The Battleship director talks creativity, making super movies and resurrecting Dune.
Peter Berg is an American actor and director who has gone on to become one of the major players in the world of the Hollywood effects behemoth. He rose to prominence as director of spiky thriller Very Bad Things and sports melodrama,Friday Night Lights, which span-off in to a successful TV series.
Following the success of his Will Smith-starring meta superhero movie, Hancock, in 2008, Berg returns to the helm with what he describes as his first "super movie", Battleship. Berg gave a presentation to journalists and cinema exhibitors about his prospects for the film, and when LWLies sat down with him recently we returned to some of the issues he brought up about the production process and vital importance of the Hollywood blockbuster.
LWLies: What's your relationship with journalists like? Does it differ from your relationship with film exhibitors?
Berg: I mean, it all depends. Exhibitors are about one thing, and that's making money. If you make a movie like Battleship, there's a responsibility as a filmmaker to understand the business expectations of the film. It doesn't mean I'm walking around in fear and anxiety thinking, 'Oh jeez, I've got to make so much money...'. I don't make creative decisions on what I think is going to make money, but I do know that we're going to be coming out around the time of Avenger's Assemble and Men in Black III, so there's only going to be so many screens and it's important for the studios that those exhibitors are going to be pumped up and feel like they're going to be able to sell this film. When I meet with exhibitors, I'm generally aware of what they want and need. They don't care about the creative process or what it was like making the movie. They care about how many fuckin' tickets they're going to sell, how much popcorn they're going to sell, how much candy they're going to sell. The cinema we were in this morning (Vue Westfield) charges £20 per seat, and the exhibitors want to know how we're going to get that money. If there's a difference, it's that I'm very vigilant that I'm talking to people who only care about one thing.
You used the term 'super movie' in your presentation this morning to describe a new era of blockbuster…
How do you feel about that term?
We like it. It's honest. Is there an onus on you to create an experience that justifies that ticket price?
Yes, for sure. You want to make a super movie, there's got to be an imperative to come and watch it. There are plenty of ways of achieving that. Generally there's got to be a visual effects component. You've got to show an audience something that doesn't exist or that they wouldn't be able to see in their everyday lives. You've got to give them a perspective they've never had.
Would you see the cinema as the optimal way to view Battleship?
Yes. Look, there are some cinemas I've seen in LA that are shit. The bulbs are being turned down to save money, the sound is godawful, the seats are uncomfortable, there's blood and god knows what else on the floor… It's not a pleasurable experience and it creates an argument for watching a movie on, say, an iPhone. Certainly, watching in your high-def, 80-inch flat screen with a great sound system isn't going to be bad. It's the exhibitors who need to up their game if they want people to keep coming and seeing movies. It's not just the experience of the movie, it's the entire experience of going to the cinema.
Do you now see yourself as a 'super movie' director?
Ask me that question when the film comes out. Right now I have a series coming out on HBO called The On Series, it's a very low budget documentary series where we do cinema verité profiling of sports-related people. It couldn't be smaller, more human and low-key. I love it. I feel very comfortable making it, just operating one camera and just making it real. I also feel very comfortable and secure with myself in making a film like Battleship. I'm not scared of it. I love the bigness of it. I love the global reach of it. I love the challenge of it. I love the risk of it. If that makes me a director of 'super movies', then sure. I'm not afraid to do it. I think that in order to do it reasonably well and more than once, there has to be a legitimate level of confidence that comes from experience. Jim Cameron aside, you can't go around and tell people 'It's my way or the fuckin' highway. Fuck everybody.'
Due to the size and scope of production, do you feel it's tough for a 'super movie' to transmit the artistic vision of a single person?
No, one person has to direct it, but there's got to be a certain amount of delegation. You've got to have the confidence to say to someone, 'Right, here's what I want. Can you go out and get this done?' You can't sit there and freak out over every single moment. That said, you've got to know how to watch everything, keep your eye on everything. You can't delegate to the point of neglect. You've got to be vigilant about things but you just can't do everything. If you allow someone's failure to do something to drive you insane, you're going to short circuit. If someone fails, you've got to get them back on track. If they fail again, you've got find someone else. You can't just sit there with your eyes closed and expect things to happen. But you can't be so controlling that you don't let other people get involved.
Is there a set of working methods already in place for these movies?
Look, I could take you tomorrow and put you on set and say you're the director. You'd sit there, and if you had the right crew, the movie would in many ways just run itself as everyone kinda knows what they're doing. It would run itself until for a bit and then it would just stop. Everybody would look at you and there' would be some problem or issue of disagreement and you would have to make a snap decision. You would have to officiate, referee, break something up. Until you make that major decision, everything will just stop. If you didn't make that decision, a bunch of other people would come in and a committee decision would be made.
That scenario relies on a director that has a real vision. Yes, there's a system in place, but it will short circuit. You do need to be able to make the decisions that need to be made. Especially with these visual effects films, if you aspire to create real emotion – fear, love, terror, rage – and it's tough. If you've got Michael Fassbender and Ryan Gosling and they're really going at it in a jealous rage over Scarlett Johansson, you've got that emotion right there. Well guess what, if you've got a bunch of fuckin' CG aliens and spaceships, that emotion is going to take months to get. You've got to hold on to that emotion and remember it while you're looking at these guys in pyjamas jumping about in front of a green screen. What Michael Bay has been able to do is very difficult. Sometimes I think it works and sometimes it doesn't, but it's overall a very tricky accomplishment.
Considering his experience on the Transformers films, is Michael Bay someone you're close with?
Yeah, close enough so I'll call him and ask him questions if I don't know how to handle something. He's rooting for me. Directors tend to be somewhat isolated. We don't have a secret club. It's hard and I've gotten to a place now where it's hard to root for your fellow directors. There's a sense of honour amongst thieves, but we're all very competitive. Yes, Michael Bay and I are friends and I will respect him and speak well of him, because I do. But we're not buds. He doesn't spend hours in the edit room helping me.
Do you see Battleship as a piece of art?
Look, if Avatar had tanked that would've been bad for a lot of people in my business. For Battleship, my success is good for everybody in Hollywood. The next Coen brothers who're out there that want eight million dollars to make their quirky indie film, want Battleship to work. They want Transformers to work. That the fuel that drives these studios today.
Lastly, for a long time you've been connected to a new adaptation of 'Dune'. Is that now a goner?
I don't know. We had a brilliant 180-page script. It was intelligible. I think that 'Dune' has proven to be a very illusive book to adapt for a variety of reasons. The temptation is strong to want to get it right. My experience with the book was that it was a rough, tough, badass adventure tale that had all kinds of interesting sci-fi elements and some really potentially cheesy elements. Weird in a bad way elements. At the core, the story of this young prince battling his enemies and becoming a leader and a king and these giant worms and the Shakespearean betrayals and the training. There's something fantastic in there, but it's really dense and I just don't know.
What's your view on the Lynch version?
I think the Lynch version was clearly… let's just say he was smoking something when he made that film. He's a genius, but look: There's a more commercial, more muscular, big, successful, epic movie in those pages. Whether it's James Cameron of Michael Bay or JJ Abrams or Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson... there's a movie in there. It just hasn't been found yet.