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Lone Survivor interview

Based on the true story of four Navy SEALS ambushed in Afghanistan who through an act of humanity paid the ultimate price. Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch, the director and stars reflect on the experience of portraying real soldiers in true to life circumstances.

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Marcus Luttrell lurches past me and into a swanky New York hotel room to join Mark Wahlberg, the actor who plays him in the film Lone Survivor. The 195-centimetre former Navy SEAL is running late for interviews after a wardrobe malfunction that ripped his jeans, but that can be forgiven. It's a miracle Luttrell is here at all.

The worst thing you can do is not make a decision. War is not black and white, it's grey. You can't think of every scenario that's ever going to happen. 

Marcus Luttrell

This is the man who famously survived Operation Red Wings – the worst disaster for US Special Forces since World War II – by climbing, walking and crawling 11 kilometres down a steep mountain face with a broken back and serious shrapnel and bullet wounds after losing three team members in a gun battle against overwhelming Taliban forces in Afghanistan. He was saved when a tribesman found and sheltered him.

Actor Mark Wahlberg attends the "Lone Survivor"

Mark Wahlberg, at Lone Survivor's New York premiere, says it was his toughest film to make. Photo: Getty Images

Luttrell tells the harrowing story of survival in the best-selling book Lone Survivor and is here to talk about the Hollywood film. But first, a quick gaffer-tape repair to his jeans.

''He's resourceful,'' Wahlberg quips.

''Riggers' tape will fix just about anything,'' Luttrell responds in his thick Texan accent.

A still from <em>Lone Survivor</em>.

Heroic: Four members of SEAL Team 10 were ambushed by a Taliban force of between 200-300 fighters. Only sniper and medic Marcus Luttrell made it out of the mountains.

Was it hard to agree to a Hollywood version of Lone Survivor? ''Absolutely … I didn't know anything about the literary world. I kind of got thrown in the deep end,'' Luttrell says. ''And then when Hollywood came calling, it was one of those things – I don't want to call it an ultimatum, but they said they were going to be making this film with or without us, and the powers that be said it would probably be more beneficial for us to have consultants on the film from the SEAL teams to help the cast and crew out with any questions.

''Anything that happened on the mountain, they wanted to bring the authenticity to a higher standard.''

Wahlberg hadn't read Lone Survivor when director Peter Berg presented him with the film's screenplay, and he didn't want to.

Director Peter Berg with Mark Wahlberg on the film set.

Director Peter Berg with Mark Wahlberg on the film set. Four active and former SEALs were present to guide the production for accuracy.

''I read the script and then I felt like I should wait to read the book until after we shot the movie because, you know, whenever you are adapting a source of material you always feel like you're leaving something out,'' Wahlberg says. ''I didn't want to stir up too many debates and make Pete second-guess himself. And I was just proud to be a part of it.''

Wahlberg has called Lone Survivor the most difficult film he has ever made, physically and emotionally. ''Every time I watched the movie and watched the end of the movie with Marcus … I'm sitting there crying. It's because I'm thinking about what they went through and what they sacrificed for us on a daily basis.''

Wahlberg recently graduated from high school after going back to complete an education he never finished, but he was enrolled in a very different course to play Luttrell - SEAL training. The responsibility of telling the story in the right way because of the fatalities kept him focused, he says.

Marcus Luttrell

Marcus Luttrell, the lone survivor, climbed, crawled and walked 11 kilometres off a mountain in Afghanistan with a broken back and shrapnel and bullet wounds to his legs. He killed six Taliban on the way. Photo: Getty Images

''All the movies I've done, I figured, 'Well, I've already played a soldier so I basically know what I'm doing','' Wahlberg says. ''It's just a whole other level. When we were thrust into SEAL training, we really didn't know what to expect. But it allowed us to be prepared in a way that we could make more realistic portrayals of the people and the situation.''

However, learning how to act like a SEAL from Luttrell – a highly trained killing machine who is 22-centimetres taller than the man who plays him – was challenging for Wahlberg, especially in the beginning.

''Getting to know Marcus was intimidating,'' the 42-year-old actor says. ''So I felt reluctant to ask him questions that maybe I would have been able to ask other people that I was playing in a movie. And I waited really until he was comfortable enough with me to open up. And, you know, I really wanted to ask him.''

Lone Survivor

Mark Wahlberg as Marcus Luttrell in Lone Survivor.

Lone Survivor, the book, details the extreme SEAL training and Luttrell's escape, but the movie focuses more on the battle and camaraderie of his teammates, bringing the horror of war to life. If it is possible, the book is more unreal than the Hollywood version of events that left 19 Special Forces soldiers dead.

