Hollywood Heavy: Peter Berg

Photo: Patrick McMullan

Peter Berg is one of the most recognizable directors in Hollywood, but that’s only because he used to be on TV (Chicago Hope). Since then, he’s directed the movie of Friday Night Lights, executive-produced the TV series that returns for its second season on October 5, and just released the thriller The Kingdom, set in Saudi Arabia. He spoke to Hugo Lindgren about Muslims, multitasking, and leaning on Jeff Zucker.

The Kingdom has tons of explosions and stunts—how do you learn to manage all that?
I’ve had every job you could have on a movie set. I was a grip, a prop man, a stand-in, a PA. The key to big action sequences is having a vision for what you want. Way before we started, I had beers with our stunt coordinator, playing with toy cars like little kids, and I’m telling him, “This car will hit that car, and it will swerve and twist.”

Do you think the film has a political message?
I hope that it’s pretty clear that the movie doesn’t support religious extremism, but that it does support dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims.

But it doesn’t portray Saudi society in general very positively.
Yeah, if there was a tourism department of the Saudi government, which there’s not, I bet we’d be getting some phone calls from them right about now. But The Kingdom presents the most optimistic and moderate portrayal of an Arab character that I’ve ever seen in a film.

What’s your input these days on Friday Night Lights?
I watch the rough cut of every show, and generally I love everything they’re doing, so my role is to be a fan. Every once in a while, I’ll have an opinion on something.

Like what?
There’s something very dramatic and violent that happens in the first episode. I encouraged the producers to carefully consider what the impact of that would be. I didn’t want it to appear that we were being sensational.

What was it like in the summer when it wasn’t clear that the show was coming back?
Let’s just say I was on Jeff Zucker’s phone list repeatedly. There wasn’t a lot of subtlety. It was, “Jeff, you got to pick up the fucking show.” And he would say, “I hear you.” And I’d say, “No, Jeff, I’m serious, you’ve got to pick up the fucking show.”

Did you make nice when he picked it up?
I sent him a bathrobe that says MR. ZUCKER.

What’s your next movie?
It’s called Hancock. Will Smith plays an alcoholic superhero who’s trying to get his life back on track.

What superpowers does he have?
He can fly, he’s bulletproof, he’s very strong, and he’s incredibly sarcastic.

That sounds like quite a change of pace from the Middle East.
I wanted to make a movie that my 7-year-old son could see. The Kingdom is too violent; he couldn’t see any of it. He was very upset with me about that. He tried to convince me that he’s old enough to handle realistic portrayals of violence and that it won’t cause psychological problems. But I don’t buy it.

Do you let him watch Friday Night Lights?
Oh, sure.

The Kingdom
Universal Pictures

Hollywood Heavy: Peter Berg