Marcus Luttrell is many things. He is a proud Texan. He is a retired Navy SEAL, decorated with the Navy Cross. He is an advocate for active duty and veteran military members through organizations like the Patriot Tour and the Lone Survivor Foundation. He is a best-selling author. And now, the 38-year-old Texan is the subject of a major motion picture from Universal and Friday Night Lights director Peter Berg, Lone Survivor.
The film, which I greatly enjoyed, is based on Luttrell’s best-selling 2007 memoir of the same name; It tells the story of “Operation Red Wings,” a botched four-man military operation in 2005 in northeastern Afghanistan’s Kunar province that fell apart when several goat herders accidentally discovered the SEALs on a reconnaissance mission. The mission resulted in the biggest single loss of life for Naval Special Warfare forces since World War II, namely Luttrell’s three squadmates.
The SEALs aborted the mission and released the civilians, which in turn lead to a swift ambush by the Taliban, a pitched battle that sent them tumbling down a rocky mountainside. Luttrell’s three fellow SEALs were killed in action, Luttrell himself was badly injured, and the ensuing rescue effort left 16 more men dead. His story is, by turns, miraculous and tragic, and the man himself is immensely humble, seeing his memoir and the film as a chance to honor his fallen brothers’ memory.
Recently, I had the chance to interview Luttrell, who served as a consultant on the film, making himself present for nearly every single day of filming, and I was quite nervous in the days leading up to it. What could I say to this man who has endured so much? As it turns out, Luttrell is a very nice, insightful guy, a good ol’ Texas boy who insisted on calling me “sir.” The entire time I was thinking, “There are no circumstances under which you should be calling me ‘sir’; you’re the one worthy of respect here.” But that’s just the kind of guy Marcus Luttrell is — polite, disciplined, honorable.
Nerdist: Hello, Marcus. How are you doing today?
Marcus Luttrell: Good. How you doing?
N: I’m doing well. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.
ML: Yes, sir.
N: First and foremost, I want to say thank you very much for your service. Also, thank you for letting this film get made. I was very moved by it. I haven’t read your book, but I thought it was a very powerful account — a very moving film.
ML: Thank you, sir.
N: So I want to know, how did Peter Berg first approach you about the project, and what made you decide to move forward with it as a film adaptation?
ML: Well, I was in L.A. in meetings with other producers and directors when the guy who brought me up there said, “Hey, there’s a director we would like you to meet. He’s showing a movie in downtown right now, and he’d like to meet you.” And so they went down.
N: Got it. And so how involved in the filmmaking process were you? I also spoke with Eric Bana and Taylor Kitsch, and they both said they benefited immensely from speaking with you.
ML: Yes, sir. No, I was on set for most of it. There were a few times when I had to leave, but for the most part I was there, and before filming, we did a month and some change of training — I was there for that.
N: How did that training compare to actual SEAL training for the actors?
ML: We were pretty hard on them. I mean, we didn’t cut them any slack. We put the boots to them pretty quick. I mean, the learning curve was really steep. We didn’t — it wasn’t one of those “grab your hand and walk you through it” (things) — it’s basically like the real training, you know? Welcome to it.
N: Yeah. Exactly.
ML: You’re either going to make it or you’re not.
N: Hopefully, no one washed out of the film.
ML: No, no, no. Those guys, man — they’re tough. They all put out real, like they should have.
N: You guys were in New Mexico, correct?
ML: Yes, sir.
N: I can imagine that must be difficult as well, especially with the additional elevation.
ML: Yes, sir. Not only with the movie and the filming the actors themselves, you’ve got to haul all the equipment up and down every day and everything like that, so sun up to sun down, everybody was in there. The actors would have to do their thing, all day long, and then at the end of the day they were carrying equipment down the mountain. Everybody was putting out like they should have, nobody was better than anybody else, saying “I’m so-and-so, I don’t need to do that. That’s not what I’m here for.” That never happened. Everybody was there; it was a real team environment, so it was a pleasure to be there.
ML: I’ve heard horror stories of other movies, but that wasn’t the case on this one.
N: Yeah, it sounds like everyone was taking it very seriously, especially — I was reading Mark Wahlberg’s comments from AFI, and it really comes through how important of a project this was to everyone involved.
ML: Yes, sir.
N: So, may I ask how true to life is the film adaptation? Are you pleased with the results? Obviously you need to make certain changes for the big screen, but it seemed like it was trying to be a pretty faithful adaptation.
