Interview: Peter Berg on The Kingdom

With the country now in its fifth year of a war against Iraq, filmgoers have shown more interest in documentaries about terrorism than features. Films like Syriana and United 93 received strong reviews, but failed to find an audience. The Kingdom, a Universal release directed by Peter Berg, approaches the subject from a more commercial angle. Scripted by Matthew Michael Carnahan, the story follows a team of FBI agents investigating the bombing of an American base in Saudi Arabia.

“We wanted it to be a different experience,” Berg says by phone from his office in Los Angeles. “We wanted to make a more accessible story about the Middle East, to not overly politicize or intellectualize the situation there. First and foremost, lead with strong action.”

Berg found the idea for the project in a memoir by former FBI director Louis J. Freeh which discussed the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. FBI agents had trouble conducting a criminal investigation in such a foreign and potentially hostile location. Michael Mann, who along with Scott Stubor wound up producing The Kingdom, thought the premise would work as a film as long as the story focused on the criminal investigation, and not on politics. “That’s one thing I think Americans don’t consider when they are confronted with a suicide bombing,” the director argues. “We don’t really look at acts of terrorism as crimes. We don’t look past the bomber to the people who weren’t caught, the people who organized and recruited and financed the bombers.”

The director obtained a filmmaker visa from Prince Turki al Faisal that allowed him to spend ten days in Saudi Arabia, a closed society with no movie theaters and no public film community. Working with Saudi consultants, Berg could then recreate an unusually specific and accurate version of Saudi society in Abu Dhabi, a city in the United Arab Emirates. The Kingdom presents a harrowing world on the brink of chaos, with authorities barely in control of an increasingly turbulent underclass. From the cramped tenements to the welter of concrete barriers that surround official buildings to an overpowering military presence, peace is under constant threat.

Paradoxically, Berg found the Saudis he came into contact with hospitable and open to Western culture. He saw teens wearing Eminem and Jay-Z tee-shirts to a late-night Internet cafe, a setting that inspired one of The Kingdom‘s strongest scenes. In it, Berg stages a stand-off between an FBI agent, Saudi police, and a frontman for the terrorists in front of banks of violent video games.

When Jamie Foxx agreed to the lead role of a tough, concerned FBI agent, Berg was able to cast veteran actors like Chris Cooper and Jennifer Garner in support. Two crucial Saudi Arabian roles are played by Palestinian actors from the 2005 film Paradise Now, Ashraf Barhom and Ali Suliman. Barhom won his part as Foxx’s Saudi counterpart after sending Berg an audition tape he shot from the roof of his apartment building in the West Bank.

“I always thought of this film as a buddy film between an American and an Arab,” Berg explains. “An unknown Arab at that, given who is available in the US, and someone the audience was going to have to connect with deeply. Ashraf’s so instinctive, and he had to really work to understand the English in the script. I loved watching him trying to figure out what he was trying to say, because it all worked for his character.”

Berg and the lead actors trained with FBI students in classes on weapons, evidence gathering, and interviewing. They even attended a bomb school north of Los Angeles, prompting Berg to ask an instructor, “How many Palestinians have you taught how to make bombs?” just to see the blood drain from his face.

Since Barhom and Suliman were traveling with Israeli passports, they had to sneak past immigration into Abu Dhabi. Berg admits that he had trouble finding enough Saudis for all the roles in The Kingdom, and wound up casting Palestinians, Kuwaitis, Iraqis, and Egyptians in various parts. With fifteen regional accents within Saudi Arabia alone, the director is prepared for some complaints about the dialogue. “We would have to have two Arabic translators on the set, sometimes three, because no two people would agree on exactly what was being said. We’ve had so many consultants go over it since then to make me reasonably confident about the Arabic. But when Saudis watch the film now they say, ‘Well, your accents aren’t right.’ At one point I just had to throw my hands up and say, ‘Okay, guilty, I’m sorry, just as long as the Arabic is solid, our dialects may be off a little.'”

A week before it was time to shoot the film’s centerpiece, an action scene that takes place in a crowded urban block, Israel attacked Hamas in Lebanon. Berg decided to cancel the two-week scene and shoot it in a reconstructed set in Mesa, Arizona. Abu Dhabi officials pleaded with him to reconsider until Berg handed one a machine gun filled with full-load blanks and told him to fire it into the air. “You couldn’t believe how loud it was,” he remembers. “I said, ‘We’ll be doing that with about a hundred guns for two weeks.’ He just handed me the gun back and said, ‘It’s not a good idea.'”

The Mesa set had its own drawbacks, particularly heat. Crew members, and on one occasion Garner, fainted in the extreme temperatures. Cinematographer Mauro Fiore and Berg worked with second unit director Phil Neilson to achieve a rough, non-presentational visual scheme with washed-out colors, based in part on documentary footage from urban gun fights in Fallujah and other cities. The goal was to force viewers inside the violence that’s usually depicted in a more superficial manner in newspapers and on television.

For the complex scenes, Berg used four or five hand-held cameras, leaving it up to the operators to follow the action. The result is an off-the-cuff, even harried look that gives the film a more organic feel. “It was about creating as much activity as possible and then going after it very aggressively with the cameras. We didn’t tell them exactly what to do, we just counted on them to keep up.” Berg praises editors Kevin Stitt and Colby Parker for reducing over a million feet of material into a fast-paced, highly charged adventure.

The Kingdom was “by far” the largest and most logistically complicated feature Berg has directed. His next project, John Hancock, is about an alcoholic, suicidal superhero, played by Will Smith. It is scheduled for a July 4, 2008, release, and Berg promises as much emphasis on character as on special effects. The director has also been executive producing “Friday Night Lights,” the NBC television series based on his feature.

Universal has been unusually cautious with The Kingdom, even scheduling foreign previews to try to gauge reactions. Berg knows that the film could have an incendiary impact both here and abroad. “If you look at the trailers and teasers, The Kingdom could be perceived as jingoistic, overtly pro-American. That’s clearly not the message of the film. My goal was to try to present Muslim culture in a way that wasn’t inflammatory, but that showed humans, families, people trying to live their lives. There has to be a moderate Arab population, or everyone over there would be dead.

“I’m aware that audiences are cheering when Jennifer Garner kills an Arab in one scene. That’s not a reaction I entirely anticipated, but I do understand it. I don’t think it’s a jingoistic cheer for killing Arabs because I’ve seen Arabs applaud at that moment too. I think, I hope it’s more a ‘good guy beating a bad guy’ moment.”

The Kingdom is so solidly and cleverly crafted that many viewers may not fully comprehend the film’s ultimately downbeat message. With this release, Berg may help rehabilitate the image of the United States professionals. But as the director admits, “The concept of a military resolution to the problems of the Middle East is not realistic. What we are doing now is creating new generations of haters.”

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