I write a very fast first script, and I’m very gentle on myself… I treat it kind of like a newborn child that needs a lot of nurturing and love and support. Then I slowly start to rip it to pieces.
Peter Berg is not a soldier, but he’s as intense as a frontline Marine hungry to get up and at ‘em. The actor, writer and director behind Friday Night Lights, Hancock, and Battleship is passionate about his new film Lone Survivor, based on the bestselling nonfiction account of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, played by Mark Wahlberg—the only survivor of a failed 2005 mission to track the activity of a Taliban leader and Osama Bin Laden affiliate in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan.
The lynchpin moment of the mission comes when the team crosses paths with a family of goatherds, sparking a debate among the soldiers whether to kill the Afghans or let them go, possibly straight into the arms of Taliban fighters, exposing their position. What happens is simply foretold by the film’s title, but getting there is a visceral, brutal journey and a vivid display of grit, courage, and raw survival.
Berg spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about the soldiers’ fateful decision, why he wanted to avoid politicizing the book, and why, for him, writing is a monastically solitary affair.
The fulcrum of the drama in Lone Survivor is the moment when the Navy SEALS abide by the Geneva Convention and free some Afghan goatherds. Was that the right decision?
Well, you know, in hindsight, looking back on it and seeing how 19 Americans were killed because they let those kids go, it’s pretty easy to argue that probably was not the wisest decision. That being said, that’s kind of irrelevant. If I think about what those poor guys were trying to determine and what kind of problems they were facing when they had to make that decision, it probably was the right decision at the time. They just didn’t have any information and weren’t aware of the outcome and thought their best shot was to try and get away. Just looking back on it, I don’t think it was the best decision, no.
There’s a feeling in the book that these men are hamstrung by liberal humanitarian bounds. Do you share that with the author?
Marcus Luttrell wrote that book with a ghostwriter, and it’s my belief that Marcus Luttrell is one of the least political human beings I know. He’s a soldier and a patriot and, first and foremost, believes in defending his country. He is not one to articulate a political agenda. I think the ghostwriter felt that the best [way to sell] a lot of books was to try and appeal to a certain political group in our country that was probably far-right leaning. That’s where a lot of that rhetoric, I think, came from. What became so ironic was that the book crossed over, and has become embraced by both sides of the aisle—by moderates and conservatives, and it’s a book that transcends politics, and that’s very true to Marcus.
To that point, during the writing of this script, what did you want to do with the material?
I wanted the focus of my script and the thesis of the film, if that word makes any sense, to be about acknowledging and observing and respecting the warrior spirit. It’s my belief as a 50-year-old man living on this planet that evil really does exist. I was in New York last week, and there’s a new game going around the East Coast called the Knockout Game. Are you familiar with it?
Google it. People are walking up to random civilians on the street—old men and old ladies—and just punching ‘em in the face and trying to knock ‘em unconscious and videoing it. It’s a new trend, it’s a new holiday trend. When I see things like this, bombings in Boston—I was in New York on 9/11—I believe we need people like Marcus Luttrell. We’re blessed to have men that are willing to put themselves in between us and real evil. I wanted the film to give people an opportunity to explore that.
When you were a younger man, were you sort of an angry kid?
Well, let me be very clear. I’m not a proponent of the Knockout Game.
Of course not—that’s my point. You have said you were an angry, young man, how did you flip it to positive?
Part of it is just growth and maturity and becoming a father and starting to have a sense of purpose, and creatively, having an outlet. Writing was a wonderful creative outlet for me. For me it was about just focusing and organizing myself as a man. I mean that really calmed me down quite a bit.
Lone Survivor has a 40-minute battle sequence at its center. As a writer who is also an actor, you have an understanding for space and how an absence of words, action, and even physical or facial acting can advance a narrative. A lot of screenwriters struggle with that.
That sounds great [laughs]. Yes, just because I would never have articulated that. But, you know, all filmmakers are a product of their history and their past experience. We bring our experiences to the set as directors and certainly my time as an actor has contributed to my style and my understanding of the acting process is part of what makes me who I am. That comments on how I direct and I write exactly how—I don’t know that I can articulate it.
Have you ever struggled with overwriting?
