Interview: Peter Berg (Battleship)

Interview: Peter Berg (Battleship). By Simon Miraudo.

You might recognise Peter Berg from his 106-episode stint on the hit drama Chicago Hope. These days, however, he’s more likely to appear on TV as himself; popping up on shows like Entourage and Californication as ‘Peter Berg: big-time director’. The success of his last film, Hancock (which grossed an astounding $624 million worldwide), saw him graduate to the upper-echelons of blockbuster filmmakers. His follow-up, the Hasbro-produced adaptation of naval board game Battleship, will likely cement his status. In it, he reunites with Taylor Kitsch, the breakout of his Friday Night Lights series. We spoke to Berg about making ‘supermovies’, accepting advice from Waterworld helmer Kevin Costner about shooting on the water, the marketing potential of star Rihanna getting eaten by a shark, and the progress of the new Friday Night Lights movie and Hancock 2.

SM: Basing a movie on a board game – one without much of a plot – kind of gives you free reign with the story. Did you consider any other incarnations for Battleship before settling on an alien invasion?

PB: I knew with Battleship I wanted to make a film that, first and foremost, was a big fun summer popcorn movie. I was in the mood to make one of those kinds of movies. The idea of a naval battle where humans were fighting humans was too rough to me. Around the time that I was writing the script, or putting the initial ideas together, I saw this documentary Stephen Hawking did about aliens, and he talked about these planets that are similar to Earth – he calls them Super-Earths or Goldilocks planets – and he said, “These planets are planets we think might have life on them, and we’re targeting these planets. We send signals out to them. That’s a horrible idea.” He said, “The last thing we want to do is invite these aliens to Earth.” When I read that, and saw that documentary, that’s when the idea came and that was pretty early in the process.

SM: Interesting. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I understand you actually approached Hasbro first to grab the rights.

PB: I did, yeah.

SM: Were you at all concerned about people dismissing it as a ‘toy’ movie? Did you toy with the idea of just making a movie on Hawking’s concept?

PB: You know, the reality of where Hollywood is today, for better or worse, is there’s a new type of film – I call them ‘Supermovies’ – coming out. These are films that generally have very large budgets; they aspire for huge global reach. They intend to be seen by 15-year-old boys in Tokyo and 80-year-old grandmothers in Portugal and everyone in between. The reality is that studios feel a bit more comfortable having  something – some brand – to attach themselves; whether it’s a Marvel comic book, like The Avengers series; whether it’s a ride at Disneyland; whether it’s Transformers, a Hasbro toy. It doesn’t hurt when you’re trying to talk the studios into making these big movies, to have some brand connection. So I felt like the Hasbro connection, at the end of the day, would be a valuable connection to have. That there would be inherent scepticism, people would scratch their heads, people would make fun of it; once it all came together, I think there are a lot more people that love that game Battleship, and remember it fondly, and it’s a positive for the movie. I could be totally wrong too, we’ll find out.

SM: Was there a particular action film, or epic, or even a money shot from an action film that inspired you growing up? That made you want to create a film of your own, of this kind?

PB: Well, as far as Battleship goes, it was really my dad, you know? My dad was in the marines, so he was a military guy, but he was really into naval history. So as a kid, he took me to dozens of naval history museums all over America; he taught me a lot about the naval conflicts of World War 2, between the English and the Germans in the Atlantic, and America and Japan in the Pacific. It was something that I learned a lot about as a kid, and I developed a love and appreciation for navy action and navy ships. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.

SM: I understand you spoke with Kevin Costner before shooting on the water. What kind of advice did he offer?

PB: Well he said, “You’ve got to have three of everything, because the first two will break.” He said, “Whatever they tell you the maximum waves are, double it, and have your engineers design all your sets to withstand double the strain that they tell you.” And he said, “Watch out for sharks.” And he was right about all three of those.

SM: On that line, what was a bad day on set? Did you have any particularly curly days?

PB: We were so aware of the potential for really bad days, that we were over prepared, we think. I mean, I’d love to tell you there were horrible days, but nobody got hurt, thank God. Some stuntmen got roughed up a bit, but nobody else got hurt seriously. I’ve been making films for a while, and I’ve had people get hurt on my movies, and it’s a horrible feeling. As a result of that, I do everything I can to make sure we don’t have terrible days. If anything, the terrible days are people just getting really seasick in the middle of the ocean. That I can’t control. Nobody was eaten by sharks.

SM: That’s good, although, it would have helped for the marketing.

PB: If Rihanna had gotten eaten by a shark, that would have made some waves. Thankfully she didn’t.

SM: I’m glad to hear it. You worked with Taylor Kitsch on Friday Night Lights. Do you remember a specific time when you felt this kid would be a movie star, and one that you wanted in your films?

PB: Yeah, I think when I literally first met him. We were getting ready to cast someone else in the role of Tim Riggins on Friday Night Lights, and his agent who I knew called and said, “I’ve got the guy.” I said, “Well, I think I’ve already found him.” And she said, “Please, just meet this kid Taylor.” There’s very few actors in my opinion that have that. Look, he’s a really good-looking dude, but he’s really smart, and he’s quite funny. If he can find the right roles, I think there’s no stopping him.

SM: Can you tell me if there’s any progress on the Friday Night Lights movie?

PB: We’re writing the script. I would say it’s on the ‘slow-track’, but it’s on the track.

SM: That’s good to hear. How about Hancock 2? That’s been talked about for a number of years, and rumoured. Is that still in the pipeline, or dead?

PB: That, I would say, is on an even slower-track. Everyone gets really busy. Will Smith’s got a full life right now, and I’ve been busy. It’s harder than people think to get the time to put these together.

SM: Of course. And how about personally? Are you planning on getting in front of the camera again anytime soon?

PB: I’m available. If you’ve got a job for me, call me up I’m available.

SM: Alright, we’ll be sending the scripts over.

PB: Please.

Battleship opens in Australian cinemas April 12, 2012.

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