Last night saw the History Channel debut of writer-producer-director Peter Berg’s Live to Tell, an eight-part documentary series focusing on the men and women of the American Special Forces. Berg is no stranger to the subject — he wrote and directed the 2013 film Lone Survivor, adapted from former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell’s book of the same name — but the new project offers an unscripted take on what today’s elite soldiers go through, both on the battlefield and away from the fight.
Berg is currently preparing to direct his next feature, Patriot’s Day, which will take a look at the small-town heroes, including ordinary citizens, who faced terror on the home front with the Boston Marathon terrorist attack. Another far cry from perhaps his flashiest credit: director and executive producer of the football epic Friday Night Lights. Here, he talks about the urgency behind his latest projects, explains how The Leftovers, on which he serves as executive producer, ties into our world, and offers his thoughts on the gun control debate.
From Lone Survivor to Live to Tell, you’ve been involved in many projects focusing on Special Forces and elite soldiers. What draws you to this subject matter? Through my experience in Lone Survivor I got to know Marcus Luttrell and many members of the Special Operations community. The more I got to know these men and women, the more respect I had for them, and the more I realized that these are the men and women who are really at the tip of the sphere and doing the large majority of the actual fighting in what has become the longest war in the history of our country. It’s pretty hard, once you meet these incredible men, as an artist or as someone who tells stories, not to want to tell stories about them: They represent the time of our lives, really.
We’ve seen corruption in the VA, soldiers suffering from PTSD from so many continuous tours of duty, and then some of them not being able to find jobs when they come home. What impact do you feel this type of series could have in helping raise awareness for these soldiers once they’re home?
One of the things I’m very proud of with this show is the two executive producers are veterans. One was an Army Ranger and the other was a Navy Seal. So this show was actually, in part, created by veterans. And what you’re talking about is of huge importance to all of us involved in the making of this show. We all understand that veterans, for a variety of reasons, are having a very complicated time readjusting to civilian life. And I don’t think any of us do too much to help them in this transition. Any time that a show gives an audience member time to take a look at a veteran and to really be able to give it some thought to what he or she has been through — and if that in any way is able to help make them be more empathetic to veterans and help them assimilate — that’s a very good thing. And I certainly hope that’s a byproduct of our show.
Having directed the Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare commercial for Activision a few years ago, what impact do you feel that video game plays in celebrating these soldiers?
I was fortunate enough to go to Iraq with a Navy Seal platoon for a month, and these guys love playing Call of Duty. It’s a very popular game within the military community. I’m not a psychiatrist, and I can’t speak to the benefits or the detriments from these video games on the youth of America. Obviously, I have a son and he likes to play Call of Duty and I’ve put rules and time limits to his access to those games, because I don’t want my kid sitting around playing video games for 10 hours a day. But there’s no denying that these games are popular, and there’s no denying that there is an attraction to the Special Forces from the part of American youth, in particular the male youth. I think that Call of Duty is a great release and escape for a lot of the soldiers.
We have a generation of kids today who have grown up with the War on Terror. Do you feel that this endless war has made some people immune to war and what our soldiers are actually going through?
Yeah, I think that’s definitely a problem. And I think that the fact that these wars are happening with virtually no disruption to our lifestyle is a problem. It’s not like we have a mandatory draft. People are able to disconnect and pretty much basically ignore the fact that these wars are going on. That is not good. The fact that these are lingering wars and not giant, explosive wars like World War II with big naval battles and the D-Day invasion, or even Vietnam with the Tet Offensive, which put giant American body counts in our faces every night on the news. This is a war in which three guys died over here, one guy gets hurt over there, two guys get killed in a helicopter crash; and it’s very easy to forget about it and it’s hard to know how to respond to it. Michael Bay’s film 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, American Sniper, Lone Survivor, and documentaries like Live to Tell… anything we can do to remind people that this is in fact really happening. These men and women are dying and it’s real.
What’s it been like developing Patriot’s Day, which takes a look at terrorism on the home front at the Boston Marathon?
That’s my next film, and the reality of what war is today is just mind-blowing. If you think about World War II and Vietnam and Korea and the fact that wars today are being fought on the streets of San Bernardino and in Paris and in the mountains of Iraq and on airplanes by citizens trying to prevent hijackings… As a filmmaker and an artist I haven’t been able to process exactly what this means, but it’s clear we are living in a new era when it comes to warfare and conflict. What happened to Marcus Luttrell and his teammates on that mountain in Lone Survivor is modern warfare. And what happened in the streets of Boston where citizens and police officers and those small town cops in Watertown, Massachusetts, had to figure out how to deal with warfare in their backyard — this is the world in which we live today. As a filmmaker, I’m one of many who are trying to come to terms with it, and process it, and document it.
Do you feel that the world we live in today sets up almost a perfect scenario for a show like The Leftovers to succeed as it has over the last couple of years?
The Leftovers is a show that’s about unexplained grief. When we were getting ready to make the pilot, Damon Lindelof, the creator of the show, and I drove up to Newtown, Connecticut, on the six-month anniversary of the school shooting. And we spent a day visiting with that community and trying to do our part to understand what it must have been like for those families to wake up and be told that their eight-year-old child had been shot to death at his school… and to try, as parents, to begin to put that in some sort of context, and put understanding on it. We obviously couldn’t do it. I don’t think it’s possible to ever understand that kind of tragedy, and to process that kind of loss. I do think that as these acts of terror, or mass shootings, are starting to become the norm, the experience of The Leftovers and the idea behind that show, is in part a response to these brutal acts that are impossible to process.
On the one hand we have the soldiers out there using the latest and greatest technology and weapons to fight terror, and on the other hand we have an American homefront now where that mass shootings occur almost daily. Do you have thoughts one way or the other when it comes to guns and gun control?
Every time I get into gun control, it’s such a complex issue. I think it’s pretty obvious to anybody that the Second Amendment is something that we should not repeal, but when the Second Amendment was created and written, the world was a much different place. I don’t think that gun control and repealing the Second Amendment is the answer to these problems. I don’t think that everybody that wants one ought to have an automatic or an assault rifle. So somewhere in there I think there’s probably some room for compromise, but I am a supporter of the Second Amendment.