In June 2005 Luttrell, a sniper and medic, was part of a four-man Navy SEAL team helicopter lifted into the mountains of north-eastern Afghanistan. Alongside him was his best friend and team leader Michael Murphy (played by Taylor Kitsch in the film), communications specialist Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and sniper Matthew ''Axe'' Axelson (Ben Foster). Their mission was to locate and kill Ahmad Shah, a Taliban leader responsible for dozens of US military deaths in the region.

After completing a mountainous trek, fully camouflaged and hidden in positions that looked across a steep valley to a village that acted as a Taliban base, the SEALS located their target amongst a large number of militia.

But before they could decide their next move, three shepherds herding goats walked into their location. Just as Luttrell was about to be stepped on, the navy operatives leapt out and secured the herders with zip ties.

With their communications equipment failing to make contact with base, the SEALs faced the moral quandary of what to do with the unarmed civilians, one of them a boy. Deciding against killing them, the team members voted to let them go before retreating from the compromised mission.

It was a heroic and morally just decision, one that seems a world away from the augmented reality of drone warfare with its ‘collateral damage’.

But with their cover blown they were soon confronted by a heavily armed militia force of 200 to 300 and, despite killing dozens of Taliban, were literally blown down the mountain face, sustaining horrendous injuries as they tumbled and were shot at. But Luttrell doesn't regret letting the herders go.

''No sir, not at all,'' he says. ''I mean … I know you can't go back and change anything. The worst thing you can do is not make a decision and just stand there and let everything kinda unfold over or on top of you. War is not black and white, it's grey. You can't think of every scenario that's ever going to happen.

''We would have rather made the right decision in turning these guys loose and dealing with the threat that we dealt with than make the wrong decision. And that’s what happened – we turned them loose, we got overrun by the militia, which was fine with us.

"So it wasn’t one of those things that we were scared, or upset, or complaining about, it was just business as usual.”

But in terms of making a Hollywood action movie, this was anything but business as usual.

Later, speaking to Peter Berg (who lobbied hard to make the film after reading the book), Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch and Eric Bana (who plays the team’s commander, Erik Kristensen) it was clear that all of them felt the weight of telling this true story, with the family members and friends of the dead servicemen ready to watch the end result.

''The biggest challenge was knowing that there were going to be parents, mums and dads of the dead SEALS – the 19 soldiers – their brothers and sisters, some of them had children, some of them had widows; I knew they were all going to see the film …  I had this kind of added pressure knowing that I was going to have to look all these mums and dads in the eye afterward and they were going to be very honest with me in their reaction. That made me probably focus and work a little bit harder than I ever have.''

''It was a big responsibility, one that we took very seriously,'' agrees Eric Bana. ''At the same time, you realise that the best way for us to honour that legacy was by trying to make a great film.''

Fortunately, the family members have responded well to it at the “very intense” early screenings, Berg says, although some responses have been confronting.

“We did a screening in Los Angeles two months ago and a 70-year-old woman stood up at the end and told Marcus ‘you should have killed those kids’. And Marcus said, ‘No mam, we should not have killed those kids.’ And she said ‘But your friends would still be alive.’ He said ‘Mam, we don’t kill kids.’”

The film has also been well received by US critics and the American public, taking in $US37.8 million at the box office on its first weekend, the second highest January opening in history. This is surprising because support for the war in Afghanistan has fallen, and the movie sets out to depict, in graphic detail, the suffering of America’s elite servicemen in a military disaster.

Berg hopes Lone Survivor's depiction of the reality of war will be in leaders' minds the next time they propose armed conflict.

''War is horrible,'' he says. ''When we decide to send men and women into war we have to be prepared to have those men and women die very violent, brutal, horrific deaths and we need to be aware of that.''

 

The art of war on screen

Far from Hollywood blockbusters that glorify violence, and that studios have come to bank on, the greatest war films, such as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), depict the suffering, loss and tragedy of war. Many depict real military disasters – from our own Gallipoli (1981) to Black Hawk Down (2001) and We Were Soldiers (2002). The sacrifice and camaraderie of the characters are the themes that resonate with viewers.

''I think the best films that depict war, in a way that is effective and in a way that resonates, depict the tragedy and the brutality of war, and that was certainly an aspect of this story,'' Lone Survivor director Peter Berg says.

He employed the one survivor of the US military's disastrous mission Operation Red Wings, Marcus Luttrell, and active and retired Navy SEALs to consult on set to ensure the portrayals of the servicemen and the battle scenes were authentic. The actors were put through intense physical workouts, weapons and communications training and learning how to act as a tactical team.

Luttrell also got a small part in the film as one of the SEALs.

''I had him leave when I was shooting the more violent sequences,'' Berg says. ''I didn't want to put him through that. So when he wasn't there we always had at least four SEALs on the set … And they were great because they were just like a constant reminder to us of why we were there. These guys were all friends of the soldiers who were killed.

Daniel Fallon travelled to New York courtesy of Disney.