As a first-time screenwriter crafting Mile 22, celebrated novelist Lea Carpenter ramped up her learning process by reading several screenplays director Peter Berg shared with her, as well as watching several movies she admired in the thriller/espionage genre, including Zero Dark Thirty and Munich.
While Mile 22 marks the fourth collaboration between director Peter Berg and leading man, Mark Wahlberg, it’s the first time they’ve partnered to tackle a wholly original narrative — one that is neither a sequel, nor an adaptation of an existing work. Instead of a CGI spectacle, they bring us an intense, smart, and gritty modern action-thriller, which redefines the genre of modern combat cinema – their pairing has resulted in the films Patriots Day, Deepwater Horizon, and Lone Survivor.
Set in the volatile arenas of intelligence and global politics, director Peter Berg ushers in a new wave of modern combat cinema in MILE 22, which follows an elite paramilitary team who embark on an urgent mission to transport a foreign intelligence asset from an American Embassy in Southeast Asia to an airfield for extraction — a distance of 22 miles. This asset possesses highly classified information, which could avert terrorist attacks of catastrophic proportions.
Mile 22 explores the complicated dynamic between Wahlberg and Lauren Cohen (television’s The Walking Dead, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), as veteran members of the CIA’s most highly prized and most closely-guarded secret operatives.
It’s a breathless and often brutal action movie about a small group of Americans navigating a 22-mile gauntlet through a foreign city as they struggle to elude the forces of a foreign power, which are closing in on them. As they race against both time and geography to complete their mission, they must survive bombs, firefights, and brutal hand-to-hand combat, sustaining tremendous losses and turning the city into a battleground.
Directed by Peter Berg , who is currently in post-production on “giRl,” his documentary about universal music sensation Rihanna, Mile 22 was scripted by celebrated novelist Lea Carpenter (Eleven Days, Red White Blue) based on a story by Carpenter and Graham Roland, a former US Marine whose experiences during his tour of duty in Iraq are reflected in his outstanding screenplay, Finding Mehadi.
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After doing three films in a row based on reality – Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon, and Patriots Day – director Peter Berg just wanted to have some fun and just make an action movie.
“That was the spirit this all started with,” says Berg. In the earliest stages of Mile 22’s evolution, director Peter Berg was initially motivated by his reaction to Gareth Evans’ The Raid films, both starring Iko Uwais.
“I remember hearing about them,” Berg recalls. “And I generally don’t go see fight movies, but they were getting some buzz, Gareth’s direction was getting a lot of acclaim at festivals, and people were talking about this young ‘next Bruce Lee.’ I went and saw the first The Raid and was just mesmerized by Iko and the film’s soul, texture, emotion, and its physical brutality. He just had it. You can see a hundred guys fight, but one of them touches your soul. Iko definitely had that quality.”
Berg immediately knew that he wanted to work with the talented Indonesian action star, but at the time didn’t know on what, when or where. Stylistically, with Mile 22, Berg’s focus was on creating a film that he considers part of a new wave of combat cinema, a brutally realistic depiction of fighting and action not reliant on computer-driven effects.
“I was never a big tech person,” Berg concedes. “The movies I tend to be drawn to are less tech, more real. So, with stunts and fights and action, I approach it from the standpoint of how can we make this as real as possible and limit the amount of giant green screens we have on set? That just doesn’t excite me.”
In describing his four-film collaboration with Wahlberg, Berg, who doesn’t have a brother of his own, considers their friendship a brotherhood.
“We get along tremendously well,” he says. “My family gets along well with his family. My friends get along with his friends. We just have a good time.”
Berg also cites Wahlberg’s famous work ethic as an inspiration. “Mark’s work ethic is probably better than mine, and I think mine’s pretty intense! He’s a very hard worker. I trust him to be there for me, and I think the feeling is mutual.”
Berg cites independent film legend John Cassavetes for inspiring his improvisational method.
“With Cassavetes you never knew what was going to happen,” Berg says. “There was a script and there was a plot and story, and the characters had identifiable relationships, but within that the actors could do or say anything they wanted. And I always liked that. It felt kind of magical and real to me. It felt like you always had to pay attention. So, I always try and encourage actors to improvise by providing a safe environment where they and the crew can all feel like they can play around.”
Berg says that one thing he’s proud of with Mile 22 is that the film will deliver exactly what people hope. “We are what we say we are,” he states. “This is a very intense 95 minutes of no fucking around, ruthless business. If you want 95 minutes of real, intense business, we’ve got that for you. You want to see a kickass action movie that knows exactly what it wants to be, we got one.”
Mile 22 is the result of a years-long collaboration between director Peter Berg and first-time screenwriter, Lea Carpenter.
