"Battleship" director Peter Berg stands in the control room… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)
ABOARD THE USS SPRUANCE — On a clear, windless morning in January, director Peter Berg climbed from a U.S. Navy helicopter onto the deck of this 9,200-ton destroyer steaming north off the coast of San Diego and hurried to the bridge to meet the ship's commanding officer, Tate Westbrook.
"I was told you'd know your way around one of these about as well as I do," Westbrook said to Berg as the director toured the vessel, taking in its torpedo tubes, sonar systems and the compact quarters for 300 sailors.
Berg, 50, has spent a good chunk of his life around the military, first as the son of a Marine who was an avid Naval historian, then while embedded with Navy SEALs in Iraq to research a film and most recently as the director of the naval board game-inspired action movie "Battleship," which opens in U.S. theaters May 18.
As any child who has ever sunk an opponent's plastic submarine can attest, Battleship is a simple, grid-style guessing game, with no narrative arc or characters. But Berg and screenwriter brothers Erich and Jon Hoeber have injected a fleet of story lines and personalities into "Battleship" the movie, in which the Navy becomes embroiled in combat with some mysterious, otherworldly vessels. Earth's best defense is some very shiny ships and its most attractive people -- Taylor Kitsch (of Berg's long-running TV drama "Friday Night Lights" and the recent box-office dud "John Carter") plays Alex Hopper, a hotheaded Navy officer; Alexander Skarsgard is Hopper's better-behaved older brother; and Brooklyn Decker is Hopper's physical therapist girlfriend, who tends to wounded veterans.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 06, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
"Battleship": In the Calendar section elsewhere in this edition, an article about the movie "Battleship" includes a photo of actor Scott Porter from the TV series "Friday Night Lights." The photo should have shown Taylor Kitsch, also from "Friday Night Lights," who stars in "Battleship." The error was detected after the section went to press.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, May 07, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Ari Emanuel: An article about the movie "Battleship" in the May 6 Calendar section misspelled William Morris Endeavor talent agent and Co-Chief Executive Ari Emanuel's last name as Emmanuel.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 13, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
"Battleship": An article about the movie "Battleship" in the May 6 Calendar section misspelled William Morris Endeavor talent agent and Co-Chief Executive Ari Emanuel's last name as Emmanuel. The article also referred to the Pearl Harbor attack as occurring 71 years ago. In fact, the 71st anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack will not be reached until later this year.
Eager to showcase its ships in front of the taxpayers who pay for them, the U.S. Navy cooperated enthusiastically with the film, providing access to five destroyers and hundreds of real sailors. But with that access came a quandary for Berg: how to shoot a movie starring America's seaborne military branch without being too American for the foreign filmgoers who typically constitute well over half of an action movie's audience.
To broaden the movie's appeal internationally, Berg added regionally specific touches, such as a Japanese naval officer (Tadanobu Asano) and a nod to the Chinese military classic "The Art of War," as well as elements audiences in nearly every culture seem to enjoy -- namely soccer, extraterrestrials and Barbadian pop singer Rihanna firing a giant Gatling gun.
"I did not want 'Battleship' to be perceived as an American war film," said Berg. "I wanted to do everything I could to make the film accessible to a global audience. It felt like bringing an alien component to the film would help take the American jingoism out of it and let it be something that felt more summer-ish and more adventurous."
Berg's background positioned him well to walk the line between portraying the Navy authentically and pleasing Universal Pictures, the studio that financed the $211-million action film with an eye toward building a franchise.
Growing up in New York City, Berg was a captive participant in his father's maritime hobby, dragged along on family trips to Naval museums and sailing excursions. He majored in dramatic arts at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., where he roomed with future William Morris Endeavor agent and co-chief executive Ari Emmanuel, who still represents him; both moved to Los Angeles after graduation to start working in Hollywood.
Berg's career has taken unlikely turns, among TV and film and directing and acting, but the through-line is his hyper-masculine projects, often produced with surprising sensitivity. Catering truck and production assistant gigs eventually yielded to acting roles, which made use of Berg's athleticism and cocksure attitude -- he starred as a G.I. in the 1992 World War II drama "A Midnight Clear," a drug-dealing ski instructor in "Aspen Extreme" and a hockey-playing doctor on the TV medical drama "Chicago Hope."
As a writer and director, Berg continued to gravitate toward sports and testosterone, developing "Friday Night Lights," the 2004 film and the TV show about the high stakes of high school football in Texas, and directing "The Kingdom" in 2007, a thriller about a murder investigation in Saudi Arabia, and "Hancock," the Will Smith superhero movie, in 2008.
"I somewhere along the way became fascinated with exploring characters who are willing to put themselves into violent situations, whether it's football, hockey, boxing, being a cop, being a soldier," Berg said. "There's not a lot of people who are willing to put themselves into those situations, and I'm inspired by people who do. It's not about who's the toughest physically, it's about who's willing to last. I have a fire inside for that. I haven't found at this point in my life something that inspires me more. Maybe in five years it'll be a romantic comedy."