Universal released the teaser trailer for Battleship a few weeks ago, and if the movie wasn’t already being maligned for its board game origins (perhaps unfairly—remember Clue?), the trailer’s been taking a lot of heat for looking like Transformers 4 with giant pegs for enemy fire. But then again, Hollywood movies these days are about as original as Lady Gaga’s latest hit, and if a movie based on toys that turn into giant robots can spawn two sequels and some $2.5 billion worldwide, why not an action movie whose storyline basically only incorporates elements from the board game? After all, don’t expect to see Taylor Kitsch and Rihanna sitting across from each other studying strategy and yelling “Hit! Miss!” It’s a summer blockbuster, people, and director Peter Berg has a bit more cred than Michael Bay does behind the camera.
And so….It’s September of 2010, and a squinting and suntanned Berg (Hancock, The Kingdom, TV’s Friday Night Lights) took a break from shooting a scene with the aforementioned Rihanna aboard the U.S.S. Missouri in Pearl Harbor to explain (defend?) the genesis of this game-turned-movie to a select group of reporters .
Berg grew up on boats with a naval historian father, and with a longstanding interest in the Navy flirted with doing a film about it over the years. He’s the first to admit that Michael Bay’s Transformers sparked the idea of doing a modern-day naval combat film based around the game Battleship, so he met with Hasbro. “They were like, well--what’s the movie? Off the top of my head I said, ‘They’re gonna fight a recon group from another planet.’ ‘They said, whaa?’ I told them it’s a recon group like the five ships from the game, against a contained enemy rather than a global domination-mother ship-Independence Day movie. Makes it a fair fight. ”
After two years of research and working on the idea, ultimately it became the story of a small group of alien ships that are used for both research and military that hone in on our satellite signal in Oahu. They come closer to investigate what Earth’s all about and if we have any resources they can use (“Could be water, could be minerals, could be fuel….they could want turtles,” Berg said, adding, “they’re looking for a planet [similar to theirs] so the oxygen and atmosphere is suitable, the water drinkable”). Their plan is to communicate back to the home planet (Berg declined to give details about the enemy planet, or what the ships and aliens are called, referring to them only as “regents” and “thugs”-- more on those in the next part of our set visit) but when their communication ship is destroyed, they need our satellite signal to do it. Game on.
“The idea of the contained battle appealed to me--that came from the game. The idea of stealth tech. You can’t just dial in on the radar and attack; you have to figure out where your enemy is and attack them. It’s a theme throughout the film,” he explained. “The regents have a weapon that looks somewhat like a large peg that sticks…” (cue laughter) “it’s tongue in cheek," he insisted. "ILM designed a really cool, sophisticated thing that detonates--if you know the game you can identify it, but it’s not like a big red peg, it’s not blue pegs.”
At the core of it is a naval action adventure, he told the group, and there isn’t a contractual obligation even to include the famous line “You sank my battleship!” into the movie—though mum’s the word if it is or not. “There are subtle references, winks to the game throughout the film. Hasbro is just happy we have the title, we’re free to do whatever we want… they made so much f***ing money off the Transformers, you know?”
If throwing $200 million at a movie based on a game without much premise to begin with wasn’t already a hard sell, Berg also shot a lot of the action out on the open sea—we all know how THAT usually ends up. Berg’s shoot, however, went smoother than anyone dreamed. “Kevin Costner called me and we had a long talk. He said, let me tell you what we did wrong, and what right. It was a great call,” he explains. “We spent our first week half a mile out on a barge, took the crew out even further. Half this crew worked on Waterworld, I said let’s prove you can do it. We finished on time, no problems, in six days. It was scary, day one… I was out there waiting for everything to break. We could be 2 weeks behind after our first day. The studio was terrified.”
Berg is the only one ever to actually shoot on the ships at Pearl Harbor, and even convinced the Navy to let him tow the Missouri out to sea for a more realistic look. “It enables us to honor the military, which I’m a huge supporter of,” he says, adding that some 50 real-life vets, some in their 90s, are on the set too. “I have a great relationship with the Dept. of Defense despite my politics don’t always line up. [As far as push-back], there’s never been anything big. Literally, it’s more like you’d call this guy a Lieutenant Colonel, not a Colonel. Or occasionally we might have characters acting a little crazier than they would like, then it’s a reasonable discussion. If we do anything that’s flat-out against military policy—like, you can’t have over 22% body fat and be on a ship so if there’s a weight issue with a character, or Taylor Kitsch wants to wear his hair a little longer—uh uh. We go by the book on all that stuff.”
Next: Interviews with Rihanna, Kitsch and Skarsgard, plus a look at the concept art, coming soon.