The battle for Earth—as it materialized in Peter Berg’s brain—actually began in a museum.
Decades before Berg was calling the shots on the set of this summer’s big-budget, science-fiction offering Battleship, he was traipsing through the halls of Naval museums with his father, a former Marine and naval history buff.
So when you see singer-turned-actor Rihanna gritting her teeth as she unleashes a barrage of rounds toward alien aggressors from the deck of the fictional USS John Paul Jones this summer, you’ll have Lieutenant Lawrence Berg to thank.
“The idea of Battleship—and doing something with a modern naval twist—was something that I never would have come to if it hadn’t been for my father schlepping me to every Navy museum [in] every town we were ever in,” Berg said. “[He] always just instilled a real sense of awe and respect in the Navy. These men who were so brave who would go out pre-advanced radar, pre-sonar, with limited rescue capabilities and … put it all on the line. And that really registered and made a strong impression on me as a kid.”
So strong he wrapped a movie around it.
In Battleship—which comes with the tagline, “The battle for Earth begins at sea,” if you didn’t catch the earlier reference—a small group of service members is separated from the larger fleet after unwittingly stumbling upon an alien recon team during exercises in the Pacific. Deprived of high-tech fighting advantages, they have to outwit the intergalactic invaders to survive.
Yes, the aliens have peg-like weapons reminiscent of the movie’s board game namesake. No, they’re not red or white.
While summer movies require a suspension of reality when walking through the theater’s double doors, Berg went to great pains to ensure the military representations were as authentic as possible. He spent days on destroyers to get a first-hand look at how crews operate in modern sea warfare situations.
When it came time to cast the hundreds of crewmembers, placing service men and women in front of the camera seemed like the logical thing to do.
“So many of the [people] in Battleship are actual Navy sailors we hired to be on our sets and we would just let them riff,” Berg said. “Everyone from the Secretary of the Navy down to some really young, enlisted guys, are all in the film and brought their Navy character to it.”
And they aren’t just extras. Army Colonel Greg Gadson—the director of the Army’s Wounded Warrior Program who lost his legs when an improvised explosive device went off in Iraq in 2007—plays the role of Special Forces officer Mick Canales. Berg said Gadson introduced the idea of shooting at the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio, Texas, a technologically advanced hub where the military’s amputees and burn victims go for rehabilitation.
“To spend time with these young men and women, who had the most grit that I’ve ever encountered, and the soldiers who have dedicated their lives to working with them, again that’s one of those moments for me and the entire crew where we sit back and say ‘God, are we lucky,’” Berg said. “We are truly lucky to have young men and women who are willing to go out there and sacrifice for us.”
Living among the troops wasn’t a one-time endeavor for Berg. The filmmaker embedded for a month with a platoon of Navy SEALs in Iraq before writing the script for his next project, an adaptation of Marcus Luttrell’s book Lone Survivor.
“It was the greatest experience of my life that I got to live with the SEALs and go out and watch them operate,” he said. “I made friends for life from that.”
Lone Survivor is the tale of four members of SEAL Team 10 who were attacked by Taliban fighters in Afghanistan in 2005. The SEALs engaged in a firefight with the Taliban and all but Luttrell were killed. All 16 members of a response team that came in for backup also died when a rocket-propelled grenade brought down their helicopter. Despite his injuries, Luttrell traveled on foot until he found a sympathetic tribe that protected him from the Taliban. The tribesmen notified American forces of Luttrell’s whereabouts a week later.
Along with spending a month in the field, Berg said he visited the families of Luttrell’s three teammates who were killed in the firefight.
“When you go through those types of experiences as a filmmaker, there’s no way you don’t want to tell that story,” he said.
Eric Brandner is the USO's director of story development.