There's no formula for a Peter Berg movie—how could there be when his credits include Friday Night Lights, The Kingdom and Hancock?—but there is a pattern. Berg is the thinking man's macho movie-maker, and while his films look like they're made of testosterone, his intelligence and craft lure in a much broader swath of film-lovers than you'd expect from, say, an action-comedy starring The Rock and American Pie's Seann William Scott. Yet, I've personally met several girlie girls—and also tea-drinking boys—who cite The Rundown as one of their favorite flicks, and now building off the massive cross-generational, trans-American, red and blue state success of his TV show Friday Night Lights, Berg is back on the big screen for his first feature in four years, a popcorn flick that has its roots in Hasbro, but aspires to be something much, much smarter.
Battleship is a game with a bunch red and white pegs. Where do you start in translating that visually to a screen?
Battleship is a game with five different naval warships fighting five different naval warships in a confined space. I would start with that. As a long standing student of the Navy—and my father was a naval historian—I've always had a major amount of respect for Navies and Naval warfare. It's something I've been interested in my whole career. I've tried to do several films about naval warfare, starting with a film about John Paul Jones, who was the founder of the American Navy. Have you heard of him?
I have—my uncle was in the Navy.
So ask your uncle what an awesome story John Paul Jones would be. I tried to do that, then Master and Commander came along and knocked that one out. I tried to do a movie based on the book The Heart of the Sea. It's the story of Essex, a whaling ship out of Nantucket which sunk and was the inspiration for Moby Dick. That one ended in cannibalism, and studios weren't interested in that. I tried to do a movie about the Indianapolis, which is the battleship that carried the two atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan. It was sunk and the crew were all eaten by sharks. That was tough to get going, since everyone is dying and being eaten by sharks. So I've been frustrated wanting to do a naval warfare film, and then after the success of Transformers, Iron Man and Avatar, I started to look at these big super movies and I kind of wanted to do one. I thought about Battleship as a brand. The idea of, "Okay, we've got five Navy ships fighting other ships in a contained environment." I thought, "I bet you could create a story around that." It proved to be true, and it proved to be one of the more enjoyable and creative challenges in my career.
I heard you had actual Navy crewman with you on set.
It's true. We a very good relationship with Department of Defense. We shot on aircraft carriers and destroyers. We had a lot of active Naval personnel who were on breaks coming over and working with us. We shot on Pearl Harbor. We shot on Japanese destroyers. We had a great relationship with the Navy.
Where did the idea come from to have this battle fought at Pearl Harbor?
It's not "Let's fight it at Pearl Harbor," per say. It's fought in the Hawaiian islands. I thought of that for a variety of different reasons, one being that it's a great contained area for a fight. And Pearl Harbor houses the most famous battleship of all time, the Missouri. I wanted to see if I could find a way of bringing the Missouri in to the movie, so Hawaii was the logical place.
So it sounds like you wanted to make a Naval film with a lot of fidelity to the work they do. At the same time, you also have to turn this into a blockbuster that incorporates aliens. How do you balance that?
I do believe that the kind of films that are defining my generation of filmmakers are these big super films that have an extraordinary global impact. They're seen by 15-year-old kids in South Korea, and 80-year-old grandparents in Portugal, and everywhere in between. There is an element of fun and spectacle and of escapism to these films. I wanted to do that, and I didn't feel that I wanted to do that in a Naval war film where America fought China and we had sailors dying the way the real sailors die at sea, which is incredibly violent. People burn to death. People get ripped limb from limb. They get decapitated. They get eaten by sharks. It's very violent, and I didn't want that. I was thinking about a way to get a incredible villain into the film, or an incredible opponent. I found this documentary that Stephen Hawking did about aliens, and about the Goldilocks Planets. We've identified several planets that have similar environments to ours. Not only us, but other countries are sending signals—high frequency signals—to these planets, the goal being to inform them, that, "Hey, we're Earth. Here we are—come and visit us." Stephen Hawking came out and said, "That's a horrible idea. If we do succeed at making contact, the chances of it being peaceful and copacetic are virtually non-existent. We should just shut up and keep quiet." That provided me with the inspiration to bring aliens in.
You did a lot of scientific consultations during the making of this film with the Science & Entertainment Exchange. What kinds of stuff did you talk about with them?
Mostly a lot about Goldilocks planets. What they are and how they operate. Scientists in the know and astrologists in the know believe there is no question there's life out there. If you want to have some sort of rational method of trying to make contact with that life, you identify with these planets. I'm not a big fan of alien films where there's just suddenly a massive generic invasion and we have no idea why or what the scope or capabilities of the aliens are. I like the idea in Battleship of taking our time to really explain how it is that we had this contact. Understanding what the contact is and what the aliens are. It's not just these random giant space ships the size of New York City hovering over our planet killing everything in sight.
You also make a point of showing the war from the aliens' perspective. How do you pull that off?
It was important to me to try and create aliens that felt somewhat familiar to us. They come from a planet that is similar to ours. They have similar respiratory systems, neurological systems. They have emotions. They clearly act in a way that's rational, they have specific agendas. They don't fight unless attacked. We spent a lot of time trying to create a real pathology and look for these aliens so they were more than generic killing machines.
It sounds like you already knew a lot about military strategy, partly because of your father. Was there anything you learned while putting the film together, or any kind of theories you leaned on more than other in terms of how this warfare would go?
