On a breezy afternoon in Santa Monica last June Universal pictures invited HitFix and handful of journalists to visit the edit bay of next summer's tent pole movie "Battleship" to see the films' progress and talk to director Peter Berg.
Many of us remember the game 'Battleship' as two rattling plastic clamshell cases that you could carry around like little laptops and set up anywhere for instant naval battle. Some even remember an electronic talking version (lucky jerks), but the gameplay in both was basically the same: you tried to sink your opponents fleet of ships by blindly calling out coordinates on their grid, and hoping you hit one of their ships before they hit yours.
So how do you turn a guessing game that can essentially be played with two pencils and a couple sheets of graph paper into a major motion picture? Well you make it a battle between a fleet of Navy ships and a fleet of alien ships, of course. Due to convenient plotting, neither fleet can see the other on their radar. Do they shoot giant plastic pegs at each other? The short answer is "Yes."
Director Peter Berg greeted us in the airy sunlit hallway upon our arrival and, although he looked slightly haggard, enthusiastically ushered us into his editing
Fresh off the successes of the Middle Eastern thriller "The Kingdom" and the superhero comedy "Hancock," Berg told us he was ready to go big. Really big.
"About three years ago, I was talking to my partner and I said, 'I think the future of our business are these big special FX, global movies, these five quadrant films that go out all around the world at the same time and have a huge impact and a huge audience. I want to make one…" Berg smiled before continuing.
"Now I'm thinking I've gone crazy." He delivers the last sentence as a joke, but you can tell that he's definitely feeling the pressure of helming such a big production. "It's by far the most creatively challenging thing that I've ever been presented with."
As he talked, I found it interesting that he was approaching the "big budget summer movie" as a genre unto itself (even using the word), more than anything due to its scale and its price tag. He marveled that we live in an age where it was possible to create any kind of special effect imaginable, as long as someone had deep enough pockets.
"You're limited only by your imagination and the generosity of who's paying the bills as far as spectacle. I feel privileged to be able to work in this genre right now," said Berg, who also has a producer credit on the film.
When we got to the footage it became apparent that it was very early in the process and virtually no alien special effects had been finished yet. The scenes that were screened for us focused mostly on the human element.
In the first scene, a long haired Taylor Kitsch playing Alex Hopper, is celebrating in a bar with his older brother Stone, a sailor played by Alexander Skarsgård ("True Blood"). He spots and meets the beautiful Sam, played by model Brooklyn Decker.
Of course Alex is instantly smitten with Sam, but he's drunk. What follows is a chuckle worthy scene of the young man going to the ends of the earth (AKA breaking into a 7-11) to get the damsel a burrito. Things do not end well for Alex law-wise.
We are told (as has been explained in the trailer) that Alex and Sam end up together and that Alex eventually (forcefully?) joins the navy where Sam's father is an Admiral, played by Liam Neeson, of course.
The next scene we screened also leaned towards comedic and involved a short haired Alex determined to ask for Sam's hand in marriage from the extremely intimidating Admiral. The scene is light in tone and you can tell that Neeson and Kitsch are having a ball, but the tension works.
The scenes we watch all have beautiful classic three point lighting, uniforms and military hardware galore. They are reminiscent of past summer blockbusters, but I got the feeling that Berg's talent directing actors may end up setting this film apart from other giant toy-based franchises.
We see also see some of Kitsch going out on a boat to investigate the alien craft, but besides the physical parts of the craft that were there, built practically on the stage, (in the sea?) the temporary "placeholder" CG effects reminded me of "Starfox 64." Believe me, you have seen a lot more alien ship in the trailer than we did in the edit room. Tomorrow you will see even more in a second trailer that focuses on the battles, the aliens and the on-land contingent of the story.
After a brief sizzle reel (with more "Starfox" graphics) we retired to a lounge for some Q and A.
I sort of forgot that this is based on Battleship, the board game. Are there any references to the game, like, 'You sank my Battleship,' or does that feel like it'd throw the audience out of the larger story?
Berg: One of the great things about doing this film was that there was never any mandate, like, "You have to say 'You sank my Battleship' or you have to say 'D-4.'" The challenge was for me: "What do I like about the game Battleship besides naval conflict that actually might be an interesting way to reference the film that actually feels clever, that's actually an additive?"
Berg: Battleship seems to be such a simple game where you and I are playing and I go, 'B2' and you say, 'Miss. B-4,' and I say, 'Hit.' There's not much to it. True. But what's interesting about the game, is it starts with this empty board and I'm trying to figure out where you are. As the game progresses I start to figure out where you are. There's a feeling of discovery that's inherent to the game, like, 'Okay. I understand where you're hiding.' I understand what you were thinking and how you decided to try and hide and I found you and now I'm going to kill you as quickly as I can before you kill me. The game actually gets your heart going when you're playing it. It's a very violent game, I only win if I kill you before you kill me. That's inherent in the DNA of this film.
I know the game has been around forever. Was there ever any thought to set it in World War II or World War I?
Berg: Not really. I'm really into the modern navy and the capabilities of these ships are so incredible and have never been filmed before. I thought it would make for a much fresher movie experience to see a modern navy, to see people that are from our time engaging in naval warfare. So, I was always pretty clear on wanting to set it in present day.
How has working with the Navy either altered story beats or things you in mind, maybe opened something up a bit?
Berg: I share a very good relationship with the military. The men and women that serve I support very strongly and the Navy understands that so they were willing to kind of open their doors to me, knowing that I would want to do something and get it right.
