Flashback – Interview: Peter Berg on “The Rundown,” His Abandoned “Truck 44,” and Embarking on “Friday Night Lights”

When the "Battleship" helmer was just starting to make a name for himself as an action director....Read More
Peter Berg and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson on the set of "The Rundown"

Originally published in the Daily Texan on September 24th, 2003. Before the “Battleship” director created one of my favorite TV shows of all time or even directed the film it was based on (“Friday Night Lights”), he directed one of the great unheralded action films of the 2000s. In retrospect, “The Rundown” may very well have been responsible for turning The Rock into a bonafide movie star, showing off a muscular charisma to go with those biceps, and paved the way for a career that few would’ve expected after the dark ensemble comedy “Very Bad Things.” With the release of the naturally unexpected “Battleship” this week, we thought it was time to revisit this interview in which Berg talks about his affection for action films, his unmade heist thriller “Truck 44,” and how he made The Rock feel comfortable on the set just as he started work on the “Friday Night Lights” feature.

“We’re going to need all the luck we can get,” said Peter Berg, the scruffy director of “The Rundown.”

He hasn’t had the easiest run of it. Berg, after all, is the writer/director behind the pitch black comedy “Very Bad Things” and the creator of the critically acclaimed but quickly cancelled ABC series “Wonderland” about a mental asylum. And although one would guess that he might’ve been discouraged when he was robbed at gunpoint along with members of his crew while doing location scouting for his latest film in Brazil’s Amazon jungle, but it’s obvious Berg is someone who likes a challenge.

Although Berg wasn’t the obvious choice for The Rock’s first full-fledged movie star turn apart from his introduction in the “Mummy” franchise, the actor-turned-director turns out to be the perfect fit for “The Rundown,” a rollicking adventure that displays Berg’s unbridled enthusiasm, eager to please audiences with one unbelievable trick up his sleeve after another with the story of a bounty hunter (The Rock) who needs to bring back his boss’ son (Seann William Scott) from South America.

It turns out, although the saying “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV” would apply to the former “Chicago Hope” star, Berg was really playing the actor who was in Los Angeles, biding his time to get his hands on a camera. Now that he has, he spoke to me about the long gap between his first film and “The Rundown,” how he learned to direct and his upcoming adaptation of the instantly classic Texas football book “Friday Night Lights.”

Why did it take so long for you to make another movie?

I did “Very Bad Things” and then after that, I went and did “Wonderland,” a TV series and that took a lot of time. After “Wonderland,” I was going to do a film called “Truck 44” that I had written about New York City firemen who feel kind of bored and underappreciated, and underpaid and decide to try rob a building by setting a small fire in it. Right as we were in pre-producttion, 9/11 came along and that derailed that film thoroughly, so it took me another eight to nine months to figure out exactly what I wanted to do. I’ve been busy, but the only thing I really have to show for it is “Wonderland” — nine episodes of a TV series of which only two aired.

Most people would consider this a departure for you. Why did you want to make an action movie?

I wanted to see if I could make a larger film and I do like action. But I also like to try and find other elements within an action film, like humor and character. That was my goal. Frankly, it wasn’t like I was getting hundreds of offers to go make Tom Cruise’s next action film. The executives at Universal had seen “Very Bad Things” and liked it a lot, and saw some of the little stuff there that made them think maybe I could handle bigger action, and they liked “Wonderland” a lot and one of them was much more dramatic, but they liked the character work. They took a big chance on me. They said do you want this? My feeling was that I just want to get in the game and I felt confident that if I had a good studio supporting me and they trusted me, I could find a way to make it all work.

I got a feeling from the movie that you watched action movies as a kid…

(nodding head) Tons.

… And just threw everything you ever wanted to see in one onscreen.

That’s right. I was really excited to really go for it, and to find my own breathing room within that genre to make it feel fresh. At the same time, I wanted to not have it be just straight-ahead action and I thought there was humor to be had there. Not only from Chris Walken, who was obviously a big part of it, but when I first met Rock, it was when he was hosting “Saturday Night Live.” I spent a couple days with him in New York and I saw how funny he was. I started looking at some of his old wrestling tapes, all the stuff that happens in the locker rooms and in the dressing rooms and the hallways, these scenes they improvise before and after the wrestling matches were just hilarious. He was just a really sharp performer, really quick on his feet and very nimble and able to improvise and I’m like, “This guy’s really, really talented.”

Since he’s coming into his own as an actor and you’re an actor coming into his own as a director, what kinds of things would you tell him to perhaps make him more comfortable?

