Welcome To Explosion City: Visiting The Set Of MILE 22
It’s day 40 of the 43-day shoot on Peter Berg’s Mile 22, and I’m riding in a van with a bunch of journalists to Centro Internacional de Bogotá, basically the Time’s Square of Bogotá, Colombia. How I got here is a crazy enough story, what I’m about to see can only be described as insanity.
As our vehicle traverses the crowded city streets to the expansive set, we all peer out the windows to soak up the beautiful city when someone spots a bunch of armed soldiers and makes the off-hand joke, “this place looks like it’s straight out of the movie.” Our ride to set is over, and we realize we’ve arrived. The Colombian government was kind enough to provide the crew with an army of digital camouflage-dressed soldiers to protect it. We are quickly greeted, and Berg walks in front of us.
Dressed in loose-fitting, comfortable sweats, he leans back into his weight and cocks his head sideways before pointing his finger at one of us and says, “You...come with me.” He’s a man of few words, but he seems to know just how to get what he wants. The journalist Berg selects walks off with him, and we’re told to quickly follow suit. We arrive at a burnt military Jeep billowing with smoke that’s had its rear axle ripped clean off next to a Toyota SUV that has Iko Uwais handcuffed in the backseat. Our preselected journalist is lucky enough to run fight choreography with Uwais. The actor, who’s been allotted one free hand, throws lightning-fast punches inches from this dude’s face before putting him down on the crash pad mat. Berg then walks over to the rest of us, hands another journalist a prop gun, and instructs him to walk up to Uwais with the gun raised. The other journalist obliges—because he clearly must have not seen The Raid. Uwais grabs him by the back of the head and smashes his face into the rear window of the vehicle. Our friendly journalist does a serviceable job of acting unconscious. They run this a couple of more times before Berg jokes that while they did a believable job, he’s pretty sure he’s going to stick with stuntmen for this shot.
We’re then led a safe distance away to see the professionals work. Uwais is a marvel to behold on the big screen, but getting the chance to see his movie magic in real life is stunning. You might assume camera trickery enhances his power and skills, but you’d be wrong— he really is that fast and strong. He's also extremely kind and really just seems to be excited to be doing what he does.
While Bogotá is a truly breathtaking town full of beautiful graffiti and lively, warm people, it’s simply standing in as a non-descript city for the mission of Ground Branch, a division of the CIA tasked with protecting Uwais as they traverse twenty-two miles to safety. We’re told the film is reminiscent of Sicario and Heat, and from all I’ve gathered on set, the film seems to be a string of truly intense, awesome action sequences.
After we watch a couple of takes with Uwais, we’re led to a nearby steakhouse where we chat with a cast that includes Carlo Alban, Ronda Rousey, Lauren Cohan, Sam Medina, and Mark Wahlberg. The actors all appear very excited to be here, and they can’t sing high enough praises for Peter Berg.
Berg, the actor-turned-director, seems to have found an effective way to direct films while also endearing himself to his cast. The throughline of everyone’s experience when asked what it’s like to work on a Peter Berg movie is that’s it’s simultaneously incredible and yet totally bonkers. Berg shoots A LOT. Everyone came to town with a script, but when they set foot in front of the camera it was nowhere to be seen. Dialogue can be completely made up on the spot. Berg doesn’t seem overly concerned with his actors nailing the words on the page as much as he is invested in having them find a way to communicate what the scene needs in their own way.
Everyone seems to understand this, as I’m told tales of intense researching and backstory creation. Resident bad guy, Sam Medina, even shared a story of jotting down alternate dialogue and ways of delivery for the inevitable Berg improvisation request. Not only will Berg have multiple cameras constantly rolling as he lets his actors get a feel for what he wants, but this film also employs up to five drones flying overhead to capture all the action from a bird’s-eye view. When prompted about these drones, Berg leaned into me and said, “They’re a lot quieter than helicopters.”
Berg's sentences come across as direct and matter of fact. After he speaks to you, it’s generally followed with an intense stare, as if he’s soaking you in to see how you react to his no-bullshit way of communicating. It sounds like it could be off-putting, but in an industry where everyone tells you what you want to hear, it feels pretty refreshing.
We pop back out to check on the set and are escorted through a sea of cars sitting perfectly still. It’s not until we cross the street that I notice a bunch of leather-clad, helmet-wearing assassins holding machine guns next to fallen motorcycles. They lay perfectly motionless in the Colombian sun as to avoid any break in continuity between takes. We’re instructed to squat down behind a nearby street vendor’s food stand to avoid being in the shot. Berg calls this crime scene to action and we hear a distinct pop of several gunshots as a car screeches in reverse to hurl back down the street toward the smoking mess we had just witnessed. A few short moments later we hear “Cut!” and then it’s back to our domicile of safety at the restaurant.
We’d been hammering out interviews back to back when our PR rep walks into the restaurant and informs us Berg is going to shoot “something cool” we might want to check it out. The rep leads us up three flights of stairs, where we peek down on a city street to witness crew members dousing a torn apart Jeep with more gasoline and setting the nearby concrete on fire.
Someone near me receives a call stating they're about to start soon. Start what? I had no idea. I next hear what the crew refers to as “The Voice of God”: Berg sitting in the mobile video village built into the back of a van with a microphone calling “ACTION!” The action has clearly started but I’m having trouble discerning what’s going on when, to my complete surprise, I hear a sonic BOOM as a gigantic circular burst explodes around the vehicle and engulfs the entire view with fire, smoke and debris.
We start to head back when we’re informed that Berg needs to do another take of the explosion, and we’re asked if we might be interested in seeing it up close. Now, knowing what I’m in for, I greet the opportunity with a smile and am first to trek back to street level to witness the majesty of this eruption up close. I find my spot and stand in anticipation. Passersby try to encroach the set, but the Colombian military shoos them off as we wait with bated breath for more kabooms. We hear the “Voice of God” over a loudspeaker call for the ready as cameramen from all angles pop to attention and drone cameras fly overhead to their ready positions. We hear “ACTION!” and then a countdown from three to one and BOOM! An explosive wall erupts in front of me.
Everyone cheers after Berg announces “CUT,” and I'm suddenly surrounded in a flurry of debris returning to earth. We’re instructed to head on back when a smiling Berg agrees to answer a few questions for us. One of the journalists in the group jumps to ask about the explosion, and Berg just flashes a smile and says “Don’t I look like I’m having fun?”
Mile 22 comes out August 3, and if this set visit is any indication, we might be in for a whole lot of fun.