Peter Berg didn’t know how to respond to the 2020 murder of George Floyd. It was not the Minneapolis that the filmmaker, a graduate of Saint Paul’s Macalester College, thought he knew. Eventually, he turned to football, as he had before in his career — following the predominantly Black players at the city’s North Community High School along with their coaches (also members of the Minneapolis PD) for a football season that proved fraught on and off the field.
Boys in Blue, the resulting four-part Showtime series (out Jan. 6), may signal a softening for the 57-year-old director. Best known for such machismo-fueled features as Friday Night Lights, Hancock and Battleship, Berg is also readying a Netflix limited series about the opioid crisis (Painkiller) and a long-gestating Rihanna doc for Amazon — if she approves the cut. Speaking from the West L.A. offices of his Film Forties production company, Berg spoke candidly about his shifting career and the unforeseeable challenges of Boys in Blue.
There’s one white coach/cop in this show, and everyone gets into the understandable skepticism he initially encountered at this school. What did you have to do to assuage any similar skepticism?
It’s always a challenge when you’re asking people to allow you in — particularly with all of the baggage going into this. We weren’t filming any old high school football program. It’s a program that was still very much in the middle of a firestorm. And I spent a lot of time, particularly with Officer Charles Adams, who knew my work. He understood that we weren’t going in there to make a gross political statement about what happened to Mr. Floyd. It became very challenging.
Just looking at the logline, not the series itself, there’s going to be accusations of copaganda. Are you prepared for that?
I’m a centrist. To anyone that has really strong, unshakable anti-law enforcement viewpoints, I would suggest they watch the show and see if it does anything to surprise them. I know a lot of police officers who I believe have been good cops and I’ve met some who I don’t think are. The coaches-slash-cops in Boys in Blue are, in my opinion, an example of the very best of law enforcement. Derek Chauvin is an example of the very worst. But copaganda? I know I’m going to hear it.
Deshaun Hill Jr., the quarterback you spent so much time with, was killed just after the season. How did you process that tragedy and having to address it on the show?
That was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my career. This beautiful 15-year-old quarterback, three days after the state championship, was leaving school, bumped into some kid. The kid pulled out a gun, shot him in the head and killed him. Obviously, everyone was traumatized. We were still shooting. There was no easy way to process it.
This is hardly your first football project. Why do you think the game, for all its inherent complications, is still a sort of meeting table in our divided country?
The NFL is having the biggest season they’ve ever had. The Cowboys-Giants game was the highest-viewed regular season game in history. There are many elements of football, starting at a young age, that become organizing principles for how we live as Americans — how our communities, schools, churches and families are organized. I’m talking about the game in its most pure form. There’s a lot wrong with football, particularly professional football, but there’s a lot right about it.
You have two series on deck with Taylor Kitsch, who starred in the TV series Friday Night Lights and Battleship. You’ve worked with Mark Wahlberg a lot, too. Why do you find yourself going back to the same actors?
When I get comfortable with someone, or form a real friendship, I can work better. I can be more honest. They can be more honest. I can call [Taylor] out real fast on his bullshit, and he can do the same for me. When people ask me why I work with Wahlberg so many times, it’s because I trust that if I say the wrong thing, it’s not going to be a catastrophic shutdown. I like knowing what I’m getting into, especially with lead roles in complex shoots.
You’ve said your directorial debut, Very Bad Things, got the worst review in the history of film criticism.
There’s no question. It was Kenneth Turan at the Los Angeles Times. It was so bad that I was at a bar in L.A., and he was there, and I started to go after him, and my friend had to hold me back. He tried to run me out of the business, for sure. It took him, like, four movies to finally give me a good review [for the Friday Night Lights film]. But then I got arguably the best review, certainly in TV, in The New York Times for the TV show Friday Night Lights. So, I’ve gotten the worst and the best.
So how does that impact your relationship with criticism?
I don’t care anymore. Truly. I literally threw up after I read Kenneth’s review, but then I get a phone call and it’s, “Hold for Steven Spielberg.” Spielberg called me with David Geffen. They said, “We’re watching it right now and we love it.” If you can’t process the highs and lows and find a way of living in the middle, it’s going to be a rough road.
Richard Plepler used to talk about how huge Battleship was for HBO. What was your take on why it wasn’t as huge at the box office?
The big problem we had was coming out a week after The Avengers. Everyone thought The Avengers was going to open to $48 million and then drop down to $18 million. That was the pattern of Marvel films at the time. David Kosse, who was head of international distribution at Universal at the time, said, “No, it’s going to be a monster. We’ll go international first.” International comes out, a big success, and then we come out [domestically] after The Avengers opens to [$207] million and holds and holds. We just get decimated.
You’ve worked with Taylor Sheridan over the years. Do you have any interest in the kind of massive franchise-building that he’s doing over at Paramount?
I love Taylor. He’s the most prolific writer that I’ve ever encountered, other than maybe David E. Kelley. I can’t say that I don’t have interest in that. Paramount needed a guy like that, and he loves that world. But Taylor is talented enough that if he decides he wants to shed this particular universe and do something totally different, he will. But what he’s doing now is a bit unprecedented.
Where are you with the Rihanna documentary?
Waiting for her to approve it. It’s done and sold, and Amazon’s ready. She’s a perfectionist, so we keep adding. It’s been six and a half years of filming, so, yeah, it’s ready to come out. We’re just waiting on her to say, “Yeah, let’s do it.” I don’t know. Maybe it’ll be a 10-year project.
Any concerns that she might not approve it?
Not really. When Rihanna asked me to make a doc, I thought she was joking. My work tends to be a bit more masculine, at least on the surface. But this has allowed me to dip in and out of her life while I’m doing other things. I’ve loved it — watching her in the studio, seeing her turn Fenty into this billion-dollar entity and, now, being a mom. It’s such an enriching experience, I don’t really care how long it takes.
What are the offers like for your for-hire acting work these days?
Zero. I always play a little part in everything I direct, but I burned out on acting when I was on Chicago Hope. We did 28 episodes a season. Somewhere along the way, I lost my love of film and TV acting. I could see maybe doing a play in the next five years or so.
You own a boxing gym in Santa Monica. Was it hard to keep it afloat during early COVID?
By law, we had to close it, but I kept it open for all our pro fighters because they have enough challenges. The business is corrupt. The job is difficult. Loneliness and isolation were hard on everyone, but it felt particularly hard for these athletes. I probably lost 80 percent of my members, but I’ve since gotten almost all of them back. Churchill Boxing is open for business.
You lived with Ari Emanuel, your agent, in college and then briefly lived with Marc Maron in your 20s. So, who’s the better roommate?
Well, Maron was a horrible roommate because he lived on the couch. (Laughs.) He was just drinking back then and playing the guitar. Ari was up at 4 a.m., an incredible work ethic, making me get up to exercise, working his ass off and going to bed at 6 p.m. So, Maron might have been more fun, but I got a great sense of discipline from Ari.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 5 issue of magazine. Click here to subscribe.