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Battleship - Peter Berg interview

Battleship, Peter Berg

Interview by Rob Carnevale

PETER Berg talks about some of the challenges of making Battleship and some of the pleasures, including taking the USS Missouri out into the ocean and working with 90-year-old US military veterans.

He also discusses how advice from Kevin Costner paid off, why he’s unashamedly patriotic and jingoistic and how his next film, Lone Survivor, will be one of his toughest challenges yet.

Q. You seemed like a natural fit for this given your father’s background? Did Hasbro approach you?
Peter Berg: No, I approached them. I was looking to make a big global super-movie, you know one of these giant mega-movies. I kind of got a little taste of it with Hancock and I wanted to go bigger. I knew that Universal had a deal with Hasbro, so I was thinking about doing Battleship and came up with the idea and pitched it to them.

Q. Did they know about your naval background?
Peter Berg: No, they had no idea. I told them. They didn’t give a f**k [laughs]. They said: “Can you make a good big movie?” I said: “Yeah.” They said: “Can you make it fun?” I said: “Yeah.” And they said: “Can you make it for families and the inner 13-year-old boy in everybody?” So, I said: “Yes.” They cared about that. They didn’t care about my background with the Navy at all.

Q. Given your background with the Navy and its history, how much more did you find out during the course of making the movie?
Peter Berg: I had no idea what these modern ships were like. I’m not big on war. I don’t think anybody is. But personally I find it fascinating that it’s a fact that mankind’s greatest creative accomplishments are building these giant weapons of death. These Aegis class destroyers are giant, ferocious weapons of death and it’s mind-blowing how much money and time and brain power is spent going into these implements of death. It’s pretty awe-inspiring.

Q. Is that why you wanted to concentrate on a threat posed by aliens as opposed to seeing them put into play in a possible real-life scenario?
Peter Berg: Yeah. The next film I’m doing is Lone Survivor and that’s the true story of a group of Navy Seal soldiers who were ambushed and 18 died and one lived. That’s a very real, rough, brutal film. With Battleship I wanted to have some fun and make a big summer popcorn movie. I have a kid and I have a lot of friends in the military and I didn’t want to make light of naval warfare and man killing man. I wanted it to be more fantastic.

Q. How much fun did you have bringing elements of the board-game into the film?
Peter Berg: Quite a bit. I took a lot of shit when I said I was doing Battleship and Rihanna was going to be in it and Brooklyn Decker was going to be in it. People thought it was a joke and I would have to say: “We’re actually not a joke. We’re for real.” And then I took grief from people claiming it would be impossible for that game to translate into a film and I thought from the get-go that that wasn’t true. I was only limited by my imagination. So, I had a lot of fun creating ordinates that looked like pegs and finding mutually exclusive inabilities to see the enemy and try and figure out new ways of finding the enemy. And I’m really proud of that stuff and I think it’s fun.

Q. How much did you enjoy working with the veterans?
Peter Berg: I loved it. I mean, I’m the son of a veteran and a lot of my good friends are in the military and I find that I’m pretty unapologetic in my respect for anyone, man or woman, in any Army, or any police officer, or any fireman, any emergency room doctor… anyone that’s willing to put themselves into that kind of pressure and put their lives on the line. I have a tremendous respect for it. So, to be around these gentlemen who were in their 90s and who had served on the Missouri, who were there in World War II, who remember it… 97-year-old men who remember everything like that [clicks fingers]. And to be walking around the ship with a 97-year-old man who worked on that ship and then to show them the movie and then to see the Missouri, which is a museum now… they burst into tears. I loved it.


