Peter Berg was in the midst of a busy career as a character actor when he made the transition to movie directing ten years ago with Very Bad Things. It might be hard for anyone to make a connection between that dark comedy and his fourth movie The Kingdom–aside from an appearance by Jeremy Piven–but it continues Berg’s streak as a director to contend with after the success of 2004′s Friday Night Lights.
The Kingdom is a serious political thriller on par with the works of Winterbottom and Greengrass, starring Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman as FBI experts sent to Saudi Arabia to investigate a suicide bombing that killed hundreds of Americans including a number of fellow agents. It’s a movie that starts out literally with an explosion, turns into something akin to “CSI: Saudi Arabia” with its look at the harsh realities of the Middle East, but ultimately evolves into a stunning action movie right up there with “Black Hawk Down.”
The movie is a week away from release, but Berg has already moved on to his next project, the Will Smith superhero flick Hancock, which may have been why he sounded so exhausted when he talked to ComingSoon.net in this exclusive phone interview.
ComingSoon.net: Does it feel like you’ve come a long way since “Very Bad Things”?
Peter Berg: It doesn’t really feel that way. It feels like it’s just been one long ride, to tell you the truth. I really started in high school, it’s been going, so it doesn’t feel like a departure. It just feels like a continuation.
CS: Was this loosely based on the 1995 bombing in Saudi Arabia?
Berg: I read Louis Freeh’s book, it’s called “My FBI” and in one of the chapters, he talked about the complexities of sending the FBI to Saudi Arabia to investigate a bombing, and it was the Khobar Tower Bombings that he was referring to, but the idea of staging a film around a homicide investigation in a country as foreign and different from our culture as Saudi Arabia seemed like a cool idea for a movie.
CS: I know you didn’t go shoot there, but do you think the country has changed a lot since that incident?
Berg: I was there for 2 weeks doing research, and if it’s changed, it’s become much more buttoned-down as far as security goes. There’s such a threat to Saudi Arabia from Saudi religious extremists that the country really feels like it’s desperately trying to become–I wouldn’t say more Western, but certainly a part of the modern business world. I mean, capitalism is desperately trying to take a hold there and is taking a hold, but at the same time, the threats from within are so high that the security is massive everywhere you go.
CS: Is that still considered one of the most dangerous places for Americans to go?
Berg: Saudi Arabia? I didn’t see any Americans or Westerners there, no. It’s the home of Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 hijackers, and that presents a certain P.R. problem.
CS: At what point did you go to Universal with the idea to make the movie? Were there any issues when you presented it to them?
Berg: I think the biggest issues were that they were concerned that we not make a film that was primarily leading with its politics. They wanted to know if we could make it entertaining for mass audiences, and I felt we could.
CS: I liked how you used the documentary format at the beginning, switched to a crime procedural and then turned into this amazing action movie at the end. Was it difficult to balance those elements and figure out where to make the switch?
Berg: I kind of like shooting that style. Most of my work has been in that style. I’m comfortable shooting handheld cameras and we designed the script so that there would be a pretty aggressive sequence at the end, and something that provided the audience with a real visceral rush. We wanted to do that, so it was all pretty intentional.
CS: How did you wind up finding Matthew Carnahan to work with him on the script?
Berg: I had read a script that he wrote called “Soldier’s Field” which was his first script, and I loved it. [He's a] really smart writer who writes very good action, and is politically savvy, and he was just by far my first choice for it.
CS: Was that first script of his ever produced or it’s being made?
Berg: It never got made.
CS: How did you work with him on it? Did you give him an outline of what you wanted?
Berg: We just talked for several weeks about the basic idea, then I hooked him up with a bunch of FBI agents and political experts and sent him off, and he came back two months later with the script.
CS: Did he go to Saudi Arabia with you on that research trip?
Berg: He didn’t go to Saudi Arabia.
CS: And Michael Mann also became involved as a producer very early on?
