Peter Berg Does "Very Bad Things" and A Whole Lot More
by Ray Pride
Ah, the buddy movie. There's an exhausted genre in need of fresh blood.
With "Very Bad Things," first-time director Peter Berg pours some in,
leaving all hope to his role in "Chicago Hope" as he unleashes the wrath
of an Old Testament God on five white suburban men who head to Vegas for
a bachelor party. Berg's movie is a comedy, but there's caustic social
commentary, farcical complications and a great deal of pain as his
characters get hit with the crushing weight of the karmic boomerang.
First comes the liquor and cocaine and guilt-free sex, then blood. And
bodies. And body parts. For a few minutes, it seems we've slipped into
"The Vegas Chainsaw Massacre."
Take or leave what's on screen, but Berg, who had made a large sale with
"Furious George," an earlier script he wrote with Michael Schiffer, had
the good fortune of getting his feature financed on a small budget by
Interscope Communications after turndowns by the majors. Berg and I
first spoke amid the hullabaloo after the film's
enthusiastically-received first showing at the Toronto Film Festival,
and later in Chicago, in a barren boardroom atop a Michigan Avenue
indieWIRE: What's offending people who don't like the film?
Berg: I think for the most part, people are supportive of the movie. I'm
interested in really negative reactions. Usually when people didn't like
it, they were really offended. I haven't heard many people say they were
left cold by it. Some feel the violence is just gratuitous, or the dark
comedy isn't effective, that it's just dark and it's not comedic. But
generally, it's women, um, and they're not willing to go along with the
humor which I think is kind of interesting.
iW: With how you have the pacing at a fever pitch throughout, it's
almost as if you want to barrel past objections that way.
Berg: I was trying to do that, obviously. That was part of my intention.
There are so many movies out there, that if you don't want to be
drained, you certainly don't need to be. There are so many choices of
culture to go and see. But I got to the point where I was going to
movies and I was so underwhelmed. I would leave and they wouldn't stay
with me at all. I tried to do something that was draining. I tried to
keep it short, I think it's 92 minutes. I wanted it to be that intense,
that unforgiving. I wanted to hit and hit and hit and hit. Somebody said
last night they felt like we were injecting cocaine through the
ventilation system! I wanted not to play it safe with my first film.
This was an independent film, but it wasn't meant to be.
iW: There are writers like the Los Angeles Times' senior critic Kenneth
Turan who are bemoaning the pain they're seeing on screen lately, and
there are others giving your movie low marks, saying it's just sick
Berg: I don't think it's just sick humor. Audiences are much smarter and
are capable of handling much more than we think they are. I think the
most intense thing I saw this summer was Spielberg's film, and audiences
are taking that and it's mesmerizing. I think that in a similar vein,
"There's Something about Mary," putting that kind of humor in people's
faces, whatever it is--tragedy, humor, violence--if there's some
psychology behind the violence, I think audiences can handle that kind
of muscularity. I tried to give it to them.
iW: So you're concerned about plot logic and dramatic context?
Berg: We could be doing a scene in a movie right here and I could pick up
an ax and stick it in your head, and it would be like, "Wow!" But
there's got to be some intelligence behind that. I tried hard with "Very
Bad Things" for it not to be an exercise in blood and guts. I tried to
incrementally take the audience on a ride that holds up to reasonable
scrutiny. There are holes in the story, there are leaps of faith and
logic but I worked hard when I was writing it to take it through this
journey of chaos in a way that a lot of people could really believe that
it could happen. People tell me they know guys like this and they could
imagine them going through something like this. That was important to
iW: You made a large spec sale to a studio a while back with "Furious
George," which you wrote with Michael Shiffer ["The Peacemaker,"
"Crimson Tide"]. What's it like having a writer as your producing
Berg: Frustrating at times, but great, fundamentally. He and I work
really well together because he's got a wisdom and a maturity as a
writer that I don't have. I think I have a rawness, a sense of
outrageousness that he doesn't have, but that complements his talent.
There are times we would fight savagely, he'd think I was going too far.
He has a great sense, in the best sense, a commercial sense of what
works. I think his movies are very good, commercial and intelligent.
Left to my own devices, man, I'd just write some twisted shit. Michael
helps me pull myself back.
iW: When did you write "Very Bad Things"?
