Battleship: Peter Berg’s Passion Project

When filmmaker Peter Berg signed on to develop and to helm Battleship for Universal Pictures and Hasbro, he was conducting early research for another film about the U.S. Navy, a lifelong passion of his. Hasbro president and CEO Brian Goldner and top company movie executive Bennett Schneir were keen to partner with the director, who had not only brought spectacle to the juggernaut Hancock and action and drama to Friday Night Lights and The Kingdom, but also harbored a deep passion for all things nautical since boyhood. Goldner shares: “Pete has such a love for these ships, the history of the Navy and being out at sea. We knew it would come across on the big screen.”

The action-adventure represents the culmination of a lifelong dream for the director, who often toured naval museums with his father. Berg says: “Battleship is a passion of mine because, as a kid, I spent so much time on ships, absorbing detailed histories about the great battles of WWII from my father. When this fell into my lap, it didn’t take me long to find a take for the film—a contemporary story of an international fleet engaged in a very dynamic, violent and intense fight that’s chock-full of action-packed sea battles with big hardware and conflict. You can go anywhere in the world and say ‘Battleship,’ and people will know it. In today’s market, that’s a big plus for turning a brand into a film.”

Berg had forged a fantastic relationship with this division of the armed forces, and that would serve him well as preproduction began. He shares: “The Navy liked the fact that their branch gets to save the world. The destroyer sailors liked that for the first time a movie’s focus wasn’t on an aircraft carrier. If you talk to Navy destroyer crews, they are engaged in real fighting. Their kick-ass ships protect aircraft carriers.” Still, the movie’s title is a bit of a misnomer. Explains Berg: “Even though the film is called Battleship, actual battleships have been taken out of active naval duty and replaced with these bad boys—Aegis naval destroyers—the most lethal fighting ships on the planet.”

Sharing in production duties on Battleship is Bluegrass Films producer Scott Stuber, himself the son of a naval veteran. The epic action-adventure represents his second project with Berg, after their 2007 collaboration, The Kingdom, and is the latest offering from the producer who brought audiences the blockbuster action-thriller Safe House.
Though the producer knew he was headed into an enormous production, he wasn’t daunted by the thought of ensuring that audiences would see a “complete naval fleet unleashed.” Stuber says: “Having worked with Pete before, I knew he would make a movie about a modern-day naval conflict with authenticity and excitement.”

Stuber offers that the game’s lack of narrative structure turned out to be a plus for its translation. “When you work on movies adapted from literature or comic books and such, the audience has predisposed notions of the characters’ arcs,” he says. “They visualize the story as they read it. This is a whole different challenge, because we had to create characters. The fun of the game is the blind reveal, the strategy, me versus you. Conversely, it’s freeing not to begin with preexisting characters, because you aren’t restricted to what is spelled out in the source material. You can create that within the dynamic of the story, one that translates into a big action movie.”

The story of this source material is an interesting one indeed. In 1984, Hasbro purchased the Milton Bradley Company and inherited several global-brand-name toys and games, including “Battleship.” As one of the world’s premier toy manufacturers, Hasbro began strategizing about how to translate its popular brands into other mediums. Under the leadership of Goldner for the past decade, Hasbro has successfully reinvigorated its classic brands. The company has reinvented them for a variety of new mediums, including blockbuster feature films, television, digital entertainment, publishing, consumer goods, licensing and retail.

After the blockbuster success of the toys-to-films Transformers and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Hasbro reviewed the catalogue and focused on “Battleship” as its first game-to-film. Still, the company knew it wouldn’t move forward until a crucial dilemma was resolved: how to logically transfigure a beloved property into a cohesive and entertaining motion picture.

Discussing the reasons to tackle this ambitious project with Berg’s team and Stuber, Goldner explains: “‘Battleship’ is a global brand that has been enjoyed for nearly 40 years in more than 30 countries. It’s known as ‘Battleship,’ or ‘Naval Battles,’ everywhere around the world. People know the game play and understand the face-off nature of it. We knew we could take its compelling elements and play them out in a reimagined manner. Plus, we believed that bringing the alien element into the property would make it contemporary and very universal.”

At its core, according to the producer, is a story of strategy that engages audiences. Goldner reflects: “No matter whom you’re playing in ‘Battleship,’ you’re sizing your opponent up, both from a personality standpoint as well as strategically. It was that face-off that intrigued us, because that’s the mark of the brand and what has made the game popular around the globe for so many years. That sense that you and your opponent are strategizing against the blind reveal is so critical to the game play. We knew we could make a film story around that.”

Several years ago, Goldner had recruited film executive Bennett Schneir with the goal of tapping into Schneir’s expertise to develop movie franchises and tentpoles from Hasbro’s catalogue. Schneir says: “We looked at the core of this property and recognized that ‘Battleship’ is a game of wits, intuition, logic and smarts as you try to figure out who your enemy is and win the day. We thought it had all of the elements for a huge, incredible movie. It’s cinematic, exciting and adventurous. To our filmmakers, the game was an incredible launching-off point.”

Addressing the skeptics, Schneir reflects: “It’s easy to ask, ‘Why do you need ‘Battleship’ to make a movie about ships versus aliens?’ You could also ask why you would need Pirates of the Caribbean to make a movie about pirates and skeletons, or why you would need Transformers to make a movie about robots from space who come to Earth. There is so much in the core DNA of ‘Battleship’ that is a source of inspiration for filmmakers. There are signposts along the way of the concept of the blind reveal, of knowing nothing and then knowing everything. The three-act-play structural experience of the game, the fantasy of game play, and how that translates into a movie became the canvas upon which our filmmakers painted their vision of the story.”

Like Goldner, Schneir approached the film’s development by underscoring what is unique about the game. “‘Battleship’ is a big part of our childhood and part of the family experience,” the producer says. “I like the notion of fighting against an enemy you can’t see. Little by little, the curtain is raised, and you learn where your enemy put his ships and where you should strike next. That’s what leads you to victory. Bringing that emotional connection to the big screen is powerful and compelling.”

Though its modern counterpart is the destroyer, the war machine known as the battleship was prominent in WWII and was in use until the first Iraq War in 1991. Explains Stuber: “Battleships were defined by their power and muscle and built to take on shrapnel. They were giant ships with giant guns and thick hulls that had extraordinary power. They are the protectors of the fleet. They’re like Secret Service agents: if an enemy fires, they step in front of the carrier and take the shell. There’s something extraordinarily heroic about being the first dog in the fight. Within the fleet, there’s also the aircraft carrier, another amazing ship that is like an airport in the middle of the ocean. Ultimately, it was the battleship’s job, and today, the destroyer’s, to protect that carrier.”

Echoes Berg’s production partner at Film 44, Sarah Aubrey: “Destroyers are magnificent pieces of machinery, run by incredibly smart and brave people. We thought it would be a great opportunity to showcase them within the context of this game that people have such an affinity for. We take you inside of these massive oceangoing beasts. You will see their weapons, missiles, all of their muscular power. In our story, they’re the underdog. So we introduce this mighty Navy fleet steaming out to sea, unlike anything we’ve experienced in a movie.”

Berg and Aubrey were excited that their dream of making a nautical adventure was finally coming to fruition, and they knew it would be epic. “The game allowed us the opportunity to do our modern naval-battle movie,” Aubrey continues. “Most naval movies are period, because in this day and age, you don’t often have pitched battles at sea. We have not seen the modern Navy in its full glory on screen, with these ships and weaponry, in this kind of scope and scale.”