Q&A: Peter Berg

'Hancock' helmer doesn't shy from political themes

There's arguably not a busier hyphenate than Peter Berg. In the past four years, he's directed three features, starred in three other films, continued to executive produce NBC's critical darling "Friday Night Lights" and is attached to exec produce Fox's buzzed-about pilot "Virtuality."

He's also found time to make sci-fi geeks -- and David Lynch skeptics -- happy by signing on to helm a "Dune" remake. Last weekend, his "Hancock" -- helped just a little by leading man Will Smith -- stormed the boxoffice by earning $141 million worldwide in its first week.

THR caught up with Berg about the dangers of political films, the business approach of Ben Silverman and what David Lynch overlooked.

The Hollywood Reporter: In less than a year, you went from Jamie Foxx tracking down terrorists in Saudi Arabia in "The Kingdom" to drunk antiheroes flying over Southern California freeways in "Hancock." Some would say it's quite the transition.

Peter Berg: After doing "Kingdom" and having to kick my young son out of the editing room every seven minutes, I decided I wanted to do something he could watch. So I came up with this.

THR: Well, it's still not exactly a family film.

Berg: (laughs) No, it's an alcoholic self-destructive lunatic who flies around saving people while drunk. But what I like is that although it's a superhero movie, at its core it's about a man seeking redemption, a man looking to tap into a higher version of himself disguised as a superhero movie.

I'm always looking for a slight gray area. I got to a certain point and I didn't want it to be what you expect from a movie like this. At the beginning, it's funny, and then it aspires to a kind of drama.

THR: "Kingdom" was a bit of a Trojan horse, too -- it was set in a geopolitically charged place, but when you track the story line, it's really more of a police procedural.

Berg: We're in a very confusing war, and it's a confusing time for our country. But it's dangerous when a movie offers a political point of view. It's fair and reasonable to present facts. It's another to get into a critique of a military. In "Lone Survivor" (another movie Berg is set to direct), the setting is Afghanistan. But I want to make a kick-butt movie in the vein of "Saving Private Ryan" and "Black Hawk Down."

THR: You had a small role in a movie that was more explicitly political, "Lions for Lambs."

Berg: You know, people think "Lions" was a political movie. It's a mistake. I know (writer Matthew Michael) Carnahan, and he's not some great liberal. It didn't have a liberal or conservative point of view. Its point was very simple -- just think. And the fact that audiences rejected it lines up perfectly with the message of the film.

THR: "Dune" is in some ways an ideological work, at least for the people who read the novel as a metaphor for relying too much on Middle Eastern oil. How much do you want your version to pick up on those themes?

Berg: There is a sense in the book that the commodity is driving the train. But I don't want to hang the story on that. I read the book and really liked it. What I never saw in Lynch's film was a really strong adventure story. There's a much more muscular time to be had there.

THR: If your movies look at some bigger themes, your television work has revealed some pretty intimate details of place and character, which is rare on broadcast television. Are you surprised, then, given the itchy trigger of networks execs, that "Friday Night Lights" is still on the air?

Berg: We've always felt there was an audience that was not reflected in the Nielsen numbers. You go to Vegas, and you look at these big buildings and the fact that they exist is proof that it's working. It's the same with "Friday Night Lights." Ben (Silverman) is my buddy. But he wouldn't keep it on the air if it wasn't working.

THR: Whether it's jock culture in Texas or terrorist acts in the Middle East, your work seems to look at some difficult issues and times. But there's always some hope and some savior underneath it all.

Berg: The truth is f***ing ugly. The housing market is collapsing. The environment is collapsing. I actually think we're running out of oil. But I don't think every movie has to dwell on that.
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