Director Spotlight: Peter Berg
Wed, 30 Jul 2008 13:47:23
Seann William Scott Photos
Peter Berg Videos
Will Smith’s son’s favorite day of the year is the Fourth of July because, in the kiddo’s own words, that’s the day his daddy gets paid. Just about every year since Independence Day a new Will Smith vehicle drops on America’s birthday, and when that happens, he cleans up. This summer was no different with Smith in the titular role of Hancock, one of 2008’s major successes. But while the Fresh Prince provided the face that hooked moviegoers on opening weekend, a film doesn’t rack up almost $400 million worldwide over the span of a month without generating some pretty good word of mouth. To examine that phenomenon, you have to look behind the camera. Enter Hancock’s director, Peter Berg.
He’s a twenty year veteran of the industry, and like most directors, he didn’t just step off the bus and start helming features. Berg cut his teeth in entertainment as an actor. True blue fans of Johnny Depp might remember one of Berg’s very first roles on 21 Jump Street; for the uninitiated, I’m talking about Stephen J. Cannell’s 80s TV drama about undercover cops posing as school kids, not Jonah Hill’s upcoming faux ironic feature remake. Berg’s next big role came a year later in 1989 as the protagonist in Wes Craven’s cult classic Shocker, a slasher flick about a convicted murderer who rides the lightning in the state’s electric chair not to his death, but to an electric afterlife in which his murderous inclinations are amplified through supernatural powers—think Nightmare on Elm Street meets Helter Skelter or a perfectly aged cheese. Ah, they just don’t make movies like Shocker anymore. But Berg wasn’t done scaring us just yet, as evidenced by Fire in the Sky, a largely overlooked thriller about a true life alien abduction report from 1975. Berg rounded out an ensemble cast of journeyman character actors like Robert Patrick (Terminator 2: Judgment Day), D.B. Sweeney (The Cutting Edge), Henry Thomas (E.T.), Craig Sheffer (A River Runs Through It), and James Garner (effing everything), and this film comes highly recommended to any who haven’t seen it. Another underappreciated winner came a year later in 1994’s The Last Seduction, a sexy suspense story with Bill Pullman and Linda Fiorentino (who might have been the hottest woman of ’94-’95; check her out—all of her—in ‘95’s Jade). Berg chose interesting roles (or they chose him, however it worked out) because what followed were a slew of memorable movies in many different genres. He played one of the callers in Spike Lee’s offbeat examination of the phone sex industry, Girl 6. He played the great white hope in director Reggie Hudlin and writer Ron Shelton’s boxing comedy, The Great White Hype. And he stood eye to eye with the monster cast of Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Sylvester Stallone, and Robert De Niro in the critically acclaimed police drama Cop Land. Since then, he’s had two SAG nods in the Best Ensemble Cast category for his contribution as Dr. Billy Cronk in CBS’ Chicago Hope, an excellent two episode arc in J.J. Abrams’ Alias, and even got the holy Buddha shot out of his keister by Joe Carnahan’s lovable neo-Nazi assassins-for-hire, the Tremor Brothers, in Smokin’ Aces.
Maybe it’s his career as an actor that makes Berg such a damn good director. Unlike a lot of helmsmen these days who come from music videos and focus more on the technical end of screen craft, he understands the acting process. Not that there’s anything wrong with music video directors making their way to features. After all, David Fincher got his start directing Paula Abdul. But not every director coming from that medium has the chops to pull off Se7en or Fight Club. There’s a lot more to filmmaking than just moving a camera around the way cool ‘splosions, and this is something Berg understands. He elicits outstanding performances from his talent in everything from lighthearted popcorn fare like The Rundown to heavy political thrillers like The Kingdom. Which is not to say that he doesn’t know how to move a camera around the way cool ‘splosions either; anyone who saw those two films knows that this is a director who can deliver solid action.