Yeah, I think so. I mean I probably struggled from everything that any other writer has—underwriting, lazy writing, indulgent overwriting, writer’s block. The one thing that I’ve learned that’s always helped me is the idea that writing is rewriting. So fortunately I’ve been willing to go back draft after draft after draft and look at where I was perhaps a bit indulgent and overwrote and try to minimize things or edit myself or look at where I thought I was lazy and do just the opposite. But most writers suffer from a multitude of problems when they’re writing. It’s a tricky endeavor.
Do you tend to bang through draft one and then rely on the rewriting process or nitpick through the draft as you go through it?
I tend to nitpick over my outline. I use note cards so I’ve got, you know, a wall of note cards up that eventually becomes a pretty comprehensive outline. Once I’ve got that, I write a very fast first script, and I’m very gentle on myself. I don’t attack it too hard. I let it be. I treat it kind of like a newborn child that needs a lot of nurturing and love and support. Then I slowly start to rip it to pieces.
A lot of writers that I’ve talked to get frustrated because it isn’t good enough fast enough and sometimes it really takes time. Lone Survivor was a four and a half year process, and it took quite a bit of time for me to get that script to a place where I was comfortable.
I didn’t know you worked on it that long.
Well, I started it and then I went and did Battleship, and then I came back to it.
Was the time away beneficial?
It allowed me to grow and to think about it. To pick it up after a year and a half away from it was a really great experience, and the script was better because of that process.
When you write what’s your routine?
I’m a morning writer so I’ll get up at about 4:30 or five, drink a bunch of coffee. I won’t talk to anyone, won’t read any papers, won’t look at the phone or the computer. I have a small cramped unremarkable office in the back of my house. I’ll usually write for about five hours, you know, ‘til maybe nine or 10, and then I’m done. I’ll always try and assign myself a goal for the next day, whether it’s writing another scene or going back and finishing a scene. I will spend the rest of my day sort of thinking about that scene, letting it gestate with my next day’s work, go to bed early and get up early the next day and do it again. When I’m actually in that writing mode, that’s it. That’s by far the number one priority in my life. I don’t work on any other projects when I’m writing. I don’t tend to socialize very much. I make my whole life about that moment, that project.
If you’re promoting or doing shows, it would be very difficult.
No, I have to create space in my life so there’s absolutely nothing else going on in my life other than writing that script—especially for the first draft.
Because you’ll get distracted and spread around…?
Yeah, I’ve never been able to write more than one script at a time. I can’t be writing and directing at the same time. I call it “entering the cave.” You know, I go into the cave.
When you’re in the room, you won’t take on any other gigs?
No, never, never. I will clear my schedule, you know, when I’m outlining, even during the advanced outlining process, I’ll try and clear at least three months out to get the first outline and a first draft of the script beaten up and beaten out. And for those three months, I try and really isolate as much as I can—very limited contact with the outside world.
What’s hardest for you between directing, acting, and writing?
Writing is probably the most challenging aspect and part of that is because you’re alone, and it requires tremendous self-reliance. It’s also the most rewarding. You tend to go off into this kind of—I do, at least—this pretty unique creative trance for three months. That’s a very unique experience that not that many people have gotten to have.
When you’re in the cave, do you have a few outside people you rely on for perspective?
Usually my assistant is the only one because the way I write is I tend to pound it out pretty viciously on Final Draft—there are a lot of typos, and I don’t censor myself. I’ll then send it to my assistant, and my assistant will clean it up and inevitably will get into the script with me [so] my assistant’s always the first one… I’ve had a couple of different assistants I’ve gone through this with that have been very helpful to me and encouraging. I’ve always developed a unique relationship with my assistant who’s been by far the closest to my creative process.
They go on to be screenwriters?
No, they usually… I usually drive them insane, and they end up in a mental institution.
Yeah, but they have a lot of fun while it’s good.
You’ve pulled off a triple threat career in Hollywood, which is rare. What are the keys to your success in Hollywood?
I inherited my mother’s work ethic—[she] had an incredibly strong drive. I don’t know whether that’s brain chemistry or just, you know, human psychology or what causes that. I came out here very driven and very hungry, and that appetite hasn’t subsided. I don’t know that that’s a good thing. Sometimes I wish I had less drive. It tends to stress out my good friends and the people in my life sometimes ‘cause I never stop. I don’t know that there’s a roadmap for it. If you feel like you’ve got the drive, just work hard. If you work hard and you’ve got that drive, good things can happen.
© 2014 Writers Guild of America West