The Making of ‘Lone Survivor’

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By: Alexandra Cheney

The Wall Street Journal

Universal Pictures acquired the rights to former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell’s 2005 best-selling memoir for more than $2 million in 2007, winning a bidding war between several major studios. But it wasn’t until director Peter Berg spent two days in 2012 at the Cannes International Film Festival independently securing international buyers and pre-sales that the $20 million in capital needed to begin principal photography on “Lone Survivor” arrived.

“We put this movie on our backs and carried it up the hill,” said Sarah Aubrey, Mr. Berg’s producing partner at their production company, Film 44.

Based on the book “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10,” the film follows Mr. Luttrell (played by Mark Wahlberg) and his Navy SEAL team (portrayed by actors Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch and Emile Hirsch ) on a covert mission to kill an alleged terrorist leader in the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan. The men are ambushed by Taliban forces and must fight their way down the mountain in an effort to survive.

As part of an effort to diversify their offerings, Comcast Corp.’s CMCSA -0.11% Universal acquired the book’s rights outright, rather than option them for a set amount of time. Although Mr. Berg wanted to make “Lone Survivor” immediately after the rights were secured, the studio, which agreed to distribute the film domestically, wanted Mr. Berg to first direct the $200 million “Battleship,” which grossed a mere $65 million domestically.

Shot over 42 days in the mountains of New Mexico, “Lone Survivor” had a production budget of roughly $30 million and lists 26 producers.

“There were no chairs, just rocks to sit on,” said Ms. Aubrey. “This was a no-frills production.”

Mr. Luttrell and several former SEALs appear in the film, and Mr. Berg said he received “tremendous cooperation” from the military. Prior to filming, Mr. Berg visited Iraq and lived with 15 SEALs on a small base in the desert for a month. “I admire our military and their character and their code of honor. I lived with SEALs and I’ve been to their funerals. This is a story the military wants told and supports,” said Mr. Berg.

Because the movie “doesn’t fill the typical mode of an action movie,” according to Randall Emmett, a “Lone Survivor” producer, he looked to five separate financiers to secure the remainder of the film’s financing.

“Lone Survivor” made its world premiere last week at the American Film Institute’s AFI Fest in Los Angeles. It is scheduled for a very limited release—two theaters, one in New York and one in Los Angeles—on Dec. 25, to qualify the film for 2013 Academy Awards consideration. The film will then go wide on Jan. 10, following a similar release pattern to “Zero Dark Thirty,” director Kathryn Bigelow’s 2012 movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

“You have to build this campaign very gently and pace yourself, it’s a long season and this is a very heavy, delicate film,” said Barry Spikings, who produced the Vietnam War film “The Deer Hunter,” which took home five Oscars including best picture, in 1978. “Lone Survivor,” marks his first production credit in 18 years.

Universal is No. 2 at the domestic box office with $1.3 billion in total gross through Nov. 14, according to Box Office Mojo. Time Warner Inc.’s Warner Bros. leads distributors with $1.6 billion. The studio reported $102 million of operating cash flow for the first half of 2013, compared with a $77 million loss for the first half of 2012. This increase gives it greater latitude to pursue a riskier film like “Lone Survivor.”

“We knew we wanted to be involved from the start,” said Donna Langley, the chairman of Universal Pictures, in an email. “But we also knew it would not be an easy story to tell on screen so we had to construct a financing and distribution arrangement that would support Pete and the film and also protect the risk you face when dealing with this tough subject.”


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