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Sustaining the Tension for Peter Berg’s ‘Lone Survivor’

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have already spawned a number of outstanding films, but one that is bound to set the bar higher is the upcoming Lone Survivor, starring Mark Wahlberg as U.S. Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell. In early screenings, a number of critics compared the film favorably with Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down.

Photo by Greg Peters/Universal Pictures.

Skip ahead a paragraph if you are concerned about spoilers. Lone Survivor is based on Luttrell’s best-selling memoir of the same name. It focuses on a failed 2005 military operation called Red Wings in which a four-man SEAL team that included Luttrell was sent to retrieve an Al Qaeda-aligned Taliban leader. When their position was discovered by local goat herders, the SEALs had to decide whether to let them go or kill them. After a unit vote, the locals were released. The SEAL unit’s position was subsequently compromised.

Finding themselves surrounded and outnumbered, a firefight ensued. A helicopter sent to extract the team was shot down, resulting in the deaths of 16, including SEAL and Army Special Operations units and Luttrell’s three teammates. The story continues with the unusual circumstances that led to his survival and eventual rescue. The team leader, Lt. Michael P. Murphy, received a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on that day.

Peter Berg (Battleship, Hancock,The Kingdom, Friday Night Lights) served as the film’s writer and director. For the edit, Berg tapped Colby Parker Jr., who has cut seven films with him. Parker works on a mix of films, music videos and commercials. In fact, he first met Berg doing a Limp Bizkit music video. For commercials, Parker works out of L.A. editorial company Rock Paper Scissors, which is home to Academy Award-winning editors Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network).

I recently spoke with Parker about his experiences on Lone Survivor. “While we were working on Hancock, Peter brought in Marcus and introduced him,” Parker says. “We were going to go full speed into Lone Survivor but then Battleship came up first, so that had to be put on the back burner. After Battleship it was back to Lone Survivor, but Peter had to find independent financing for it. He had to work really hard to make it happen. Peter has a great affection for three things: his son, football and the military. His father was a Navy historian, so this was a passion project for him.”

Photo by Greg Peters/Universal Pictures.

Marcus Luttrell was instrumental in ensuring the film stayed technically accurate. Parker continues, “Marcus was involved in approving the locations, as well as the edit. In a typical war movie you see a lot of yelling in a battle as commands are issued back and forth. That’s completely different from how the SEALs operate. They are very disciplined units and each member knows what each person’s role is and where there should be. Communication is often silent, through signals, and there’s a lot of flanking. The SEALs call it ‘water through trees.’ The SEALs tend to shoot sparsely and then wait for a response so the enemy will reveal their position. I had to recut some scenes to minimize the yelling that wasn’t correctly portrayed.”

Lone Survivor involved a 44-day shoot in New Mexico, where the mountains were a sufficient substitute for Afghanistan. Tobias Schliessler (The Fifth Estate, Hancock) was the director of photography, working with RED cameras. According to Parker, they watched a lot of war films before production began. He explains, “As a reference for how the environment should look, the guideline was the documentary Restrepo about the Afghanistan war. This was his basis for sky, lighting and terrain.”

Editing took about six months. Parker says, “Peter likes to shoot with three cameras all the time, so there’s a lot of coverage. I edit while they are shooting, but I wasn’t on location. I like to blast through the footage to keep up with the camera. This way I can let Peter know if any extra coverage is needed. Often I’ll get word to the 1st AD and he’ll sneak in extra shots if the schedule permits. Although I will have a first assembly when the production wraps, Peter will never sit though a complete viewing of that. He works in a very linear manner, so as we start to view a scene, if there’s something that bothers him, we’ll stop and address it. My first cut was about two-and-a-half hours and the final came in at two hours.”

Parker continues, “There were a number of scenes that paced well when we intercut them rather than letting them play as written in a linear fashion. For instance, we wanted to let the mission briefing scene play normally—this is where the SEAL team is briefed on their target. That scene was followed by a scene of the target beheading a local. We realized that an actual briefing is very technical and rote, so intercutting these scenes helped keep the audience engaged.”

In a film that is intended to accurately portray the frenetic events and chaos of a battle, continuity becomes a challenge for the editor. Parker explains, “In some of the key scenes the cameras would be on the stars for their takes and then would be turned around to cover the side of the scene showing the Taliban. It was always an issue of matching the energy.”

Editor Colby Parker Jr.

“I purposely made the battlefield clear for the audience. I didn’t want it to be a messy, confusing battle. I wanted the audience to experience exactly what the SEALs felt, which was the Taliban closing in on them. I slowed down the pacing so the audience could really track the scene. I’ve had people tell me after screenings that they appreciated the way the first battle is presented because they’re never lost or confused. In the key scene, where the SEAL team is debating what to do with the goat herders, there was a lot of improvisation and a lot of coverage. There was so much strong footage that it was overwhelming. I ended up transcribing every line of dialogue to index cards, then I would lay them on the floor and edit the scene together with these cards.”

Another struggle was deciding how much violence to show. Parker continues, “During the battle, there are scenes with long falls and jumps down the mountainside as the SEALS are looking for cover. These were very brutal visually and I had to be conscious of whether I was getting desensitized to the brutality and needed to dial it back some. One scene that I fought hard to keep in the way I’d cut it was when Marcus breaks his leg. There’s a bone sticking out through the skin and he has to push it back in. Some folks thought that showing this was just too much, that it was too gruesome. That’s obviously extremely painful, but it’s accurate to what happened and tells a lot about what sort of people become SEALs. I’m glad it stayed in.”

Photo by Greg Peters/Universal Pictures.

Visual effects play a large role in Lone Survivor. Image Engine Design (Elysium, Zero Dark Thirty, District 9) in Vancouver handled the majority of effects. The Chinook helicopter crash sequence was completed by ILM. Parker says, “There were a lot of practical visual effects done on location, but these were augmented by Image Engine. The crew did trek up into the upper mountains in New Mexico into some difficult places, which created a realistic starting point for the effects. Muzzle flashes were added or enhanced and mountains were added to some backgrounds. The sets of the villages were only one or two huts and then Image Engine built everything around those. Same for the SEAL base. There were only a few real buildings and from that they built out a larger base.”

Sound is also a key part of the experience. Parker explains, “Wylie Stateman [Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds] was the supervising sound editor, and working with him was inspiring. He uses a lot of foley, rather than canned effects, and was able to build up a whole sound design ‘language’ for the environment of each scene. It was very collaborative. Wylie and I would discuss our ideas and massage edits to make the sound design more effective.”

The editorial department was set up with four Avid Media Composer systems connected via Unity shared storage. Parker is a big proponent of Avid. He says, “I cut strictly on Avid, but I like some of the improvements they made thanks to the pressure put on them by [Apple] Final Cut Pro. This includes some of the timeline-based editing changes, like the ability to copy-and-paste within the timeline.” The final DI and color grading were handled by Company 3 in Los Angeles.