Interview: Peter Berg - ‘We Were Ripped Apart By Many People…’

The Battleship director on casting Rihanna and his love of the Navy.

We can’t tell you about Battleship until the release date of 11th April, but we can tell you director Peter Berg is easily one of our favourite interviews.

The actor went from roles in films such as the superb film noir The Last Seduction to writing and directing, making his film debut in 1998 with the dark comedy thriller Very Bad Things. After The Kingdom and Hancock, he adapted his 2004 baseball drama Friday Night Lights into the long-running critically acclaimed TV show, starring one Taylor Kitsch.

Kitsch, last seen in John Carter, now leads Battleship, Berg’s blockbuster adaptation of the Hasbro game, which sees the US Navy defend Earth from an alien invasion. Alexander Skarsgard and Liam Neeson co-star with Brooklyn Decker (read our interview with the model-turned-actress here) and Rihanna, with the popstar making her film debut as a tough weapons specialist.

We sat down for a small round table chat with the very frank and very funny Berg while he was in London last month, and learned he is every bit as fun as his admittedly ‘ridiculous’ movie is. A love letter to the Navy, he tells about getting to take the USS Missouri out to sea at Pearl Harbor, why Battleship isn’t 3D, and ‘making a movie about this ridiculous board game and you’ve got pop singers and models and what the fuck…’

The movie is reminiscent of films such as Transformers - are you a big fan of these sci-fi movies, and did you talk to Michael Bay?
I haven’t done a lot of science fiction; I’m a big fan of the Navy and I wanted to do a Navy film. I wanted to do a big movie, I wanted to do a film that had a big global reach. I didn’t want to make a film that felt really violent and brutal, so the idea of humans fighting humans felt too violent, and I had seen this Stephen Hawking documentary about Goldilocks planets and us reaching out and sending signals, and how Stephen Hawking thought this was a horrible idea, because we wouldn’t be able to all get along. I love Stephen Hawking, I think he’s a fascinating guy, and that’s where the idea for the alien came in. I thought that it would help take the violence out of it and make it a little bit more fantastic and help the audience suspend their belief. So, I wasn’t a huge sci-fi fan; I liked the first Transformers a lot… I talked to Michael Bay who’s a friend, a good acquaintance of mine, a bit. Filmmakers tend to be isolated - we don’t all share secrets and talk too much. We’re supportive but we kinda keep to ourselves. You don’t generally go out and see eight film directors on vacation together. I have one or two friends who are filmmakers: Michael Mann’s a good friend of mine and I’ve worked with him twice, and he’s someone that I talk to quite a bit, but generally I think it’s the job of a filmmaker to go out and find his own way, and you should hear the voice of the filmmaker in the movie. I don’t study other movies when I get ready to make a movie, I follow my own creative spirit, and inevitably someone says ‘this feels like this’, ‘this feels like that’. Obviously Hasbro’s been leading, and Universal, with their advertisements ‘From The Makers Of Transformers’. My feeling is, if you sit through 10 minutes of Transformers and 10 minutes of Battleship, they’re two very different experiences. Michael and I are two completely different filmmakers - I admire what he does, but I do my own thing.

You’ve always wanted to make a Navy movie, so how exciting was it to make one?
It’s a pain in the ass. I had always imagined making a film about the Sinking of the Bismarck, the really famous historical battle that cost thousands of men their lives on both sides, the English and the Germans. Just an incredible adventure story, very very violent. There was a book called The Cruel Sea that I read that I wanted to turn into a film that was about the German Wolfpack’s submarines attacking the British supply convoys and it was just so violent; you’d have ten ships cruising along and two of them would just blow up. The subs would get them and thousands of men would die these horrible deaths, and that was a great story. That and the Midway of World War Two, which is arguably the most important naval battle in the history of any war; if Japan had won that battle, which they almost did, we’d all be speaking Japanese and German right now. The war would have gone another way. There’s lots of stories like that that I’m always attracted to, real historical, factual kinds of great battles that were violent and depressing as all hell, and those are the movies I thought I’d make. But Battleship, I decided I wanted to make a fun movie, a summer popcorn movie - I wanna make a movie for the whole family, so I love Battleship. I look at it and go ‘well, it’s not the navy movie I always thought I’d make, but it’s the kind of big summer popcorn movie I always wanted to make’.