Berg: We're making a film about a navy engaging aliens. So, they understand that there's a giant leap of logic and reality that's inherent. There's no rulebook in the navy [for this]. There's rulebooks for, 'If we encounter a hostile North Korean sub what do we do?' Well, we're coming into contact with an alien fleet. The rulebook is pretty much out at that point. So, they were willing to kind of let me play my own game a little bit as long as we were accurately presenting what they would try and do.
You're dealing with aliens on one side, but are you dealing with modern day naval tech or does the navy here have a secret weapon?
Berg: No. Our aliens, again, are not so, so powerful that our weapons can't engage them. They're hard to sink. We have to figure it out. Our radar can't see them. Their radar can't see us. We can't communicate with each other, but our weapons systems work. 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. But if we hit them properly with enough ordinance we can hurt them.
Our radar can't read them because the tech is so different?
Berg: It's stealth. Stealth is a technology that really exists today. The Stealth Bomber and there are now stealth navy ships. The lines on a modern destroyer are very angular and they're designed to confuse enemy radar. 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.
It seems like you're interested in being true to the navy and Hasbro not as much. So, why even have this be "Battleship?" Why not just have it be 'Aliens at Sea,' an original concept?
Berg: Well, look, there's no doubt that in today's world, film world, unless you're Jim Cameron and you've got a lot of time and an incredible amount of money to put a project together, films made at this budget are a huge risk for these companies. The fact that the game has been around for fifty odd years, the fact that there is instant brand awareness - and look, there's always inherent cynicism particularly amongst us, the cinema intelligentsia - but you go onto your average high school football game outside of Philadelphia and say, 'Yeah, I'm doing this film called "Battleship".' 'Oh, the game? That's cool. I love that game.' -That's good.
Do you feel like you're smuggling something original and different in under the radar?
Berg: Completely, yeah, because that's the great irony of it. Okay, so you get the advantage of, like, 'I'm going to be able to call it "Battleship".' Well, so what? There's no script there.
Berg: 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. If you looked closely there are some weapons that the aliens were firing that may or may not resemble pegs when they hit. Other than that there's absolutely nothing there that you're getting from the game. So, it's as creatively challenging as anything that I've ever [done].
You have always had a lot of practically shot action with an integration of CG. How much were you able to shoot practically on this, especially being on the water and how did that complicate things?
Berg: There are components of it that were done early where we were able to shoot large chunks of practically, but very rarely was it ever one hundred percent practical. We've got real bombs going off, real guns firing, real punches being thrown, but those punches are landing on an object that's going to be CG. So, you're never a hundred percent there.
Berg: I've been fortunate to have friends who have gone their before me that I could call and be like, 'Oh, my God. How do I talk to these dudes at ILM,' who are all, like, MIT geniuses and speak a language that's like talking to a painter and trying to get him to understand your vernacular. These guys, all you can do is go, 'I want it to be real. I need it to be more intense. I need there to be more muscle and weight.' I end up doing this [slapping his hand] and they stare at me. It's learning how to fight for what I want and find a common language. ILM is by far the best at it and that's why they have such a dominate hold over the business.
You speak the language of actors coming from where you do. How does that give you the ability to tell a real story beyond the big explosions in this film?
Berg: Well, One, you've got a sense of Taylor's journey. It's very important that we lay out that arc. There's a certain point where the character finally reaches a critical point in his life and it happens onscreen we just really have to decide whether he is or isn't going to be able to stand up and assume the responsibility that's being asked of him. If that doesn't work I feel like the movie won't work.
Berg: As great as the FX will be, if you don't have that visceral, emotional connection to this guy the movie doesn't work. I worked really hard to make sure that we put the time in to make sure that character arc tracks to the point of having more than enough, that we can start with this moron falling through the roof of a 7-11, getting tased, drunk, trying to get a girl a burrito to a guy who ends up really being a leader.
Was there any talk or pressure of going 3-D?
Berg: No. I don't like 3-D films. It doesn't interest me. I'm just not a fan. I didn't ask and they didn't insist. Neither one of us asked and we just kind of ignored the issue which is fine by me.
-At this point models of the aliens were brought out. I'm going to refrain from describing them, although you will see a glimpse of their bodies in tomorrows trailer. A few questions were asked about their design.
I imagine creating these creatures and this world was fun –
Berg: From scratch. It's awesome. Everything here we created. It's complete and rote creation to figure out what we want and what we don't want. I'm not a sci-fi creature guy. I'm more interested in making aliens that I could relate to that felt psychologically engaging rather than just porous blobs of tentacles. This is much more my thing. So, this was a lot of fun to do.
Did you work with biologists at all? Is there a reason for the differences?
Berg: I mean, we talked with futurists. We talked with paleontologists. We talked orthopedic surgeons about different animals. We looked at different variations of animal life on our planet and thought about a horses foot compared to a humans foot and how different ways a foot could be structured. We messed with the relationships from bicep to forearm, but trying to keep it all within the realm of something that's somewhat familiar to us, but different. These people need to eat. They need to drink. They need to hydrate, just in different ways and in different quantities than we do. They have real issues with the sun on our planet, the amount of brightness on our planet. They have body temperature issues.
You said you haven't done anything on this scope before. Is it hard in the editing room here to have big chunks missing since there are still things (Special Effects) being worked on?
Berg: It definitely requires a different gear in terms of patience. I've just had to accept the fact that, 'Okay, if I want to see something it's going to be a couple of weeks and it probably won't be kind of what we talked about,' but it will eventually start to come. We're starting to see it now.
Berg: 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. When you do a dramatic film it's amazing how quickly you can cut. This requires patience.
Berg: 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. All of us have that, we want to have fun and we want to be scared and we want to be transported and that's what I want to do with this film. I've been very clear about that from the get go.
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