Director's Chair: Peter Berg - 'Lone Survivor'
Issue: February 1, 2014

Director's Chair: Peter Berg - 'Lone Survivor'

HOLLYWOOD — Peter Berg may have started out as an actor in such shows and films as 21 Jump Street and Race For Glory, but it’s when he moved behind the camera that his career really took off, thanks to hits like Hancock, The Kingdom and Friday Night Lights, which he also turned into the award-winning TV series of the same name.

Berg’s latest film is Lone Survivor, an action-drama — starring Mark Wahlberg, Eric Bana, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster — that tells the true story of four Navy SEALs sent on a covert mission in 2005 to neutralize a high-level al-Qaeda operative. They wind up in an ambush in the mountains of Afghanistan. The small band is isolated from help and surrounded by a much larger force of Taliban fighters. As they confront unthinkable odds together, the four men find reserves of strength and resilience, and stay in the fight to the finish. 

Written and directed by Berg, and based on The New York Times’ best-selling memoir by sole surviving SEAL, Marcus Luttrell (played by Wahlberg), the film examines themes of heroism, courage and survival. Here, in an exclusive interview, Berg discusses making the movie, the challenges involved, and his love of post.

POST: What sort of film did you set out to make? 
PETER BERG: “I read the book and felt it was this great combination of action, along with some really strong plot twists, particularly the moment when the SEALs are compromised and they have to debate the rules of engagement. It was just obvious to me that it’d make a really gripping film, and I wanted to make one that really takes the audience into this remote battlefield, where our soldiers are getting killed on a daily basis, and shows you what the reality of that war is like.”

POST: What was the visual approach with DP Tobias Schliessler, who shot Hancock, Friday Night Lights and Battleship for you?
BERG: “I wanted it to feel as real as possible and organic, and I wanted to try and put the audience in the middle of the experience. So we used a lot of hand-held, along with very natural compositions. We let things kind of fall into place and then we’d just try and capture what was happening organically rather than trying to put the actors and action into the lens. Instead, we went and chased the actors and action with our cameras. We decided to shoot with Red Epics, mainly because of the budget (a reported $50 million). They were cheaper than the Alexa. As for going digital as opposed to film, everything I’ve done recently is digital and I’ve been very happy with the look, especially after Company 3 has worked on the image.”

POST: What were the main technical challenges of pulling all this together and how tough was the shoot?
BERG: “We spent about three months on pre-production, and then had a very tight shoot of just 45 days. The big challenge was the mountain location and shooting all these scenes. For a start, we had to film so much of it at high altitude, and it was hard to get to the locations and the oxygen’s really thin, so we knew we’d have crew members who’d have problems with that. And then we had bear problems and issues with Indians, as we were shooting near some Indian land and they didn’t like that. We shot on location in New Mexico and at 1-25 Studios in Albuquerque. We used two mountain locations. One was a 9,000-foot peak near Santa Fe, and then we also shot at two mountains about an hour away from the studio. 
“I’d say 80 percent was shot outside and the rest was studio work. All the location stuff wasn’t that bad, as we were really well-prepped for it and we also got very lucky with the weather. We came prepared for a lot of problems and we hired a very physically-strong crew, who were able to get us up and down the mountain. Even so, it was very challenging. We had to take chair lifts to get up there and everyone — even the stars — had to carry gear with them. There wasn’t much luxury up there, but in the end, we came in on-time and on-budget.”

POST: How early did you have to integrate post into the shoot to pull this off?
BERG: “Pretty early. A really big sequence is the helicopter crash, and ILM did a big favor for us and took care of that whole thing for a price we could afford. They were phenomenal, as they took a rate cut to do it and were so helpful coming in early so we could get it done.”

POST: Do you like the post process? 
BERG: “I love it all, and editing is probably my favorite part of post.”

POST: Where did you do the post? 
BERG: “We did it all at Lantana in Santa Monica, which is great, as you have most of it under one roof. Post [was] about seven months, and we edited there and did all the sound and mixing there at Todd-AO.”

POST: The film was edited by Colby Parker Jr. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked. Was he on set?
BERG: “He came down for a day or two, but basically he was back in LA cutting while we were shooting. He’s cut every film of mine, and like my DP, he’s like a brother and a key part of my core team. What we can do in the edit room is for me the most creative part of making a film, along with the writing.”