Q. How important is it to you to strike a balance between maintaining a respectful tone towards the military within the context of a summer popcorn flick while also not becoming too jingoistic?
Peter Berg: It is important for me. I wanted to make a fun film. That being said, I have so much respect and admiration for these guys that I don’t mind being a little jingoistic. Frankly, we’ve started to get some press response now and we’ve had some great responses and other people aren’t as impressed. In France, I got two fairly negative responses from young 22-year-old film guys and I was f**king furious. I was like: “Do you have any idea what these men and what this ship did for your country?” I’ve been told not to talk about that but that does piss me off. How anyone could not have a certain amount, or at least some respect for those guys… I have a pretty short fuse on that one, so I let those guys have a piece of my mind pretty aggressively. I told them to get their asses up to Normandy, as neither one of them had ever been, and look at the cemeteries and see how many people sacrificed their lives so that certainly France and other countries could be free. This country and the United States paid a very heavy price, particularly this country.

Q. It does change your perception when you visit a memorial. I’ve been to Pearl Harbor and stood over the Arizona and it’s humbling…
Peter Berg: Have you been to the cemeteries in Normandy? Go there… it’ll blow your mind. I took my son there three years ago… we went to a German cemetery and an American cemetery and 200% more Germans were killed there. These were young kids and they had no idea. They were just told to stay and fight. My son looked at me and said: “Dad, I feel bad for the Germans. I feel bad for everybody.” It was horrible. So, I never made Battleship to be a patriotic reminder of wars past. But at the same time, if I get some 22-year-old trust fund kid in Paris making fun of the Old Salts in Battleship I’m going to have something to say about it. I’m not going to go crazy but I’m going to encourage them to go to Normandy and take a look at things.

When you spend time on that ship, and again I’m a Barack Obama supporter and I love the way he supports the military and his approach to battling terrorists, which is not to invade countries but to be more surgical, and I’m not a proponent of war. But when you go on that ship and you think about those men who went out and responded to a pretty violent attack at Pearl Harbor and some horrible shit that Adolf Hitler was doing over here… those ships were so tight and men were packed in and they were uncomfortable and they were terrified… you get a little caught up in it.

Battleship, Rihanna

Q. How special was the day you were able to take the Missouri out into the open sea?
Peter Berg: Oh, it was amazing. The Missouri was in dry dock, being refurbished, and I went and saw it and the head of The Missouri Foundation was giving me a tour of it and I’m like: “Well, what’s going to happen when you’ve finished giving it a facelift?” He said: “Well, we flood up the dry dock, we tow it out and we take a right and we go back into Pearl Harbor and we dock her.” So, I looked to the right and I saw Pearl Harbor and I looked to the left and I saw the open ocean, and I said: “Well, what if we took it out to the left and towed it out and filmed it? I could use that in the film.” He just laughed and said: “Oh yeah, Pete, sure, we’ll just tow her out into the ocean! That’s what we’ll do!” But five months later I was out in the ocean with a guy who had tears coming out of his eyes because he hadn’t been out.

We had arranged for a bunch of big tug-boats and some helicopters and this other equipment we were filming it with, so we got to take it out and the approach to Oahu airport is right near where we were and you could see the planes all tipping their wings to show the passengers. I mean the pilots must have been amazed… seeing a World War II destroyer apparently out circling Oahu must have been awesome. We had a lot of those old Navy guys out on the ship with us and they had the biggest smiles on their faces.

Q. I gather Kevin Costner game you some advice?
Peter Berg: Yeah, it was about a month and a half before we started shooting and were going out full bore, against all conventional wisdom. We built big pieces of sets and we were planning on doing a lot of filming out in the ocean. We had a plan. We were about a month or so away from starting when I got this call from Kevin Costner, who said: “I need to come in and talk to you.” He came in and said: “We did a lot of things right when we were doing Waterworld and we did a lot of things wrong and I want to tell you what we did wrong and give you my advice.” It was a great meeting and it really helped us. We talked about triple redundancy and having three of everything, not two, because things would break and when they broke the back-ups would break, so you’d better be able to go the back-up’s back-ups. He told us crew members were going to get dizzy and heat-stroke and would fall off, so have lifeguards ready to pick them up so nobody got hurt.