Berg: Yeah, Michael Mann was the first person I talked to about the film, and then when we went and talked to a guy named Scott Stuber, who was the president of Universal at the time, who bought the script, and then Scott decided he wanted to be a producer and leave the studio, and we asked him to come on and be a producer with us.
CS: And you were working on “Friday Night Lights” around the same time this was all developing?
Berg: Yeah, we were shooting “Friday Night Lights” while Matt was finishing the script.
CS: Was it hard balancing the two things, considering that they’re very different types of movies?
Berg: As long as I get six hours of sleep, I have no trouble balancing things. If I don’t get six hours, I get pretty nasty.
CS: Did you or Matt base any of the characters on real people in the FBI?
Berg: No, they were all completely made-up.
CS: Did you spend any time with female FBI agents?
Berg: Yeah, we spent a lot of time in both the DC field office and the L.A. field office, and we met with dozens of agents. We went to their bomb facility out in Pasadena. We met many female agents and agents of all shapes and sizes.
CS: I want to talk about the cast a bit, because Jennifer Garner was very impressive in this role, though anyone who saw her on “Alias” knows that she can do this type of thing. Can you talk about how you thought of her and some of the rest of the cast?
Berg: Well, Bateman and Foxx, I wanted actors who could be moved through comedy and drama and could find ways of being serious in the same moment they were being funny, and with Garner, there’s just not a lot of actresses–I think it’s her and Jodie Foster–who possess that kind of beauty and intelligence and are capable of violence and action. She was a pretty obvious choice for me, and then [Chris] Cooper was someone I’ve just admired my whole career, and the thought of working with him, it’s kind of like one that you’d like to check off your list that you’ve worked with. Guys like him and Chris Walken are so good and so solid, and it was a thrill to work with him.
CS: How much of this did you shoot in Arizona and how much did you shoot in the Middle East?
Berg: We shot probably 80% of it Arizona, and then we shot for two weeks in Abu Dhabi in the Middle East.
CS: How was it split up? Did you actually build Arab villages in Arizona?
Berg: We built part of one, but most of the big exterior shots were all done in the Middle East.
CS: Was it hard finding actors and extras in Arizona to play the Saudi roles, like the police?
Berg: You know, it was surprisingly easy. We found a huge Arab population in Arizona, and we had these great Arab actors coming in and out of our set all the time. It kind of blew my mind how many good Arab actors there were right there in Arizona.
CS: I can understand there being an Arab community, but finding enough of them to act in a movie must have been tough.
Berg: Well, you know, [finding some] that looked good and could say enough lines to play some of the smaller parts.
CS: Ashraf Barhoum was amazing in this, and I didn’t put two and two together and place him as the actor from “Paradise Now,” which is an amazing film. Did that movie have a big impact on you to have cast both actors?
Berg: I loved it, loved it. I met them both. I met almost all of the actors from “Paradise Now” and I thought that Ashraf was just perfect for the role of Al-Ghazi. I’m very proud of his work in that movie, and Ali did great for the younger cop.
CS: Had you seen Jason Bateman do other dramatic stuff before this? He’s been doing more comedy recently, so I was surprised by how serious he gets in the movie.
Berg: But I’ve known Jason for a long time. I always expect that under the great comic actors lie really great dramatic performances, and most comics that I know are really dramatic, intense people most of the time, so I think it’s interesting to take guys like Adam Sandler in “Punch Drunk Love” and Jim Carrey’s done some good dramatic work. Take guys like that and give them really intense dramatic meat to bite into.
CS: Jamie Foxx is another case, having started at a comedian but finding a way to blend the two things.
Berg: Yes, for sure.
CS: How did he get involved? Did Michael bring him on board?
Berg: Michael had just finished “Collateral” and I’ve known Jamie for a long time. We all kind of agreed that Jamie would be perfect. We all wanted him.
CS: The movie doesn’t really pull punches at all, so was anyone at Universal or even the MPAA nervous about some of what’s shown?