POST: There’s obviously a sizeable number of visual effects shots in the film. How many are there, and what was your approach to  dealing with them?
BERG: “We ended up with over 500 shots, and apart from ILM, we had Image Engine do a lot of the effects, and they all did a great job. We needed a photoreal look, and it helped that they all knew exactly what the CG elements for some of the planes should look like. And we had really good references. Here’s the thing about visual effects: I find that if you can be very specific with all the artists and animators and so on, they can give you exactly what you want. But when you’re not sure of what you want as a director, then things can get a little fuzzy.”

POST: Talk about working with the VFX supervisor Jesper Kjolsrud.
BERG: “He’s with Image Engine in Vancouver, Canada, and incredibly experienced. He worked on The Da Vinci Code when he was at Double Negative, and also did stuff on District 9 and Elysium and R.I.P.D. I like working with visual effects when you get what you need, so it was a great experience. Of course, it’s never fast enough for me, but Jesper was really on top of every shot.”

POST: What was the most difficult VFX sequence to do and why?
BERG: “Definitely the big helicopter crash. It’s a big sequence and tough to do it photoreal, complete with people inside it, but I was so happy with it.”

POST: Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker?
BERG: “Both are so important to me. I used Explosions in the Sky, this band from Texas that I also used for Friday Night Lights. They’re very emotional, which is what I wanted for this, and they’re very effective and really good at composing the right sort of tracks. And then for sound, we used Wylie Stateman, one of the greatest sound designers I’ve ever worked with. It’s the first time I’d worked with him and he’s done everything from Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds and Kill Bill for Tarantino, to Alexander and Shrek, and he really upped the game. He’s a real artist, and he brought all these great elements to the gunfights, which was a key part of it all.”

POST: The DI must have been vital. How did that process help? 
BERG: “Stefan Sonnenfeld at Company 3 did it and he’s the best. I’m fairly involved. Me and Tobias discuss what we want and the look we’re after in great detail, and then Tobias really takes over. I go in and check it all, but Stefan and Tobias really do it.”

POST: What have been the biggest changes in the film business since you started?
BERG: “Without a doubt, the whole digital revolution, which of course, started in post. And all that’s been great for me, as I tend to encourage a lot of improv on the set when I shoot, and I’m never quite sure what I want the actors to do, so digital cameras give me a lot of freedom I didn’t have when I began directing. Now I can just keep going with 15-, 20-minute takes, and from different angles, so I get all this great coverage now.”

POST: But then you have to deal with an enormous amount of footage in post?
BERG: “Yes, that’s the downside, but then Colby and I’ve worked together closely for so long that he’s used to it and knows how to sift through multiple takes and find the material I like.”

POST: Did it turn out the way you envisioned it?
BERG: “It did. I’m very happy with it and feel we really did justice to the story and the SEALs involved in it. I’m proud of it.”

POST: Any interest in doing a 3D film?
BERG: “None at all. It’s not my thing.”

POST: Do you still shoot commercials?
BERG: “I do a lot and I love them. You get to work with top crews, they’re contained, and some of them are out of my comfort zone and push you to try things you normally wouldn’t do. And I like meeting the clients and learning about all the different industries, whether it’s Nike or milk, or the one I just did for the FDA, an anti-smoking ad. It’s very interesting to me, so I’ll keep directing commercials as well as movies. And all the commercials we do are digital. No one shoots film anymore.”

POST: Is film dead?
BERG: “It’s not quite dead but it’s definitely hurting. I think it’ll survive, but digital’s just getting better and better every day now. It’s hard to go back now to film.”

POST: What’s your take on the current state of Hollywood?
BERG: “The big problem is that no one shoots films in LA anymore, because of all the tax breaks elsewhere. So I think the business side of Hollywood is doing just fine, but the physical production side is horrible. I have a lot of friends who bought homes in LA and now they’re never there, because of all the location shooting elsewhere, and they’re missing their kids’ lives — it’s rough. And we shot this in New Mexico 100 percent because of the great tax credits. They’re impossible to ignore. We have plenty of mountains in California that would have worked, but you just can’t get the tax credits, so it’s very frustrating.”

POST: What’s next? 
BERG: “I’ve got this script called ‘Cocaine Cowboys,’ which I’m looking at, but I don’t have anything definite lined up.”