Mark Wahlberg feels ‘huge pressure’ to get Marathon bombings movie right
It was like a battlefield, with bodies strewn amid shattered glass, sirens screaming, and hundreds of terrified people, many with gruesome injuries, staggering to escape the chaos.
The horrific scene in the aftermath of the explosions near the finish line of the Boston Marathon almost three years ago is seared into people’s memory, a monstrous image that is impossible to shake.
So it’s with sensitivity — and a fair amount of apprehension — that Mark Wahlberg is beginning work on a Hollywood movie about the Marathon bombings and the frantic manhunt for those responsible. The actor, who grew up in Dorchester, admits he was initially ambivalent about making “Patriots Day,” concerned it could be viewed as exploitative or, worse, indifferent to the pain and torment experienced by so many.
“There’s huge pressure to get this right, but we’re committed to doing that,” Wahlberg said last Wednesday.
Talking publicly for the first time about the movie, which begins filming in and around Boston at the end of the month, Wahlberg, director Peter Berg, and others involved in the project say they intend to tread carefully in telling the story of April 15, 2013, and the days after. Their aim, they say, is to make a powerful film that’s respectful to victims and survivors and also honors the police, medical personnel, and ordinary citizens whose actions in the hours after the attack helped the city recover.
The filmmakers have already encountered resistance. In Watertown, where police waged a fierce gun battle with Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the brothers responsible for the bombings, some residents opposed a plan to re-create the nighttime firefight there. Likewise, at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was a student, officials decided that filming on campus would be “too disruptive.” Berg said he anticipated such concerns and understands them.
“We’re aspiring for real authenticity so that means filming in real locations,” said the director. “We will always ask and we will always be transparent with what our ask is. If there’s one person who’s uncomfortable, we’re more than happy to go elsewhere.”
Berg noted that while the bloody clash with the Tsarnaevs will not be re-created in Watertown, other scenes will be filmed in the town during daylight hours. And last month, crews began building a set on the runway of the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station, where Berg plans to film scenes re-creating the two explosions on Boylston Street.
It was inevitable that the bombing saga, an epic tragedy that killed four people, grievously injured dozens of others, and brought a major American city to a virtual standstill for four days, would attract the attention of Hollywood. “Patriots Day” is one of two feature films currently in production focused on the bombings. The other, “Stronger,” is about Jeff Bauman, a survivor who lost both his legs in the attack, and stars Jake Gyllenhaal.
The genesis of “Patriots Day” was an emotional interview that then-Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis did with “60 Minutes” during which he spoke about the bombings and the tumultuous days that followed. Michael Radutzky, a senior producer of the CBS news show, later approached Davis about participating in a movie about the calamity and the city’s response.
“At first, he was somewhat reticent,” said Radutzky, one of the producers of “Patriots Day.” “Ed was concerned it might appear he was involved in some sort of commercial enterprise and that could alienate survivors and the families of victims. But the more we talked, the more he understood that we wanted to treat this story with truth and integrity.”
After meeting with the director and Wahlberg, Davis eventually signed on to consult with CBS Films, which is producing the movie. Davis is now a security consultant whose clients have included the Globe.
“It was out of concern for the victims, out of a desire to put this behind them and move on, that I was reluctant,” Davis said Tuesday. “But when Mark Wahlberg speaks about being from Boston and wanting to capture this in a way that’s sensitive to victims, I believe that’s what he’s going to do.”
The screenplay, credited to several writers, including Berg, is not based on any book. Wahlberg stars as a composite of a few Boston police officers who were on duty the day of the bombings.
Among the real-life people who will be portrayed in the movie are Davis, Richard DesLauriers of the FBI, Watertown Police Chief Edward Deveau and officer Jeff Pugliese, and Dun Meng, who was carjacked and held captive by the Tsarnaev brothers for 90 harrowing minutes.
Sitting in a conference room in a building in a North Shore industrial park that serves as the movie’s production headquarters, Berg said the script doesn’t dwell on the Tsarnaev brothers’ motives. Tacked on the walls around the director are photographs of the carnage caused by the blasts, pictures of Boston hospitals, police cars and ambulances, local landmarks, and photos of some of the first responders and public officials who will be featured in the film.
“I consider the Tsarnaev brothers to be cowards, criminals, and murderers,” said Berg. “This movie isn’t going to focus on a reasonable interpretation of their behavior, other than it was barbaric, cowardly, and disturbing.”
Wahlberg has worked with Berg twice before, in 2013’s “Lone Survivor,” based on the true story of an unsuccessful mission conducted by Navy SEALs in Afghanistan, and in the forthcoming “Deepwater Horizon,” Berg’s film about the 2010 explosion of an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. In both movies, Wahlberg said, the director demonstrated a desire to celebrate heroism.
“Pete is super-sensitive to human life and loss,” the actor said by phone from Los Angeles. “When we were doing ‘Deepwater,’ families were very upset because the media had made it all about the birds and the fish and the environment, and they thought everyone had forgotten that 11 people lost their lives. When they learned what we were doing, they were all on board.”
Berg, who grew up in New York and is the son of a Marine veteran, said it is important to make Wahlberg’s character in “Patriots Day” a composite because he doesn’t want to lionize any one person for the actions of others, something he refers to as “stolen valor.”
“That’s a great way to offend a whole bunch of police officers,” the director said, adding that one of the big reasons he and Wahlberg want to make the movie is to honor the efforts of law enforcement after the attack.
“I think police, of late, are getting too much of a bad rap. Several questionable — or pretty clearly bad — actions by cops are tarnishing the entire profession,” Berg said. “But what happened in this city in the 105 hours after the explosions is an example of the very best of law enforcement, and without being cliché or overly simplistic, I think we can explore that in this film.”
The cast and crew of “Patriots Day” expect to be working in Boston through the end of May — they’ll do some discreet filming at next month’s Boston Marathon — with a prospective release date of mid-December. When the movie’s done, Berg said, Boston cops will likely get the first look.
“We’re going to have screenings for them and the lights are going to come up, and those men and women are going to look me in the eye and we’re going to know really quickly whether we got it right or wrong,” he said. “We want hugs and tears of joy, and that’s what we intend to get.”
Wahlberg acknowledged it will be a challenge telling the story of the Boston Marathon bombings, but he wants to be the one doing it.
“I thought if someone else did it and got it wrong, it was going to be a problem. Of course, with me being involved, if we don’t get it right, it’s going to be a problem,” he said. “I can promise you one thing: We’re going to try to make everyone proud. I promise.”