Peter Berg interview: directing Battleship, filming at sea, Kevin Costner, ILM effects and more

Ahead of Battleship’s UK release, we met director Peter Berg to talk effects, aliens, and the perils of shooting movies at sea…

You might think that director Peter Berg’s surname alone would have made him a little nervous about shooting a film at sea, particularly when history proves that movies filmed on the ocean are fraught with problems: see Waterworld, The Abyss and Titanic for a few examples.

Nevertheless, Berg managed to make Battleship – a sprawling tentpole sci-fi epic, with aliens, massive boats, explosions and barnacles – without the nightmarish situations that plagued the films mentioned above – though Mr Berg did throw into the conversation almost casually, “We had sharks show up.”

As we found out in our lively, entertaining chat with Berg, which took place a few months ago while Battleship’s special effects were still being completed, the shoot went well, even though the potential pitfalls were ever-present.

Ahead of Battleship’s debut next week, we talked about the film’s making, valuable advice from Kevin Costner, special effects, and what he’s going to be directing next…

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I’ve read that you rejected the idea of Battleship being a realistic war movie of humans against humans – of Americans versus Russians, for example. So the story wasn’t yet there when you came aboard, so to speak?

I pretty much put the story together. It was my idea to do it. I ended up with the basic idea of bringing aliens into the film, and creating this character called Hopper, and set it up with the writers – a couple of writers came in and out. But I knew that I wanted to make one of these films – I wanted to make a big, fun summer movie, first and foremost. I didn’t want to make a dark, realistic war film. I’m getting ready to go and make a dark, realistic war film, I understand what those are, but I wanted this to be much different.

I wanted to do a film that had a big global reach to it, and I felt that Americans fighting Russians – I didn’t feel it. That’s my next film. It’s Americans fighting Afghans, and it’s very violent and rough and brutal and real. I wanted to do one of those films where a 40-year old man can take his wife and three kids, and all five of them can have a great time. And just have a great experience, leaving their lives and problems – all this shit we have to deal with every day – far behind. Take off your critical hat, eat your popcorn, sit back, and have fun.

And that was my goal. That was the driving force behind the alien component of the film, and then once we decided to do aliens, we thought, how can we do it in a way that silences the critics, that satisfies, that is unique? And that became a whole different, serious conversation.

The thing that I was interested in was the whole concept of the aliens not being straightforward invaders. I take it that was a way of putting a different spin on things, by not making it another invasion movie?

Yes. My first part was, wouldn’t it be awesome if the aliens had a pathology, and you could link to them. Then maybe we started the fight. I knew there was going to be a fight, but what if we started it? It wasn’t our fault; we didn’t mean to start it, but it happens. I’ve seen it happen in real life. Two people in a bar – one person says something, then the other person says something, and before you know it, you’re in a huge fight.

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We’ve all had it. I have it with my girlfriends all the time. I don’t mean to get them mad, but before you know it, you’re asleep on the floor and she’s moving out! I mean, what happened? The idea that these aliens that has a similar climate to ours; we sent out a signal, which they picked up on and followed. They’re here, they’re checking the planet out, they come into contact with our military. We sound the horn. They sound the horn. We fire a warning shot.

Before you know it, there’s a brutal fight to the death going on. I thought that would be much more interesting if the aliens were believable, if they had feelings and emotions and logic behind their behaviour, and they weren’t just a generic invading force. In invading ships, you know, covering London. I wanted to do something different.

What was the production of this film like, because you’ve obviously a lot of scenes in the ocean. You think back to James Cameron and the problems he had on stuff like The Abyss and Titanic – was this comparable?

It’s funny, because two weeks before we started shooting, I got a phone call from Kevin Costner, who did Waterworld, which is the acme of disaster productions. And I don’t know Kevin Costner. And he’s on the phone. I’m like, what? And he has that unique voice, so I say, “Hey, Kevin.”

And he said, “Not that you’re asking, but I feel that I have to tell you some of the things we did wrong.” And he said, “Can I come in?” So I said, “Sure.” The next day he came in, and we had this great meeting, and he understood the perils of filming out at sea. He had some logical adjustments. “You don’t want to do this. You don’t want to do that.”

He came in, and we had a long talk, and he said, “Whatever you do, don’t do this. Or this. And don’t do this.” He talked for two hours about the mistakes you made. Have you ever met him?

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I’m afraid I haven’t.

Oh, he’s a great guy. He’s such a smart guy. And he told us a couple of things we hadn’t thought about, and we made some adjustments based on that meeting. But man, we were so scared that it’d all go to hell, we had everything backed up, we minimised the downtime as much as we could, but it was just bizarre. We started filming a mile off the coast of Hawaii with these giant barges, and these big pieces of sets that were floating, and 600 people had to be boated out there every day.

