Emmys 2012: Peter Berg: Rahm Emanuel Shook Me Down for Money in College (Q&A)

7:00 AM PST 06/06/2012 by Marisa Guthrie
Fabrizio Maltese

The "On Freddie Roach" EP tells THR about working outside of blockbusters, how the Chicago mayor was endlessly raising money for Democrats even in college (and the project he's floating about the "warrior in chief.")

A version of this story originally appears in the June 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

Peter Berg -- actor-director-producer and boxing gym proprietor -- is no stranger to documentary. He directed the 30 for 30 ESPN film King’s Ransom about Wayne Gretzky’s 1988 defection to the Los Angeles Kings. But last year he helmed his first longform documentary series, HBO’s On Freddie Roach, about Manny Pacquiao’s trainer. The six-episode program is a hopeful Emmy contender in the nonfiction series category. And while, Berg, 50, still enjoys steering big-budget movies, he says documentary filmmaking gives him “creative balance.”

“It’s a very real passion for me,” he says.

The Hollywood Reporter: What drew you to documentary?

Peter Berg: To be able to go from a big Hollywood popcorn spectacle like Battleship or Hancock to something very simple like Freddie Roach, like the Gretzky story -- it’s just a great combination. It definitely satisfies me creatively in a very thorough way. I’m a huge sports fan. I love the psychology of athletes and the culture of athletics. I’m constantly drawn to those kinds of stories.

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THR: What were the first documentary films to make an impression on you?

Berg: Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies was the first documentary I saw that really floored me. And the other one was Gimme Shelter, [Albert and David Maysles’] Rolling Stones documentary about the stabbing at Altamont. I was very impressed with Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth. He’s inspired me as one of the newer, cutting-edge documentary filmmakers. I see those films and I’m just instinctively drawn to them.

THR: Guggenheim’s work -- including Waiting for Superman -- is less vérité and more advocacy journalism. Are you interested in exploring that kind of filmmaking?

Berg: Right now, I’m talking to the Obama campaign. I have a lot of friends who are in the military, particularly who are in the Navy SEAL community, who are generally Republicans. And I’ve had many conversations where a lot of my Republican friends admit reluctantly that the military has given them freedoms that they’ve never experienced before. And Obama really is a warrior in chief. He’s not afraid to get the job done. And I think that’s an important story. I believe in that.

THR: What kind of person makes a good documentary subject?

Berg: I like people who are on the cusp of celebrity or who are behind the scenes in an environment where there are lots of famous people. That’s what was so appealing about Freddie. I think we are probably looking to open up [the next documentary series for HBO] to someone who is a bit more visible. But the challenge then becomes access. It’s a Catch-22. Say you wanted to do a vérité series on Obama; it would obviously be controlled. And the key to doing it is to minimize the amount of control that your subject puts on you. I think that’s what we’re all struggling with -- finding the guy who is accessible, interesting and compelling and will give us the unique access. That’s what separates us from other shows. It’s a very raw, unfiltered look into someone’s life. I don’t know that I would let people have that kind of access [to my life].

THR: Who are some other people you’re looking at?

Berg: We’re looking at Tim Tebow; we’re looking at Rahm Emanuel.

THR: Emanuel has a reputation for being hostile toward the media. Have you approached him yet?

Berg: I’ve known Rahm since I was a freshman in college. Ari [Emanuel, Rahm’s brother] and I went to college together [at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.] and Rahm used to host these coffees. My recollection of those coffees is that everyone would come, get a cup of coffee, Rahm would physically take your wallet out of your pocket, take all the cash you had, which was maybe $18, and say, “Thank you, you just made a donation to the Democratic Party.” He still basically does that, just on a much larger level now. I feel like if anyone has a shot of cracking Rahm, it’s me. That being said, I don’t know that I’ll succeed. But guys like that are of interest to us: people who are polarizing characters, talented yet flawed and undeniably successful. Rahm is a fascinating guy. He’s not afraid to speak his mind. He’s very candid and very polarizing. And that’s the kind of guy that is appealing to me.

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THR: If On Freddie Roach gets nominated, it will be competing in a very strong category: 30 for 30 was nominated last year; American Masters won.

Berg: I didn’t even know there were category options. I’ve never been an award hunter. I’ve been nominated for awards in the past, and it’s a nice experience. Once I know I’m nominated for something, OK, I want to win. But I never knew there was a strategy. I don’t think about awards when I set out to do something. If that happens, it’s great. If not, I loved the Freddie Roach series. And that’s the reward for me.

THR: But is it intimidating being up against a program like American Masters?

Berg: [Pause] I guess I could say it is. I don’t walk around thinking, "oh my God, I’m intimidated." I was just in Colombia for 10 days. [Laughs] When you’re walking by a pack of 15 male Colombians at three in the morning, trying to get back to your hotel, that’s intimidating.

THR: Why were you walking around Colombia at 3 a.m.?

Berg: We were doing press for Battleship. And we did a Latin American tour. And by the way, the Colombians could not have been nicer.  But I’m just saying. I don’t think of our business as particularly intimidating.

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