The two first met in 2013 at a book signing for Carpenter’s debut novel, “Eleven Days”, a family drama centered on the U.S. Navy SEAL community. It was released as Berg was preparing for the release of Lone Survivor.
Due to their respective research and travels, the two had many people in common, which led to talk of working together at some point.
Based on her acclaimed novel and other writings, Berg had been impressed by Carpenter’s ability to weave family dynamics and other personal insight into stories set in the Special Forces community.
“Pete asked me, ‘Do you know how to write a film script?’ and I said something along the lines of no, but I can figure it out,” Carpenter recalls.
Berg first came to her with a script based on his original idea. “Pete’s core premise was, what happens if someone comes into an embassy or a CIA station with a piece of information and offers it in exchange for being taken out of the country under very perilous circumstances,” explains Carpenter.
“Pete and I talked a lot about it and I was really interested in this idea: what is the risk that you take when you need to know something? How do people change when they’re under the pressure to get this kind of intelligence?”
As Berg and Carpenter engaged in additional discussions about the CIA and the Special Operations culture, he quickly realized she would be the perfect person to write the screenplay based on his idea. In an unusual twist, in 2008, Carpenter discovered that her own recently deceased father was earlier in his life a member of U.S. special operations, a discovery that led her to read everything she could on the topic.
As a first-time screenwriter, Carpenter ramped up her learning process by reading several screenplays Berg shared with her, as well as watching several movies she admired in the thriller/espionage genre, including Zero Dark Thirty and one of her favorites, Steven Spielberg’s Munich.
“That was a movie that had a big influence on me in terms of embedding some action in a more literary story and trying to put some entertainment and emotion together,” she says.
Over their months of collaboration to fashion the script for Mile 22, Carpenter described working with Berg as one of the most exciting, dynamic, challenging, and creative collaborations of her career.
“He helped me have the confidence to take risks as a writer that I never would have taken,” she asserts.
“He’s had incredible patience and amazing ideas and has taken everything creatively to a new level. He has an incredible ability to always go for the humanity, which is something I don’t think you would immediately think of in an action film director. But he’s always looking for the human moment, always looking for the core of the scene, always saying people will know how to blow up the trucks, but you need to know what’s happening emotionally.”
During their discussions, they began to discuss Ground Branch, a specialized paramilitary unit within the CIA’s Special Activities Division.
“Ground Branch is largely comprised of former Marine Special Operators, former Navy SEALs, former Delta, and Special Forces Officers,” Carpenter explains.
“It’s a part of the organization with really deep roots, because the CIA was founded by a group of guys who had been, more or less, paramilitary guys during World War II. It’s a group that doesn’t get a lot of attention because when we think about CIA, we tend to think about George Smiley, spies, and case officers. We much less often think about former military operators who then become case officers.”
Says Berg, “I met a lot of Navy SEALs who have graduated in Ground Branch and heard about their exploits and the very unique operations they participate in. And I just thought it was really rich material for a movie.”
Although Mile 22 is a work of fiction, it’s standard practice for Berg to engage a group of consultants with real world experience – from Navy SEALs and Army Rangers, to CIA officers and computer experts – to assist the cast and filmmakers in creating accurate character depictions in terms of both actions and dialogue in any given situation.
As part of her research, Carpenter met with several of those consultants, including CIA professionals and specialists in the technology space, to learn more about computer hacking, coding, and viruses.
“I wanted to learn how these people talk,” she notes. Even during filming, Carpenter was on the phone with those tech consultants to stay up to date on the latest developments that she might be able to incorporate into the shooting script.
“They were helping me understand things like zero-day exploits, timer scripts, how codes can be embedded and unraveled, how they’re written, and how they’re structured. We wanted it to feel real.”
As the story developed, Berg suggested that the journey from embassy to getaway plane would be 22 miles. “I liked the idea that it felt like a game,” Berg says. “Four people have to get 22 miles in 38 minutes. Very simple. And we’re going to throw a lot of obstacles at them in between where they start and where they end up.”
The deceptively simple premise proved to be a solid foundation on which to build the more complex story, as it unfolds.
“I thought, well, that’s probably not going to be too difficult of a journey; it’s only going to take 25 minutes or so,” Carpenter muses. “But everyone in this fictional host country wants Li Noor dead, and we find out at different points in the first act why they want him dead. But they have a lot of people standing in their way. And because of the quality of the information he’s planning on giving, and the obstacles in their way, Jimmy Silva makes the call to use the newest ‘weapon’ the CIA has, which is actually a human intelligence weapon.”
