Peter Berg: The Prince of Darkness
Actor Peter Berg is best known for the doctor he plays on Chicago Hope and for a decade's worth of supporting film roles. Now he's ready for a more daring career--as a writer/director. And with his first effort, the very black comedy Very Bad Things, he's already causing a stir.
The first time I saw Peter Berg he was just the tall actor with the bad bleach job marooned with Ethan Hawke, Kevin Dillon and Gary Sinise in the low-budget World War II anti-epic A Midnight Clear. The only reason I noticed him was that he seemed to have no reason for being in the movie. "Yeah, there really wasn't anything there," Berg admits today. He can say that easily because he's recently demonstrated what may be his true reason for being in Hollywood. In addition to putting in solid performances as the hair-trigger Dr. Billy Kronk on Chicago Hope, Berg's done something else that seems more distinctive: he has written and directed a beyond-black comedy called Very Bad Things. More than a well-made indie that announces a talented young filmmaker, Very Bad Things is something of an outrage that heralds a gifted provocateur. And Berg traces it all back to that supposed waste of time, A Midnight Clear.
"Sitting around in the snow for eight hours waiting to be in the background of a scene in A Midnight Clear was worth it, because I got to know Gary Sinise and got a piece of advice that's always stuck with me," says Berg. "We were talking about scripts and plays, and Gary said, 'For me it all comes down to: is it a good yarn?' When I was writing my movie, all I thought was, could I sit around a camp-fire with my friends and say, 'You wanna hear a really cool story about something that happened to these five guys who went to Vegas?' Is this going to be compelling or is it going to be boring shit? To me, death before boredom."
The blistering, balls-to-the-wall Very Bad Things is certainly not boring. It's like a Deliverance version of the worst Vegas bachelor party you could ever imagine. No wonder it became famous around town during its early screening phase for being the most walked-out-on movie since Pink Flamingos. "At one screening to try and get a distributor, they recruited about 400 people from UCLA and Westwood for the audience," says Berg. "I was in the back, very nervously watching the movie, when this couple got up and walked out. The woman looked sick, and the husband was chasing after her. It was the first walkout I'd seen. I felt traumatized. I wanted to talk to this woman. So I went out to the lobby, and she was bent over. I walked up and said, 'Ma'am, are you all right?' And she said, 'No, I'm not all right.' I just put up my hands, and said 'I'm sorry.'"
But Berg isn't really sorry. Very Bad Things is the deliberately outrageous career move of a 35-year-old actor who just wasn't happy with what the system was handing him. "I was becoming frustrated with how unprovocative movies are today. It was rare that I'd go to a film and feel anything. I remember going to see Rosemary's Baby for the first time, and feeling like I might be in some form of jeopardy sitting in that room. So I tried to make a film that made audiences feel legitimately threatened."
Berg's ability to write and direct an accomplished film may come as a surprise to many, but the incendiary quality of his product shouldn't. He's long been known as something of a runaway train--he even wrote a column for Details about how much he enjoys rage-demolishing inanimate objects.
"In my 20s I hadn't had much experience with anger management. I drank too much, would generally respond to conflict violently. I don't really do that anymore. I don't find much nobility in that behavior. On the set, I knew it was critical for me to keep control of myself. It can be very frustrating, but if you flip, everybody flips."
With another much-hyped script, Furious George, sold and "sort of sitting around waiting for a big star to say, 'C'mon, let's do it,'" Berg spent the summer dividing his time between bicoastal meetings and hanging out in a Manhattan firehouse, researching yet another script. This one's about firemen who set fire to a building in order to rob it and ends up torching a whole city block. It's a notion you can see Hollywood getting behind with a big budget, but Berg's adamantly independent--the gravitational field emitted by the studios has had no effect as yet. "I'm not particularly inspired by the studio system," he says. "After Very Bad Things I've been offered a few studio films to direct, so the pull is there-- the money, the comfort, the stability. It's all right there for the taking. It's just not the road I want to take. At least not now. Maybe when I'm in my 50s. Right now my overhead's pretty low and I want to keep writing and directing and have that be the primary focus of my career. If I could make 10 more movies like Very Bad Things, with that kind of creative control, that's a life, man."
Selling scripts, directing indies and telling the system to eat shit hasn't given Berg much time for acting, and that's fine by him. "I have very little desire to be a movie star. Robert Mitchum said it once--it's just not a man's job. There's something tremendously unsatisfying about it. You make a lot of money, you have a lot of opportunities, you get to sleep with a lot of very beautiful women, you get free food in restaurants. But you service other people's visions. Your privacy is stripped from you. People perceive you as something you're not. It's not half as interesting as going off and thinking up stories to tell."
Michael Atkinson interviewed Alicia Witt for the October 98 issue of Movieline