Peter Berg’s amassed an impressive resume in his first ten years calling the shots. His first film is one you’ve probably seen and hate to admit how much you like—Very Bad Things. A dark comedy so vile, so despicable, so irreverent, you probably won’t know you like this flick until the second time you see it. Not only did he direct this one, he wrote it, too. He didn’t strike again until 2003 with The Rundown, but it was worth the wait. For fans of the action genre, this was a blue ribbon. You got Seann William Scott for comic relief. You got Christopher Walken playing the heavy. You got to ogle Rosario Dawson. And you got the WWF’s only third generation wrestler proving to the world that he was more than just a sports entertainer; no, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a bonafide star. Berg showed much respect to the action genre at the top of The Rundown when The Rock passes Arnold Schwarzenegger and the mighty governor quips, “Have fun.” Clearly, Berg’s a filmmaker who understands the context of things on many levels, and it was a thrill to see Arnold pass the action torch. A year later, Berg released his magnum opus, Friday Night Lights, one of the best films of the decade. You don’t have to like Texas, football, or any combination thereof to enjoy this poignant drama based on H.G. Bissinger’s best-selling novel. Sports Illustrated called it the best film ever made about football. This was another film in which Berg flexed his pen; he shares the writing credit with David Aaron Cohen. After trying to make Friday Night Lights into a TV series, one which was cancelled regardless of critical acclaim, Berg returned to the silver screen in 2007 with The Kingdom, a political thriller which makes quite a statement about the precarious balance of world affairs, and just this summer with Hancock, a post-modern superhero movie which bears the distinction of being the only successful superhero film which isn’t based on a preexisting comic book.
Berg does receive his fair share of criticism too, and it’s usually in the form of one jibe—he bites his style from Michael Mann. This is a notion as unfair as it’s easily disabused. The only two films that feel stylistically similar to those of Mann’s canon are The Kingdom and Hancock. The next time you hear someone make this critique, ask them if they know who produced those two films. They win an oatmeal cookie if they answer Michael Mann. As everyone knows, a producer has a great deal of creative influence into the final product of a film, so there’s a very good reason you may come away from Hancock feeling the Miami Vice vibe. Another reason why the criticism is unfair is that Berg is a far more economic director than Mann. And I’m not speaking of budget, I mean the economy of storytelling. Berg can cover far more ground in far less time. No disrespect toward Michael Mann—work like Heat and The Insider stand in a class unto itself—but this is a director who can never create a film that runs less than two hours whereas Berg’s quick-cut handheld style allows him to cover a great deal of information in an insanely compressed timeline. Take Friday Night Lights, for example. He took a book covering an entire season of football filled with at least fifteen major characters, serviced them all, left no stone unturned, and got you out of the theatre inside two hours, credits and all. The only other place I’ve seen such athletic storytelling is in the prose of writers like Richard Matheson or Ernest Hemingway.
And it looks like there are nothing but good things on Berg’s horizon. He’s in pre-production on a sci-fi show for the small screen called Virtuality with Ronald Moore. If you don’t know who Ronald Moore is, then you must not be watching Battlestar Galactica, the best show on pay cable since Shawn Ryan stopped writing The Shield. A mistake easily remedied through Blockbuster, Netflix, or TiVo. Berg and Moore will form like Voltron into a massive entity of awesomeness when they bring to life the tale of a deep space crew of explorers who use virtual reality modules to pass the time until a diabolical glitch in the system ruins the party. In addition, he’s attached to direct three films, all of which hold equal promise. The first is Universal and Working Title’s Bran Mak Morn, which sounds like a new high fiber breakfast cereal. Don’t let the title throw you; it’s actually a character from the considerable desk of Robert E. Howard, the same creative genius who gave us Conan almost 80 years ago. Bran’s like the bastard child of Conan and Blackbeard the Pirate, and many of the Conan the Barbarian comics which Roy Thomas wrote for Marvel in the 70s and 80s were actually appropriated from the Bran catalog. Berg’s also on board Paramount’s Dune, which will be less a remake of David Lynch’s sci-fi salad, more a faithful adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel. Expect people to love and hate this one, just like when Lynch’s came out. And finally, he just jumped on board Universal and Spyglass’ Hercules: The Thracian Wars. Unfortunately Lou Ferrigno’s too busy looking stacked to star in the latest tale of Zeus’s favorite son, but with a story based on Steve Moore’s comic and Peter Berg sitting in the director’s chair, smart money says this will be the best sword and sandals epic since 300.
So if you’re not familiar with Peter Berg, go rent some of the movies he’s directed. There’s not a dud in the bunch. Or better yet, instead of going to see The Dark Knight for a second (or third) time, try out a superhero you don’t already know like Hancock. Do it for Peter Berg. Do it for Will Smith and his son and the Fourth of July. Do it for America, dammit.
—Jacob J. Mauldin