Having access to newest ships in our Navy, the Aegis Class Destroyers, was really educational for me. They've never been filmed, and I think very few people even understand what they are. They're 500-foot ships with up to 450 people crewing them. They are extremely complicated, magnificent, technological accomplishments. The men and women that run them are really, really smart. These ships are capable of attacking threats with incredible precision from very long distances. Being able to go on these ships and recreate them, build them, and use them as a big set piece for our film was awesome and a new experience for me.
When you're adapting a board game for the screen, how important is"fan-boy fidelity." Did you feel you had a wide open slate?
For me, the big challenge is I'm aware that there is a segment of our fan-boy population that has been skeptical about Battleship. They have voiced their opinions that Battleship doesn't lend itself to the most logical film interpretation. I've noted those comments and I think part of the competitor in me is taking pride in finding ways to hopefully, artfully reference the board game in a way that is additive to the story and feels kind of fun. Certainly nothing that encourages anyone to roll their eyes. If you look at some of our trailers, it's pretty obvious that the ordinates that the aliens use look somewhat like the pegs in the game. They behave similarly, although much more violently. There are several other references to the game throughout the movie.
One thing I find interesting about your career is that you've kind of done every single role in Hollywood. You were a P.A, actor, producer-
Stuntman, grip, electrician, driver, craft-service guy, clean up the coffee/spilled the coffee guy. Everything.
So on set, you can tell everyone specifically how to do their job.
I'm pretty good at knowing when people are bull-s--tting me, and when they're not. I have a good understanding of what everyone's job is. In all seriousness, I love making films and telling stories. I love writing and directing. I also have a real appreciation for how hard it is for the crews on sets. How much pressure it puts on them and their families. It's not unlike military service. Especially now when so few films are made in Los Angeles, film crews have to leave their lives and their kids and spend nine or ten months away from their kids. They miss graduations, birthdays and holidays. It's brutal. I have a lot of respect for the sacrifices film crews make. I try to do whatever I can to help alleviate the pressures that I know exist.
I've never heard it compared to military life before, but I think you've got a point.
It's actually even harder in a sense. If you are in the military, you have a three and half month deployment, than a year off, and you're paid for all of it. You know generally when your deployment is going to be. There is a very established system. I'm not saying it's easy—it's not easy—but there is an established system to help you and your families get through it. In the film business, a film crew has to take whatever job is available. They have no idea where they are going to go, no idea when they are going to be back, and when they're not working, they're not getting paid. There is no support system in place with the film unions to help the kids whose father or mother aren't there for birthdays. It's not an easy life. I'm really aware of that. The experiences I had on film crews certainly help my understanding of that.
I think it was incredibly smart casting to put Rihanna in this film. How did that idea come about?
I love finding new faces and casting new faces. One of my favorite casting times was with the television series Friday Night Lights. We took completely unknown actors literally right off the bus and found what we thought were talented actors, like Taylor Kitsch and Jesse Plemons. I'm talking about young actors-obviously Kyle Chandler has been around. I like that. I like to mix fresh faces with more established faces. We had this role—it's not a lead role, but part of the ensemble—of a tough female sailor. I had been a fan of Rihanna for awhile. She did an interview with Diane Sawyer after the Chris Brown incident and she struck me as this very intelligent, poised women. I added that up with the persona I got from her videos and I thought, "I bet this girl can perform-I bet she's an actress." She's smart. She's clearly got a lot of charisma. She's not shy, and those are all important qualities for an actor. You've got be aggressive and not be afraid to take chances. Intelligence doesn't hurt, and she has a lot of that. I met with her, and she came into the office in flip flops and jeans. We had a long talk about her desire about getting in the business. She then auditioned for a couple of hours, improvised a lot, read different rolls. She read Liam Neeson's character and Taylor Kitsch's character. I was trying to get a sense of how adventurous she was as an actress, and she was very. When I told her I wanted her to do it, she said, "Okay, but don't treat me special-make me work" and I said, "You got it." She showed up to work and really did a great job. To anyone who is surprised that Rihanna is acting, there is a long list of musicians that have acted successfully. My first experience was Frank Sinatra in Manchurian Candidate, and he won an Oscar in From Here to Eternity. There's Mick Jagger or David Bowie or Mariah Carey or Lenny Kravitz or Whitney Houston or Tim McGraw, who I had great success with in Friday Night Lights and The Kingdom. Musicians make great actors, and that's just the way it is.
That's true: they've got to act while they're singing, otherwise the song wont resonate.
Yes. Rihanna did a wonderful job in Battleship. There is no star treatment given to her, and none asked for. She is a great team player and great girl. I would work with her again in a second.
How closely was the studio watching John Carter to see if they were going to get a bump from Taylor Kitsch's role?
I don't think the studio was really counting on anything. Obviously, John Carter was a disappointment financially and there are a lot of reasons that went into that. Taylor did a great job in the movie, and nobody's associated the results of John Carter with Taylor. He did a wonderful job. We all watch each other films, and as snarky as people in our business can be, we're not that big of a community. We are financially interconnected. So nobody wants to see anyone fail, especially on a film that's that expensive. We are our own movie, we fully plan on having our own experience—and hopefully a successful one—but that has very little do with any other film's performance.
Are you aware that there is a big cult of people who'd like to see a Rundown sequel?
I know. I'm working on it. I believe that all those people are going to be really happy with Battleship. Battleship is more me, a return to the tone of The Rundown. Which I love—I love that film. It was a fun action romp. Big ass fun romp. Battleship has got that tone. It's meant to be a film for everyone: it takes itself seriously at times, other times it wants people to have a good, old fashioned popcorn romp at the movie theater. That's what we intended to do.