As real as a war movie gets

HOLLYWOOD - When a war movie is based on a real American military disaster that took place in the very recent past, the film's emphasis shifts from entertainment to something more profound.

So says Kevin Scott, 52, who was stunt coordinator on the film Lone Survivor, which opened here on Thursday.

The film is based on former Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell's best-selling 2007 book about Operation Red Wings, the 2005 mission on a remote mountain in Afghanistan that would result in the deaths of 19 men.

In the operation, three of the four men on a Seal reconnaissance team were killed. Sixteen other soldiers died when the helicopter sent to rescue the team was shot down by the Taleban. Luttrell is the sole survivor.

Scott's job is to define what the action described in the script will look like on camera and then work out how to carry out the action on the set.

The 21-year stunt veteran had plenty to do on the film, which was shot on location on the mountains of New Mexico. Besides the usual gun battles and melees, he had to recreate the jumps and falls down the mountain the Seals took in a desperate attempt to escape the Taleban attack.

The long, painful-looking falls stand out as one of the most memorable and harrowing moments of the film.

Speaking to Life! on the telephone from Los Angeles, Scott says if the action looked fake or cheesy, it would sully the memory of the dead.

"All of us had the same feeling: We had to keep it real. We had to be respectful. Three guys didn't come home from the mountain and 16 guys didn't come home from the helicopter. This is a real story about something that unfortunately happens in war and that weighed heavily on all of us associated with the film," he says.

To achieve a respectful realism, the actors went through a four-week physical and tactics training programme arranged by retired Seal members.

For the stunt people, it meant that it could not be business as usual when it came to recreating the falls, Scott says. Before his team recreated them, he and director Peter Berg "spent hours and hours" talking to Luttrell, finding out what, how and when each member of the Seal team fell.

To replicate the falls in the most realistic way possible, the stuntmen had to jump off rocks that were up to 6m in height.

Next, Scott had to get the agreement of each stunt double that he would commit to performing the falls without the usual precautions.

Because the decision was made to not have the cameras cut away during body impacts, the use of ground cushions was ruled out, as was the use of wires to slow down momentum.

"So you had guys putting their bodies out there, jumping off and landing however their bodies were going to land and dealing with it once they hit the ground. That is a very unusual event for a stunt person, but it was the only way we could really communicate to the audience what really happened."

"Basically, the stunt people just fell," he says.

Stunt people are trained to land and roll in such a way as to avoid injury, but that would take away from the film's realism, so they leapt without looking at the ground. That way, their trained instincts would not take over, Scott says.

He calls the stunts a "calculated risk" for the crew. They were not doing anything that would end their careers and were wearing pads inside their clothing. Still, one man had to be taken to hospital with broken ribs. The rest suffered bruising, but nothing that needed hospitalisation, he says.

For the gun battles, he and Berg made sure the actors fired rounds and moved in a way that was militarily accurate - it was not a case of spraying bullets and running around as if ammunition was inexhaustible and American soldiers were immune to enemy fire.

In the film, the Americans take aimed, accurate shots while the Taleban fighters fire more haphazardly. This is not because good guys always hit their targets while the bad guys miss, Scott says.

"To become a Navy Seal, you spend 53 weeks training. You shoot more than a million rounds of ammunition. Their standards of accuracy are among the highest in the world and they are fighting against relatively untrained men who come from all over the world, just throwing lead downrange," he adds.

"A special forces soldier fires his weapon only when he can hit something."

johnlui@sph.com.sg


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