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During WonderCon’s Saturday onslaught of cinematic spectacle – from prequels (Prometheus) to sequels (Resident Evil: Retribution) to scifi originals (Looper) – director Peter Berg and actress Brooklyn Decker appeared in front a capacity crowd to premiere footage from Universal’s upcoming alien-invasion opus Battleship. Based loosely on the childhood board game of the same name, the film follows a young Naval officer (played by Taylor Kitsch) who finds himself on the front lines of an all-out war against an extraterrestrial race that seems bent on domination of Earth.
Following a presentation in which the duo screened clips showcasing both the film’s mix of fun and intensity, Berg spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about his participation in the film. In addition to talking about the tenuous connections between its source material and the epic story audiences will see on screen, Berg talked about working with first-time actors and actresses, reuniting with established stars for sequels like Hancock 2, and mapping out a career that has gone from bleak independent fare to blockbusters.
The Hollywood Reporter: How much is Battleship a balance of escapism or spectacle and cultural commentary?
Peter Berg: 90 percent escapism and 10 percent cultural commentary. I’m making a film after this called Lone Survivor that will have plenty of cultural commentary that’s a brutal, very violent, rough, tough movie. Battleship was intended to be a film that is truly a fun experience in the movie theater. It doesn’t mean it’s not scary, it doesn’t mean it’s not intense, it doesn’t mean you don’t get sad. I wanted to make a fun film, so shoot me if that’s a crime. I actually wanted to make a film that a 40-year-old lieutenant from the Marines, back from three tours in Iraq can come home and take his wife and kids to and for two hours just have a really good time in the movies.
THR: Did you have any trepidations about taking this on because of the source material?
Berg: None — it was my idea from the get-go. I always wanted to do a naval film — I thought about doing a John Paul Jones story and Master and Commander killed that. I thought about doing the Indianapolis, which was the ship that brought the nuclear bombs that were dropped on Japan, but the guys where all eaten by sharks, which is kind of a downer. I thought about doing the history of the Essex, which was a whaling ship that got sunk by whales and what Melville wrote Moby Dick on, but that ended in cannibalism, where the men ate each other, so that was hard to get that sold. With Battleship, I knew there would be a certain inherent, “what the fuck — are they out of their minds? C-5, G-4, really?” I thought if they gave me freedom to let my imagination run wild, that I could come up with something very original that would satisfy my desire to get out into the sea.
THR: How faithful ultimately is Battleship to the game, though?
Berg: Battleship’s a unique experience. It certainly doesn’t have any direct correlation to the game. That being said, it was a lot of fun to try to find way to reference the game. If you look at the ordinance that the enemies use, it looks a bit like pegs. Both of our ships’ radar systems have trouble seeing each other, so they gotta try and predict where the enemy is so that they can go after them. And there were some other things that were kind of fun. They were certainly never mandated, but anybody that’s of a certain age that knows the game will look at it and probably kind of smile to themselves. I guess they could say, “This is preposterous!” and storm out of the theater. I don’t think they will, but hopefully they’ll say its kind of a clever reference to the game.
THR: What prompted you to take on the challenge of bringing newcomers Brooklyn Decker and Rihanna into this movie on top of everything else you were going to have to deal with?
Berg: I love films where you find new talent. I’ve worked with experienced actors like Charlize and Will and I’ve worked with really inexperienced actors like the whole cast of the movie Friday Night Lights, and I like both. But what I really love is taking someone like Brooklyn Decker who is obviously a beautiful girl and showing that she really can act. and there really is a human being in there. And the same thing with Rihanna. I love that I had great success with Tim McGraw in Friday Night Lights; musicians have proven themselves to be great actors starting with Sinatra in From Here to Eternity to [when] Mariah Carey blew me away in Precious. And I think about Whitney Houston lately, and to take someone like Rihanna with so much charisma and be the first one to [work with her] as a director is fantastic. The girl is just a ball of emotion and creative energy and to be able to have that is really a lot of fun, and I love letting the audience discover something fresh.
THR: It seems like a lot of studios will greenlight something if you can condense it to two or three locations that they can build up really well as opposed to doing something on a global or truly epic scale. How much where you really able to indulge sort of a global attack and be able to shoot in different environments?
Berg: Our two main locations, well three if you include the ocean, were a lot of stuff in Hawaii and a lot of stuff in Baton Rouge, and that provides a base for a global experience. But we also took small crews out to Japan and Hong Kong and Texas and smaller places to open it up. You just have to try and be smart about it. Films are so expensive and you can’t move 20 feet without spending a fortune, so it requires a lot of planning and there still is a bit of maneuvering that has to be done to bring a global perspective.
THR: This film appears to be the biggest one you’ve taken on. When you did Very Bad Things 13 years ago, did you see yourself becoming a director who made these huge movies, or were you thinking you’d stick with smaller films or indies?
Berg: I think that I knew that I wanted to make big films. Very Bad Things was a smaller film, which some people loved and some people hated — probably more hated it, so it was kind of a lesson that it’s not so easy to make these films. And at that time I decided that I wanted to be a filmmaker I wanted to make films that had a pretty big reach. So I thought that if The Rundown did well, it could help put me in an environment and an opportunity to have that kind of experience and those kind of successes. And The Rundown made money and I think people responded very well to it, and it was able to help me get to where I wanted — which is to make big movies.
THR: In the past you’ve spoken about the possibility of a Hancock sequel — is that something that you are still thinking about?
Berg: We think about it, but it’s just really scheduling. Will Smith is really busy; I’ve been busy lately. Akiva Goldsman is a very involved producer, and he’s directing movies now. It’s just very hard to get us all in the same room at the same time.
THR: How difficult is it when you’re dealing with all the machinery of a movie of this size to be able to think about the next project that you’re working on?
Berg: In this case it was easy because I knew it was Lone Survivor. I was going to make Lone Survivor first and the studio asked me if I’d do this first, but I made a great deal with the studio and they’ve lived up to their word that they’d do Battleship first and then I’d go right into Lone Survivor. I also have a great partner in Sarah Aubrey who keeps me focused and we’ve got three or four things we’re always developing, [so] I can stay in a film but also take a little time to make sure that there’s projects that are of interest to me that are in the pipeline.
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