Peter Berg, director of the stand-up-and-salute-the-flag blockbuster “Battleship,” made some headlines this week because of a, um, candid interview he did with an Israeli reporter. So in defense of Mr. Berg, let me say that when I sat down with him earlier this week during his quick visit to Washington, D.C., he was a total gentleman.
He poured a cup of coffee for me. He munched on some spring rolls while we chatted but apologized profusely (and unnecessarily) for doing so. The director of films such as “Hancock” and executive producer of “Friday Night Lights” never, at any point, asked if I was a draft dodger.
In fact, we had a very pleasant conversation about numerous topics. Among the things he shared:
— That Rihanna, who makes her big-screen debut in the movie, does not take [expletive] from anyone.
— That the script for a “Friday Night Lights” movie, one centered on Eric and Tami Taylor from the TV series, is nearing completion and that Berg is determined to get it into production. “When I apply myself to something, I come pretty close to getting it done,” he said. “I fully intend to apply myself to this.”
But enough bullet-point summarization. Here’s a truncated version of my back-and-forth with Peter Berg.
“Battleship” is really a love letter to the military in a lot of ways. Was that something you set out to do?
I’m pretty upfront about my love and admiration for the military. One of the perks of making movies is that you get to sort of follow your own passions, and I believe quite passionately that we don’t pay enough attention and respect to our veterans. Not just our wounded veterans, but all veterans. I was able to figure out a way organically to the story to include a wounded soldier. And that became a real colonel in the Army, Greg Gadson. [I] talked him into playing the role and let everyone take a good look at what the spirit of a wounded warrior really is.
And in the case of the old salts who come in at the end of the film on the Missouri — those guys were all real veterans. Most of them served on the Missouri. Some of them were in their 90s. And it was kind of fun to bring them out to Hawaii and get to know them and let them fight the ship again. These guys had such twinkles in their eyes and the fire in their belly, and I just think, it’s a wonderful way to pay a little bit of respect to those guys.
How did you find Greg Gadson? [Note: Gadson, an Army vet who lost his lower legs in Iraq, plays one of the key heroes in the film.]
National Geographic magazine. There was a cover story on prosthetics, new, state-of-the-art types of prosthetics, some of which are hooked up to your nervous system. I was flipping through it and it became this full-page picture and he just had these piercing blue eyes and this intense look about him. And I just thought, this is the guy.
But you obviously had no idea whether he had any acting ability.
Well, I knew he didn’t have any acting ability.
Experience. He could have had ability.
Well, exactly. You’re right. That’s the difference — I’ve spent enough time with soldiers to know that once they get to know you and they loosen up and become themselves, they are some of the biggest hams and most charismatic, cocky, fun, humorous guys I’ve ever met. So I suspected that lurking underneath that tough, steely exterior was a really fun, charming guy. And I was right.
I want to talk about a couple of the actors you worked with, starting with Taylor Kitsch. Can you talk about what you see in him as an actor?
One of the many things I like about Taylor is that, kind of like a young Bruce Willis, he has the ability to make you believe he’s going to get the job done, that he’s a good guy. His heart is in the right place — he’s brave. He’s capable of being heroic. He’s got all that. But he’s also got this, like, self-deprecating side and this screw-up quality that makes you think, he might get it right but it will be the fourth try until he gets it right. And the first three are going to be pretty bad.
I like that quality in a person. He’s got almost all the right skills but there’s a couple that are just off enough that watching him get there is going to be quite enjoyable.
After “John Carter,” he took quite a beating in the press. I felt like part of the problem was that the movie didn’t speak to the qualities in Kitsch that you just talked about. How did you feel about it?
“John Carter” — you know, these films are really hard to make. We don’t get any sympathy nor do we ask for any sympathy when they don’t work. “John Carter” was a movie that, for a variety of reasons, failed to connect with an audience, none of which, in my opinion, had anything to do with Taylor Kitsch.
If anything, what impressed me so much with Taylor in regards to that particular film was the grace and the poise and the charm he demonstrated handling it. He’s a young guy and this is a huge movie and you believe in it with every fiber in your body, and you work for five months to the point of absolute exhaustion. And you just believe in it so much, and it doesn’t work. Some people can get bitter and point fingers and get angry, and he never did that. That to me speaks volumes for his future in this business. I’ve been doing this for 20-odd years now and I’ve had great success and I’ve had catastrophic failure. It’s really how you handle the rough stuff that defines you, I think.
I wanted to ask about casting Rihanna and how that came about. Did you know she was trying to break into movies? Did her people reach out to you?
I’m a big fan of movies where you get some recognizable stars, but then you see somebody that catches you by surprise that you haven’t seen before. I’m always looking to do that. I’ve worked with musicians before. I worked with Tim McGraw on “Friday Night Lights,” the movie, and he did a really good job.
I think musicians oftentimes have the right skill set to be good actors. And with Rihanna, I noticed her and knew of her obviously, and was very taken with her charisma and her confidence. I called, I got a meeting with her and we had a long talk. She improvised — it was just the two of us in a room like this and we just played around. She clearly had the bug. She wants to act. I was surprised that nobody had ever asked her to be in a film and that I got to be her first.
