‘When people meet me they try to remember if they went to school with me when they were fourteen,’ says Peter Berg, director of the forthcoming Friday Night Lights.
If you’re an avid moviegoer, you’ve probably seen him yourself. But you won’t believe that one of the supporting players from the lame Saturday Night Live comedy Corky Romano and the guy behind this year’s most surprising sports movie is the same man.
It might help convince you Berg is serious about making it in films when you realise he was also in Michael Mann’s much lauded Collateral, where he portrayed the partner of Mark Ruffalo’s LAPD detective.
‘I act a little bit,’ Berg says, comparing an interest that’s spanned 15 years with a decade-long directorial career, ‘mainly for fun more than anything else, though. Writing and directing is definitely my preferred career — being involved in the creative genesis of a project is really where it’s at for me.’
Maybe it also serves the man behind the lens to know what those in front of it feel, I venture? Berg is quick to agree, as if it goes without saying. ‘Absolutely,’ he says, ‘It constantly reminds me how delicate and insecure actors can be and how much care you need when handling them. Acting makes you remember that pressure that you’re the one people are going to be judging and staring at.’
The 40-year-old New Yorker is friendly and affable, starting our conversation by saying he’d ‘love to come to Perth’. I’m ready to put it down to his skills in winning over journalists, but apparently it’s out of the need to maintain his profile and exercise his creative muscles. ‘Any acting thing you guys have going,’ Berg says, ‘I’ll be in it, just sign me up.’
Sounding like a desperate out of work actor is kind of comical coming from a talent that’s really starting to shine with the release of Friday Night Lights.
With more in common that Saving Private Ryan than most sports movies, it paints a stark pictures of both the characters and the bleak dustbowl town setting as it depicts the Odessa, Texas high school football team and their shot at the state title in 1988.
Anything you’ve heard about Lights probably makes it sound like another dedicated-teacher-gives-lost-youth-hope film, the kind many Hollywood actors do in a desperate grab for critical kudos.
Don’t be fooled. It’s not just the palpable fear on the faces of kids as they face either glory or oblivion that makes you think of Spielberg’s seminal World War II epic, but Berg’s documentary-like shooting style. The handheld camera effortlessly captures a washed out, colourless panhandle landscape and all the agony and ecstasy of a group of boys and the town that pins its hope on them.
Well acted, refreshingly shot and uniquely affecting even if you don’t like movies about sport, Friday Night Lights may well be Berg’s calling card in Hollywood, but he’s the first to admit he’s not just a drama director. Almost confirmed to helm the big budget film version of the hit computer game Splinter Cell, Berg likes action as much as the next movie fan.
‘Splinter Cell’s a little more ‘popcorn’,’ he says. ‘It’s a big action film in the vein of The Bourne Identity. I like anything with the opportunity to explore character and action. Directors like Michael Mann and Ridley Scott are my favourite because I like things that have a visceral kick but are also about human beings.’
Speaking of great directors (to say nothing of writers), what was it like directing one? Oscar winner Billy Bob Thornton bought heart and soul to the role of Coach Gary Gaines, the man who holds the team together and drives them on.
‘I’m always envious of brother teams like the Hughes, Coen and Wachowski brothers,’ Berg says, ‘And Billy Bob was the closest to a brother I’ve ever had on a film. He was a partner and a classic gentlemen. Having him there gave me confidence more than anything else.’
It shows. Friday Night Lights is a mature as well as confident film. It’s not for everyone, and a lot of people will miss what it has to offer by dismissing it as a gridiron movie — particularly outside the US.
But it’s been well received around the world despite Berg’s own admission that it’s a difficult movie to travel, and with notches like directing Billy Bob Thornton on his belt Friday Night Lights looks set to ensure Peter Berg teams with more big names in the near future.