One of the best films I saw at this year’s Toronto International Film festival was director Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon. Scripted by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, the film stars Mark Wahlberg and Kurt Russell and recounts the story of the brave men and women whose heroism saved many lives in the midst of the world’s largest man-made disaster. The film also stars Gina Rodriguez, John Malkovich, Kate Hudson, and Dylan O’Brien.
While the film is loaded with great performances and a smart script, what really impressed me about Berg’s take on the material is the way he kept everything grounded and real. At times I felt like I was watching a documentary of what happened and not a movie. Trust me, this is an exceptionally well-made film that you should see this weekend. For more on why you should see Deepwater Horizon, read Matt’s review
Shortly after seeing the film, I sat down with Peter Berg for an exclusive interview. He talked about why he wanted to make the film, what he was surprised to learn about the story, the way he likes to work on set, who he shows his early cuts to for honest feedback, casting Kurt Russell, why he jumped right into making Patriots Day, and so much more. Check out what he had to say below.
Deepwater Horizon opens in traditional theaters and IMAX this weekend.
COLLIDER: It has to be tough promoting a movie that everyone likes. I’m making a joke but maybe you haven’t heard enough positive reactions?
PETER BERG: That’s very nice of you. I like that. I mean you never know, man. You make a film and you have ideas about what the experience for the audience is going to be, but at the end of the day there’s always a part of you that has no fucking idea if this is going to work on any level. You’re in the middle of making a movie and this part of the process is always very interesting. Because you think what you’re making your movie is and then you start putting it out there, and then people tell you what your movie is. It’s so far I think cautiously optimistic and the response seems to be good. But it’s always funny to me how your movie becomes no longer yours and people interpret it how they want and react how they want to react to it, and it’s fun to kind of watch that happen.
I’m gonna have to switch subject for a second. You’re a New York Giants Fan. So how the fuck do you have a relationship with Mark Wahlberg?
BERG: It’s tough, it’s tough. You know Mark has had two rough losses at the hands of my Giants try not to talk about it or dwell on it too much. The first time we beat you I was in shock. I was at both Super Bowls and the first time we beat you guys when David Tyree had his helmet catch you know that was genuine shock. The second time we beat you in Indianapolis my son and I were leaving the stadium and we legitimately felt bad for the Patriots fans who had flown all the way to Indianapolis and so we just stayed away. I said to my son, “Just give em’ a lot of space and a lot of compassion.” And that’s generally what Mark and I talk about in football. I just say, “I’m gonna give you space and I’m gonna give you a lot of compassion.”
I really want to talk to you about movies.
BERG: I’d rather talk about football.
But I’m gonna say that you know some football teams just have that other person’s number and no matter what you do they’re gonna lose, I feel that way about the Giants. I don’t ever want to play them again.
I am a long time Patriots fan.
BERG: You know when it started? Is when the final game of the season the first year we beat you in the Super Bowl. I can’t remember what year it was but we were both in the playoffs and we could’ve played backups. Brady and Manning played the whole game, you guys beat us with a six yard touchdown pass to Rice and fourth and like twenty-seven. But we had won the game and that scared the fuck out of the Patriots to realize the Giants were for real. It was crazy ‘cause that game everyone thought they were gonna play backups. They played full out the whole game and now we beat you in the Super Bowl.
The Super Bowl loss was especially painful just because of that season and it was so close to being one for the ages.
BERG: And then Wes Welker dropped that ball.
I can’t. I can’t talk about it.
BERG: I mean that was crazy.
Listen the helmet catch was, when that happened I said, “Oh the game’s over. Oh that’s it the game’s over.” That’s like shit from God. But okay they’re gonna come in and I’m gonna be out of time. Man I could talk about football the whole time. Let me jump back into the movie. Talk a little bit about when you are researching this project and getting ready was there one or two things that really surprised you? A few things that you were like, “Oh my god.”
