Inside 'Battleship' with Director Peter Berg
The director shows us a glimpse of his 2012 sci-fi battle could-be epic ... game on.
Pacing between an editing suite and a cream-carpeted presentation area snacking and talking every step of the way, director Peter Berg has the energy -- and the appetite -- of an athlete in training. Berg's tackled big films before -- like "The Kindgom," a political-action film, or even the B-movie action-heroics of "The Rundown." But at his Santa Monica production offices in early summer, Berg's sense of excitement was as real as the nervy -- not nervous -- energy sparking off every gesture of his broad hands.
Based on the boardgame Battleship -- yes, yes, "E ... 5!" and all of that -- Berg's film is slated to blast its way into theaters May 18th. It's a long time away, but, listening to Berg, it doesn't feel like that much of a stretch of time. "Making a film like 'Battleship' is by far the most creatively challenging thing that I've ever done as a filmmaker, as an actor, as a writer, as anything." Berg's glowing with exhaustion and anticipation. "This world that we're living in now from a filmmaking standpoint, it really is the era of these megamovies. Now, obviously what's happening are these superfilms. The high end of studio films is now at a certain (budget) number that was unimaginable 15 years ago. The low end is probably lower, so you're seeing studios willing to take these giant gambles and make these big, epic, 5-quadrant films and cameras showing everyone how far these films can go in success. We're seeing the appetite for the studios to make these big spectacle films and to give filmmakers like myself this incredible freedom to take something like a board game of Battleship, which is really an essence of a film about naval warfare, and say, 'Okay, go. What can you do with that? Can you do something with that?' As a filmmaker, it's the most creatively freeing and challenging and liberating experience that I've ever had."
So how do you turn pegs and turns into plot and twists? it's a question Berg may still be trying to figure out; he sounded like he still was back in June ..."Nobody's really beat me into any corner creatively and said, 'You must do this, you must do that.' The mandate was always, 'Can you make something that is wildly entertaining and unique and state-of-the-art in terms of effects?' As any hungry, confident filmmaker would say, 'Yeah, I can' -- probably before I knew exactly how I was going to do it. For anyone that's had a chance, there's maybe 10 or 12 filmmakers who've gotten to experience this. Nothing's been done yet -- there's so much CG work. You sit there, and you're trying to figure out what's going to work and what's not going to work and what's going to be compelling, what's going to be original and how it's going to be original and how you can take the audience on an experience that they haven't been on before. You realize, 'Jesus, I don't have anything. I've got a big, empty plate of an ocean. We've got to put all these assets -- we've got to put CG alien ships engaging with CG human ships and people on those ships that aren't really on those ships,' and it becomes this giant exercise of 'How are we going to do it?' You feel like you're out there finding your way in a forest that doesn't have clear paths. It's very exciting."
By coincidence, there had been a piece by David Denby in the most recent "New Yorker" on the discontents of digital cinema -- living in an age when anything can be imagined, but where not everything looks good. I asked Berg if he was watching that slender line between a big effect and a bad one. "We do live in an age where in theory anything you think of can be done. That doesn't mean it can be done well, and that doesn't mean you can afford to do it."
"I would argue that movies have always survived on the assumption of 'Whatever you dream of, we can do.' If David Lean wanted to build a giant bridge over the river Kwai, okay, he's going to build it -- someone's going to build that bridge. We're going to build a bridge, and they, by god, built the damn bridge; they really built it. It was a great bridge that worked. Then they're going to blow the bridge up with a train on it, and they figured out how to do it. That was a wild leap of imagination. You can do more than you could ever do before -- it doesn't mean you can do it well. Execution is still really hard. It's really hard to say, 'I'm going to pick you up and shake you and put you back down, and you're going to be this giant monster. You're going to grow through this building and take Los Angeles.' We could probably do that. Doesn't mean we can do it well. That being said, if it's to work, there has to be an emotional core to the film; there has to be a human being that we fundamentally believe about, care about, root for, are emotionally invested in, and can experience. Without that, it's not going to work -- not on a big level. As big as all the effects get, as true as it is that now we can pretty much do anything, I would argue that. I'll give you that for now, but it won't work if there's not a fundamental attachment to the character, to human beings ... I don't see it working."
Berg's also in a interesting place between art, entertainment and the realities of the marketplace -- "Battleship" is going to have plenty of action, but also a fairly family-friendly rating. I noted to Berg that we're told how "war is hell," but hell is not PG-13. Does being able to do the science-fiction-y high-tech aspect mean that you can transition from out-and-out war violence to a more adventure-driven sense of peril? "The next film I'm doing is called 'Lone Survivor,' which is a great story about a group of Navy SEALs who were killed in Afghanistan. It's a very violent story. It's brutal. That's a film that intends to be a completely different experience than a movie like 'Battleship.' 'Battleship' is intended to be a piece of big, fun escapism. It's not to say we don't take ourselves seriously; we do aspire for a certain level of emotion and reality, but this is not a film that's meant to traumatize. This is a film that I'm trying to make for the inner 12-year-old boy that lives in everyone, man and woman, that wants to be entertained, wants to be scared, but doesn't necessarily want to be terrified, doesn't want to go home and have nightmares, that wants to be transported for 2 hours to another place. For me film works best when it does give you that transport, that sense of good, fun escapism. I'm not looking to disturb or to thoroughly traumatize people, so if you want to see my version of 'war is hell,' you'll probably watch 'The Kingdom,' or you can wait and see 'Lone Survivor.' That's not the intended experience of 'Battleship.'"