I absolutely loved working with her. As I’ve joked, the only issue was the anxiety I would get when she was in the water in Hawaii. There were sharks around there, and I had this fear that I was going to be the director that got Rihanna eaten by a shark. And that, like, Oprah Winfrey was going to come out of retirement and sit me down in a chair and make me explain to the world how I got Rihanna eaten by a shark. So I was a little extra-cautious with her at times.
You could have also had to explain why you’d gotten Tim Riggins eaten by a shark. That wouldn’t have been good either.
I would have preferred Tim Riggins over Rihanna.
The Tim McGraw example you cited — yes, he was a musician also doing some acting, but I think it was easier to see the connective tissue between him and that role in “Friday Night Lights.” Whereas with Rihanna, she’s usually so glamorous —
Yeah, but in “Battleship,” she plays a weapons specialist. And there are tons of female weapons specialists in the Navy, and there are tons of very attractive female weapons specialists in the Navy. These are strong, cocky, tough women. Scrappy women. If you meet Rihanna, you know, she’s a very glamorous, beautiful girl. But at her core, she’s an island girl. She’s a bad-ass girl, who doesn’t take a lot of [expletive] from anybody. It wasn’t that far of a reach for her to play this character.
In Rihanna, I saw that strength. I remember seeing, I think it was the Diane Sawyer interview she did after the whole Chris Brown incident, and she was just very simply dressed, not a lot of make-up, and had this frank conversation with Diane Sawyer. And I remember thinking that this girl was strong and smart and much more than I had imagined she was. I think that’s what really caught my eye more than anything was that interview. I remember thinking, there’s much more to her than I ever realized. She’s not Britney Spears.
Were you prepared for all the jokes that would come from directing a movie based on a board game?
I’m always prepared for the worst whenever I set out to do anything. Unless you’ve got Iron Man and Captain America and Thor and the Hulk — but even then, you’re going to get, like, you better not screw it up. The film business is very challenging in that there’s a certain amount of, “That’ll never work. That’s the stupidest idea I ever heard,” that comes with the territory.
The Internet is allowing people to casually voice their skepticism a little more aggressively than they ever have in the past. I’ve learned to develop, and I recommend that anybody who is in our business or puts themselves in a position to be judged, you’ve got to develop a new type of skin thickness: Think Internet skin. You just can’t listen to it.
Do you have a Twitter account?
God no. I would never. Now I’ve got Rihanna. If I really need something tweeted, I just ask her to do it.
Was that when I badmouthed Craig James?
Possibly. I just know she said Jason Katims had plotted out some of the script on index cards.
Right now, it’s 100 percent in Jason Katims’s hands. We call him every day and we ask him where the script is, and, supposedly, he’s very close to delivering it. If he does deliver it and it works and it fits into Kyle’s and Connie’s schedules, we’re going to do it.
Do you expect it to be a theatrical release?
Mm-hmm. “Friday Night Lights” is kind of this force of nature that Buzz Bissinger started when he wrote the book and it just, it doesn’t go away, you know. It remains endlessly interesting, endlessly entertaining, endlessly provocative. And we could just keep going. It was a book. It was a movie. It was a TV show. I just made a documentary about spinal cord injuries and head injuries in football that was as a result of my time spent in Texas. And Buzz just — I don’t know if you read his — it’s on iTunes, it’s a short, 40-page remembrance about “Friday Night Lights,” mainly about Boobie Myles. It’s a really good read. It’s really sad what’s happened to Boobie Myles since the movie.
It’s just one of those things that just keeps us all really engaged and wanting more. If there are enough people like you that are big fans, and it seems as though there are, I’ve never experienced anything like it. For a show that supposedly struggled in the ratings, I can’t walk — and what’s wild is I can’t walk through an airport and I hardly go to a restaurant where somebody doesn’t come up to me and say something.
With the press on “Battleship,” I’ve been around the world twice with “Battleship,” I would be in Korea and the Korean journalists would want to talk about it. I would be in China — I mean, China. We had a party after a screening in China and I was talking to these young Chinese actresses and they’re like, “We love ‘Friday Night Lights.’ ” And I’m like, “You watch ‘Friday Night Lights’ in Beijing, China?” And they’re like, “We love it. We love Tim Riggins. We love Coach Taylor.”
It’s such an American story that you would think some of it wouldn’t translate.
I have never been more surprised. You know, one of the great things for me personally, doing “Battleship,” was the amount of traveling I’ve gotten to do. I’ve been to almost every country on the planet with this film. People are all very similar at the end of the day. They love their parents. They want to compete, they want to do good, they struggle with their own human weaknesses. All of those themes are universal.
Still, I’ve never — when I was in London or France, I wasn’t as surprised. But when I went to Asia and they were watching “Friday Night Lights” in Asia, I was really blown away by that.
So when you say the script is imminent ...
I’m going to be honest: It’s always a long shot to get a movie made. But we are moving forward. And generally, when I apply myself to something, I come pretty close to getting it done. I fully intend to apply myself to this.