We were just inviting… we could have been three weeks behind schedule, a day after shooting, literally, you know? It’s a credit to our line producer that we just went at it, fuckin’ scared. We anticipated all the things that could go wrong, and Battleship is a really big movie. We really were out in the middle of the ocean, and it was wild. We were aware of the mistakes that other people made, and we tried to learn from those.

What was it like for the actors? I mean, presumably it must have been quite hard for them, being out on boats and sets bobbing up and down.

We took ‘em out on boats for weeks. They had to spend time on real destroyers and ships. We had Rihanna and Taylor Kitsch, and John Tui out on this little rig, and there are big swells, and they’re out there for hours. They don’t have bathrooms on those things, you know? And we’re trying to get the camera boat into position, and you’ve got these actors like Rihanna, she’s never been on a film set before, and she’s not used to being told to sit in that rig and we’ll get to you in two hours.

I mean, we had to check they didn’t get sick, and if they did get sick, we had to figure out what to do to help them. Thank God, that was our question to all of them – “Do you get seasick?”

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Actors, generally, are prone to lying in auditions. “Do you speak French?” “Yes, of course.” “Can you ride a horse? Can you ride a horse backwards, bare-back?” “Yes, of course.” “Can you play football?” “Of course.” They’ll lie. They’ll say anything.

So, “Do you get seasick?” they’ll say, “No, of course not.” So you say, “You’d better really not get seasick!”

Now, they said that they didn’t get seasick, and they really didn’t. That sounds like a joke, but an actor getting seasick – really sick – you’re shut down. You’re spending a fortune per day, and if any one of those actors gets seasick, you’re shut down.

We tested them as best we could, and put them on those boats as best we could, but when you’re out there there’s always the element of uncertainty. We had sharks show up. We had crewmembers fall off barges, we had equipment break, boats break. But we always had a back-up, and that was one of the smart things we did.

The movie didn’t run over budget – we came in under budget and under schedule. We didn’t fuck around, we were squared up.

So I take it you’ve used real battleships in the films, and not computer generated ones?

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The ship you saw was a destroyer. A battleship comes in at the end, which is the USS Missouri, and we used the real battleship, towed it out. ILM did a lot of work on the real one, and then there’s some CG battleships in there as well. We put a lot of resources into creating these ships. Some are real and some are not.

You’ve had plenty of experience in using special effects in your movies before – there are a few in The Kingdom, and Hancock, which had lots. How have things moved on for you as a filmmaker since those movies?

You know, the learning curve for me with special effects was in how to talk to the SFX guys. To realise that you really, as a director, “Oh, that’ll be special effects.”

The “They’ll fix that in post…” mentality.

You need to do that. Because they won’t do that. They’re not film makers. They need you to give them direction. They need to be told, say, if I want to show myself scratching my head, and then pulling my head off and leave it here [motions to the table] and then I go take a walk. I’m going to walk out of the room.

Well, there are a trillion different ways that can go down. Do you want to do it gross or terrifying – a Quentin Tarantino scene – or funny and charming like a Spielberg scene? How are you going to get the head there? You’ve got take an actor’s involvement, and roll up your sleeves, and looking at the evolution of effects, find out a language.

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So if I say, “I want it to be tense,” I’ll also find a common language, with a reference to other films or video clips of something that is my definition of intense. You’ll show me CG sketches of things along the way you’re doing.

And if you do that, it’s no different from a crowd enhancement in a football movie, where you’re adding crowds. There’s no real different from a big alien ship. It’s just a lot more conversations. But I’ve learned to get very involved, and make friends with the designers at ILM, for example. These are very smart guys with a different skillset, and at the end of the day, as a director, you’ve got to take responsibility for your visual effects, and find a way to communicate with these people, and not expect things to just happen.

I’ve gone from the first tiny little effect that I ever did on Very Bad Things, to crazy virtual-world scenes in Battleship.

But looking at the pre-visual footage, and knowing that it’s still yet to be done, is that quite nerve-wracking?

I have such trust in them now. We have a great relationship. They’ll do it, they always do. If you push them to greatness, ILM, they always give you greatness. Even if they have to put 600 bodies on it and farm some work out. There’s probably some kid in London in a garage somewhere working on a little moment in Battleship right now. But I’m not worried about those guys.

Have you got any ideas for a possible sequel?

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We do. But I won’t talk about that until we see how this plays. But yes, we have ideas.

I was interested to notice that Battleship isn’t in 3D.

No. I’m not a big fan of 3D. I find that it gives me a headache. I was asked if I wanted to do the film in 3D, and I said no, and that was the end of the conversation. It was never revisited.

You mentioned your next film earlier, which is Lone Survivor, I understand.

It’s a book by Marcus Lautrel, and it’s the true story about how complex war is today. There’s a mission in Afghanistan where 15 bad choices are made. No one choice is a fatal one, but the sum effect of those is catastrophic, and all hell breaks loose. It’s as violent and tragic as anything I’ve ever read.

Peter Berg, thank you very much.

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Battleship is out in UK cinemas on the 11th April.

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