Anti-Film School Director Peter Berg Wanted Authenticity From His ‘Battleship’

By  · Published on May 18th, 2012

When a “loose” adaptation of Hasbro’s iconic board game Battleship was announced, it didn’t take a genius to figure out what type of film was in the making: big, loud, manic summer fun. The man to deliver on that promise was none other than Peter Berg, a director whose filmography ranges from Friday Night Lights to Hancock. After over three years of working on the film, Berg didn’t make a film that passes itself off as anything it’s not; he’s made Battleship.

Battleship features the expected markings of all commercial tentpole films, something Berg did not want to shy away from. As the anti-film school director put it, he wanted to make a global event film, one that doesn’t take itself too seriously. When your film’s based on a popular board game, how could you? Berg, along with his potential blockbuster, could not be more self-aware.

Here is what Battleship director Peter Berg had to say about letting life inform storytelling, his organic and actor-friendly approach to filmmaking, and how to keep your sanity while crafting a $200m event film:

Are you a film school reject?

I was a definite film school reject. I am anti-film school.

Why’s that?

You know, I just don’t think it really provides you with the skill set you need to be a storyteller. I think most people would be better served going out, traveling the world for those four years, getting a job, and just having some adventures. I mean, I feel like a lot of film school graduates come and intern at our company and when I meet with them and they ask me for advice, I say, “Look, you’re 22 years old and you’ve been at film school for four years, so there’s probably nothing you have to say that I’m interested in.” They get mad at me, but I say it with compassion. There’s just nothing they have done. Maybe they have, but the chances are nothing they have to say is going to be of any interest to me or anyone else.

They should go out, live a life, fall in love, get your heart broken, get arrested, save somebody, be a coward, be a hero, and do all the things you need to do to really be a qualified storyteller, and then comeback and start making movies. The actual technical aspects of making films is pretty irrelevant for filmmakers. It’s different if you want to be a cameraman or on the technical side, which film school might make more sense for. For me, it doesn’t make sense for filmmakers.

You mentioned going out there and living life before making a movie. How would you say that applies to making a movie like Battleship?

Well, for me, research is the heart of everything that I do, so it’s not a big departure from what I just said. I like to immerse myself into cultures, whether it’s high school football in Texas or…I went to live in Austin and followed the team around for an entire season. For The Kingdom, I went to Saudi Arabia, and lived there for three weeks with FBI agents. My next film is Lone Survivor, which is about a Navy Seal gunfight in Afghanistan. For that, I got to embed with a Seal team for a month, which was a pretty amazing experience. For Battleship, I went and lived on destroyers, and spent as much time on those ships with these very intelligent men and women who operate these ships. I got as much authenticity and truth out of that as I could, and I tried to put that into the film.

What about for Very Bad Things and The Rundown?

For Very Bad Things, I went and killed three people in a hotel room in Vegas. I lived Very Bad Things. See, when I was in my twenties, I was going to Vegas and having wild adventures with my buddies, but never quite as wild [as the film]. The idea for that came from being in Vegas and seeing these packs of suburban, middle-class men roaming around in khakis and alligator shirts, looking like they were hunting from trouble, and I started to imagine what might happen if they found it. The Rundown, you know, I spent a week in Brazil until I got kidnapped. I came back after I got out of that and decided not to do as much research.

Look, I’m also very quick to say every filmmaker has their own style, and this is my style, my opinion, and there’s many ways to do it. For some people, film school works quite well. For me, it’s just my personal view.

Your style is usually associated with having this very organic feel, with handheld camerawork. What made you change that up for Battleship?

A part of it is the intense amount of visual effects. You have to be a bit more precise. I come from a looser style of filmmaker, and I got a big start when I did a TV show, Chicago Hope. I felt frustrated from the amount of restrictions placed on the actors and the ratio of time the crew got to light and set up versus what the actors actually got to perform. It was, like, the crew would have two hours and the actors would have two minutes, so I wanted to change that and make a slightly looser, more organic environment, and handheld cameras generally lends itself more to that. With Battleship, there was so much visual effects in it, so I had to be a bit more precise. I was also interested in making something that felt more staged and planned out, in many ways, as a creative exercise.

Even though Hancock has that organic approach, wouldn’t you say that required a lot of precise planning as well?

