Was 'Lone Survivor' Wrongfully Filmed on New Mexico Landowner's Property?

Lone Survivor Still Wahlberg Close Up - H 2014
Universal Pictures

Lone Survivor Still Wahlberg Close Up - H 2014

With an estimated take of $38.5 million in its first weekend at the box office, Peter Berg's Lone Survivor would seem to be the first perfect Hollywood success story of 2014.

Well, maybe not perfect.

PHOTOS: Mark Wahlberg: 'Lone Survivor' Actor's Road From Movie Star to Mogul

On Thursday, Georgia Film Fund Seventeen Productions, the copyright owner of the war film starring Mark Wahlberg, rushed to a New Mexico courtroom to resolve an odd dispute. According to the film company's lawsuit, a local landowner named Patrick Elwell has stepped forward to say that his property was used without authorization to shoot the story of a Navy SEALS team ambushed in the mountains of Afghanistan. The filmmakers paid $35,000 for permission to use the property for almost three weeks from La Merced de Pueblo de Chilili, but it appears possible that producers contracted with the wrong entity.

Elwell sent a letter to Lone Survivor producers on Nov. 3. He wrote, "I have no idea who authorized your Production Company to use my property for the filming of the 'Lone Survivor,' nor have I personally authorized any person or organization to act in my absence."

The landowner would soon learn who had authorized a 150-person film crew to do things like simulating grenades and gunfire on the property.

According to a Nov. 19 story by Albuquerque news outlet KRQE, the property has been under dispute since 1841 when the 40,000-acre Chilili Land Grant was created by the Mexican government and sold off. Elwell's ancestors were among the first settlers, and he has a property deed to support his claim of being a rightful owner. But other locals including Juan Sanchez, president of the Chilili Land Grant, believes those old land sales to be illegal. Unfortunately for Sanchez, courts have rejected his position. He remains undeterred.

When Lone Survivor producers picked a location to shoot and reached an agreement with Sanchez' organization, they might not have known about this old dispute. According to Elwell's letter, attached to the lawsuit, he faults Jonathan Slator, the film's location manager, with failing to conduct "routine research" regarding ownership of the property. (Slator couldn't be reached for comment.)

PHOTOS: Roundtable: 6 Celebrated Producers Talk Biggest Successes and Greatest Struggles

In his letter, Elwell demanded $160,000, comprised of $75,000 for 19 days of filming on the property and $85,000 for "reclamation costs due to destruction of natural erosion preventing vegetation."

That triggered communications between the production company and Sanchez. In a letter dated Dec. 5, Sanchez wrote, "If there is someone else claiming the land we have not seen any deed or proof that the land is not Merced land. We feel that we have not violated the agreement with Georgia Film Fund Seventeen production."

Sanchez also asserted that the terms of the location agreement meant that it was the production company that held legal responsibility against any claims.

Georgia Film Fund isn't accepting this.

The rights-owner of Lone Survivor is suing both Elwell and Sanchez and wants a New Mexico federal judge to determine the true owner of the property. If the court determines Elwell to be the property owner, the plaintiff demands that Sanchez and his organization have an indemnification duty. Additionally, if it turns out that producers essentially committed trespass to film Lone Survivor, Georgia Film Fund demands that Sanchez be held liable for misrepresentation, breach of contract and breach of good faith and fair dealing.

E-mail: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner