Known for his acting roles in movies such as The Last Seduction and The Great White Hype, as well as his regular role in the TV series Chicago Hope, New York native Peter Berg has developed quite the filmmaking career directing the likes of Friday Night Lights and Hancock.
Berg now returns as the man helming mega blockbuster Battleship, an adaptation of the popular HASBRO video game, where the American Navy squares off against aquatic alien invaders set to destroy the Earth.
Berg spoke to Matt’s Movie Reviews about the process of adapting a board game into a film, his love for the Navy and why he hates 3D.
What was your initial reaction when Universal approached you to direct Battleship?
I really liked it. I liked the idea of…I grew up as a big supporter of the Navy and my dad was a Navy historian, so when I was a kid I was going to every Navy museum in the world and I always wanted to do something about the Navy…I have a lot of friends who are in the military, so I love that whole world and started to taking a look at some of these Aegis Class Destroyers, the new ships you will see in the movie. They’ve never been filmed. I mean these are really, really cool ships.
The idea of taking this game, and I liked the game as a kid, it had this sort of simple, nostalgic vibe for everybody in America, everybody has played it. I thought to take it, and have this idea of five ships fighting, five ships who can’t see each other, they have to find each other and then it’s on…I thought that was a real solid idea.
I could then just go and let my creativity and my imagination run wild with it. So it’s kind of awesome for me.
When fleshing out the story, what was the first aspect that came to you? Was it the characters…?
For me it started with Taylor Kitsch’s character. I’m always drawn to like…men trying to find the best version of themselves, and people being thrown into positions of leadership and not being in any way prepared for it and seeing how they do. I love those kinds of characters.
So really early on in the process it was finding that character, creating it and trying to make it as strong as I could.
HASBRO of course created Transformers. Were you at all wary about the comparisons Battleship would get with the Transformers movies purely based on that connection?
I felt like there would be comparisons upfront. When you have something like that on the title (points to a Battleship poster with “From the Makers of Transformers” in bold font)…that’s all obvious to me because that’s just business. That’s smart business for them to attach themselves to…that’s been happening forever.
So I knew there will be some comparisons, but I also felt pretty clear that…I know Michael Bay very well. I’m a fan of his…he and I make completely different movies, and I knew that once someone sat into four minutes of Battleship that comparisons – whether you like the film or you don’t like the film – the comparisons to Transformers I always felt would be pretty irrelevant.
Surprisingly, the film is not in 3D. It seems a lot of people really want to push the 3D thing, but you decided not to go that way. Were you in anyway talked into trying to add that extra format?
I came out one day…we were having the 3D conversation with some people from the studio. Now I don’t like 3D because it gives me a headache and it’s not worth it to me. The 3D experience for me personally…you know, I’ll go to a movie in 3D and occasionally I’ll, you know, try to reach out and touch something or I’ll be blown away by a moment. But the overall experience for me is it literally gives me a headache and I wasn’t interested in it.
I said “I don’t want to do the movie in 3D because it gives me a headache.” And they were like “Cool. It doesn’t have to be in 3D.” And I think was what really was happening…Battleship is such an expensive movie. 3D adds another $25-30 million to a budget. I’m not sure…if you really look at the box office returns maybe for every movie like this that was in 3D, but I think it’s levelled off a bit.
So as a filmmaker you don’t get this incredible pressure. If the studio really felt that they were going to make a shitload extra money, they would have come to me and said “You’re doing it in 3D,” and I would have probably done it.
"I just want Battleship to be a fun, global movie. I want people to go see it, have a good time, and not worry about their lives for two hours." - Peter Berg
When you were doing a research on another film called Lone Survivor, you spent a month with a Navy SEAL team. What was that experience like?
Have you ever spent time with Navy SEAL’s?
Can’t say I have.
Have you ever spent time with soldiers?
No. I haven’t.
It’s kind of like…I never felt more alive. I was in western Iraq in a small outpost and was with 15 guys that I got to go out with and watch them operate and do the things they do, which are pretty violent.
