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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How much fun did you have bringing elements of the boardgame 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.
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.
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 p**s 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.
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 have 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.
I gather Kevin Costner gave 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.
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 [Siula Grande] 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.
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.
Interview: Rob Carnevale Photo: Universal