The film has a real sense of humour - was that a conscious decision from the start?
Yes, I think movies should be the reflection of the filmmaker, and I’ve tried to find humour, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so successfully. My first film was a black comedy called Very Bad Things where a group of bachelors killed a prostitute, then ended up killing each other, and that was a comedy. I grew up with a very sarcastic mother and father, there was a lot of humour in my family, my friends tend to be pretty brutal, we all tend to be pretty brutal with our humour. Taylor Kitsch is brutal with his humour, you might not know it until you get to know him a little better, but we went in to make Battleship and we were ripped apart by many people right from the get-go, being the most preposterous idea for a film ever. Making a movie about this ridiculous board game and you’ve got pop singers and models and what the fuck is going on over there? And I thought it important right away with the guy falling through the ceiling of a burrito restaurant, trying to get a food, and getting shot by a taser, to let the audience know that we don’t take ourselves that seriously. Not to say we’re not gonna aspire to have some good action moments and scary moments and emotion, but at the same time we want to give the audience permission to… we’re not The Artist, we’re not Harvey Weinstein aiming for an Academy Award nomination. We wanna provide a big, fun family experience, and the movie is, and that’s why we played it the way we did.

How was it taking the USS Missouri out on the sea?
Awesome. That was awesome. That was a really mind-blowing experience, and it was so wild how it happened. I was at Pearl Harbor taking a tour of some war ships, and the Missouri was in this big dry dock, having a face-lift. It was completely refurbished, and they gave me a tour of it. It was out of the water and you could see the whole thing, and it was an incredible sight. I was getting a tour by the funder of the Missouri foundation, and I’m like ‘so when are you done?’ ‘Oh we’ll be done in about three months.’ ‘Oh, then what happens?’ ‘Then we flood up the dock and we tow it back to its normal dock. We go out, and we turn right and we go into Pearl Harbor and we tie it to the dock.’ Well, I looked to the left and to the left is the open ocean. I said, ‘well, what if you just towed it out to the left?’. ‘Oh yeah Pete, sure, we’ll just tow it out to the left. We’ll just tow the Missouri out into the ocean so you can make you’re little Hollywood movie, that’s what we’ll do. We’ll just take the most famous ship in the world and tow it into the ocean!’ Four months later, me and that dude were on the Missouri, and we were towing it out into the ocean, and I’m like ‘Yeah!’, and he had tears coming out of his eyes. And he was like ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this.’ And we had all these veterans, these men in their nineties, who came out, put their uniforms on, and they were crying. The ship was out there and people were going crazy. It hadn’t been out in ages. Battleship is intended to be a fun movie, but I make no secret of the fact that I’m a huge supporter of soldiers and veterans, and we have real veterans who lost their limbs in our movie. Those guys, the old men that all come out in the end, are all real veterans, and I get emotional around that. It was a great experience for me.

How did you come to hook up with the screenwriters Erich and Jon Hoeber?
I didn’t know them, and I have someone who works at my company, an executive named Braden Aftergood. We were looking for writers that… I wanted fun, I didn’t want dark, and so many of the writers were like ‘I’m gonna make a brutal war film, America and China are gonna go to war, Hunt For Red October but more violent.’ And the Hoebers, they’re these goofy, funny, wildly imaginative guys who got it. We want it to be fun, and they went maybe a little too far on their first draft with the fun, but they helped set the tone right from the get-go. We wanna have fun, and they’re great guys.

Was there any pressure to make the film 3D?
Not really. The conversation came up, and I think I’m one of the 20% they say that get migraine headaches from 3D, I don’t like 3D. I go to watch films in 3D, and occasionally I appreciate really wild moments where something’s coming at me, but I enjoyed Avatar as much in 2D as I did in 3D, and I really get headaches. I end up taking the glasses off half the time and rubbing my head, kind of half-way through the movie, wishing it wasn’t 3D. That’s just my personal taste and experience, so I never asked, and it cost so much money that they’re not dying for you to do it. If ever there was a movie that would ask to be fucking badass in 3D it would be Battleship, those shredders coming at you, and those 16’ guns on the Missouri, that’d be pretty cool in 3D. So, maybe the next one.