You really feel like you’re in the middle of the argument. You’re in the middle of something that really matters and it’s fascinating, you know? Any moment is completely unpredictable, any moment something potentially catastrophic can happen, so everybody is in this really heightened sense of reality. So it’s a very alive environment.
Battleship, among many things, feels like a tribute to the Navy past and present. Did that time spent with the marine’s influence how you wanted to portray these men on screen?
I think that…my politics…I’m like a liberal hating liberal, you know? I am a Barack Obama supporter and I don’t love a lot of the military decisions we’ve made in my lifetime, but I have tremendous respect for the soldiers.
The soldiers I know are not politically motivated. They are there to do a job and they’re willing to sacrifice their lives. I know that sounds corny but they really would die for you, for me, and for your children and for my child, and that means a lot to me.
I don’t think we do enough to honour the men and women who’ve had their legs blown off, and their eyes ripped out, and their skin burned off, and then come home and nobody wants to deal with it.
I tend to be drawn to people who made sacrifices. In Friday Night Lights we saw a kid get paralysed while we were filming them playing football, and that got me very involved with a group that deals with young athletes who become paralysed, which is similar to veterans in that these kids are heroes one minute when they’re running around the field but the second they are in a wheelchair and have to urinate into a bag for the rest of their lives, and they smell, and they can’t function, and nobody really wants to look at them!
That has never sat that well with me, so to have the chance…Battleship is intended to be a fun popcorn movie. It’s not intended to be any more than that. It’s meant to be something that everyone can go and have a good time with. The fact that I get to pay respect to something that’s important to me like injured soldiers, and some of these old veterans who fought in WWII and really some of the best men that our country has ever produced, that means a lot to me.
I was doing an interview in Paris and this young kid with long hair said, “I don’t like these old men at the end of the movie! They’re so American.” So I look at him and you know, “Some of those old men fought in Normandy and liberated your country. You didn’t know that?” He said, “I don’t like Normandy! I live in Paris.”
Sounds like a very nihilistic attitude.
I said “Get the fuck out of here!” I kicked him out, like “Go read a book! Go get a haircut.” The next journalist to walk right in was a 40 year old Frenchman and he said “Thank you for that. Kids don’t understand.” And it’s not his fault. He’s a kid. But anything we can do to make sure people are remembering that…nobody is glorifying the war or glamorizing the military. I’m really not trying to do that, but I do think that it’s important that we respect and remember what’s happened.
Getting back to that popcorn element, the battle scenes in this film are just phenomenal. How do you prepare the action sequences? Do you like to storyboard?
It’s more a pre-visualisation, where we work with a team of guys and animators on computers. I mean…it starts like this. (Berg proceeds to act out a Battleship action sequence using our mobile phones as toy models). The Missouri will come to the regent flag ship, start to make a turn, and then this will try to make a turn to keep up with it, then we’re gonna do this bit where the anchor gets dropped and have it spin like this broadside.
Literally it will start with toys and then we’re like, “Alright…how the fuck do we film it?!” It becomes a combination of high, wide orientating shots…well how are we going to do that? How much is that going to cost. We know we want to get in there, we want humans…well, it takes a long process of preparation where, for the most part, you know what you’re gonna get before you go in there.
You don’t have the luxury of discovering…the filming process can’t be a period of discovery. The discovery has to happen earlier. The filming process is like, “Let’s get it done!” It’s too expensive, too complicated, too many moving parts to be like…versus something like Friday Night Lights or Lone Survivor, a drama, the filming process can be like a laboratory. You try something, I try something, we’ll switch roles, we’ll rewrite the script…on this job you gotta know what you’re doing or you will get into a lot of trouble.
"I’m able to remember how scary, and lonely, and frustrating being an actor can be. So I tend to try and love my actors and care about my actors, and understand they never know where their next job is coming from." - Peter Berg
Taylor Kitsch is having one of those big, prolific years. Your working relationship with him goes back to Friday Night Lights. What do you see in his future with this big, prolific year?