Berg: I wrote the first draft while I was doing "Copland." I was really
inspired by James Mangold and what he was able to accomplish. To see
this young kid, he'd written a good script, then he went and got Robert
DeNiro. That motivated me to write, to lock myself in a room. But the
original seed was being at a bachelor party, these two girls were in the
middle of these really conservative bankers and stockbrokers. I came
into this party and these girls were doing a sex show on the floor and
the guys were being worked into an absolute frenzy. They all started to
move in closer and closer to these two girls and the vibe got really
weird. And really intense. I sort of sat back and watched this and I
wondered what would happen--it started getting tribal--and I wondered
what would happen if these guys just snapped. You go to a strip bar and
you watch the girls. The rules are there, no touching, there's big
bodyguards, there are all kinds of rules to prevent trouble. Those rules
are there because trouble can come. Men get worked up, women can work
men up, alcohol and drugs can work men up. All these repressed emotions
can come out. Sex, drugs can be a trigger for that. Seeing these guys at
this party, I started wondering, what would happen if they went crazy
and just attacked these women? An all-out feeding frenzy and before you
know it, you've got two skeletons and these guys are eating the women.
That's how it all started.
iW: How'd the script go over when you sent it out?
Berg: You've got to understand that within the Hollywood system now, the
studio system, the people that pay money for movies, there are no more
independent film companies any more. There really aren't. I mean,
Miramax is owned by Disney, October is owned by Universal, Artisan,
y'know, is trying to be a mini-studio. There are no more independent
companies. Everybody is accountable to these big corporate [entities]
and as a result, no one is willing to... I mean, look at the movies
Miramax is putting out now. There's no room for experimentation, for
risk-taking aspiration. You wanna make a film where your ending has
Cameron Diaz, America's sweetheart, crawling around the street with guys
with no legs with a three-legged dog and an amputee screaming and a
handicapped kid saying "Get the fuck off of me!", there's no studio's
going to touch it. It's not gonna happen. But I wrote it, so I was
forced to do it. I was forced to find money, and thank god that the
actors will do it. If it wasn't for Cameron and Christian and people
like that, the movie would never get made. There are these foreign
finance companies who, they really don't care what the script is. They
just say, "Gimme Cameron Diaz, give me Christian Slater, I'll give you X
amount of dollars, go make the movie." Every once in a while, they'll be
like, 'You think Cameron's hair should maybe..." That's the extent of
iW: You make it sound easy.
Berg: Well, what happened was, we shopped it around, everybody said no.
We got the budget of this movie down to maybe $3 million, with Cameron
Diaz, Christian Slater, we had Adam Sandler at the time, he was going to
play one of the roles. Everyone said no. Harvey Weinstein: "Peter, it's
just not going to be funny." Polygram: "There's nothing funny about this
script." Universal: "We read 20 pages, what, are you kidding?" Warner
Brothers. Nobody would even think about it. New Line? Michael DeLuca at
New Line, you know, you know Mike... You know about this company, right?
Like, gang-raping each other in the bathroom. It's like, y'know, they,
"No, it's not funny." I'm going, "It's funny, it's funny." But in my
moments of solitude, I'm like, "Maybe I'm just sick." But the actors
thought it was funny and we got this money and we were on the set and
we'd be filming scenes and we'd be laughing so hard, most of us.
After we finished it, [foreign sales agent] IEG [Initial Entertainment
Group] had the strategy, they were going to have one screening, every
acquisitions person in Hollywood, everyone who had passed on it and said
no, would now be in one theater, roll the dice once. If it didn't sell,
it'd come out on video, it'd be one of those movies. I refused to go to
the screening. I was too nervous. There were like 800 people at this
screening. I went out with some friends at a bar, getting drunk. I had a
cell phone and the producer was going to call me when it was over. And
all I could think was, "This is it," my self- doubt started creeping in.
Then my friend's like, "C'mon, we gotta go, let's go." We got in the
car, went out to Westwood, just as the movie was starting. It was
overflowing, there were people sitting in the aisles. I stood in the
back with some of the producers and put my head on my hands and just
listened. It got to the part where I thought the first laugh should
come, the line comes... There's this moment of silence, then there's
this eruption of laughter. I'm looking around and they're all fucking
laughing and the scene goes on and everyone's laughing and laughing. I
started recognizing the faces of executives who has passed, laughing.
Then the next day, three studios bid on it [offering to pay] five times
as much as they could have paid the first time out.
iW: Do you have calmer ideas in store? This story seems to demand a
level of intensity.
Berg: I don't have a problem with calm. If I'm fortunate enough to keep
making films, I guess I'd find a point where I'm willing to slow down,
but at the time I wrote "Very Bad Things" I had a lot of juice firing in
my head. That was what came out. It was just absolutely nothing censored
about it. I certainly don't want to be known as the guy whose movies
scream so loud that they give us bad headaches. I'm willing to do
anything, but it just depends on where my head's at when I sit down and
start writing. I don't know whether or not it's a base instinct or it's
common for first time directors to make films like this, but it's just
what came out of me. I certainly can't see myself topping this in terms
of dramatic intensity, that kind of volatile shit going on between guys.
iW: I've heard some people say, oh, this is one of those movies directed
by an actor with all those actors yelling at one another. Is it just the
style of "Very Bad Things" or are you really engaged with the idea of
giving actors a lot of chewy stuff to work with?
