Peter Berg likes stories about regular people — the kind of people who work on oil rigs and and don’t necessarily relate to on-screen smoothies like James Bond — and for the self-professed “second half” of his directing career, including films like “Lone Survivor,” Berg has started focusing on just that. For his latest film, the fact-based “Deepwater Horizon,” Berg turns his attention to the 2010 oil rig disaster on the eponymous Louisiana drilling platform, with thrilling — and often heart-wrenching — results.
The film follows the rig on its last viable day, as the so-called “bad well” starts collapsing after a series of terrible decisions, systematic breakdowns and just plain old pressure slowly render it not only inoperable, but hugely dangerous. Berg’s frequent star Mark Wahlberg stars as electrician Mike Williams, who leads the film alongside Kurt Russell as the rig’s head honcho, Gina Rodriquez as a whipsmart member of the crew and John Malkovich as a mealy-mouthed BP executive who only makes a bad situation that much worse. As the disaster beings to unspool, all of them are driven to extremes, and Berg definitely blends impressive set pieces (lots of fire, even more oil) with some very personal performances.
IndieWire sat down with Berg the afternoon before the film’s TIFF premiere about why he’s compelled by real-life stories, how his work with star Mark Wahlberg has evolved over the years and why he’s never going back to the wilds of CG-heavy superhero stories.
Do you like screening your films in the festival environment?
It’s interesting to get so much feedback from people who really care about movies. I like being immersed in the culture of film. Directing is an odd business, because you’re very isolated.
I don’t go to a lot of other directors’ sets, directors don’t come to mine. Directors are all very cordial with each other, but they’re not necessarily friendly. They’re not friends. They’re very friendly and respectful, generally, but we don’t spend a lot of time with each other because we’re always doing our own thing.
It’s fun to be around other filmmakers and get out of your own head and your own process, and see what other people are going through and compare war notes and complain about the studios together and all this stuff. Complain about the press and the studios and all this, compare notes. We don’t get to do that. We’re very in our own world.
What is it about true stories that appeals to you as a director?
When I started making films, like almost every filmmaker I think, you’re just so excited to be able to make a movie that you’ll do anything. It’s like, “Holy shit, I get to make a movie. I don’t care, I’ll do a comedy, I’ll do a musical, I’ll do an action film, I’ll do anything.” Literally, you’ll do anything.
If you’re lucky enough to be able to do it again and again and actually get a little career going, you start to realize that this is very hard. Making movies is a tremendous amount of work. You start thinking about, “Okay, now that I don’t have to do anything, what actually inspires me? What do I want to do?”
As I started moving into a second half of a career, I was like, “You know what? What really inspires me is non-fiction.” What really gets me going is true stories where I can meet the people that were involved in the story, I can go and live in the culture, like with West Texas football. I went and lived with a football team for a season. When I did “The Kingdom,” I went to Saudi Arabia and lived with FBI agents. When I did “Lone Survivor,” I got to go to Iraq and deploy with the SEAL platoon. Here, a lot of time with the oil industry.
And that’s what inspires you?
Being able to reach into that real world gives me inspiration, and that’s what gets me going. That’s just for me. Some directors want to make superhero films. That’s what gets them off and they love it, and they love sci-fi. I prefer putting my hands into non-fiction.
You have made a superhero movie, though.
I have, but I didn’t like doing it.
Do you have any interest in ever doing another superhero film?
No. No, I’ve done that. I did two big CG-type films, “Battleship” and “Hancock.” No regrets, but the reality is, a movie like “Deepwater” has as much CG as either one of those. You just won’t really notice it. That’s what I prefer doing. I don’t mind CG, but I prefer these kinds of stories.
How do you handle the inherent responsibility that comes with making a fact-based film, while also not feeling beholden in a way that gets in the way of making your own work?
I think that I wouldn’t do it if I felt that the story I wanted to tell was so radically different from the truth, that there was going to be a big gap there. The first thing I have to do is make sure that I think the story is pretty much strong enough on its own so we don’t have to do a bunch of stuff to it.
If I felt like I was going to do a story about your life, but I was going to change everything, why? It’s just going to make things problematic.
And that was the case with “Deepwater Horizon”?
With “Deepwater,” the story itself was plenty dramatic. We had to do virtually nothing to make this film compelling and stick to the facts. That was encouraging to me. Meeting with the victims of the families is emotional, complicated at times, but I find that by being very honest and talking about why I want to do it, what kind of film I see making, what I believe the experience of people watching it will be, and looking those people in the eyes and just laying it all out there in as transparent a way, has always been effective.