Yeah, Hancock was less handheld than, say, The Kingdom and Friday Night Lights. Battleship was a much more complicated film than Hancock.

For Hancock, you took an anti-blockbuster approach: an unlikable lead and going handheld, which a lot of superhero movies don’t do. For Battleship, it’s very much what you expect from a blockbuster. From the start, did you just want to make a plain, big blockbuster without any pretension?

I tried to. Yes, my goal was to explore that genre: I wanted to make a big, global, fun summer popcorn film. I wanted to make a fun, happy movie, a movie that never takes itself too seriously, but is still able to hold its own, in terms of emotion. There were some things in the movie that are very important to me, like the respect for veterans. I believe strongly in that, and that’s something I wanted to put out there. At the end, I wanted to make it my version of a conventional summer popcorn film.

You’ve collaborated with someone who makes very accessible, but also sophisticated commercial films: Michael Mann. What would you say you’ve taken away from working with him?

Michael and I are good friends, and we couldn’t have more different approaches to filmmaking [Laughs]; it’s interesting. I’ve learned discipline from Michael, focus, and to pay attention to composition. There are very few filmmakers who bring so much attention to detail, while I tend to shoot from the hip and be a bit more wild. Maybe we both learned a little bit from each other, but probably me more from him. I was very fortunate enough to get to know him and for him to take an interest in me. You know, he’s pushed me to be a bit more discipline. We still remain very different filmmakers and very good friends.

He’s definitely known for being very precise, especially with actors. What type of environment do you try to create?

Very loose. I like to improvise a lot. I like to find actors who can take the script and run with it. I like to change things. I like to walk on set with a vague idea of what I want to do, and then see what happens, which sometimes works well and, at other times, is a complete disaster. When Michael walks on that set, he knows exactly what you’re going to do, where you’re going to be, etc.

Do you see those disasters as important learning curves?

I do. I think there’s been moments in my movies or television shows that have been beautiful accidents. It’s my style, and there’s so many different styles of filmmaking. I prefer to go for those discoveries, rather than to come on a film set with an unrelenting sense of what’s going to happen.

Can you still find those type of discoveries on a movie like Battleship?

You can, especially with the acting scenes. That’s why I like actors like Taylor Kitsch and Jesse Plemons, actors I know very well. Jason Bateman, Jeremy Piven, and Will Smith, for sure, are actors that love to improvise. We have to be precise and commit to certain big effects shots, but within there there’s room.

This is definitely your biggest film yet, and one you’ve been working on for a while. During the three or so year process, how do you maintain that enthusiasm and energy?

For me, it was doing other things during the process. The effects are a huge time drain. In the case of Battleship, rather than sitting around and going crazy waiting for every progression of an effects shot, I did a documentary series for HBO, which was called On Freddie Roach. It was a great stress release, and it was the antithesis of the summer blockbuster: very low-budget, gritty, cinéma vérité style on this boxing trainer, Freddie Roach, a remarkable man. Being able to get away from the movie for a bit helped keep me fresh.

Was it a drastically different process working on Friday Night Lights?

Yeah, it was so much different and faster. The thing about making a movie like Battleship is: you spend four and a half months filming your movie, and when you come back from filming, you don’t have anything. There’s big empty shots of the ocean, an actor fighting against a man in pajamas, and you just got nothing. For something like Friday Night Lights, you got an edit of your film a day after you finish shooting, and you can dig in. It’s a different form of art entirely.

And, for a movie like Friday Night Lights, you would know pretty soon what works or what doesn’t. For Battleship, I’m sure you won’t find out until far later on.

That’s one of the challenges of these effects films. Sometimes by the time you realize you have a real problem ‐ an effects sequence you thought was going to be terrifying that isn’t or an effects sequence you thought was going to be emotional isn’t ‐ it’s too late. Your effects are done, your release date is imminent, and you’re kind of screwed. There’s times where the only way out of it is to hurl large amounts of money at it and redo things, but oftentimes it’s too late for that. You really got to stay close to your effects teams and stay very vigilant, in terms of making sure you’re getting the emotion you want out of those effects sequences. If you wait too long, you’re going to be stuck with what you got.

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Battleship is now in theaters.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.