Peter Berg thinks he may have gone crazy. Or at the very least, that’s what he laughingly said in reference to tackling a film of Battleship’s scale during our edit bay visit in late June. In truth, the Hancock/Friday Night Lights director was looking to get into the business of the “big special FX, five-quadrant films that go out all around the world at the same time and have a huge impact and a huge audience.”
After seeing (and loving) Transformers, he began to think of other properties that could serve that very function; as the son of a WWII historian (and a naval fanatic himself) he decided to pitch a film based on Battleship. He has since found it to be the most “creatively challenging” project of his career. The inherent challenges were finding the right story hook to adapt the property, facing the inevitable technical obstacles, and addressing the public’s perception of a film based on the board game.
Today we bring you some of the details as to how Berg has approached these challenges, an overview of our visit to the edit bay, a preview of the next Battleship trailer, and several new images from the film.
Berg was aware of the “skepticism” audience members may have about a film based on “plastic pegs and grids.” But for the director “that was never an issue.” He has remained focused on the aspects of the undertaking that inspired him initially. “It was all about naval warfare,” he says, “about the modern Navy,” combined with an alien component that the director introduced in a way that he felt “was credible.” Berg had spent time with the men and women in the Navy, on the ships and studying the technology, and “always knew there could be a film there,” but has found the reality of actually executing the project “to be an an awesome task.”
For Berg, one of the great benefits of taking on a project like Battleship is being a part of what he believes is “for better or worse, the defining films of this decade or the last 20 years.”
“You realize that in the ’70’s guys like Hal Ashby and Sidney Lumet were out leading the charge with character-based, complex soul dramas like ‘Serpico’ and ‘French Connection’ and ‘Being There.’ And in the ’80’s Bruce Willis and (Sylvester) Stallone and Arnold (Schwarzenegger) came out with a new type of action. What we’re dealing with now, with James Cameron leading the charge and Michael Bay not far beyond, is not just partnering with companies like ILM and building these epic visual spectacles, but figuring out ways of connecting character to those stories and making them feel fun and making them feel emotional. We’re living in age where if you’re willing to write the check you can do anything. You’re limited only by your imagination and the generosity of who’s paying the bills as far spectacle. These challenges (for those of us fortunate enough to make these films) are really, I think, the defining nucleus of where our business is today.”
Of course the aforementioned generosity is based upon expected returns. Berg has a very honest and straightforward response to the question: “Why not just make something original? It’s a real, bona fide risk that puts a lot of jobs at risk, a lot of children’s medical insurance and dental, orthodontists and summer camps,” the director says.
“The amount of money being spent on these films is massive. So, to say that it doesn’t give the guys writing the checks a little bit of added insurance to know you’ve at least got some brand awareness, in this case Hasbro, that is able to open up marketing streams and help you get the word out – is just not accurate. Whether it’s ‘Harry Potter,’ ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ ‘Transformers,’ or everything that Marvel and DC are doing; none of these guys are going completely alone. Jim Cameron, hats off to him, he is. No one else is at this budget level.”
The trick becomes “smuggling something original and different in” under the (there is a pun ahead) radar. “That’s the great irony of it,” the director enthuses.
“You get the advantage of, like, I’m going to be able to call it ‘Battleship’. Well, so what? There’s no script there. I mean, people forget that when ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ was first pitched as a movie it was lacerated by the media, like, ‘What? That absurd thing at Disneyland?’ It was the same with ‘Transformers.’ So, it’s wonderful to have the brand and to have that leg up. I appreciate it, but it’s absolutely zero help when it comes to solving all the creative problems.”
So how does one integrate the elements of a preexisting game with an original script? Before we explore the director’s approach to the puzzle that is Battleship, take a look at the synopsis for the sci-fi actioner below.
An epic-scaled action-adventure unfolds across the seas, in the skies and over land as our planet fights for survival against a superior force. Inspired by Hasbro’s classic naval combat game, ‘Battleship’ stars Taylor Kitsch as Lt. Alex Hopper, a Naval officer assigned to the USS John Paul Jones; Brooklyn Decker as Sam Shane, a physical therapist and Hopper’s fiance; Alexander Skarsgård as Hopper’s older brother, Stone, Commanding Officer of the USS Sampson; Rihanna as Petty Officer Raikes, Hopper’s crewmate and a weapons specialist on the USS John Paul Jones; and international superstar Liam Neeson as Hopper and Stone’s superior (and Sam’s father), Admiral Shane.
In terms of the design of the film, Berg had to find a way to mesh his desire to depict the maritime forces in a realistic (if a heightened, comedic and action-packed) manner, the alien invasion element and the structure of Battleship the game. So he asked himself: “What do I like about the game Battleship besides naval conflict that actually might be an interesting way to reference the film that isn’t offensive to anyone, that actually feels clever, that’s actually an additive?”
He decided to look at the fundamentals of the game, first and foremost: how to fight an enemy that you cannot see.
“The game starts with this empty board and I’m trying to figure out where you are,” Berg explains.
“…And as the game progresses I start to figure out where you are. There’s a feeling of discovery that’s inherent to the game. The game actually gets your heart going. When you’re playing it, you say, ‘I don’t know where you are. I don’t know where you are. Okay. There you are. Now I have to kill you,’ and if I don’t kill you quick you’re going to kill me. It’s a very violent game. There’s no, ‘Okay. I win. Nice try.’ I only win if I kill you before you kill me. That’s inherent in the DNA of this film. There are other references, some very subtle, some not quite so subtle to the game (there are some weapons that the regents were firing, that the aliens were firing, that may or may not resemble pegs when they hit) but there was never a mandate to say ‘You sunk my Battleship’ or ‘D4.'”
