“I loved the idea of an alcoholic, nihilistic, subversive superhero, fighting crime drunk,” says Peter Berg about “Hancock” - a screenplay that’s been kicking around Hollywood for a dozen years or so, and that had, at various points, Michael Mann and Tony Scott among the folks attached to direct.
But Berg, the actor (“The Last Seduction,” TV’s “Chicago Hope”) turned director, landed the gig. He heard about the project, and about Will Smith’s interest in the role, when Berg was midway through shooting “The Kingdom,” the Jamie Foxx/Jennifer Garner Middle East action pic.
Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman, Eddie Marsan
(Sony; US theatrical: 2 Jul 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 2 Jul 2008 (General release); 2008)
“Michael Mann was a producer on ‘The Kingdom,’” explained Berg, on the phone from Santa Monica last week. “I had wanted to do a superhero film for a while, and had tried to work with Will Smith, and then Michael said, ‘We got this thing we’re doing, and Will wants to talk to you about it.’
“Of course, I was there.”
Although “Hancock” - with Charlize Theron and Jason Bateman in key roles - is dark, Berg says that the original screenplay, written by Vincent Ngo, was way more so. “You know the Nicolas Cage character in ‘Leaving Las Vegas’?” he says, referring to the booze-soaked, suicidal scribe that won Cage an Oscar. “Well, Vincent’s screenplay took a left turn from ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ ... We all loved the idea of that character, but weren’t ever interested in making a film that tough.”
Still, one of Berg’s early cuts of “Hancock” featured Smith’s character, a guy who can fly, who has super strength, and whose body is impervious to harm, trying to kill himself. If you’re invincible, suicide becomes a serious challenge.
“It’s a great sequence, but it’s just very dark,” Berg says. “And we felt like it would be hard to get audiences laughing after that opening ... The film has always been tonally challenging. It took a while for the tone to sort of shake itself out.”
It also took Berg and company a while to get the MPAA’s ratings board to give Hancock a PG-13 - the rating that Sony Pictures expected for its big summer release. The opening scene now shows Smith’s hung-over superhero waking up on a Los Angeles street. He’s ringed by bottles of cheap whiskey, there’s a high-speed freeway shoot-out in progress, and a 10-year-old is trying to get Hancock to get his act together and save the day. Profanity is exchanged.
“Hancock” got stuck with the more restrictive R rating on its first two passes with the notoriously tricky ratings board.
“I’ve never worked on a film that didn’t have a ratings issue,” says Berg, who made his directing debut with 1998’s “Very Bad Things,” a twisted piece about a Vegas bachelor party gone seriously awry. He has also directed “The Rundown,” with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and “Friday Night Lights.”
“There’s always a dance with the ratings commission,” he says. “They actually didn’t have a problem with (a prison scene) because they deemed it physically impossible. They are more concerned with language. You get one f-word in a PG-13 film. And sex is utterly taboo in a PG-13 film. And then they can hit you on something they call ‘general intensity’... It’s a catchall phrase. We had a scene at the end that was just too intense for them.”
Berg, who is 44 and hails originally from New York, says that the idea of overseeing a $150 million effects-driven movie with “the biggest movie star in the world” took some getting used to. It’s the first film for the director where CGI and visual effects are such key components. Hancock lifts cars, stops trains simply by standing in front of them, and swoops and soars across the sky.
“It’s definitely like having to deal with the revenge of the nerds on an epic scale,” Berg jokes about working with the visual effects teams. “These guys are really smart and very technical. It’s like anything else when you’re directing a film - whether it’s talking to a cameraman or an art department person or an actor - there’s a phase where you’re learning how to communicate in their language. It’s just a little bit trickier with the effects.
“But I was able to learn how to do that, and we had really good guys at Sony Imageworks who can push all the technical complexities and the nomenclature aside and just talk about the emotion of a scene. Once I was able to do that, it wasn’t as daunting.”
Berg confirms that if “Hancock” does the kind of business being forecast for it, there could well be a “Hancock 2.” He says that he’ll certainly consider a reprise, and he guesses Smith will, too.
“He’s eternally optimistic,” Berg says of his star, who also served as one of “Hancock’s” producers. “He just has the greatest mental positive attitude of anyone I’ve ever met, and he’s tireless.
“He will work 23-hour days back to back to back, and I don’t think he’s sleeping in the one hour off. He’s completely energized by what he does, and, you know, when you love what you do that fully, the passion comes out, and it comes out as charisma.”