For director of photography Tobias Schliessler, shooting the gritty war drama "Lone Survivor" brought plenty of complex challenges, including pulling off treacherous stunts, dealing with rugged terrain and orchestrating as many as five cameras at once.
But at least one thing was simple, Schliessler said in a recent phone interview: the decision to capture the action with an unflinching eye.
"It was quite easy because it's a true story," Schliessler said of the film, which is based on former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell's account of a disastrous military mission in the mountains of Afghanistan. "It's what happened, and you're basically documenting with the camera. There's no trying to hide anything. It was just trying to be as truthful as possible."
The result is an intense, visceral film that can be difficult to watch at times, and exhausting at others. Bullets rip into flesh, bodies tumble over craggy cliffs, and blood sprays in the sun. Viewers find themselves flung into the middle of the action, which is precisely what director Peter Berg intended.
Since opening in wide release last week, "Lone Survivor" has resonated with audiences and cleaned up at the box office, earning a rare A-plus CinemaScore and taking in $37.9 million over the weekend.
"Lone Survivor" marks Schliessler's fifth film with Berg (their previous collaborations include "Friday Night Lights" and "Battleship"), and the two developed a naturalistic, un-stylized aesthetic for the project, "like you were in the battle with the characters," Schliessler said. "It should feel similar to what a news cameraman would capture."
Indeed, Schliessler's chief visual inspiration for the film was the work of photojournalist and "Restrepo" co-director Tim Hetherington, who was killed in action while covering Libya's civil war in 2011. In particular, Hetherington's book "Infidel," a portrait of a U.S. platoon stationed in Afghanistan, "kind of became our bible in the sense of the texture in the film," Schliessler said.
Schliessler shot "Lone Survivor" in a semi-documentary style, employing lots of hand-held camera work, making use of natural light and rolling multiple cameras. The latter allowed the filmmakers to cut between different viewpoints while maintaining the integrity of a scene. As much as possible, action sequences were filmed in long stretches.
"We didn't want the camera to be too obvious," Schliessler said, adding that he and Berg avoided crane shots and conspicuous angles. "It was supposed to be just another character in the middle of our guys."
But Schliessler and Berg aren't resting on their laurels. The two are currently shooting a pilot for the HBO sports-comedy series "Ballers" in Miami with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.
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