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Peter Berg is more than just a successful actor who transitioned with equal success into directing. He’s a consummate showman, disguised in an understated package: after shepherding Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson through The Rundown, an action movie which tested both their mettles, he became a top-notch purveyor of A-grade thrills, even as he remained quietly behind the scenes. But with Battleship, Berg finally finds a canvas as large as his ambition, adapting the popular game of strategy into an alien-invasion opus that promises to be one 2012’s biggest films. Still, Berg is quick to observe that the project is no automatic slam dunk; rather, it’s a test to see whether as a filmmaker, he can be successful when his reach exceeds his grasp.
“Making a film like Battleship is by far the most creatively challenging thing that I've ever done as a filmmaker, as an actor, as a writer, as anything,” Berg told a group of journalists last summer during a visit to the Santa Monica editing bay where he’s assembling the film. “This world that we're living in now from a filmmaking standpoint, it really is the era of these megamovies. The high end of studio films is now at a certain number that was unimaginable 15 years ago. When you look at what Michael [Bay] and Favreau and J.J. Abrams have been doing, we're seeing the appetite for the studios to make these big spectacle films. To give filmmakers like myself this incredible freedom to take something like the board game Battleship, which is really an essence of a film about naval warfare, and say, ‘OK, go. What can you do with that?’ As a filmmaker, it's the most creatively freeing and challenging and liberating experience that I've ever had.”
Berg screened a collection of scenes from the film, including an early sequence in which Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) tries to win the attention of a young woman he fancies (played by model-turned actress Brooklyn Decker), and a scene where Hopper and a couple of his fellow seamen – including singer Rihanna, making her acting debut – investigate a large, mysterious object that’s floating in the water near their battleship. While the footage was far from finished, showing green screens and tape markers of backgrounds and objects yet to be filled in by CGI, it showcased the kind of genre and narrative classicism Berg utilized to great effect in movies like The Rundown, albeit with a sense of irreverence and fun that has become one of his directorial hallmarks. Afterward, Berg sat down with the press in attendance for a lengthy discussion about the concepts behind the film, and how he’s tried to transform them into believable – and more than that, entertaining reality.
Q: How does your background as an actor affect your focus in terms of character or storytelling?
Peter Berg: I think it's important to find universal themes -- a father loving a son; a screw-up attempting to find his voice and find his inherent heroism -- themes that maybe I wasn't as interested in when I was young and acting and I wanted to break the rules. I was more subversive and sarcastic as an actor than you can afford to be as a filmmaker… so I think I'm different now as a filmmaker than I was as an actor. I'm probably a bit less glib and less sarcastic and more aware of what universal reality is: the love of a parent for a child; the love of a man for a woman or a woman for a man; the desire to protect the innocent. Those are themes that maybe sound corny and a bit grand, but if you can make that real, that's where these films want to live. Avatar did a great job of taking what could have been a familiar theme -- we must protect our environment -- but in making that real, making that universal. That's, to me, why the film really succeeded as well as it did.
Battleship really is a story of a young man who is damaged for a variety of reasons at a young age, and he's angry and he doesn't understand how to trust, he doesn't understand how to lead. At the beginning I found this [character to be] a mess -- hopefully a somewhat likable mess -- and we watch his journey to manhood, to becoming a real legitimate leader and responsible human being. That's the core of the film.
Q: Having worked on a couple movies dealing with the Middle East, is there a political component about this story?
Berg: No, I don't view Battleship as a political film. We're certainly not implying there's a Middle Eastern component or the fear of the unknown globally being a metaphor for Battleship in any way. I do think the idea that the Earth as a resource that may be of interest to another species, the way the Earth is a resource to our separate species on this planet, and that's relevant, a theme of the film. But one of the conceits of our film is that our aliens are not all-powerful; they don't come in large enough numbers to demolish. They're sophisticated, they're technologically a bit more advanced, they're able to travel faster and longer. They come almost as a recon group, not as an invading army. The potential for invading army's very clear, if they like what they see - which they do - they're going to ask for more. They're going to come and they're going to colonize us. That, to me, is interesting. That is relevant more so than a Middle East comparison.
