Peter Berg spent much of 2016 living in the past. His two most recent films, released within months of each other last year, offered tense minute-by-minute re-creations of a pair of contemporary American tragedies. First came Deepwater Horizon, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September and chronicled the 2010 explosion aboard the titular Gulf of Mexico-based drilling rig, and its resulting catastrophic oil spill. Berg then ended 2016 with Patriots Day, an account of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and the heroism displayed throughout the city in response, which had a limited awards qualifying run in late December ahead of its national release on Jan. 13.
Both movies star Mark Wahlberg, who also headlined Berg’s 2013 hit, Lone Survivor, based on the remarkable story of U.S. Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell. Asked by Yahoo Movies if he and Wahlberg set out to make a trilogy of true-life tales, Berg insists that it wasn’t entirely intentional. “We’ve definitely made three films, so I guess that, by definition, is a trilogy,” he says, laughing. “These are just the kinds of stories I like to tell, the ones that get me going.”
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Based on the reviews, Patriots Day has largely gotten critics’ pulses going as well. Berg tautly choreographs the events leading up to the explosions near the annual race’s finish line on April 15, 2013, as well as the ensuing manhunt for the perpetrators, brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (played by Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidz in the film). The suspects were later found on the streets of Watertown, a northwest suburb of Boston; armed with guns and homemade explosives, the bombers engaged local law enforcement, including police sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons), in an extended shootout in the early hours of April 19. When the smoke cleared, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was dead, and his brother had fled the scene, hiding in a moored boat where he was discovered later that evening.
A carefully choreographed re-creation of this Watertown firefight is Patriots Day‘s standout sequence. Unfolding almost in real time, the nearly 10-minute showdown is a captivating depiction of how an ordinary city street transformed into a war zone, as well as an excellent showcase for the simpatico working relationship between Berg and his longtime director of photography, Tobias Schliessler. In separate interviews, we spoke with Berg and Schliessler — who called in from the set of his next movie, Ava DuVernay’s highly anticipated adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time — to walk us through the process of re-staging the Watertown shootout onscreen.
Peter Berg: During pre-production, we sat in a conference room in a Watertown police station with the officers who were involved in the shootout. We’d draw a diagram of the street on the ground, and we’d use toy cars and stick figures for each officer to show us where he moved and what he did, where the brothers were, what rounds were fired, where the bombs were thrown, and where they went off. We tried to reconstruct it almost second by second as part of the organizing principle of how we were then going to film it. The officers remembered the gunfight very clearly; there were times when there would be a difference of opinion, and they’d go back and forth until they all agreed.
Tobias Schliessler: Being with the real officers was a great thing. We spent days and days walking the Watertown streets, listening to them talk about what actually happened. We tried to be as accurate as possible [in re-creating] what it was like for those people.
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Berg: We knew [early on] that the sequence was going to be very violent, and that’s when we realized that we probably didn’t want to film the entire thing in a real neighborhood — it would be too disruptive to the community. So we started figuring out which parts we could film [on location] and which parts we needed to re-create. We built a big chunk of the set on an abandoned Navy base outside of Boston. We weren’t going to be blowing up bombs of that power in a residential neighborhood! That was just never an option.
Schliessler: Pete and I have done five movies together, so I know the style he likes to shoot in. He loves giving his actors a lot of freedom in terms of blocking and moving, and not necessarily being locked down to marks or places. Especially in a movie like Patriots Day, the docudrama style of shooting makes the audience feel like they’re in the story. It’s basically like being thrown into war, so [with each shot] we tried to capture the moment without being too precious about it.
Berg: We prefer a very natural style that’s somewhat documentary-like. That’s why all my camera operators have a lot of documentary film experience and we keep things rough and natural. We have a team that we always work with, and at this point so much of [our communication] is nonverbal. They know what to do and where to go, Tobias knows how to light it, and I know how to scream at the actors until everybody is worked into a frenzy! It’s been that way ever since I directed Friday Night Lights, and even before that, with The Rundown. We’ve all stayed together and operate like a team at this point.
Schliessler: We have some of the best camera operators in the world, especially when it comes to handheld [photography]. With Patriots Day, we used at minimum three, and sometimes four cameras and would sometimes shoot for 20 to 30 minutes straight through. Those cameras are, like, 80 pounds on the operator’s shoulders! Pete sometimes picks up his megaphone in the middle of the action and says to the A-camera operator, “Grab me this right now!” or “B-camera, do this!” He’d change the shot from take to take and move the operators around. I usually try to light the set 360 degrees so that he’ll have a lot of freedom to move around. The movie I made right before this was Beauty and the Beast, which is a completely different style where everything is controlled, stylized, and prepared. It’s nice to be able to go from one extreme to the other as a director of photography.