Berg: You know, Universal has been a great home for me. It started with “Friday Night Lights”, when they easily could have asked me to change the ending of that movie and have the team win and they didn’t do that. They never asked me to tone it down or to watch myself. Obviously, if Jason Bateman’s head had come off, that probably would have been a problem, but they let me make a hard-R movie and never really interfered at all, and I’m thankful for that.
CS: Have you had a chance to show the movie to any FBI agents yet?
Berg: Oh, yeah. We’ve started showing it to a lot of people, FBI agents, we’ve shown it to Saudis. We’ve had great reaction from the FBI in particular.
CS: Do you generally do a lot of test screenings with your films to see what works with an audience?
Berg: Yes lots. We started in January, and because of the success of the first couple of test screenings, they decided to push the release date from May to September, to give themselves more time to figure out how to sell it.
CS: Did you do a lot of work on the movie in that time or did you finish it up and move onto the next thing?
Berg: No, you know we did a little bit more editing but then we locked it, and I’ve been on working on another film for the last three months.
CS: Universal was nice enough to announce your next project “Lone Survivor” before this interview, so will you be starting that soon?
Berg: I’m doing a movie called “Hancock” right now, that’s a Will Smith movie about an alcoholic superhero, and I’m in the middle of shooting that, and then as soon as that’s over, I start writing “Lone Survivor.”
CS: How’s “Hancock” been going?
Berg: Fun. Will Smith’s fantastic.
CS: Is that going back to doing more comedic stuff?
Berg: No, it’s more of a drama with a little bit of dark comedy thrown in.
CS: Is that going to be out this year?
Berg: No, July 4, next July 4th. [Editors note: The exact date is July 2]
CS: Makes sense, since for a long time that was his weekend until others started taking it.
Berg: He owns July 4, he’s getting it back.
CS: What was “Lone Survivor” about?
Berg: Well, the book just blew [me away].. have you read the book?
CS: No, I haven’t unfortunately.
Berg: It’s an extraordinary story, and I certainly like doing films that are related to current events. I wanted to do a war film for a long time. This is just a remarkable story about an experience of two dozen or so Navy Seals went through, most of whom were killed, and this really complicated tale of survival on the part of one Seal, and it’s just a great story with lot of drama and a lot of action.
CS: Are you going to have a chance to spend some time with Marcus Luttrell himself?
Berg: Yeah, I have spent some [time] and next week, we’re screening “The Kingdom” for the Navy Seals down in Coranado.
CS: You’re also producing “The Losers” which Tim Story is directing and that also has a military angle.
Berg: That’s something they’re going to do. I’m just producing it. That’s more of a fantasy story. It’s based on an English graphic novel. It’s not real like “Lone Survivor.” It’s slightly stylized fantasy, but it’s really good.
CS: Do you still have time for acting with all these movies you’re making?
Berg: I do. I’m acting in “Lions for Lambs.” I have a pretty good part in Redford’s new film that Matt Carnahan wrote. I love acting, and it’s now something if it’s a good contained part and a director I like, I’ll jump on it.
CS: You’re able to make time in your schedule or is it more of a matter of timing on their part?
Berg: Yeah, it has to line up, but if it lines up and they want me, I’m in.
CS: I’m looking forward to seeing that, and I’m impressed that the Carnahan family has produced two really good writers. I don’t know what they fed them as kids.
Berg: Those guys are super-talented.
CS: Do you think there’s ever a chance of seeing a “Rundown 2″?
Berg: You know, we’ve talked about it, but no one can ever get motivated and focused enough to do it. I’d love to do one. That was a really fun movie to make.
CS: They’ve tried a lot of those kinds of things in recent years, but the combination of those two guys really worked and was very entertaining. Would you want to do a sequel if they wanted to make it on a lower budget?
Berg: Yeah, they did a good job. You know, if they come to me, I’d be open for anything, because I loved making that movie, loved it.
The Kingdom opens everywhere on September 28.