According to director Peter Berg, “Battleship,” an epic, sci-fi war movie with a $200 million budget, is an art house movie. At least that’s what Berg and “Battleship” star Alexander Skarsgard either (A) want you to believe or (B) told me as a practical joke that they are still laughing about.
I had the chance to talk with Berg and Skarsgard at the American International Toy Fair about their upcoming summer hopeful-blockbuster (opening May 18) and why the duo was interested in making a movie based on a popular board game. Oh, and there’s the matter of that quite gigantic budget…
This is different: a stand-up interview.
Berg: I’ve been sitting all day, take this.
Oh, I don’t need your chair.
Berg: Take it.
So, why are you doing a “Battleship” movie? I mean, you’re Peter Berg…
Berg: Well, it was my idea.
OK, that’s a good reason.
Berg: That’s the really fucked up part: I thought of it. I was like, “Hey, who wants to do a movie about “Battleship’? And they’re like, “Uh, that’s a crazy idea.” I grew up the son of a Naval historian. My dad schlepped me to every Navy museum in America. I love the Navy and I’ve always wanted to do a Navy film. I wanted to do John Paul Jones, who founded the American Navy, but I couldn’t get that together because “Master and Commander” came out. I wanted to do “In the Heart of the Sea,” which was the story of “Essex,” the whaling ship sunk by a whale — but the problem with that is it ended in cannibalism, they all eat each other.
I assume “Battleship” does not end that way.
Berg: It would be tough to get that one made. Then I wanted to do the “Indianapolis,” the ship that carried the nuclear bombs that we dropped on Japan in the Philippines, then it sunk and all of the men were eaten by sharks. That was too depressing. So I wanted to do a Navy film and I’m thinking, right now, in our business, there are these huge movies that are getting made — I wanted to make one of these big “super movies.” I thought, What if I create an adventure story around something as simple as “Battleship”? Ponder this when you write about the film: there’s a real interesting element. This game’s been around for 85 years. When you and I are gone, I guarantee it will still be around.
I’ve played it many times.
Berg: Simple, boring game. Right? I say “B5′ [points at Skarsgard] he says “hit.” When he says “hit,” something happens. I have figured out where he is and I try to kill him as violently and quickly and brutally as I can. He’s going to get desperate and try to find where I am and kill me. So the core of the game “Battleship,” is this very violent component, which is a great engine for a movie.
OK, Alexander, I know “Battleship” wasn’t your idea. What did you think when you first heard of the “Battleship” movie?
Skarsgard: Well, I was excited to work with Pete. And I think it was also an opportunity — it was right after “Melancholia,” so I had that experience of working with Lars von Trier…
A very different movie.
Skarsgard: Yeah, an art house movie.
Berg: We’re sort of an art house movie.
Skarsgard: Well, the thing is, in a way, yes.
OK, explain that.
Skarsgard: Well, with Pete being an actor himself, I knew that he’s a guy that could definitely do something that’s big, epic — but! — with real characters and real relationships. We actually care about these guys. You root for them; you want them to make it. I wouldn’t want to be in something big and epic just because it’s big and epic. If I don’t care about the characters, it’s not fun for me as an actor. And when we first met, Pete talked 30 percent about the scope of it and 70 percent about Stone Hopper, the guy I was going to play. And I’m not going to compare the movie to “Melancholia”…
But, yet, you are.
Skarsgard: You know, it was so fun and organic in front of the camera on “Battleship.” We were so free. And this is my first big studio movie and I didn’t know. I was like, “How is it with Universal? Do they micromanage you? If you want to change one word, do you have to get approval from 25 executives?” And Pete was like, “No. Creatively, they trust me and they’ll let me do this. If you have ideas, tell me and we’ll have fun with it.”
You have a very large budget for this film. Is that something you think about in a, “Well, I better come through.”
Berg: I’ve been making movies since I was a little kid in high school. The first movie I ever made was about a board game called “Stratego.” I made that film with some friends and, since then, every job I’ve had on a film set… I love making movies. I actually fucking love making movies, and I feel very fortunate to get to do it. And, for me, there’s not much difference. I know how much we’re spending in the back of my mind, but it’s really me working with him. It’s no different. It’s a camera and an actor trying to find a moment that is compelling. It’s not like they give you a bill at the end of the day.
Now, that would be horrifying.
Berg: That might be a little off-putting. But, you know, it’s like, you can’t go around thinking, Oh my God. You have to basically, like anything, just do what you know how to do and try to tell a good story. And try and help these guys do what they know how to do. And be real and compelling. Because the money goes in special effects. At the end of the day, it’s all of our belief that you’ll see some of the movie and you’ll know that we didn’t want to rely on the scope of the film. We wanted it to be human. We wanted emotion — and emotion “don’t cost nothin’.” Emotion is cheap. Who do you write for?
Berg: Hey [grabs a battleship off of the prototype Battleship game board] have a Battleship.
That’s very nice. Wait, are you supposed to be handing these out?
Oh, speaking of, will we hear the line, “You sunk my battleship”?
Berg: You might! You might.
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