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Taking Command – Peter Berg

Whether he's embedding with Navy SEAL teams or filming on real-life U.S. warships, director Peter Berg goes all out to bring military adventure to the big screen. His latest salvo: the high-seas blockbuster “Battleship.”

Author SAM POLCER

FROM UNDERDOG BOXER in The Great White Hype to naive beefcake in The Last Seduction, Peter Berg has played his share of roles that demand a certain level of, shall we say, masculinity. But it’s from behind the camera that this one-time dockworker has exerted a distinctly macho influence on Hollywood. In the years since Berg made his directing debut—with the 1998 black comedy Very Bad Things—the only film he’s helmed that didn’t have flying bullets had long bombs (Friday Night Lights, whose spin-off TV series Berg also executive-produced). It’s safe to say that Love Actually 2 will not be a Peter Berg film.

Increasingly, this 48-year-old son of a naval historian has turned his focus to war movies, starting with 2007’s Middle East action-thriller The Kingdom and continuing through Lone Survivor, his upcoming adaptation of a true account of the Navy SEAL mission to capture or kill Taliban leader Ahmad Shah (a film for which Berg spent a month embedded with SEAL Team Five). Most recently, Berg has brought Battleship to the big screen: Based on the beloved board game, this $209 million action blockbuster comes loaded with more firepower than any one movie has a right to, including a formidable CGI alien armada, real U.S. Navy warships and Rihanna, in her feature-film debut. Play caught up with Berg to talk about everything from working with military vets to Taylor Kitsch’s soccer skills—and why contacting aliens might not be such a good idea after all.

Any snickering over Battleship‘s origins as a board game has likely been silenced by its $300 million-plus in ticket sales. Still, was there any initial skepticism about going ahead with the concept?
I knew Universal had made a deal with Hasbro, the toy company that makes Battleship, so there was definitely interest [on the studio side] in doing a film. And growing up as the son of a naval historian, I had been looking at doing some different Navy movies for a long time. I had a fun time making Hancock—going around the world with a big global film—so I wanted to try to do another one.

So, how does one turn a board game into a blockbuster?
Obviously, the game Battleship itself is pretty sparse in terms of film ideas. So everything had to be completely invented. We had no road map. There was no book, there was no comic—there was just an abstract game. It became a fun creative challenge for all of us to try to bring it to life.

And along the way, aliens got added to the mix. What was the thinking there? 
I was trying to make a summer film, something that felt fun and adventurous. The idea of making an intense drama, with realistic naval warfare, where thousands of people are killed, felt like a different movie than what we were trying to do. And right around the time that we were writing the script, Stephen Hawking had this really great documentary on aliens. He talked about what are called “Goldilocks planets” [meaning they're potentially habitable] and our attempts to communicate with them—and he came out and said that it’s a horrible idea! If these planets exist, we should leave them alone, he said, because if aliens do come we are not going to get along with them. That gave me the idea to bring aliens into the film.

You did some of your filming in Pearl Harbor. They don’t let just anyone in there, you know.
I have a really good working relationship with the Department of Defense. That probably began when I did The Kingdom and I needed access to some bases in the Middle East, but it really opened up when I started doing research to write Lone Survivor and spent a lot of time on training missions with Navy SEALs. I got to deploy with a platoon in Iraq for a month. And I think that they have an interest in presenting and preserving a certain image of our military, sure, but they’re not opposed to somebody who is going to be realistic and imply that maybe soldiers do make mistakes, or that wars sometimes are started for reasons that don’t turn out to be for the best. As long as the spirit of the filmmaker is respectful toward the men and women who are serving, I find them to be very cooperative. So things like Pearl Harbor open up.

Was there a moment when you knew you had sealed the deal?
I think it was when I landed at an airbase in Iraq and was picked up by a team of 15 SEALs. We were in a vehicle called an RG-33 and I was given a bulletproof vest and a burst kit that has glue, which you use to seal your wounds if you get shot. As we drove out of that base into deep western Iraq, right by the Syrian border, I realized I had been granted military access.

Battleship marks the acting debut of U.S. Army Col. Gregory Gadson, who lost both his legs to a roadside bomb in Iraq. How did you connect with him? We had a character that was described as somebody who had been injured on the battlefield. I saw an article on Greg Gadson in National Geographic right around the time I was casting the role, and he was just such an extraordinarily intense-looking man. There was so much courage and power and character in his face. We had a series of meetings, and he’s turned into a very dear friend. I’m really proud that he was in the film.

In fact, you used quite a few military veterans as extras. What was it like to work with them on set?
To oversimplify it: They work their butts off, and generally I find them to be possessing of a greater character than almost anyone else I’ve encountered. I try to hire as many veterans as I can.

And then you go and cast Rihanna and Brooklyn Decker. Was that some kind of elaborate USO stunt?
I’m a fan of putting characters that we haven’t seen into films, and having that moment where it’s like “Wow, who’s that?” And I thought that with Rihanna, with a short haircut, running around with a machine gun, I could definitely get that. And Brooklyn really is quite a young lady—she’s very smart and works very hard. I was happy to have her in the film. And, yes, they were both extremely popular when we did tours of the different bases all around the world. The soldiers liked them.

On the flip side, you cast Taylor Kitsch as your leading man, a Navy lieutenant who also happens to be a pretty mean soccer player. Any concerns there?
I knew Kitsch was a good football player from [the TV show] “Friday Night Lights.” I asked him if he could play soccer, he said yes, and I took him at his word.

It’s been almost 15 years since you first branched out of acting and into directing. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about filmmaking in that time?
Everyone has their own theories, but I always tell directors that they’d better feel it. It’s a tough process, making films. It takes a long time, there are a lot of battles, and in order to carry yourself through that and do good work, you’ve got to have a deep connection to the story you’re telling. I believe that.

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