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Peter Berg takes command of 'Battleship' action

By Rebecca Keegan

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Published: Thursday, May 17 2012 5:01 p.m. MDT

In this film publicity image released by Universal Pictures, Tadanobu Asano, left, and Taylor Kitsch are shown in a scene from "Battleship. (AP Photo/Universal Pictures)

Uncredited, Associated Press

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.

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."

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