BERG: Yeah, so here’s like I think the biggest thing was like obviously knew about the oil spill, knew about the natural disaster and how it was horrible, all these animals were killed, it was a horrible environmental toxic problem. I know about that. When I started realizing that eleven men had died, that there was a 60 Minutes piece and this amazing investigative story done by the [The New York] Times. I think by David Barstow who, like, look, let’s not talk about that, not that we don’t think that’s horrible that’s been covered extensively. Let’s take a look at what caused this, let’s look at the fifteen hours before the blowout. Well that to me was fascinating to see what these men were doing, how complex the drilling was, what the issues were, what BP’s financial pressures on that rig, what roles that had. That was all fascinating but then I met the families of the 11 men killed and you meet the widows and their children and you realize, “Whoa something’s really fucked up here.” Cause not only are they grieving the loss of their loved ones who actually had nothing to do with the blowout, right?
These men actually they were being pressured by BP they stayed on that rig and tried to stay on that rig to stop the oil spill. They could’ve jumped off that rig early but these families not only do they have to deal with the grief of losing their husbands, people thought their husbands were guilty of causing the oil spill. So people were basically like, “Oh yeah didn’t they deserve to die? They caused that spill.” And when I realized that there was this anger and this deep pain. Imagine that, you’ve lost your loved one and everyone thinks your loved one is fucking scum bag for trying to stop this when they had nothing to do with it. You look for inspiration, I do, that got me going.
It’s getting me angry right now. You know?
BERG: Yeah, and yeah BP did some fucked up things and the oil spills horrible and the dead birds are bad. But the fact that these children and these women are walking around embarrassed to say who they are. Because not only are their husbands dead but people are going to look at them like, “Uh at least they got what they deserved didn’t they.”
Who’s in your first group of friends and family that you show a movie to for honest feedback?
My agent and best friend Ari Manuel, my college roommate. Then I show it to him and then what I’ll do generally is that I’ll try to get people that I don’t know. I’ll get a friend of friend to invite five people who I literally don’t know. I won’t sit in the screening with them, tell them as little as possible, have very little expectations and show them cause I find that besides Ari, who’s my oldest friend who will give it to me very straight, almost anyone else is impossible at giving neutral and unbiased advice and so it’s best to take it from people who have absolutely no horse in the race. That’s why I believe in preview screenings, which a lot of directors don’t necessarily like. I like flying to some city. Going to Cincinnati, recruit of an audience of 300 people who do not give a fuck and you get a very honest reaction.
I would imagine that the test screening score on this movie was pretty high.
When did you know that the movie really came together and that audiences were really responding to it?
At that moment, at that first test screening. Yeah, at the first test screening the number was very, very, high probably the highest I’ve ever had. In today’s world for me it’s a not entirely a win. Because you’re like okay we know that we have a movie that’s playable that audiences really like that’s one thing. To get audiences to go see a film is a completely separate issue. To make people think and you know there’s not a lot of people walking around saying, “You know what I really need is more information on that BP oil spill that’s what I need.” Right? “Honey don’t you think we need to go find out what happened on that oil rig?” It’s not as easy as saying so. So you know you have a film that plays now you gotta figure out…
Which leads me to my next thing, and that’s why you cast Kurt Russell. Because you all of a sudden have every Kurt Russell fan…because like everyone, I love Kurt Russell. How hard was it to get Kurt in the movie?
Kurt [Russell] and [John] Malkovich were….I offered and then some long phone calls Kurt more than John. Kurt likes to really, poke, and check and prod and make sure that you can defend your decision to make a movie. I love him because he’s very challenging but in a very productive way. He’ll poke, and push, and challenge until he makes sure and believes that you’re ready to do it, that he can trust you and once he trusts you then he’s all in.
Before I run out of time with you and I have a million questions about Deepwater but I’m from Boston and I’m really curious about where you are in Patriots Day?
I’m really not even supposed to talk about it because I don’t want to muddle the two, but we’re close to being done. Obviously it’s a completely different story than this but a very powerful movie and intense film.
I think it’s hard to make one movie in a year. I mean looking at it from the outside, you are taking on two huge things in the same year. So what was the inspiration? Were you like I just want to beat myself up all year?
