I can report to you with some confidence that the aliens in Battleship do not look like skinned crabchickens or fucked up spiders or anything like that. Peter Berg's scifi adaptation of the Milton Bradley board game features three classes of aliens, and the one that I saw, in maquette form, wouldn't look out of place in the world of Halo. In fact the one I saw, the brute shock trooper type, wears armor reminscent of Master Chief.
He was a maquette, and someone had stuck a stogie in his mouth; it truly looked like it belonged there. These are good old fashioned anthropomorphized aliens, and they're not the savage mindless beings we've seen so much of in movies like Cowboys and Aliens and Super 8. There are the soldiers but there are also scientists, and there are administrators as well. And these aliens have a purpose that is very understandable.
Peter Berg explains the mindset of these aliens: "If you meet him his interest is not to kill you. He's not really interested in you. He's just interested in the minerals and the resources of your planet. If you get in his way he'll kill you without prejudice, for the most part."
In other words, they're an awful lot like us.
Back in June I had a chance to visit the editing room of Battleship, which is located in Santa Monica, at Berg's Film 44 offices. Berg showed off some clips from the film - many of which made it into the trailer that you have already seen - and talked frankly about the film, and why he's making it.
I was talking to my partner and I said, 'I think the future of our business are these big, special FX, global movies: these five-quadrant films that go out all around the world at the same time and have a huge impact and a huge audience. I want to make one. I want to be in that business.'
And now he's knee deep in it. Berg's background is almost exclusively in practical effects and more human stories, and he's found the adjustment to the big CGI blockbuster requires him to rethink his approach.
It definitely requires a different gear in terms of patience. I've just had to accept the fact that, 'Okay, if I want to see something it's going to be a couple of weeks and it probably won't be kind of what we talked about,' but it will eventually start to come. We're starting to see it now. It's really not unlike sculpting, like if you had to do a big wood sculpture out of this block right here. If you're paying someone a lot of money to do it and you have a couple of guys chiseling you come in after a few hours and nothing is done. You come in two days later and nothing. Four days nothing. Two weeks nothing. Four weeks and it's like, 'Wait a minute. That does look like a head. It's not great, but at least it's a head. Now there's an arm. There's a body.' It's a slow reveal. I tend to be kind of impatient and a little hyper and I want to see it and if I say, 'Okay, lets go do this,' I'm used to it being done. When you do a dramatic film it's amazing how quickly you can cut. This requires patience. It has been frustrating and a bit of unnerving because you don't know if it's going to work and then slowly, like with ILM they deliver and it starts to work.
It was the work of James Cameron and Michael Bay that convinced Berg to take the leap into event filmmaking, but why the hell Battleship? When the movie was announced most people were sort of incredulous - after all, Battleship isn't a game known for its strong narrative elements.
Well, look, there's no doubt that in today's world, film world, unless you're Jim Cameron and you've got a lot of time and an incredible amount of money to put a project together, if you look at films that are being made at this budget it's a huge risk for these companies. I mean, it's a real, bona fide risk that puts a lot of jobs at risk, a lot of children's medical insurance and dental, orthodontists and summer camps. The trickle down effect, the amount of money being spent on these films is massive. So, the idea of going alone, whether it's Harry Potter, it's Pirates of the Caribbean having at least some brand familiarity with the Disneyland ride, it's Transformers, obviously it's everything that Marvel and DC are doing; none of these guys are going completely alone. Jim Cameron, hat off to him, he is. No one else is at this budget level.
So you get the advantage of, like, 'I'm going to be able to call it Battleship.' Well, so what, there's no script there. I mean, people forget that when Pirates of the Caribbean was first pitched as a movie it was lacerated by the media, like, 'What? That absurd thing at Disneyland?' It was the same with Transformers. 'These little cheap things?' So, it's wonderful to have the brand and to have that leg up. I appreciate it, but it's absolutely zero help when it comes to solving all the creative problems. Certainly everything you saw, there's nothing that you guys saw, if you looked closely there are some weapons that the aliens were firing that may or may not resemble pegs when they hit. Other than that there's absolutely nothing there that you're getting from the game. It is the most creatively challenging story that I've ever had to do.
What will make Battleship unique among the glut of FX-driven blockbusters is the fact that Berg is bringing a level of realism and Naval cooperation to the film. His father was a WWII historian and a naval fanatic, and Berg himself wrote papers about some of the deciding naval battles of WWII. What's more, he's been shooting on real Navy ships (which presents its own problems, as these ships were not designed with camera crews in mind). Yeah, it's going to be a movie about aliens invading the Earth, but for Berg the fun is being as realistic as possible in that scenario.
I'm really into the modern navy and the capabilities of these ships are so incredible and have never been filmed before. I thought it would make for a much fresher movie experience to see a modern navy, to see people that are from our time engaging in naval warfare.
I'm a patriot and I love the military and really support the military a lot. The men and women that serve I support very strongly and the Navy understands that. So, they were willing to kind of open their doors to me, knowing that I would want to do something and get it right. We're making a film about a navy engaging aliens. So, they understand that there's a certain amount of a giant leap of logic and reality that's inherent. There's no rulebook in the navy [for this]. There's rulebooks for, 'If we encounter a hostile North Korean sub what do we do? If we ram a Japanese fishing boat what do we do?' Well, we're coming into contact with a five ship alien fleet. The rulebook is pretty much out at that point. So, they were willing to kind of let me play my own game a little bit as long as we were accurately presenting, like, what would you try and do. Sometimes, like, the stuff you just saw where if they come into contact with a ship that's not showing up on radar, what would they do. First, they'd try and query it. 'Vessel bearing 273, this is the United States Navy,' and they don't respond, well then they'll try and board it. That's what happens. That doesn't go then they're going to warn it and they're going to fire a warning shot. There's a level of increments in terms of how the escalation to conflict starts. They want to make sure that was done accurately, and for me that was a pleasure because I think that's real interesting. It's interesting to see how a Navy ship would approach. I never really knew that. We don't just run up and sink something. We're not allowed to do that. We have to try and be peaceful and especially lethal violence is a last resort. Any time there were weapons being fired they would want to make sure that we justified those weapons being fired. We filmed a lot of real Navy ships, a lot of real sailors. We had Navy consultants all over our ships because they speak their own language, like, 'What would you do here? How would you ask for this information?' And they're real happy with that and I was really happy to be able to bring that kind of reality to it. Throughout it we maintain a real sense of this is how the Navy would react to this.
Of course it all comes down to the experience - how much fun is it going to be? I can't answer that question; much of the footage I saw was from the first act, all of it setting up characters and bringing the Navy to its first encounter with an alien ship. What happens next is the meat of the story, but I can tell you that most of the nitpicks and concerns the public have about the scenario have, at some point, been addressed. This isn't a wholesale invasion, just a recon mission. The alien ships create a dome of silence around the heroic naval fleet, cutting them off not only from communications but also basic radar and GPS. And most interestingly, this is as much a surprise for the aliens as it is for us - they've been to many planets, but have never met this level of resistance.
Imagine Transformers without all of the Sam Witwicky crap and with less goofy, unfunny comedy. That's the feeling I got from the edit bay visit to Battleship. Will that be how the film plays out? We'll see in May of 2012.