Obviously, actors can be fragile and if you’re not careful, you can shake their confidence. With a big, strong guy like The Rock — Dwayne — he’s really Dwayne. He’s not The Rock. And if you’re not careful, you can freak him out and really hurt his confidence. You want to keep him outside of his own head. Like an athlete, you don’t want him to think too much about what he’s doing and want him to be relaxed and confident. The best aspect of my experience as an actor — the way I’ve been able to best use my experience as an actor to help other actors — is [that since] I’ve done it and been on both sides.

A lot of directors, especially directors when they’re first starting out, are intimidated. They’re not quite sure how to approach actors or what words to say to get what they want [or] how they even figure out what it is they want. Because I’ve done it, I’m not that intimidated by the actor and I can just get in there and talk to them very comfortably. With a guy like The Rock, or Seann, or even Chris Walken, they want to feel strong and secure about what they’re doing and if they do, they’ll really come alive.

What things did a larger budget allow you to do as a director and what limitations did such a budget have on you creatively?

There’s always limitations. There were a lot of things that we wanted that we didn’t get. But we have effects shots in “The Rundown” that literally cost more than the entire budget of “Very Bad Things.” So it was thrilling for me to come up with epic, spectacular visual shots and suddenly find groups of people surrounding me to help me bring those to the screen. I never had that luxury doing “Very Bad Things.” That was a sprint, just get it over with as quickly as possible and pray for luck and try and get as much coverage as you can before they pull the plug, and they pulled it pretty quickly. “The Rundown,” they gave me the time and the resources to be able to be more visual, to be able to take a little bit of time. You still have to work quickly, but to get the shots, to get the angles. But when there’s that much money on the line, there’s pressure to get it, and whether it’s a $1 million film or a $100 million film, the director really has to fight to get anything beyond what’s easy to get. It’s a constant battle to get the interesting shots.

Each of the three things you’ve done have a different style. Do you think it’s important to have a signature as a director?

It’s important to allow your creative energy to be felt in whatever it is you do. In the work that I like, there is a sense of personality of the filmmaker. You see a Martin Scorsese film and you feel the man. You see a Soderbergh film and you feel his creativity. Not to compare myself with either of those two filmmakers, but I try in my own way to put myself in what I do. Without that, you end up with something that feels more generic. If you can do it, you have a unique way of touching your audience.

Did you pick up anything from “Chicago Hope” or from filmmakers you worked with as an actor?

That was my film school. I moved to L.A. about 15 years ago and I acted in college a bit and that’s how my career started, but my intention was to go to AFI Film School and to be a filmmaker. For 10 odd years, I had been an actor doing a little bit of writing and I worked with a lot of directors — especially with “Chicago Hope.” I did three-and-a-half years on that show and worked with about 70 directors, guys most people have never heard of, but they’re really talented people. Watching 70 different directors with 70 different styles, that’s like every week getting to make a mini-movie. I just was always on that set, watching and talking and learning and directing and I learned from the ones I loved. I learned from the ones I didn’t love as much, but it was the best film school I ever could’ve gone to.

“Friday Night Lights” is next?

Hopefully. I’m really excited. (Knock on wood.) I don’t know if you know the history of it, but it’s been around for about 12 years and there have been five different directors, including Richard Linklater, who wrote a really great draft of the script. For a variety of reasons, it’s been a really tough movie to make. We’re as close as its ever been and I’m going to shut the door on this one.

Is it difficult because “Varsity Blues” told a similar story?

“Varsity Blues” just ripped off “Friday Night Lights” and took the most derivative and sophomoric elements. I’m going to film football just like absolute combat and capture the chaos of football.

You’ve been visiting schools around Austin in recent days. Do the kids seem really excited about it here?

It’s interesting. I was just in Odessa yesterday and we screened [“The Rundown”] for Permian High two nights ago. One of the reasons I think the movie is more makeable today is because there’s a lot of emotion surrounding the book. Particularly up there in Odessa. When it came out, people were pissed. There was a feeling of betrayal by the community, which is understandable, although I don’t think it’s entirely accurate. The book was written in ‘89, and came out in ’90, so people have either forgotten or a lot of the kids haven’t read the book, or if they have, it almost feels like it was about another time or place. Enough time has passed so those emotions have cooled.

I first went up there four years ago, thinking about doing it and there was still some heat to the emotion. Now people are just really excited about it. I have encountered some skepticism and some anxiety, and generally after speaking to people and telling them my take on it and how I see it, people are pretty calm and excited about the possibility of the movie being made. Certainly in Austin, where there’s a sense of distance, everyone’s thrilled, everyone I’ve spoken to — every football coach, every football rep, every kid that has read the book is thoroughly pumped.

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