I did it in “Lone Survivor,” I did it in “Friday Night Lights,” I did it here, and met with all 11 families.
Was that experience hard?
When I met with the widows of the dead guys, they were so upset because they had to deal with the grief of losing their loved one, whose kids had to deal with the grief of losing their parents, but they also had to deal with the stigma that when people heard that their husbands died on an oil rig, they were like, “Oh, well, didn’t they cause that oil spill? They deserved to die.”
I’m like, “Wait a minute. They didn’t fucking deserve to die, they actually could have gotten off that rig. They died trying to prevent that oil spill.”
When I realized that— I look for little, like something to hit you. “Oh, okay, I’m going to make that movie. I’m going to get up at 4:00 every morning and make that movie.” Think about a kid and a wife, a widow, having to deal with the loss of their husband and the fact that everybody thinks they were a bad person, when they weren’t. That was enough for me.
Do you have hopes that the film will inspire some kind of change?
Here’s my thinking on that. I don’t entirely blame BP for behaving like BP. It’s like, BP is a for-profit corporation. Obviously they’re in it for money. They make no illusions about it. They make a lot of money. They provide a service that we all use – oil – and they make a lot of money. Any company that makes a lot of money is going to behave in certain ways. If they’re losing a lot of money over here, they’re going to have a reaction. That’s normal business practice. They’re going to put pressure on someone if they’re causing them to lose a lot of money.
That’s what was happening with that oil rig. They were losing money. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It was a complicated well, they were losing money. The problem is, they didn’t react properly. They put too much pressure on the Malkovich character, and basically pressured him and said, “Fucking get that rig under control.” Those two guys were scared for their jobs, right? These are family guys.
They’re now getting yelled at. If I’m getting yelled at, I’m going to yell at you. If you’re getting yelled at, you’re going to … They started yelling at the guys on the rig, saying, “Go quicker! Do this, do this, do this!” The guys on the rig went, “Wait a minute, we didn’t do this test.” “Don’t worry about that test. It’s fine. It’s always been fine in the past.” “We didn’t do that test, either.” “Don’t worry about that test. Just do …” “Okay. You sure?” “Yes. Fucking do it, or you’re going to get fired.” “Okay,” they did it.
I think you’ll probably see that not happen so much. There’ll be more of a brake check. If there’s a problem, rather than just charging right into it, slow down, take a breath, figure out the best way to fix it. Don’t just start cutting corners. I think you’ll probably see that.
Rooting your films in relatable, working class characters seems to be a more recent theme in your work. Is that important to you?
I’m definitely drawn to stories of just regular folks, just generally in some kind of horrific situation. I keep saying I want to do a love story in the south of France, with a boy and girl and some wine. Then I always end up in an oil rig with four hundred guys, or on a mountain with guys shooting at each other.
Yeah, these are the kinds of stories, kind of like American folk stories, I’m drawn to those stories. I just think they’re more interesting, more relatable to me than James Bond, who I like. I love James Bond, but I don’t wake up every day kind of relating to James Bond.
How has your working relationship with Mark evolved over the years?
Yeah, it’s like any kind of friendship. One of the things about our business is directors and actors generally only work together once and then that’s it, right? You never really get to know each other. You sort of know each other, but there’s a movie star, and movie stars take a minute and they’re guarded and it takes a moment to really get them to relax and for you to really see who they are as a person.
What I’ve found with Mark is because we really have a great friendship, and we’re able to do two films and then three films, we were able to actually break through all the bullshit. If I don’t like something he’s doing, I can tell him very directly. If he doesn’t like something, we can just be very honest with each other, because we’re not nervous and freaking out. We understand each other like friends, and it makes the process just richer, I think. There’s no rule that says every movie you’ve got to dissolve the group of people you’re working with.
In this sort of environment and during this time of year, there’s always awards chatter. Is that something you are concerned with at all?
I think everybody cares about it. It would be nice to win an Academy Award, but I really don’t think about it. I don’t believe that at the end of the day, contrary to what Harvey Weinstein likes to make people believe, that you have that much control over it.
I hope the movie is impactful, I hope people have a genuine experience. If it goes on and has an awards life, great. You can’t control it, so to really think about it and obsess on it is I think a waste of time.
“Deepwater Horizon” premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. It opens in theaters on September 30.