How was casting Rihanna and working with her on set?
The thing about Rihanna… For me I love movies where you have some surprise casting, where you see someone you don’t know, you’ve never seen them, or that you knew them in one way, like a comedy actor doing something very dramatic. Albert Brooks in Drive - Albert Brooks is a comedic actor, great in Drive. Or Don Rickles, he’s played some great bad-asses. I like mixing it up, and I did a film called Friday Night Lights, and I used very famous American singer named Tim McGraw, who’s a country singer, very famous in America. He’d never acted before, and he was just a very charismatic guy, he did a great job in a limited role - he wasn’t carrying the movie, just like Rihanna’s not carrying Battleship. He was just a real interesting casting choice and if you look back in history, there’s a long history of musicians acting. Frank Sinatra, who you’re too young to really appreciate, won an Oscar for a movie called From Here To Eternity, and after that he did a film called The Manchurian Candidate. That’s Frank Sinatra. Mick Jagger did a film called Performance, David Bowie did a couple of movies - The Man Who Fell To Earth. Roger Daltry and The Who in Quadrophenia [think Berg means Tommy, as The Who never appeared in the film of Quadrophenia], Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard, Mariah Carey in Precious, Lenny Kravitz in Precious and The Hunger Games. Justin Timberlake’s done a few decent things, he was pretty good in The Social Network.

So the idea of a singer being an actor is certainly nothing I invented, and Rihanna is an extraordinarily charismatic young lady, who, I’d seen her videos and thought this girl is really hot and really charismatic and wild and playful, and that’s not easy to do. If it was that easy to do it, there’d be a lot of Rihannas. So I thought this could be, and frankly I was surprised to find that she’d never acted in a movie, and that I could be Rihanna’s first. I was excited about that. So I had a great meeting with her, she was everything I thought she’d be, really adventurous, and wanted to be good, and wanted to be directed and wanted to be pushed, and I said ‘I want you to do the part’ and she said ‘great, just don’t treat me special, treat me like you would any other actor and don’t kiss my ass, don’t go easy on me, be real’. She was great, people ask me if it was hard to direct her, and I always say ‘every actor is hard to direct’. I have a kid, a 12-year-old son, and actors are like kids; I coach my son’s American Football team and you have twenty 12-year-old boys and they’re all different and they’re all great and beautiful and magical, and they’re all big pains in the ass and you have to figure out a way with dealing with each one. And every actor I’ve worked with, if it’s Charlize Theron, Will Smith or Jamie Foxx, they all have their own unique challenges, and Rihanna had challenges just like Taylor has them, just like Liam Neeson has them, and she was certainly no tougher than anyone else. I guess Rihanna’s fame is, I don’t think, any bigger than Mick Jagger’s fame was certainly, but there’s a long history of musicians acting, and I certainly don’t think she stands out as being… people at first were like ‘Oh my god, is she gonna be naked in a bikini and a machine gun’.

How did you find working with veterans such as Gregory Gadson?
Greg I found in an article on modern prosthetics in National Geographic, and I was flipping through it. I knew I had this character of a wounded soldier, I turn open a page, and there was Greg Gadson in his uniform, all muscle. Like The Rock from here [torso] up, and this intense look, and these two wild-looking robot legs, I’m like ‘holy shit, I want that guy’. Greg Gadson was an injured colonel in the army, and I had to go through a long process of trying to make him agree to do the film, and then get him out to Hawaii and learn how to act, and getting comfortable on film sets, and that was challenging. The veterans, we used veterans’ administrations to find living - because a lot of these guys are in their late 90s, one of these guys was 102 - guys who served in World War Two and could still get around, move around. And these guys, there were about forty of them, and they just had the time of their life. They were hitting on the girls, and flirting and drinking beer and telling stories, and they had more energy than anyone.

What’s next for you?
Lone Survivor is my next movie [with Kitsch again]. That’s a book, a very popular book in America, a true story about a Navy SEAL mission in Afghanistan in 2006, a true story where all kinds of things went wrong. Very complicated, intense Navy SEAL mission. Nineteen Navy SEALs died, one survived, and the one that survived wrote this book called Lone Survivor, and it’s just, it’s kind of like Touching The Void, a mission where guys make a few wrong decisions, no big decisions, but they set off on a course of absolute hell, and have to fight their way out of it.