Two days before production began on 'Lone Survivor,' former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell surprised the cast and crew by walking unannounced onto the Albuquerque SWAT rifle range, dialing in a 5.56x45mm Mark 12 rifle, and firing at a target. The film's director, Peter Berg, was putting the actors through live-fire training in the high-desert mountains – a stand-in for Afghanistan's Hindu Kush, where in 2005 Luttrell was the only member of a four-SEAL team to survive a Taliban ambush. (Sixteen soldiers attempting to rescue them in a helicopter also died.) It was one of the deadliest attacks against the SEALs ever, and even Berg wasn't sure to what extent Luttrell, 38, would be up to reliving the nightmare to help the film. "I'm not an actor," Luttrell says, "but I wanted to ensure the story is told properly, without exaggerations."
Berg, a seasoned filmmaker best known for 'Friday Night Lights,' would come to lean heavily on Luttrell during the production. "I've never felt more pressure to get a film right," Berg says. "The SEAL community told me pretty aggressively, 'You'd better not fuck it up.'"
More than any other war movie, 'Lone Survivor' conveys the gritty intensity of a small-unit Special Forces team in battle. The film recounts the two-hour firefight that pitted Luttrell's team against some 100 armed Taliban fighters. In June 2005, Luttrell and three fellow SEALs – Lieutenant Michael Murphy, 29, and petty officers Matthew Axelson, 29, and Danny Dietz, 25 – were dropped 20 miles behind enemy lines in the snowcapped mountains of northeast Afghanistan's lawless Kunar Province. Warned of the SEALs' presence by local goatherds, the Taliban ambushed them, killing the soldiers as they fought their way down the mountain until Luttrell was the last man standing. Near death, he was saved by Mohamad Gulab, 39, a herder who sheltered the SEAL and engineered his escape. Back home in Marquez, Texas, Luttrell wrote a 2007 memoir, 'Lone Survivor,' that topped the 'New York Times' bestseller list and attracted Hollywood interest. "Every director lined up to get his story," Berg says. "I showed him a rough cut of my movie 'The Kingdom,' we had a couple beers, and then he shook my hand and said, 'You got it.' "
The son of a Korean War Marine, Berg, 51, says he has always regretted not serving. "If I could go back and do it again, I'd go for the SEALs – I don't know if I would have made it, but I certainly would have tried." As part of his preparation for the film, Berg embedded in 2009 for a month with SEAL Team 5 in northwestern Iraq – an unprecedented feat of access – since the men conducted nightly missions along the Syrian border. "I watched them operate, and when they operate, they kill people," Berg says. "These are guys in their mid-twenties who fly into hostile country and make complicated decisions we can barely comprehend – I was blown away by their self-reliance." The director became friendly with the SEAL community, inviting members to a boxing gym he owns in L.A. and to his house in Montana. "For a while I'd wake up and there'd be, like, eight SEALs passed out in different parts of my house," Berg says. "Once, in Montana, one of the guys saw a big elk, grabbed his shotgun, and killed it. I was in New York at the time, but when I came home there were 30 venison steaks completely prepped and ready to go in my freezer."