Battleship: Making Spectacle Epic

While the filmmakers had their character, they needed to craft a story, replete with tested heroes and the mysterious enemy whom they would encounter on the high seas. Peter Berg explains: “This idea of having naval warships battle aliens came to me one day. I knew that the only way the film would succeed is if it worked as a character story. The CG and the spectacle would then support the characters.”

Berg looked to Red writers Erich and Jon Hoeber as partners.  The brothers sat with Berg in spring 2009 to pitch themselves as the project’s screenwriters. “The alien aspect was in our first pitch: Navy saves the world from an invasion,” they explain. “We started with a blank slate. Pete tore our pitch apart, but there was spitballing and collaboration. Once we got the gig, we wrote an elaborate treatment over the summer and the first draft that fall. Throughout the development, we had great synchronicity. Pete’s a quarterback with bottomless energy who brought a lot of big ideas. We did a lot of brainstorming about what we wanted the film to feel like and what the main structural elements should be. Then we created the characters and the dramatic situations.”

The writers were drawn to bring to life a naval epic that hit the hallmarks of the game while introducing a complex alien attack, commenting: “The idea of being able to write a big naval action film was exciting. It’s been a long time since anyone made a film that so prominently featured the U.S. Navy. It was a rare opportunity. Plus, the opportunity to do that in a modern setting was extraordinary, with an enemy that we would fight toe-to-toe instead of lobbing cruise missiles at from miles off a coastline.”

In preparation for their script, the brothers delved into research mode, spending three days out at sea on an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, USS Preble. They note: “What an incredible experience, watching this young crew in action; their professionalism, dedication and drive were truly inspiring. They gave us full run of the ship, and we quickly got familiar with their language, culture and details of the hardware they operate. They ran war scenarios for us that helped us to make things as realistic as possible for both the story and characters.”

The writers worked with Berg to explore what would happen if an alien race responded to a series of interstellar transmissions from NASA to a “Goldilocks planet” in another galaxy. Known as “Planet G,” this planet to which the NASA scientists have been transmitting for six years is a mirror image of our own world. The logic is that if a planet is too far from its sun, the world is too cold to sustain life; if a planet is too close to its sun, it is too hot to allow for the growth of flora and fauna. This “just right” planet with which we’ve been communicating is similar to ours and able to hold water at the right mass to sustain an atmosphere and therefore life. And unfortunately for Earth, its inhabitants have come to take our resources.

Aubrey reports that as the screenplay developed, the team found an organic way to introduce the game concept. They were not only able to bring, organically, the title character into the mix, but also to set up three other ships equipped for battle under an impenetrable field that was 300,000 feet in altitude and two nautical miles wide. She says: “Pete came up with the idea that our ship is operating blind, like in the game. All of their radar capability has been taken away early on in a fight with the aliens. As a result, our heroes are hunting the enemy in the dark. So, Hopper and Nagata have to quickly figure out how to track the alien fleet—without radar—so they can strike them as they bombard the vessel. As Hopper is struggling with a solution, Nagata explains a tactic that his countrymen have used before to locate ships in the Pacific.”

Berg and the writers discovered that tsunami buoys exist along the Hawaiian coastlines, and their function is to triangulate water disbursement. Aubrey explains what that meant for the script: “Buoys measure water displacement as an early tsunami-warning system for those living along these vulnerable coastal areas. Nagata uses them to quickly map out a grid, which comes up on his ship’s radar screen, simulating the grid of the board game itself. It’s a fun way to get the audience to recognize that familiar grid and that we’re playing ‘Battleship.’”