Q: How does the science-fiction aspect of the action enable you to skirt the chance of earning an R rating? Can you get away with more
Berg: The next film I'm doing is called Lone Survivor, which is a great story about a group of Navy SEALs who were killed in Afghanistan. It's a very violent story. It's brutal. That's a film that intends to be a completely different experience than a movie like Battleship, [which] is intended to be a piece of big, fun escapism. It's not to say we don't take ourselves seriously; we do aspire for a certain level of emotion and reality, but this is not a film that's meant to traumatize. This is a film that I'm trying to make for the inner 12-year-old boy that lives in everyone, man and woman, that wants to be entertained, wants to be scared, but doesn't necessarily want to be terrified, doesn't want to go home and have nightmares, that wants to be transported for two hours to another place. For me film works best when it does give you that transport, that sense of good, fun escapism.
Q: Is the appeal of an alien invasion just escapism, or do you think there's some deeper theme that people respond to?
Berg: Films that have an alien component or an alien invasion, if done well, work, and that's why you continue to see alien films. To oversimplify it, people are fascinated by the idea that there's something out there, something that we all get around to thinking about from time to time. When we do, it's a thrilling, compelling conversation or it makes for an entertaining film.
Q: How difficult was it to translate the game to this narrative?
Berg: One of the great challenges of making Battleship was, what can you take from the game that's actually interesting and apply it to a film? There was never any mandate from anyone, it was like, “What can you do?” And the board game Battleship has actually a very interesting component, [which is] if you and I are playing against each other, we're calling out shots at random, and eventually something happens. You go from being an unknown enemy to a known enemy. There's a point of discovery in Battleship which is a hook, and it's why the game's been around for so long. So what do I try to do as soon as I figure out where you are? I try to destroy you, as quickly and violently as I can before you kill me. There's something very inherently dramatic about that, and we tried to figure out ways to take that on.
Q: Many of your cast members are acting in what is one of their first films, if not their actual first film. How exciting or risky was that to take on?
Berg: Not risky. I've always been a fan of working with lesser-known actors. I personally enjoy going to a film and losing myself in the film and not watching an actor or movie star move through a film. I like the idea of using guys like Taylor Kitsch or Alex Skarsgard, or Jesse Plemons from “Friday Night Lights” who has a big role in the film. People's faces you haven't seen. I love the idea of taking someone like Rihanna who has no idea what she can do as an actor and putting her in a legitimate huge role in the film. She's got a really strong, solid part. When that works, when you see a film like Precious and see Mariah Carey, like I had great success with Tim McGraw in Friday Night Lights and The Kingdom in small but impactful roles, people watch them and go, “Wow, did I just see Rihanna do that? I didn't have any idea that's who it was.” I personally enjoy those moments in films. I aspire to that; that's my philosophy of casting in general.
Q: How many people whisper in your ear about Battleship 2? Are you leaving yourself a convenient out for a second film?
Berg: Yes. I never go, done in one. I'm always thinking, let's keep going. I love these characters; I love these two dudes. I love the world they come from, and I loved the idea that if there is credible life out there, it's probably going to be from a planet that shares a similar relationship to its sun that we do to ours, and it's very possible that the form of life that's relatable to us, that has a neurological system, that has a respiratory system, that has emotion, that has thoughts, that has reasoning capabilities. That's the tenor of the thread of Battleship. I'm certainly hoping that it's something that we can explore for a long time.
Q: How difficult is it to create a tangible reality and still tell the best story? Your obligation is to tell the most interesting story possible, not to tell a scientifically plausible one.
Berg: We try never to say, “It's just a movie.” I think audiences are too smart; you guys are too smart. Too many things have been done. It's got to be defensible, it's got to be logical, it's got to be fresh. The idea that we have a satellite called the Kepler, which is a deep-orbiting satellite that finds these planets 82,000 miles out, and NASA sends the signal out -- that's all real, the idea that we're inviting a planet to come. As Hawkings said, we're advertising our position; someone very well could come. That's critical to me, the logic of the film hangs on that. We're very hard on ourselves in terms of knowledge. It's not just a movie; I think that's a defense of last resort.
NOTE: The first full-length trailer for Battleship will arrive Friday, December 9. Universal invited us for a special sneak peek at the new action-packed trailer a day in advance. The trailer, which will run in front of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows in theaters, gives a closer look at the enemy aliens and the chaos they unleash--fans of Hasbro's other action/CGI-based mega franchise, Transformers, will probably get a kick out of it.