I think Taylor is going to have a great career. He’s a really, really bright kid. Unique. Funny. I think his head is on very straight and… I’ve never seen an actor have a year like he’s having. I don’t think it has ever been done. To go through basically being on a television show to three massive movies all coming out in ….
It’s pretty much a few months from each other.
…yeah, within 5 months of each other. It’s wild and he’s handling it great.
I am a big fan of your acting work. The Great White Hype is one of my favourite films. Lately you’ve had a few appearances on Prime Suspect (Peter Berg was the producer of the series).
Yeah. I wanted to play a regular part on Prime Suspect, but the show got cancelled.
Does that mean we are seeing Peter Berg the actor making a comeback?
I would like to! I’m ready for it. I miss it, but what I really miss is doing plays. Movie acting…for me I just grew tired of it. There is so much waiting around and you’re at the mercy of other people, and you sit and wait and wait, and there like “Go!” And then it’s over. So you’re like “Can I do it again?” And they’re like “No, no. We got it.”
Theatre acting, it’s like being a rock star. You’re in control and you go out there and it’s about the actors and the acting. That’s what got me into acting in the first place. In college I started doing theatre acting and I love doing plays, and I love doing workshops, and I love the whole environment. The theatre I would really, really love to do.
That was the drive and foundation that’s carried me everywhere I’ve gone, that love of theatre. That kind of magic that happens in these little black box theatres that I started in, where you’re not acting for any fame, or any money, or any sense of where it might get you. It’s just fun! And that I miss a lot.
Does your experience as an actor help you approach the way you direct actors?
I think sometimes it helps and sometimes it hurts, you know? Sometimes…I get frustrated with actors and I’ll start giving them line readings and “Just say it like this. Listen to me, listen to my voice”, because I have such a clear idea of how I want it to sound and that’s not particularly helpful to an actor. That’s not teaching them much, but I get frustrated sometimes.
Other times I think…I’m able to remember how scary, and lonely, and frustrating being an actor can be. So I tend to try and love my actors and care about my actors, and understand they never know where their next job is coming from. They’re not quite sure what they did to get the job. They’re confused…they don’t know how their little part is going to be used, so I try and be sympathetic and empathise with actors, because for a long time directors with me never did. They just don’t understand… “Go sit over there and say that!”…They just don’t understand all the anxiety that goes with being an actor, and I do.
Rihanna. This is her performance as an actress. How did she take to the craft?
She loved it. I mean…I’m a believer in musicians turned actors. There have been a lot of good ones, starting with Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate, and I could list 50.
But I knew she had really good charisma. I knew she would be a really good actress just from watching her videos and meeting with her. What I thought was funny, what I liked from working with her in Battleship, was giving her a short haircut, putting a machine gun in her hand, and then letting her go and just kick ass, and not asking her to be a sex bomb or anything or some kind of pop singer character like The Bodyguard. Whitney Houston was great in The Bodyguard, but she basically played a singer, you know?
So let’s have Rihanna do something all these screaming fans you’ll see at the premiere, there are gonna go running in there - and I hope this doesn’t hurt me- but they’re expecting to see Ri-Ri, singing and dancing and they’re gonna get Raikes (Rihanna’s character name). I thought it was a great way to introduce her to the world of acting. It’s something 180 degrees removed from herself.
We touched briefly on Lone Survivor. Is that something that’s still in the works?
Yeah. We start filming in September.
Excellent. And Taylor is in that again, and Mark Wahlberg…
… He’s gonna play Mike Murphy. There is four guys. Mark Wahlberg will play Marcus LaTrel. Ben Foster..do you know who he is?
Yes, of course.
I’m sorry…wait. Fuck, I confused them. Who’s in Abraham Lincolm (Vampire Hunter)? … Ben Walker! Ben Foster is in our film. I get confused. And there will be one more guy, but I’m not sure who that is gonna be next.
So there is still some casting waiting to be done?
Yeah, one more role.
What do you expect from Battleship. Do you expect any sequels or anything of that nature?
I hope so! I just want Battleship to be a fun, global movie. I want people to go see it, have a good time, and not worry about their lives for two hours.