That human intelligence weapon, Carpenter explains, goes by the code name “Overwatch” — a group within the CIA, led by the character known as Bishop. “What they do is come in and watch over extremely short, but extremely high value operations,” Carpenter explains, noting that, “unlike Ground Branch, Overwatch is a complete work of fiction.”
Peter Berg asserts that although Overwatch is fictional, they’re loosely based on the idea of a QRF – a quick reaction force – comprised of military operators, which he also learned about making Lone Survivor.
“Whenever there’s any legitimate military operation – Navy SEALs, Marine recon guys, Delta Force, or Green Berets – there’s usually something in place called a QRF, which is designed to be able to come in and offer assistance if the troops involved in the operation get into trouble,” the director explains. “There really is a big brother watching. And they can use satellites and drones and are in very close communication with the men and women on the ground. So, the whole idea of Overwatch was taken from that.”
As Berg and Carpenter conceived it, one of the protocols followed in an Overwatch operation is the notion that they will leave someone behind. Team members are expendable, if necessary, in order to complete the mission objective.
“Pete and I had talked about what are the limits of patriotism,” Carpenter recalls. “How could you set up a protocol where you would be breaking all sorts of rules? So, in developing Overwatch, Pete and I decided that this would not be a ‘no losses’ kind of organization. In signing up, you have to essentially resign from the CIA in order to go on an Overwatch op. These guys know that they’re probably going to pay the price of someone dying. They don’t know going out who’s going to die, but we lose a lot of blood by the end of the movie.”
“For our team of heroes the mission comes first,” explains Peter Berg. “It’s a different, every man for himself-type of camaraderie than we’ve seen before.” Although Ground Branch is based on reality, Berg notes that the premise of the mission coming first uses a little bit of creative license from the real Ground Branch operatives, something the filmmaker is allowed to do without the constraints of working on a film based on real events. “
There’s a certain type of pressure that we don’t experience when we’re making something up so we can have a bit more fun.” Mark Wahlberg agrees and adds, “Pete and I had done three other films all based on true stories surrounding tragic events. Basically, we wanted to do something where we could have some fun, but our idea of fun is creating a world that is full of violence, betrayal, deceit, and all of these things that I think make for a great story. We wanted to make a really smart character-driven action movie. Pete’s always known his action, but the real story is the set up and there’s great twists and turns in this movie, which was something that appealed to both of us.”
To ratchet up the suspense even further, Carpenter added a secondary plot line during the Li Noor exfiltration operation; while the team is on their 22-mile mission, a Russian spy plane is circling the skies somewhere in the world, watching and listening to everything going on.
“The idea behind the Russian spy plane and part of the concept for the film was there’s always someone else watching, whoever is watching,” Carpenter says. “So, we dreamed up this idea of this ultimate weapon that could fly in the sky and provide intelligence surveillance. And the idea would be that you could have a team of people on this plane who could use very new technology to locate one person anywhere in the world by picking up the right kinds of signal intelligence. And there’s a female observer on the plane who we don’t really know until the end of the film.”
Although action is the primary focus, it was important to both Berg and Carpenter that the film explored personal themes and focused on the humanity of the characters and situations they encounter. In the film’s opening, we see them in action as a team, then we gain greater insights into them as individuals, as well as how they function as a team under Silva. According to Carpenter, one of the main themes the film explores, both literally and figuratively, is that of mothers and children. We see it with Alice and her daughter, as she struggles to bridge her two worlds; one as a divorced mother who desperately loves her child, and the other world, where she is a brilliant and lethal operative, capable of extreme violence.
“Throughout the film, the main character, Jimmy Silva, communicates with the leader of Overwatch, Bishop, using the call signs Child 1 and Mother,” she points out. “So, we have threaded those words throughout the script. They’re probably the most repeated words in the script, child and mother. And if I did my job right, there’s a larger story mapped onto that about a mother and a child.”
It was also a priority to have women represented in the special operations teams depicted in the film. As Carpenter notes, there are already women in the Navy SEALs and female writers and directors such as Kathryn Bigelow and Patty Jenkins who are making mainstream films in the action genre not traditionally dominated by women.
“I thought if I could give a few women these very literally muscular roles, that it might differentiate it,” Carpenter observes. “It’s the women who are controlling
everything that’s going on in the movie. We have Alice keeping Jimmy Silva in check. Sam, Ronda Rousey’s character, M.I.T., and the mysterious Vera, who has a lot on her hands. These are not shrinking violets.”
Indeed, there are no wallflowers here, no damsels waiting to be rescued. Carpenter and Berg have created female characters that are more than empowered, they are powerful — in intellect, in physical ability, in strength. They are equal to their male team members and are viewed as such; they’re not standing helplessly on the sidelines, they are in the fight, weapons hot, doing their job with lethal effectiveness.