YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

THE DIRECTORS : fall sneaks

Looking for a push

Pete Berg's style is informal. So why invite exacting Michael Mann into his 'Kingdom'? Sometimes opposing views can sharpen the work.

September 09, 2007|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

Pete Berg had only a few lines of dialogue in Michael Mann's "Collateral," but Mann wasn't about to let his actor off easy. Berg had to try on five different blue shirts before Mann was satisfied. "And then we must have done 60 to 70 takes," says Berg, better known as a filmmaker than performer. "It was the most exhausting three days of my life as an actor. He's punishing and uncompromising."
Berg didn't soon forget Mann's exacting standards on that 2004 production, so when Berg subsequently sketched out a movie idea about the FBI's investigating a Saudi Arabian bombing, he took it to Mann first. And soon thereafter Berg and Mann, who would eventually sign on as a producer of Berg's "The Kingdom," formed one of the more unusual director-producer pairings around.
Most directors aren't genetically disposed to invite other directors into their creative orbits, especially an A-list Oscar nominee with as specific (if not feared) work habits as Mann. But Berg, who's inclined to direct more informally and will often shoot only a couple of takes before moving on, saw in Mann a point of view that he believed would make him a better filmmaker.

"Michael has demonstrated the ability to bring the soulful, the visceral and the emotional all together," Berg says of the director of "The Insider," "Heat" and "Ali." "And Michael is a filmmaker who has demonstrated a willingness to go to war with a studio over anything."

Because Berg's "Friday Night Lights" and "Rundown" had done well for Universal Pictures, he was not starting with the studio from scratch. But "The Kingdom" had its own challenges, including an early screenplay draft (which was later revised) that ended particularly bleakly and violently.

The Sept. 28 film opens with a terrorist attack on an American housing compound in Saudi Arabia. Since many U.S. citizens are killed, the FBI dispatches a team (Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper, Jason Bateman) to catch the perpetrator. Finding those responsible in just five days isn't the agents' only challenge; they also must navigate through a country and local law enforcement system that aren't exactly rolling out the red carpet.

"It's the most religious, sectarian and isolated country left on the planet," Berg says.

Although the film was shepherded and physically produced by Scott Stuber, Mann introduced the filmmaking team to Middle Eastern experts (Mann shot parts of "The Insider" in Israel) and his input is reflected at various points through the film. In "The Kingdom's" opening sequence, Berg cuts between Foxx's FBI agent visiting his son's elementary classroom and a terrorist watching the bombing from a rooftop with his grandson.

"He encouraged me to look at my relationship with my own son and see if there wasn't a way to transform that energy into the film," says Berg, 43, who has one school-age son.

Mann, 64, was struck by Berg's work when he caught an episode of 2000's short-lived ABC drama series "Wonderland," whose pilot Berg wrote and directed. "I saw it and I called him up and said, 'This is a terrific piece of work,' " Mann says on the set of "Hancock," the Will Smith superhero movie that Berg is currently directing and that Mann is producing alongside Akiva Goldsman, James Lassiter and Smith.

Although Mann and Berg became friends soon after "Wonderland," it wasn't until several years later that they could join forces. The two ended up working and editing in the same Santa Monica office complex, and one summer day in 2003 Berg came into Mann's offices.

"I have a great idea for a movie," said Berg. At the time, Berg was reading former FBI director Louis J. Freeh's memoir "My FBI," and its account of the bombing of the American military compound Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia.

Berg's idea was just a vague one -- FBI agents in Riyadh, strangers in a strange land -- but he asked Mann if he would produce it. The idea eventually became Matthew Michael Carnahan's "The Kingdom" screenplay. As Berg cut the film, he often would invite Mann to walk up the hall and look at specific editing issues.

"Michael has a very good macro ability -- whether it's dissecting a script or a scene," Stuber says. "Michael can say, 'Here's another way to do it.' "

For his part, Berg had long admired Mann's work -- in his acting classes, he used a monologue from Mann's 1986 film "Manhunter" -- and says that their dissimilar styles are more help than hindrance.

"We have pretty different ways of working, and I think that's why we work well together," Berg says. "He constantly encourages me to slow down and not settle for something. But he'll never tell me what to do."

Says Mann: "It's a very unusual thing to have this kind of collaboration."


Los Angeles Times Articles