Berg: I love actors yelling. I love the scenes in "Very Bad Things"
where, I think there are three of them, where all the guys lose it,
they're absolutely hysterical and screaming at each other at the same
time. I hardly ever see that in films. I don't see a lot of movies in
which you get the opportunity to have five guys, all miked, all covered
as well as possible with the camera, just exploding at each other in a
spontaneous manner. I really like those scenes where the guys really go
nuts. I wanted to push it right to the edge. You don't get to see it
because crews don't like to film scenes where four or five guys are
talking at the same time. It's very hard for them to record five guys
talking at the same time, everyone's lines bleed into everybody else's.
Editors hate it, because it's really hard for them to edit, no two takes
are the same. DPs aren't quite sure how to cover the guys moving around.
I was always frustrated because I never got to do that as an actor. I
always wanted to do this crazed, sloppy madness on camera and put it out
there with some degree of logic behind it so it's not just somebody
getting mad and screaming for the sake of screaming. These guys are
legitimately freaking out. Every time I've tried doing that as an actor,
people are always telling me, "No, don't, bring it down, it's too much,
it's too wild, you can't go that far." I wanted, in my first film, to
say, go for it, go as far as you want with this and see what happens.
iW: I read an absurd criticism in a semi-admiring review of Todd Haynes'
"Velvet Goldmine" the other day -- the writer is saying that there's a
problem because there's too much stuff here, it's like we're watching a
first film instead of a third film, with all this material jammed in.
Berg: It's amazing, some of the things people write. It's amusing to me,
because a lot of critics will, for a variety of reasons, come after me
on this film. But I find the criticisms for the most part to be so
outrageously absurd. I try to take people to task if I hear something
doesn't make sense to me. This guy accused me of trying to be overly
clever because of some word on a building in the background of a scene
where Jeremy Piven is charging down the street, some French word on a
building I'd never even seen. I'm like, what the fuck are you guys
iW: Some of the funnier stuff is the things that come out of left field,
but have such precision, like Slater taking charge after the mess in the
hotel room, and he calmly says, "He'll bleed out."
Berg: Where the fuck does this guy figure out that he'll "bleed out"?
He's a real estate broker! What a sick phrase, I don't know where it
came from. He actually says, "Don't worry, he'll bleed out," which is
even worse. I was trying to write a film where the monster was in the
house with us. These guys were not drug dealers, tough-guy, criminal
gangsters. These were preppie guys. Nice looking normal guys, went to
college, love their families, go home for Christmas and Thanksgiving,
pay their credit card bills, wear Gap clothes, Dockers, play golf, all
that stuff. There's something that's so outrageous about them getting in
this situation, you're forced to laugh. If I filmed a scene with two
nuns getting in a hatchet fight downstairs, I could make you laugh at
that. But it's just not right, y'know! [laughs] But if I put it two
criminals going at it with axes, it might not be so funny. I think the
contrast of who these guys are and how ill-equipped they are to handle
this [is the joke]. They don't even know how to check for a pulse. What
are you going to do? 911, that's all they know how to do. That's the
extent of their ability to handle trouble. So once you remove the 911
option and they have to deal with it? I used to ask a friend of mine, if
I called you four in the morning, and said "Get over to my house," you'd
say, "Fuck you." And I'd say, "It's an emergency," and you came over and
there was a dead woman in my bed, bloody, dead? And I said, "Help me,
let's get rid of this." "What happened?" and I'd say, "Don't ask, would
you help me?" He said, "Yeah, I'd help you." I'm like, "Okay.... " and
then, "How do you think we'd do it?" Now it starts getting interesting.
iW: There are moments, such as the unidentifiable viscera we get a
glimpse of dangling off the saw in the bathtub, that get at something
primal, and the characters just go nuts.
Berg: I felt like if this film was going to work on some level, an
audience had to look at it like the Three Stooges with blood. I felt
like it was critical to go that far if there was to be humor. I didn't
want to make "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer." That film probably
disturbed me more than any other film I've ever seen, particularly the
home invasion scene. That's probably the most disturbing thing I've ever
seen, for its realism, its realistic portrayal of that kind of violence.
iW: The audience identification is the eye behind the camera and the eye
behind the camera puts the camera down to go join in.
Berg: Yeah. That was the most chilling thing. It was one of the only
films I ever walked out of, not because I didn't like it, but because it
affected me too much, I couldn't take that film. I was determined not to
make that movie in any way, shape, or form. But for me, you had to see
that much blood in the bathtub. The first moment when I can laugh at the
film is when Slater opens the door, walks in that bathroom, there's an
overhead shot looking down -- it's like, these guys came to Vegas for a
bachelor party, for Chrissake, look at the monster. Look who's come to
dinner, so to speak. You've got this absolute massacre in the bathroom.
If it was to work, if it was to mark the beginning of the film's'
departure into a slightly farcical arena, we had to go that
far. I've seen people charge out of theater on that shot, just get up
and run. But for me, that's where I start to laugh.
iW: I've also heard people put your film in with "Happiness" and "Your
Friends and Neighbors," suggesting there's some kind of trend, maybe
even an indulgent one about white male rage.
Berg: But I like the concept of white rage. I think it's an interesting
concept that I did explore. The suffering and the problems that are
going on down here are pretty easy to see. It doesn't take a genius to
see there are some problems going on down there. People are killing
themselves, mothers are raising families with no husbands. There are
films that explore the dynamic of black urban rage and dysfunction very
well, John Singleton, Spike Lee, the Hughes Brothers.
iW: But your early years were different?
Berg: I grew up in a fairly comfortable family, I had enough money, I
was sent to camp in the summer and a liberal arts college. Everything
seemed to be good. There was certainly enough money. Money wasn't the
problem. My parents went to therapy together, tried to communicate.
Everybody did what they were supposed to do. But what I noticed when I
turned thirty was that there were people I knew whose lives had crumbled
because of drug abuse. I had friends whose marriages had crumbled, I had
friends who killed themselves. People whose fathers died and the men are
locked in eternal grief because they never told their father they loved
them. There clearly is a type of suffering that is specific to the world
I was a part of and the people I knew that certainly wasn't being
represented on film. It's hard to generate much sympathy for a group of
guys who have plenty of dough and American Express Gold Cards in their
pocket, pretty girlfriends, and a couple of kids and a dog. It's hard to
identify where the rage and the dysfunction is. It seems like all these
movies are aiming their guns at this subject, a valid subject to make
iW: Suffering is universal and drama is supposedly is working from the
specific to suggest the universal. You work from what you know.
Berg: That's it. Suffering is universal. Life is suffering, no matter
how much money' you've got, no matter how many kids you've got, there's
going to be an inherent amount of suffering.. I wanted to have fun
attacking that in my movie.
iW: It seems you grow a little when you can realize that happiness is
the unusual condition.
Berg: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's all about bout unrealistic expectations
of happiness. People assume they should be happy. I completely agree
with that. We're striving to get to this place of contentment and I
don't know it's a natural state at all." Berg remembers picking up a
book of Buddhist philosophy in a hotel in Asia, which was in place of
the Gideon bible. "The very first, you open he book, the very first
sentence is Life is suffering.' I try to avoid, I don't consider myself
a depressed person and I don't try and wallow in misery, that's for
sure, but what I really wanted to do with Very Bad Things," it wasn't
like I set out to do a film about white rage or male dysfunction. I came
up with an idea and this is what came out of me. My primary goal is to
entertain and to provide somebody with an hour and half of in your face,
bang-for-your-buck movie entertainment. Y'know? I wanted to make a film
that would not go quietly into that good night, that perhaps wasn't
going to be forgotten by the time two people got to their cars in
Oklahoma City, that could create a little bit of dialogue with your
basic, average twentysomething American filmgoer who's not as
sophisticated as a critic or a filmmaker. Just somebody who wants to go
see a movie. Most movies today are so fucking forgettable and so
preconceived, and built in laboratories in Hollywood studios by weird
men wearing Armani suits and driving an expensive German automobile.
iW: The new lab coat is an Armani suit. . .
Berg: The new lab coat is an Armani suit, it costs $3500, it's available
on Rodeo Drive, and anyone with a credit card can get one. These guys
are making the movies. And nothing sticks. They get thrown out, make $14
million the opening weekend, if there's a 22% drop the next weekend, a
28% drop the next weekend, a 50% the next, they're gone and they're
iW: Neil LaBute says the five most feared words of criticism is two
people walking out of his movie, saying "So, whaddya want to eat?"
Berg: I dig that. I'm so in synch with that. My mantra when I was
writing was simply, "Death before boredom." Whatever has to happen, I
will not bore an audience and I will use every bit of intelligence that
God put in my brain to find a story that is compelling. I tried to be
logical as I could and put as much rationale behind both the
psychological and physical violence that occurs in the film, but I was
damned if I was going to have an audience wondering what kind of candy
they've got out there, 'cos I'm kind of hungry. I have walk-outs, but I
call them run-outs, people run. I can handle that, maybe ten or so a
screening, run not walk. The people who stay don't seem to go get
popcorn, refill their cokes, they sit there and watch that movie and
that makes me happy. When I'm in a theater, somebody gets up, I do want
to warn them, you're going to miss some fucking good shit, you should
[Ray Pride is a contributing editor of Filmmaker. He also writes about
movies and the industry for such outlets as e! online and Chicago's