“We have to figure out a way to make contact with the enemy without being able to see them by figuring out where we think they are which is a throwback to the game,” the director elaborates. “But if we hit them properly with enough ordinance we can hurt them.” Berg maintained his intention to ground the film by basing the battle tactics on legitimate technology.
“It’s stealth. There are now stealth navy ships. The lines on a modern destroyer are very angular and they’re designed to confuse enemy radar. So, our warships are very hard to pick up on radar. You see them here and they suddenly might be there and there and there. You’ll get a mirror effect. Well, the shape (of the alien ships) does a similar thing to our radar which is very real technology. We can’t get a firm lock on exactly where they are because of their shape. They can’t get a lock on us because of where we are because of the shape of our ships. That’s real.”
The alien design and tech was based on conversations with futurists, paleontologists and orthopedic surgeons about different animals, in order to create psychologically-engaging creatures that are similar enough to us that audiences will believe that there is a reasonably even-matched battle in play. According to Berg, the beings are rational. “They care about each other and they protect themselves,” he says. “They are not really interested in you. They’re just interested in the minerals and the resources of your planet.”
The concept of the arrival is based on the signals we send out to “Goldie Locks” planets. The real-world science is taken from the Kepler satellite, which gathers information in deep space on other solar systems, particularly as it pertains to the distance between planets and suns. They are looking for planets that share a similar relationship with their sun that we do to ours, so “not too hot, not too cold.” We have been targeting these planets with signals in order to invite them into a “conversation.” Stephen Hawking did a documentary in which he (not surprisingly) maintained that this practice is a very bad idea. The assumption being that, if we invite these other species “into our home” as it were, then they might view our planet as a giant resource. They may send out scouts who would then in turn want to signal back home. Our task, if that were to occur, would become to stop them from sending that signal.
Of course, none of this is to say that the film is taking itself too seriously. It is, after all, an expansive summer thrill-ride that works to combine humor, large set pieces, grand-scale visual spectacle and entertaining action sequences. “This is not ‘Lone Survivor’ (another project Berg is working on) which is a harrowing tale about the nineteen Navy SEALS that were killed in a horrible battle in Afghanistan,” the director emphasizes. “This is a real different experience, and I feel like we’re on to it.”
The trajectory of the story, from what we saw, feels a bit like Top Gun meets Independence Day. “The arc of (Taylor Kitsch’s character Lt. Alex Hopper) is from zero to hero,” Berg says. He is the maverick, as it were, the bad-boy savant who must rise to the occasion, man-up and take the fast track to maturity in order to meet the responsibilities that he is being presented with. The character journey becomes about why he must do this (to save the planet and get the girl) and the question becomes — how?
The director, who has put so much emphasis on practical effects in his previous films, has had to learn a bit of a new language during the course of production and post-production on Battleship.
“We were able to shoot large chunks of it practically, but very rarely was it ever one hundred percent practical,” he says. “It’s why I was real insistent that we work with ILM – who’s consistently proven themselves to be the best at making CGI look like it was done practically.”
The process, however, is slow in its nature and a little bit frustrating. Berg likens it to sculpting.
“If you had to do a big wood sculpture out of this block right here. If you’re paying someone a lot of money to do it, and you have a couple of guys chiseling, you come in after a few hours and nothing is done. You come in two days later and nothing. Four days nothing. Two weeks nothing. Four weeks and it’s like, ‘Wait a minute. That does look like a head. It’s not great, but at least it’s a head. Now there’s an arm. There’s a body.’ It’s a slow reveal. I tend to be kind of impatient and a little hyper and I want to see it and if I say, ‘Okay, lets go do this,’ I’m used to it being done.”
“For me it’s a bit easier because I can understand where it’s going,” he continues.
“For some of my bosses who are out on a ledge and they just want to see it and they’re giving me all this money and I’ve had all this time, they’re like, ‘You’re showing me cartoons?’ I’m like, ‘Relax.’ A lot of it is just keeping everyone calm and staying the course. I’m confident now and I believe in this film. I want to make a film that, at the end of the day, appeals to the inner twelve-year-old boy in all of us. Women included.”
It’s been several months since the initial teaser trailer and poster for Battleship were released. The new trailer will be launching online tomorrow and in theaters next weekend in front of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. We had the opportunity to take an early look this morning and can report that while the teaser trailer focused on giving viewers a taste for the story and characters in the film, this trailer will reveal the scope and scale of the aforementioned spectacle.
The marketing team likely intendeds to communicate the level of craftsmanship involved in the effects that ILM has created, the expansive nature of the action (battles are fought on land, air and sea across the planet) and the unique nature of the aliens. Although the focus was to create, as producer Scott Stuber says, ” a WWII like battle where we are able to have a common enemy” (an invading force from another world) the aliens in this film are specific and distinct from one another — infantry, scientists and command. As the campaign progresses we can expect to see more of a combination of all the elements that Berg has worked to bring to the film.
Berg himself is anxious for the opportunity to share the film in its totality with audiences. “I really believe in this film,” he says. “I look forward to next summer.”
Battleship is directed by Peter Berg (Hancock) from a script by Erich & Jon Hoeber (Red) and produced by Scott Stuber (Couples Retreat), Sarah Aubrey (The Kingdom), Brian Goldner and Bennett Schneir of Hasbro (the Transformers franchise), along with Duncan Henderson (Master and Commander) and Jeffrey Silver (300). The film stars Liam Neeson (Unknown), Alexander Skarsgård (True Blood), Taylor Kitsch (John Carter), Josh Pence (The Dark Knight Rises), Brooklyn Decker (Just Go With It), Rihanna and Tadanobu Asano (Thor).
Battleship opens in theaters on May 18th, 2012.
“The battle for Earth begins at sea.” www.battleshipmovie.com
Follow me on twitter @jrothc