The point is made that 'Battleship' represents a bit of a shift in genre for the normally feet-on-the-ground Berg; at the same time, it's an itch in the cultural collective consciousness he wants to scratch. "I've been (researching) invasion genres; it's certainly been around for quite a while. It's not a new genre. Maybe because the facts are getting so advanced right now, there's been a surge. I don't think it's been an overwhelming surge. Hopefully next summer, as far as I know, we'll be the only alien film out, just another couple. Genres are genres. On television, there's cop shows and there's actor shows and there's other shows. Films that have an alien component or an alien invasion, it's a genre that, if done well, works. That's why you (see), and you will continue to see, alien films. To oversimplify it, people are fascinated by the idea that there's something out there, something that we all get around to thinking about from time to time. When we do, it's a thrilling, compelling conversation ... or it makes for an entertaining film."
Berg drops a few tantalizing hints about his big bad guys, a nomadic group of resource-stealers whose technology is only slightly more advanced than ours -- no lasers or force-fields but, rather, armor and bullets and missiles. A maquette statue of a hulking, half-formed brute -- short on fingers and long on technology half-implanted in its bulking, looming form. It may be one of Berg's bad guys. He's not saying much, but he does refer to "the Regents" as the alien force attacking. "I don't view 'Battleship' as a political film. The idea that the earth as a resource that may be of interest to another species, the way the earth is a resource to our separate species on this planet, is something a theme of the film. One of the conceits of our film that our aliens are not all-powerful; they don't come in large enough numbers to demolish. They're sophisticated, they're technologically a bit more advanced, they're able to travel faster and longer. They come almost as a recon group, not as an invading army. The potential for invading army's very clear, if they like what they see -- which they do -- they're going to ask for more. They're going to come and they're going to colonize us. That, to me, is interesting. "
We see footage of Berg's cast of fictional Navy men and women and their loved ones --Liam Neeson dresses down Taylor Kitsch's uniformed sailor, who happens to be dating his daughter; Rihanna pilots a dinghy and makes a "Godspell" reference as Taylor Kitsch walks across an alien deck submerged just a few inches under the water. It looks like an agreeable mix of space opera, soap opera and classic WWII naval warfare filmmaking. In some of the battle footage, I see an incandescent bubble of energy -- and I ask the follow-up: Is that some kind of electromagnetic pulse which knocks out enough of the Navy's electronics to reduce them to the level of WWII-era warfare as replicated in the game, with its calls of "G ...8!"? Berg laughed: "I hope we're a little more sophisticated and subtle than 'G ... 8!' One of the great challenges of making 'Battleship' was what can you take from the game that's actually interesting and apply it to a film? The board game Battleship is actually a very interesting ; if you and I are playing Battleship against each other, we're calling out shots at random, and eventually something happens. What that phenomenon is is you go from being an unknown enemy to a known enemy. There's a point of discovery in 'Battleship' which is a hook, and it's why the game's been around for so long. If you and I are playing, I have absolutely no idea who you are, and suddenly I start to realize who you are. It's very satisfying. 'Oh, that's where he is. That was his strategy.' What do I try to do as soon as I figure out where you are? I try to destroy you, as quickly and violently as I can before you kill me. There's something very inherently dramatic about that. We tried to figure out ways to take that on. 'I don't know where my enemy is; I've got to find out where my enemy is and kill my enemy as quickly and brutally as I can, because I know he's going to kill me.' What you saw is not so much the first thing that makes them hard to see, but it's what isolates them and keeps the battle on a contained environment which prevents other people from getting in and helping." Berg is, logically, asked about his own strategy when he plays Battleship; he laughed: "Destroy ... all ... enemies."
The great irony is that while 'Battleship' isn't even finished, let alone in theaters, Berg's so psyched -- so completely nerding out over all of the universe-building and 'what if?' he got to play making this film -- that he's ready for another go-around in an instant. "I loved the idea of the 'Goldilocks' planets ('just right' to support Earth-like life) and the fact that if there is credible life out there, it's probably going to be from a planet that shares a similar relationship to its sun that we do to ours, and it's very possible that that form of life is relatable to us -- that it has a neurological system, that it has a respiratory system, that it has emotion, that it has thoughts, that it has reasoning capabilities. That's the tenor of the thread of 'Battleship.' I'm certainly hoping that it's something that we can explore for a long time ... I never go 'Done in one.' I'm always thinking, 'Let's keep going. I love these characters; I love the world they come from.'"
("Battleship" docks at theaters May 18, 2012.)