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."
Berg's next film after "Hancock" was to be an even more adrenalized subject — an adaptation of "Lone Survivor," a harrowing 2007 memoir by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the only member of his team to survive a 2005 ambush in Afghanistan. As research for the project, Berg embedded for a month with Navy SEALs in western Iraq — where he said he witnessed another deadly operation — and conducted dozens of interviews with SEALs and their families.
"Some people live and breathe Hollywood and hate to leave it," said Berg's producing partner Sarah Aubrey. "Pete is the opposite. He's a genuinely curious person about things outside of our business. He approaches any group, whether it's the Navy or a group of high school football coaches who are at the top of their game, with this open, honest enthusiasm and he listens a lot."
"Lone Survivor" didn't look like a crowd pleaser in 2009 — war-on-terrorism movies, including Berg's own "The Kingdom," had largely disappointed at the box office — and Universal asked Berg to first take on a project with more obvious commercial potential, "Battleship." (Though it's centered on the Navy and features many real-life veterans, "Battleship" makes no reference to the U.S. military's recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.)
Following on the other Hasbro toy-inspired film franchises "Transformers" and "G.I. Joe," the idea of a "Battleship" movie was met early on with some hoots of derision — James Cameron, for one, called relying on board games for stories a sign of Hollywood's "desperation." In many ways, however, Berg and his team were starting from scratch with this intellectual property, with no back story to draw upon. Battleship, first sold as a board game by Milton Bradley in 1967, has evolved into computer, video and cellphone app variations but remains essentially a guessing game.
"The game is so simple and so random," Berg said. "It was a creative balance to try to figure out how can we reference the game in a way that answers some of our critics a bit."
Berg met with a game psychiatrist about Battleship's appeal for players, learning that much of it came from the way opponents slowly reveal themselves to each other.
"You don't know who I am, I don't know who you are and through the course of the game we discover each other," Berg said. "There's something addictive that happens when you find me. The next hook is, as soon as you find me, your goal is to kill me as brutally and ruthlessly and as quickly as possible."
To duplicate the blind reveal element of the game, Berg added a plot line in which the Navy loses its traditional tracking methods of radar and sonar and must rely instead on tsunami detection buoys — equipped with beacons and positioned in a grid-like fashion — to find the enemy ships.
Another early puzzle was how to incorporate an actual battleship into the film — the modern Navy no longer relies on battleships to slug it out on the open ocean, instead deploying the smaller destroyers to protect its aircraft carriers. By a twist of luck, the USS Missouri, which is permanently docked in Pearl Harbor as a museum, was to be moved for repairs and Berg would have an opportunity to film it on the open sea in early 2010. The filmmakers crafted a third-act battle sequence that would require the old ship and cast Navy veterans in Hawaii — some in their 90s — to help save the world.
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