Part of it’s Mark [Wahlberg], you know Mark and I are like brothers. His work ethic is insane and my work ethic is fairly insane and you know we finished Deepwater and he kind of looked at me and the opportunity to do Patriots Day was there. He’s like,”You tired? I’m not tired.” and I said, “No, I’m alright.” He said, “So you want to keep going?” I said, “Let’s do it.” Fortunately these are two worlds, in particular Boston, that we felt very passionate about. So it wasn’t like we had to spend a lot of time getting psyched and fired up and inspired to make that story. We were instantly inspired. I mean Mark is obviously a Boston boy but this is so in my wheelhouse and it’s about everything that I believe in. All I had to do was take one trip to Boston and sit down with the guys like Ed Davis and Billy Evans, Governor Patrick and meet some of the victims the families of some of the people that were killed… the Richards family and I was wide awake and ready to go.
I think especially after Deepwater I was like so happy you made Patriots Day. I was saying this to other people about Deepwater, “I forgot I was watching a movie I felt like I was watching a documentary of what really happened.” And that’s really hard to do to make that movie magic transcend into something more. So talk a little bit more about how you like to work on set. How much are you storyboarding? How much are you trying to figure it out beforehand? How much are you saying, “This is how we need to do it”?
Yeah, I mean I try to preload as little as I can. I like to come to the set with minimal preparation. I mean we know what we’re doing that day we know where we’re shooting but I encourage the actors to improvise a lot. There’s no preset blocking, I don’t storyboard anything ninety percent of the movie is shot on handheld cameras that are very mobile. Try to remove the shake and the jerkiness and you know keep it relatively smooth but the idea for me is rather than me trying to impose my will on a scene let the actors, we got these great actors, let them come in and slowly start to warm up and let them start playing until they start to kind of find. We got the scene we know what we’re shooting but if they want to try different things or suddenly go into another room we’re gonna be able to follow them and move with them, give them control rather than we take control. So rather than you come in and I go okay, what’s your name?
Steve you’re gonna sit here. Don’t move cause the cameras gonna go here, to here, to here well okay now we’ve taken complete control and you’re just a prop. So your performance is secondary to everything else. My attitude is no, fuck that, you come in, what do you want to do? You know your character, you’ve got to say, this, this and this you wanna go over there, you wanna do this, you wanna yelling at him, you wanna start talking about football in the middle of the scene do it. You know and then we’ll just capture it. If we don’t like it if something’s not working or you’re not comfortable I’ll say like dude don’t talk about football it’s just not tracking but if it is I might say talk more about football. Suddenly we fuck the whole scene everything that was written we throw out. You saw the scene in Deepater where Malkovich went into Wahlberg’s room and started talking about fishing? We just made that scene up. Literally just made that scene up wasn’t scripted but we wanted a moment with the two of them together. The real Mike Williams that Wahlberg plays was always showing us his noodling pictures of him with this catfish. I’m like that’s actually a good metaphor for oil drilling if you think about it you stick your hands into a hole let’s just talk about that. We had Mark and Malkovich came in and we had this set we had an hour before lunch we filmed it it’s a great scene.
Curious how long was your first cut on Deepwater versus the finished film?
Not that long. I mean I won’t let the editors cut anything over two and a half hours probably less. I like films that are about two hours not more. My editor I work with him all the time he would never let a cut get over two and a half hours. He’d pull scenes out and make have to ask for those scenes. But I’m not gonna look at a four hour cut I just can’t do it.
I know I gotta go but I understand you’re finishing up Patriots Day. Do you foresee yourself taking a bit of a break or can I get you to do The Rundown 2?
We’ve been talking about it. You know I wanted to do it with Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson. If I could get Jonah Hill I’d do it tomorrow.
Do you think that’s even possible?
Cause I gotta tell you I’ve talked to you about this before and it’s an ongoing thing, you know on the internet people are desperate for that.
I know. We want to do it it’s hard to get get everybody…It’s on our minds. We actually wrote a script but I want Jonah Hill. So reach out to Jonah. Pressure Jonah to do it.
You know what’s funny. I’m gonna make a story about this that’s Peter Berg wants Jonah Hill for The Rundown 2.
Do it I’m in .