is why he's planning on having some downtime at home in Austin, where none of his friends are actors. 'I just need to take a breather. After Normal Heart, I'm exhausted. I'm going to take a beat,' he says. 'It's a good problem to have, to be patient and wait for something you want to do.' Berg, meanwhile, is not sure whether the sequel to his 2008 Will Smith hit Hancock will happen, and he doesn't have much of a blueprint for the next year. 'I don't ever have a great plan. There's things I'm developing. I know that something will come,' says Berg. 'If every movie was Lone Survivor, every movie would be Lone Survivor. You have to respect it.'
Taylor Kitsch and Mark Wahlberg in a scene from 'Lone Survivor.'(Photo: Gregory R. Peters, AP)