ML: Sure, absolutely. I mean, we could obviously only take so much from real life and put it into a book, you know, and you can only take so much from a book and put it into a movie. They had to condense that down to where they had — there’s so much to deal with in Hollywood, the monetary thing, the time constraints, the locations, stuff like that, and the overall safety of the actors and the crew, as well. So with all those variables thrown into the pot, I think they did an outstanding job with what they had to work with, in my opinion. I sat in on a lot of the movie previews for people, and sat in the back of the room and listened to them, and watched their reactions. I think overall people are blown away by what they see on the screen, and you’ve got to think that it hits home to them, that this is just a movie. I can only imagine what it was like for these guys in real life.
N: Yeah, exactly. It was a very compelling, harrowing movie. One thing that I really thought it did well is — and this is a pitfall that I find a lot of these things can fall into sometimes — it wasn’t about the politics, it wasn’t about any of that stuff. It was about the sense of brotherhood and camaraderie between these men, and I thought that really shone through.
ML: Sure, absolutely. I mean, we don’t mess around. I mean, politics aren’t our game. We’re fighting units, so that’s what the movie needed to be about.
N: Do you have a favorite moment or experience from being on set?
ML: You’re the first one to ask me that. Let’s see. [pauses a moment] You know, just the overall being out there was good. Every day was something new. It was just really fulfilling to be out there with those guys. To tell you the truth, in the beginning, before I had met anybody, Ben Foster and I talked on the phone. He said he was driving down to go to Dallas to get his truck, and he was driving to New Mexico. I said, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll drive up to Dallas, I’ll meet you there, and I’ll ride to New Mexico with you.” Now I had never met this guy, I had talked to him for five minutes on the phone, and he was like, “Sure!” And you know, as well as I do, long road trips with people? You have to like them!
N: Oh god, yes.
ML: Otherwise it’s going to be miserable, and that’s what we were kind of joking around, like we’re either going to be brothers at the end of this, or one of us is going to be lying dead in the desert.
N: Yeah. [chuckles]
ML: And we drove up — I met him at a gas station, and we shook hands. “I’m Ben.” “I’m Marcus.” I was, like, “Let’s roll these wheels, buddy! Let’s put some distance in.” And we started chatting it up, and whatever, however many days it took us to get there, it turned into a great friendship. He and I are closer than anybody. I love that guy. He’s a wonderful man, and we had a really good time doing that, and it could have gone completely the opposite direction.
N: Thank goodness! [laughs]
ML: And that’s how it started. It started right there, and it just stayed constant throughout the whole film.
N: Well, that’s good.
ML: It was good, yeah.
N: That’s important. I definitely feel you on that road trip dynamic, because that can turn nasty quickly, and that’s not a good scene. I’m glad that you had the opposite experience.
ML: Sure, yeah. Every guy knows — you say that, and every guy knows what I’m talking about.
N: Would you ever have imagined that you were going to be played on screen by Mark Wahlberg someday?
ML: No, I wouldn’t. Come on! You know the answer to that question! I was just doing what I was doing. I was Navy SEALing. I like watching him. I mean, I grew up watching him.
ML: When we talk about that — I mean, we’re friends now, and everything, but we kind of grew up together. We’re almost the same age, so it’s funny watching… we were talking about how our lives have evolved, from when we were teenagers and we kind of had similar backgrounds. I mean, me being a farm boy and him being a city boy, but other than that. And now we’re parents and family men, and stuff like that, and obviously you can watch his whole life, from the time he was young till the time now, it’s all been on TV and news and all that, where mine has all been classified, and stuff like that. It was a unique experience, and he and I are good friends, and it was a privilege to watch him work.
N: That’s great. And I know that nowadays you spend a lot of time traveling around with The Patriot Tour, but for those of us who might not be aware, I was wondering if you could tell us a little about that.
ML: It’s me and a few other veterans. We go around the country and we talk about our experiences in the military. It’s a motivational thing, like the other guy is a single-leg amputee, I got shot, one of them is the widow of Chris Kyle, who was killed — he was actually murdered. But it’s a really motivational, real-truth behind what’s going on in the war zone kind of deal. Motivational — how do you get through it, perseverance kind of deal. It’s a lot of fun.
N: Yeah, I can imagine. I have some friends who have served and are currently serving, so I imagine that it’s nice to hear from guys who’ve actually been there and seen it, what they might be in for.
ML: Sure, yeah. Absolutely.
N: That’s all I have here, but thank you very much. I really appreciated talking to you, and I really quite enjoyed the film, so I thank you very much, and have a great day.
ML: Yeah, bro, you too, man. Thanks for your time.
Lone Survivor is in select theaters now and in theaters everywhere on January 10, 2014. For more on Marcus Luttrell, you can visit his website.
Also, read my interview with Lone Survivor star Taylor Kitsch.