DESPITE GETTING shot at, and occasionally getting hit, it seems being a US Navy Seal is an easier job than being a Hollywood movie star. "I thought my job was hard," retired Petty Officer First Class Marcus Luttrell says to his newfound best buddy Mark Wahlberg, during the chaos of a press event for Lone Survivor in New York, "but hats off to you for going through all this ever since you were a kid."
Luttrell and Wahlberg make an unlikely pair. One is a towering, mountainous ex-Seal who took a number of bullets and beatings during his tour of duty in Afghanistan, one of the world's most brutal theatres of war; the other is a well-groomed, somewhat charismatic, vaguely attractive Hollywood star from Boston.
But the two now share a deep bond that transcends their differences. The fact that Wahlberg portrays Luttrell, a bona fide war hero who used intelligence and courage to single-handedly escape from the Taliban in a remote and mountainous region of Kunar province, in Lone Survivor made them friends, Wahlberg says.
It was the months of military-style boot camp training that the former military man gave Wahlberg, and the shared hardships of a physically demanding film shoot in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico, that brought them closer. Wahlberg says that the bonding which occurred in training between the all-male cast and the former Seals, who were hired to make sure the actors got the soldiering right, was akin to that between troops on the battlefield.
"I have never worked with a group of people who single-mindedly shared one goal - to make a great film - before in my whole career," Wahlberg says. "And I doubt that I ever will again. No one had their own personal agenda; everybody who worked on Lone Survivor just wanted to make a tribute to those guys, those colleagues of Marcus, who sacrificed their lives to protect us."
Lone Survivor is an unusual mix for a war movie. It's an action film that is also part docudrama, part propaganda and part military tribute to a group of Seals who perished on a remote mountain in Afghanistan during their tour of duty.
Lone Survivor is based on Luttrell's 2007 book of the same name and details the events that took place when Operation Red Wings, a US mission designed to identify Taliban leader Ahmad Shah, went horribly wrong. Luttrell and three other Seals were helicoptered into the mountain location to provide intelligence for the mission, but things went astray from the start.
Unluckily, three goatherds stumbled upon the four Seals as they were setting up their surveillance post. The goatherds were quickly identified as Taliban sympathisers, which presented some difficult choices for the reconnaissance and surveillance team. One course of action was to simply kill the goatherds, one of whom was a boy. But as the Seals noted, killing unarmed civilians is against the rules of engagement and would be quickly broadcast around the globe as an atrocity.
So the decision came down to either tying up the goatherds - which would also have likely resulted in their deaths anyway - or aborting the mission, letting them go and trying to outrun the Taliban soldiers who would speedily follow on their heels. The mission ended in disaster with 19 American deaths; the film is intended as a tribute to those who died in the line of duty.
"It's as real as you can make it without real blood and real bullets," says Wahlberg, noting the extremes that the cast put themselves through to make the film appear authentic. "It's only pretend, but we made sure we surrounded ourselves with the best possible people. People who were willing to go as far as they could. People who would take the risk of getting hurt."
The action scenes are visceral, with Wahlberg and company continually slamming into boulders as they tumble down the mountainside, dodging - and sometimes being hit by - salvoes of Taliban bullets as they make a run for their freedom. If it looks dangerous, that's because it was, says Wahlberg. "There were some pretty hairy moments there. There was a bit of risk involved in those falls and those battles. But authenticity was the call."
That's just the way that Luttrell, and the other Seal advisers he assembled to work on the film, wanted it. "We have a saying in the Seal teams that, 'We go to the edge to see where the demons live'. And that's where we took the actors. We were not trying to make a recruitment movie," Luttrell says.
To help make the cast's on-screen adventures look realistic, Luttrell devised an intense training plan for them. They were all trained in weapons, communications and even how to operate as a tactical team. "They trained us so that we could go out there and not have to second guess what we were doing," says Wahlberg, who admits to taking his rifle home each night after filming stopped. "We were training right up until filming began. We wanted it to look as realistic as possible."
Luttrell believes the training paid off. "Every soldier has to be close to his rifle. A rifle is an extension of yourself, you just have to get used to it being there. Using it has to become second nature," the former sniper says. "I know exactly where the magazine is on my chest, and how to get it into my hand to reload. That action must not distract me from focusing on the target, on focusing on the threat. We gave these guys a lot of homework, and that is one of the things they learnt."
Wahlberg had an obvious advantage over some of the other actors when it came to research - Luttrell, the man Wahlberg was playing, had survived the ordeal.
Some actors might find it unnerving to have their subject watching their portrayal in front of the cameras each day, but Wahlberg says it wasn't a problem for him. "Obviously, you have a huge responsibility when you are playing a real person," the actor says, noting he has done it before, in The Fighter. "My goal was to make sure that they are comfortable with what I am doing and to be as accurate as possible in my portrayal."
Still, playing Luttrell brought an extra challenge to the role. "Obviously, the magnitude of what Marcus had experienced, and what his team had experienced, added to the pressure," Wahlberg admits.
For his part, Luttrell had seen Wahlberg in a number of films - "When you are on a tour of duty and you are not fighting, you tend to watch a lot of movies," he says - and thought he was a good choice. But it wasn't until shooting that he became impressed with the actor.
"He never acted like a star for a moment," Luttrell says. "You hear stories that they need a certain kind of trailer, and so on. Well, we had had no trailers. Much of the time, everyone was sleeping on the ground, exhausted after carrying the equipment up the mountains. The actors all pitched in and helped. At the end of the day, Mark was bleeding and beaten to heck." Like his newfound buddy was back on that remote mountainside in Afghanistan, in fact.
Lone Survivor opens on February 27