He said the swells… you’ll look in the guide and they’ll tell you that the wave fluctuations will be half a metre to six metres, so double the six metres and be ready for 12 metre swells and have your engineers build the sets to withstand double whatever the maximum stresses are. And almost everything he predicted would go wrong did and because of his advice we were able to get out ahead of it. I saw him a couple of weeks ago and said… he had such intensity when he came to talk to me. I said: “You’ve been waiting for somebody to do a film like this… you have so much wisdom. You needed to get this off your chest?” And he said: “Absolutely!” But he was a really cool dude and that was very nice of him. He certainly could have sat back and folded his arms and watched another movie fall apart out on the ocean.


Q. Does that kind of thing happen very often in your industry, to get an advisory call from a colleague? Or is that rare?
Peter Berg: Directors are odd. We’re all kind of respectful of each other but we stay at a distance. I don’t have that many good friends that are directors. We’re all kind of off doing our own thing. So, it is unusual for someone to call with no motive other than to help. There are probably a lot of directors who would have loved to have seen our sets rip apart and members of our crew get eaten by sharks and all that sort of stuff [laughs]…

Q. Given the creativity that went into making Battleship, does the emphasis on box office that will surely follow piss you off?
Peter Berg: I really do believe that this is the era of the super-movie. These films are very, very expensive. They have a tremendous global reach. They’re see by 13-year-old girls in South Korea and 90-year-old grandmothers in Portugal and everybody in between. I had more creative freedom in making Battleship than I’ve had in everything I’ve ever done. In part, it’s because they’re so big that the studios don’t even begin to micro-manage you. What are they going to say? You’ve got 900ft, 300 metre CG warships fighting 300 metre alien ships and it’s all sort of happening over a year and a half, so they just sit there and they just beg you to make it as good as possible.

These are really fun and interesting movies to make for that reason but you can’t divorce yourself from the financial reality. My next movie, Lone Survivor, is a much smaller film and much more intense. It’s not for everybody and it won’t have the global reach of Battleship. With that, it’s always nice to have your films make their money back. But with a film like Battleship, a lot of people put their balls on the line. And these are friends of mine. The head of international marketing at Universal is a friend of mine, they’re all friends of mine as opposed to asshole suits. These are people who want to do good, I know them, I know their kids, I know the pressures they’re under, so it doesn’t really bother me. It comes with the territory. You know that if you make a summer film you’re going to have maybe eight days. In the case of Battleship in the United States, we have The Avengers before us, Will Smith [Men in Black 3] after us, so we have our moment and that’s how it is. There’s no point rallying against it. If you don’t like it, don’t do it.

Q. What made you want to make Lone Survivor?
Peter Berg: I loved the book. It’s a hell of a read. It’s an adventure story. I’m fascinated by so many things. Did you ever see a film called Touching The Void, the documentary about the K2 ascent that went wrong? Well, it’s kind of like that story… it’s four young men, who are very intelligent Navy Seals, who are put in an extremely complicated situation where every 20 minutes they’ve got to make a decision, and every one of those decisions… sometimes they don’t even realise they’re making them, but any one of those decisions can start a chain of events that goes either well or poorly. And they start making decisions where they have eight different options and only one is a good one… seven are bad. Every once in a while, they choose the bad one and it’s fascinating to see how things get out of control. It’s a really unique study of how something can go wrong and how you try and get out of it. That’s what I loved about it.

Q. Is that a different kind of pressure because you’re dealing with real people?
Peter Berg: Absolutely. That’s more pressure. I’m dealing with the families of 18 dead soldiers and I’m dealing with the survivor, Marcus Luttrell, who has to live with this every day – that 17 or 18 of his best friends died. I’ve met the mothers of the dead soldiers and the fathers and the brothers and the widows and the girlfriends. That’s challenging – that to me is more pressure than box office pressure.

Q. Would it have been the case that if someone had said ‘no, I’d rather you not make that film’ you’d have walked away?
Peter Berg: Um, well I mean if one out of 18 had said that I would have heard it but I don’t know if I would have walked away from it. I would have discussed it with them. But in the case of Lone Survivor, every family member I spoke to wants the story told but they want to make sure that I get the story right and that I understand who their sons were.

Read our review of Battleship