Comedy. Sports. Drama. And now . . . terrorist thriller. He's the most versatile man in Hollywood. Director Peter Berg has made just about every kind of movie there is, from screwball action (The Rundown) to feel-good (Friday Night Lights) to black comedy (Very Bad Things). With The Kingdom, he directs Jamie Foxx, Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner in a searing thriller about the war on terror. Berg talks to VH1 about the Middle East, his early days as an ice-jockey, and getting wedgies from Johnny Depp.
VH1: Why'd you make this film, and what were some of the challenges?
Peter Berg: I wanted to make a film that was reflective of the time we've been living in for the past 15 years, and it's clear that terrorism in the Middle East is the dominant story of our time....Respecting the culture was a constant issue. Security was a constant issue. We were very conscious about not drinking in public. And women dressing properly -- not wearing tank-tops or shorts. And in the 135 degree heat, that wasn't so easy for the women.
VH1: You're working with some very funny actors -- Jamie Foxx, Jason Bateman -- on a very serious movie. Is it tough to strike the right tone?
PB: You can bend the rules of tone. You take actors that have demonstrated a gift for comedy, like Jason Bateman, and put them in the most violent, horrific situation imaginable. So it was played very straight -- we're not playing things for jokes, obviously -- but the humor just naturally comes out, more dark humor and gallows humor, the way cops make jokes while they're in dangerous situations.
VH1: Way back when, what first inspired you to make movies?
PB: When I was in high school, a teacher came in from New York to do a two-week seminar for anyone who wanted to make a film. I was the only guy that signed up. In my movie, a guy asked the hottest girl in the school on a date, and at the end, he got to kiss the girl . . . . And I cast myself as that guy. So I got to kiss Jennifer Airhart, the hottest girl in my school. From that moment on, I believed that film was a good business to be in. [Laughs] And I guess I owe my career to Jennifer Airhart.
VH1: You broke in as an actor. Any favorite memories from the early days?
PB: Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise gave me a wedgie on 21 Jump Street. I played the high school bully who extorted money from his fellow students by giving them wedgies; that was my first acting job. But I actually started out as a crew member, as a Production Assistant on a Eurythmics video. "Missionary Man." Every two hours, my job was to do ice-runs. That's all I did. More buckets of ice. I said hi to Annie Lennox once, and I got yelled at by another PA, so I was scared of talking to the talent after that.
VH1: What gets you more fired up, acting or directing?
PB: Directing. It hits you on all cylinders. You've got to be a blue-collar worker and a white-collar worker, all at the same time. You have to learn how to deal with so many different personalities and problems; it's a stimulating brain exercise. It's a constantly-shifting series of challenges, and at the end of the day, if you do it right, it rewards you with this product that lasts forever.