Berg: Every gunfight has a unique personality, with its own rhythms and highs and lows. I think the dominant quality of the Watertown gunfight is fear. These officers had never fired their weapons during the course of their work. They were from a relatively small town outside of Boston, and they were used to dealing with traffic cases or over-serving issues at bars. To suddenly find themselves in such a violent situation was a bit scary, and on the verge of being overwhelming to these guys. That emotion is what we used to fuel every [creative] decision we made: to show these police officers barely hanging on, but refusing to back down.
Schliessler: A lot of my challenge was trying to build as much practical lighting into the set as possible. When we shot on the streets in Watertown, it was initially quite dark because of the new LED streetlights, so I changed them to the old vapor streetlights. I also strategically put light behind entire houses in the background, where I knew they wouldn’t be in the shot. Then in the foreground, I’d sometimes walk around with a little China ball that’s supposed to act as a fill light. When I saw a camera going closer [to an actor], I would basically walk into the middle of the scene, light their faces just a little bit and then pull back. Other times, I would turn off one light and turn on another light in the middle of a take to be able to shoot in another direction. It felt a little bit like a choreographed ballet between the camera operators and myself — it’s not something that you’d normally see in a movie.
Berg: I always feel that the more you focus the scope on the human component [in an action sequence], the bigger it feels. You don’t have to have giant environments to stage these fights or spectacular explosions, so much as you have to just focus on the emotion. Focus on the emotion, and that creates scope. In this case, the scene starts very quietly with a police officer doing what he’s done many times before — putting on his flashing red lights — and that very quickly escalates to something pretty dynamic.
Schliessler: Pete’s good with keeping the momentum going, which really helps the performance of the actors. At the same time, he gives me the opportunity to fix things in the middle of a take, like changing a light. He also gives the camera operators a lot of freedom to be in the moment, like you would be if you were in a real battle. You wouldn’t think: “What shot should I do?” You’re thinking, “Where can I duck without getting in the way?”
Berg: Safety always dictates how we behave [on set]. So, if the bombs have too much force for a non-professional stuntman, we remove the actors and bring in stuntmen. Then, if the bombs are just flat-out not safe for any human being, we set them off without any actors or stuntmen there.
Schliessler: We had to put the operators into protective suits with gloves and glasses, because they’re right in there. But it’s very safe. We have an amazing special effects team, and those sequences are also built in the editing room. There are bits and pieces that Pete picks and builds the sequence into a really exciting moment.
Berg: It took about a week to shoot the entire Watertown sequence. We shot all night for maybe eight days. The editing probably took another three weeks, and then we’d dial it in and make little changes. We’re getting pretty good at shooting gunfights, so we move quickly. And because we had such a well-detailed road map for the sequence, the basic structure didn’t change [in the editing room]. If you did the research, and you’ve got the real guys in your corner, it gets harder for anybody to suggest that you make changes because you can say, “But this is how it really happened.” I was given a lot of freedom to tell this story in the way we thought it should be told.
Schliessler: I’ve been shooting [A Wrinkle in Time] and haven’t been able to come to screenings with the real officers, so I haven’t gotten their reactions yet. All I can say is that the reactions from those guys on set was very positive and encouraging. Sometimes they would also stand next to us and go, “Oh, this happened this way a little differently,” and we would adjust it. We got different points of view from everyone, because they all saw it from different angles. If you’re in a battle like this, and you’re on one end of the street, it looks completely different from another part of the street. Based on what I’ve heard from Pete, they all love the movie. Pete was very respectful towards how he portrayed them, and I think it’s been received very positively.
Berg: It’s always challenging to make a gunfight sequence. It takes time, and people get tired. And in this case, we were shooting all night in the cold. I’m lucky to have a great crew that does get fired up to shoot a gunfight. No pun intended, but they do! You can ask the real Watertown officers [how they feel], but for me it’s been a big thumbs up and lots of hugs. I think they feel that we got it right.
‘Patriots Day’ Featurette: Mark Wahlberg, Peter Berg, and More on ‘Getting It Right’ in Boston Marathon Bombing Drama: