Peter Berg Is King of the Hollywood Jungle

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Peter Berg is stalking across a boxing ring—gloves up, head bobbing, sinews twitching—looking for an opening so he can unleash a flurry of punches into the torso of his opponent, a recently retired Navy SEAL. Dressed in Johnny Cash black, the 51-year-old director of the films Friday Night Lights and Lone Survivor, drives the SEAL onto the ropes, where he lands a strong jab-cross combo, then vaults out of reach when his opponent strikes back. The SEAL pursues Berg into the middle of the ring, and the two men trade a series of loud, thwacking blows before embracing in a clinch. The bell rings and Berg flops down in his corner, drenched in sweat. He waves me over with his glove.

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“Good way to wake up,” he growls through his mouth guard.

It’s 9 a.m. on a Tuesday at Wild Card West Boxing Club, the Santa Monica gym that Berg co-owns, and the director appears eerily calm, even serene, for someone engaged in hand-to-hand combat. But Peter Berg, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, is in his Zen place. “For me, this is kind of like yoga,” he tells me later.

Well, yoga with a fury. Colby Parker Jr., Berg’s longtime film editor, says that one of Berg’s most fundamental beliefs is that every time “one man meets another man, the first thing that goes through his mind, whether or not he knows it, is: ‘Can I take him in a fight?’” Taylor Kitsch, a frequent star in Berg’s films and a sometime sparring partner, says boxing with the director often means finding yourself in “a street fight…he can get very offensive—put it that way.” Or, in the words of Dwayne Johnson, another inveterate Berg collaborator: “In the ring and in training, Pete’s an absolute fucking animal.”

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Even when he’s not wearing boxing gloves, Berg can’t help but throw punches. During the making of 2007’s The Kingdom, Berg playfully socked his leading lady, Jennifer Garner, in the stomach, mistakenly believing she was wearing a protective flak jacket. (She wasn’t, but was unhurt.) During a break from filming 2013’s Lone Survivor, about Navy SEALs in Afghanistan, Berg got into a friendly midair brawl with his leading man, Mark Wahlberg, causing thousands of dollars of damage to the interior of the actor’s private jet. “He punched me in the throat once and I couldn’t talk for a week—that really made him happy,” Parker remembers. “He was excited to know that he might have crushed my larynx. He gets this weird Cheshire cat smile if he draws blood from you.”

Just a few years ago, such behavior might have gotten Berg mistaken for just another brash Hollywood ego run amok. After all, this was the guy who followed up a tepidly received Will Smith superhero movie, Hancock, with 2012’s Battleship, a $220 million board-game-adaptation flop. But since Battleship, Berg has shunned comic book and Hasbro projects and pursued what he’s described as a personal mission: making films and TV shows that depict the struggles of extremely capable, very physical, (usually) real-life men.

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Following the success of Lone Survivor, he’s now in the process of developing movies about wrongfully imprisoned boxer Dewey Bozella and Mexico’s jailed Sinaloa cartel drug lord “El Chapo” Guzmán. He’s currently directing Deepwater Horizon, a big-budget film chronicling the chaos of the 2010 BP oil spill, from the perspective of the roughnecks who worked on the rig. 

“He really has this unique, interesting mix of strong human empathy and machismo,” says Lorenzo di Bonaventura, the producer of the Transformers movies, who hired Berg to direct Deepwater Horizon. “Our movie is about honoring both the people who died and those who survived that day, so humanity is incredibly important; at the same time, the rig blowout itself was intense, it was heroic, it was literally a trial by fire. There are a lot of people who can shoot frenetic or dynamic action, but there’s only a handful of directors capable of keeping you in the shoes of the characters while this traumatic thing is going on. If I need humanity, Pete’s got it. If I need toughness, Pete’s got it.”

This month marks the premiere of another high-profile Berg project: HBO’s Ballers, an Entourage-like dramedy about current and former football players in Miami and their harried retired-jock money manager, played by Dwayne Johnson. (Berg serves as executive producer, directed the pilot, and even makes an appearance as a coach). The show, he says, “looks at drugs and domestic violence and whatever disaster of the day hits the NFL, but it’s also meant to be a fun experience.”

At the same time, Berg has stepped far beyond the director’s chair and into the spotlight himself as an outspoken critic on a range of issues, from sports to the male lifestyle. In 2013, he debuted his own HBO Sports documentary series, State of Play, where he leads round-table discussions on issues such as football head injuries, responsible Little League parenting, and pro-athlete domestic violence. He wrote about his decision to pull his son from tackle football for Time. And he routinely makes appearances on sports talk-radio shows, in school auditoriums, and on ideas-festival panels, where he promotes his own ideas of proper manhood. His “Bergisms” can be practical, such as advising someone to routinely wake up before dawn, but they tend to take on a cryptic and quasi-spiritual quality, too. “Smooth is fast in all aspects of life,” Berg once told listeners on Colby Parker Jr.’s podcast, The Flavor Bin. “Whether it’s combat, romance, academics, or finance—be smooth, be fast.”

Take them or leave them, but these are the words Peter Berg lives by, and today at Wild Card West, I watch as he applies his teachings to combat: He quickly chases his sparring partners with a scowl, pushes them to the point of exhaustion, then hugs it out afterward. He tells me he’s designed his gym to attract his kind of people and foster his brand of everyone-is-equal-in-the-ring values. Police, fire fighters, EMTs, and active and retired military train for free. Professional fighters—Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez, Peter Quillin, Julio César Chávez Jr., and Ray Beltrán—take over Wild Card West some afternoons. On the weekends, Berg opens up the gym to L.A. youth, and attracts “some pretty tough kids from the rougher areas of the city and some really wealthy West Side kids whose parents drop them off and say, ‘I want someone to punch my kid in the face.’” Movie types do drop by, but there’s no industry talk—Berg has banned it.

“I’m not going to help anyone’s career,” he says. “No one is looking for anything, it’s just a bunch of guys who love boxing. I’d much rather do this than go into Hollywood.”

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A few minutes after Berg wraps up his sparring workout with 21 vigorously executed pullups, the director and I are sitting upstairs in Wild Card West’s version of a man cave. Resting on a shelf are a framed poster for the James Earl Jones boxing film The Great White Hope, a painting of a child soldier wielding a Kalashnikov, and a portrait of a dark-haired nude. Behind me, on the opposite wall, hangs a giant painting of a handgun. (Only after our interview do I realize that Berg had been staring at it for nearly two hours.)

Berg grew up in the tony New York City suburb of Chappaqua, the son of an ex-Marine ad man. Early on, he was a self-described spaz, channeling his massive energy reserves toward sports, fighting, and, often, making everyone around him anxious and miserable. He started boxing at summer camp. “It was kind of a sadistic place,” Berg says. “The counselors would take us into the woods, make a boxing ring with rope around the trees, pick kids to fight, then bet on us.” You found out quickly what you were really made of, and there was no hiding. Berg loved it. “I guess I was always drawn to people of action, people who did something,” he says. “I was always looking at the guys who were kind of running at [conflict]. I always thought there was a lot of fun in that culture.”

When Berg arrived in Los Angeles in 1985, he was determined to make it as an actor. By the early 1990s, he had a formidable career. He’d co-starred in the ski-bum-classic Aspen Extreme, played a con’s easy mark in the neo-noir The Last Seduction, and gotten picked for the role of the eponymous melanin-deprived boxer in the comedy The Great White Hype. Most famously, he starred as hockey-playing Dr. Billy Kronk on CBS’s Chicago Hope, where he went mano-a-mano with George Clooney’s ER doc in the hospital-drama ratings war.

But he also found himself slipping into what he called the “anti-working-man code.” He and his actor buddies would take pride in sleeping late, going to movies in the middle of the day, and tearing up the L.A. scene at night. “There wasn’t a club in Hollywood where I wasn’t the last one out,” Berg says. He was succeeding in his career, but he was restless. He was spending too many hours “just fucking sitting around being bored out of my mind.”

On the set of Cop Land—a New York–area crime drama starring Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, and Harvey Keitel—Berg, then 32, decided he needed to make a change. “I was watching the director, James Mangold, and here’s this kid my age arguing with Stallone and Harvey Weinstein, and I asked him, ‘Dude, how did you get this?’”

Mangold told Berg he needed to write a script. So Berg buckled down, returning to his small room at New York’s Essex House hotel every night and writing out scenes on note cards until they filled up the walls. Two years later, the note cards became Very Bad Things, a black comedy about a Las Vegas bachelor party that spirals terribly out of control.

“Look, I used to go to Vegas and party a lot,” he says. “And I can remember being there with some friends, and everywhere I looked there were these groups of white preppy guys in khaki pants and button-down shirts and they’d just have this crazy look in their eyes. I remember thinking, ‘These guys are looking for something—what happens if they find it?’”

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As Berg’s career grew, so did the lengths he’d go to prepare for his films. For 2003’s action-comedy, The Rundown, starring Johnson, Berg and a small production crew went to Brazil to scout Amazonian locations, and were briefly detained by a group of gunmen. (“We were taken by three gentlemen at gunpoint and moved to the edge of a cliff and spent what felt like a very long period of time getting all our stuff taken,” he says.) For 2004’s Texas football epic Friday Night Lights, Berg spent a season with the varsity squad of Westlake High School in the suburbs of Austin, an experiment that informed the much-loved Friday Night Lights TV show he created in 2006. (“After that, people would ask me if I could bring a Friday Night Lights approach to a project,” he says, “something that was visceral and deeply emotional.”) For 2007’s war-on-terror thriller The Kingdom, Berg visited Saudi Arabia and shadowed the local police force, then spent time with FBI agents in the bureau’s international crime division. Even Battleship merited immersive research: The director spent 10 days aboard the USS Spruance.

But it was Berg’s last movie, Lone Survivor, where the lines between his filmmaking and his life converged. For research, Berg embedded for a month with a SEAL unit in Iraq, accompanying them on raids. (“Did you ever see anyone killed?” he asked a New York Times Magazine writer in 2013. “I did.”) When he got back home, he spent a year getting to know the SEAL community, “going out and drinking with them, meeting their wives,”—and, sometimes, going to their funerals. By the time the production rolled around, Berg felt he’d done the homework required to tell the tale of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell and the 19 servicemen who died on a mission in Afghanistan. Now Berg frequently invites SEALs and their families to his house in Montana. “I have friends who are in Yemen fighting right now as we sit here,” Berg says, “and some of them are going to die.”

Berg’s wildest adventures may still be ahead of him. To prepare for Deepwater Horizon, he’s been spending “99% of my time with the survivors of the rig and members of the deepwater drilling community, trying to learn as much as I can about how that culture works.” For his Bozella biopic, Berg asked the New York State Department of Corrections to let him enter the general population at Sing Sing prison for a few weeks so he could better understand the wrongly  incarcerated boxer’s plight, but he was denied. (In the end, Berg struck a compromise and spent several weeks shadowing the prison’s guards instead.)

“To me, it’s one of the great joys and perks of film-making,” Berg says. “You get to move into these different cultures like an anthropologist. I’ve always been the guy who’d rather spend Christmas living with high school football players in Texas than at some beach hotel in Hawaii. I once spent my birthday in Iraq with Navy SEALs in the desert near Syria, and my goal recently was to be Prisoner No. 7853227 at Sing Sing prison for a month.”

He pauses for a moment, then asks: “What, does that sound crazy?”

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Berg isn’t the first ultramacho Hollywood auteur, of course. But unlike John Ford, he doesn’t clock his actors when they disagree with him (Berg’s punches are only playful); unlike John Huston—who directed The African Queen so he could bag elephants on his days off—Berg doesn’t hunt; and unlike John Milius—famous for writing Dirty Harry and Apocalypse Now—Berg isn’t politically conservative. (He’s called President Obama the “warrior-in-chief ” and, in 2012, asked the Romney campaign to stop using the catchphrase “Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose.” from the TV show Friday Night Lights.) Still, like his tough-guy forbears, Berg approaches film-making as the creative equivalent of a prizefight.

“I’m not a director who likes to sit around and small-talk,” Berg tells me. “When I get there, it’s on. I have an action component to a lot of my films. They’re dangerous. I’ve had people killed on my sets.” (Berg witnessed a prop assistant on The Kingdom fatally crash his ATV, and now gets irate when he perceives lapses in safety.) Berg doesn’t allow junk food on his shoots, and has been known to slap cigarettes out of the hands of crew members. “If he sees someone eating potato chips, he says, ‘That’s the short game, buddy,’” Parker tells me. Pushup contests, trips to boxing gyms, and early-morning workouts are commonplace on a Berg set.

This may make Berg sound like a hard-ass disciplinarian, but, in truth, he’s closer to a positive-thinking, healthy-living guru. He tells me he’s all about “self empowerment,” a claim Parker confirms: “He’s actually a very generous and caring person. He’d pay people to work out. He just loves seeing people get in shape and better themselves, and he’s incredible at rallying them. He’ll be on set slapping the grip on the ass and screaming, ‘This is the shot, let’s go!’”

Berg’s penchant for motivation extends well beyond the film set. There’s rarely a situation in which he’s not ready to dispense a kernel—or five—of sage advice.

When interns at Berg’s principal production company, Film 44, tell him they want to start making movies, he advises them to first “go to Europe and fall in love and get your heart broken, or go get arrested in Thailand and get in some real trouble—go live a life.”

When someone criticizes Berg for making films that are “too violent,” he tells them they need to buck up and confront reality. “It’s like people who want to eat a hamburger but are absolutely disgusted by the idea of going to a slaughter yard. If you’re going to eat a fucking cow, you have a responsibility to understand where that cow came from.” When I ask Berg his secret to productivity—after all, he’s juggling a seemingly endless number of projects—he sounds like a Silicon Valley life hacker. “Wake up two hours earlier than you do right now, and see what happens,” he says. On the subject of child athletes, he tells overbearing parents to take it easy. “Sports are meant to be fun—first and foremost,” he says. “Sports are not meant to be a ticket into a D1 school, sports are not meant to be an exclusive experience that only elite athletes can have.”

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On the subject of relationships, Berg, who’s divorced with a teenage son, tells younger men like Parker and Kitsch to “be prepared to lose a lot of battles and just try not to lose the war. Individual battles are generally irrelevant. I tell them to let the little things go.”

And as for fitness, Berg touts an old-school approach. “I’ll tell you what: Do 200 pushups, 35 pullups, 150 situps, spar a few rounds, hit the heavy bag, then get some sleep, and you’ll be in plenty good shape,” Berg says. “Boxers have been doing these exercises for 150 years. If you want fitness, go box. If you want to be a freak, go to the gym and do deep power squats.”

As Berg slurps down a “Navy SEAL-approved” Randy’s Powerhouse protein shake in the man cave at Wild Card West, he tells me there’s a unifying theory to his Bergisms. Over the years, he’s been conducting an informal study of high-functioning, successful men—whether it’s warriors like Marcus Luttrell or his college friend, agent Ari Emanuel—and he’s come to understand they share the same motivations.

“I’m a believer in flow theory,” Berg says. “This crazy psychologist [Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi] wrote this wonderful book, [Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience], which talks about our ultimate human experiences, when we’re really, really happy. Flow is the feeling you get when you really push yourself into an uncomfortable place, and then something clicks and time stands still. For Marcus Luttrell and the SEALs, flow is when it’s three in the morning and you’re with 12 of your guys, flying 200 feet over the ground in a helicopter about ready to go assault a village full of legitimate Taliban fighters. For Ari Emanuel, it’s putting together these wild deals to buy and sell companies. What most people don’t realize about men like Marcus Luttrell and Ari Emanuel is that it’s not about the money, it’s not about the ego, it’s not about the glory—it’s about the thrill of the moment. If it’s the object you’re chasing, it doesn’t interest me as much as if it’s the hunt.”

Berg and I have been sitting upstairs at Wild Card West for a couple hours, and I ask him what he—the successful, satisfied, well-adjusted 51-year-old director—would say to someone like his rambunctious and restless 29-year-old self. After all these years and career transformations, what was the key to his success?

“It comes down to effort,” Berg says, with a drill sergeant’s intensity. “Figure out something you like doing, and you have to work—you just have to. And if you can’t figure it out, you have to go figure it out. Laziness will destroy you. Apathy will destroy you.”

“But what if I’m someone who just likes sleeping in and hanging out with my friends?” I ask, doing my best to goad him.

“Then you’re going to end up frustrated, bored, and probably on a bad path,” he says. Berg smells blood. A big Cheshire cat smile comes over his face.

“Wake the fuck up, make some sacrifices, and don’t be a fucking pussy.” 

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