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David Poland

By David Poland

Asserted – Peter Berg Is A Major Director In Process

One of the blog comments in the Hancock piece below suggests that I think that shaky-cam is somehow what makes Peter Berg an interesting director. No. Not close.
My point is that any director of substance makes choices that have meaning to him. A director does have a choice about where to take a movie and Peter Berg has consistently made choices that are, indeed, more adult-minded and with each film, increasingly deep.
The Rundown was a goof, but the unwillingness to fall into cutesy, while certainly walking the tightrope, was apparent.
Friday Night Lights took the whole thing seriously

32 Responses to “Asserted – Peter Berg Is A Major Director In Process”

  1. LexG says:


  2. jeffmcm says:

    Oh, man.
    First of all, I’d say that Berg’s Friday Night Lights TV pilot is substantially better than his movie. The movie goes about an inch deeper than the standard football movie but never really wants to say anything substantial or deep about the culture we’re looking at.
    Second, I’d say that while The Kingdom flirts with the idea of twisting the cliches, in the end it came back home and embraced them pretty much all (they’re the A-Team in Saudi Arabia – but they’re sensitive! No, wait, they’re still bossing the Saudis around and smarter and funnier) with an ending that was straight out of the Paul Haggis playbook.
    No clue on Hancock, but I doubt even the mighty Berg could have included hardcore x-rated penetration in an Iron Man movie. (Yes, I know that’s not what DP meant, but it sure is what he said).

  3. Rothchild says:

    Have you ever heard anyone with good taste or a shred of filmmaking knowledge use the term “shakey-cam?” It’s something used by people from an…older generation that aren’t used to “the new,” those that know nothing, and a small segment of the population prone to motion sickness. The term is “handheld.” Why would anyone think someone is intentionally shaking the camera? And I’m sorry, but Greengrass’ films wouldn’t have half the intensity or immersion for the audience if they were shot on a dolly or a locked off camera.
    Berg uses it because it gets you right in there. It makes you feel like you’re part of the action. And the thing most people don’t even touch on, because it’s almost subconscious or subliminal or subwhatever, is that it replicates the way you actually view the world. Your eyes dart around a room, you may look at a detail, then look over at a group of people, then down at your shoes. That’s an over-exaggeration, but the association with documentary filmmaking and the similarity to how people view things on a daily basis pulls you right into the movie.
    Not everyone’s into it, and the people that aren’t love to be vocal about it, but as a filmmaker myself, I’d lose the 1% of my audience that doesn’t get it for the 99% that have a better time and get more of my movie.

  4. martin says:

    I’m not a big fan of handheld, but I do think it works particularly well in effects movies. Probably quite a bit harder to do in post but the motion-tracking really keeps the effects from standing out as unreal.

  5. Rothchild says:

    And the major thing you didn’t touch on, is that Berg is one of maybe two or three working directors that can do any genre.

  6. LexG says:

    Dave, you forgot VERY BAD THINGS, which is fairly unpleasant but totally unapologetic in terms of how pitch-black it is.
    Plus DIAZ is the HOTNESS in it. KNOW.
    The only big flaw with THE KINGDOM that actually bothers me is that once the (awesome) action kicks in, it pretty much negates everything, plot-wise, that came before it. That firefight could’ve broken out at minute 60, 80, or 100, because from that point on, the “investigation” plot is rendered as little more than time-biding until the big finish.
    They’re piecing together these clues, trying to solve the crime, and WHAM!, the bad guys attack THEM, and from that point on it’s a chase picture.
    It’s also a pretty big whopper that the whole crew just happens to end up in the mastermind’s APARTMENT out of the entire building/neighborhood/floor.
    Those issues aside, still… OWNS.

  7. David Poland says:

    To be fair, I reduced the comment to “shaky-cam.”
    The quote I was riffing on was, “Letting the camera move bounce while it lingers on a character doing something mundane does not mean the movie goes “to a darker place in the characters”, it just means Berg thinks he’s better than he actually is.”

  8. Nicol D says:

    “The A-Team swings in to clean up the mess. Pure John Wayne-era stuff. But nothing is that simple with Berg.”
    I have read you for years and while I do not agree with you politically, I have always thought your movie history knowledge was never simplistic and cliched and very well learned.
    Wayne along with directors such as Hawks and Ford made some of the most complex films to hit the screen. Rio Bravo, Red River, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Searchers etc. that I really felt the need to mention this.
    Of all of cinema history’s icons, Wayne’s legacy is most misunderstood as most people form their views on Wayne by having seen one or two or in some cases none of his films. It is all based on stereotype. I have taught a few film classes and Wayne is the one cinema icon where students have no problem trashing him sight unseen. When his work is viewed and explained critically, a different view forms. Deep down, I am sure you know that and I am not trying to be a prick. But as a student of film history I though I would just call attention to the fact that the John Wayne analogy is not really appropriate. And if it is for some of his films, than virtually any filmmaker is guilty.
    Yes he made some B & W films…but what director hasn’t. Many modern films that are considered complex are some of the most B & W morally ever made.
    I actually like Peter Berg a lot. I also agree that he has a little Mann in him and this is probably why they work together so well. But he will have to make a few more geniune classics before we say Berg has a more complex track record than Wayne.
    Again, not trying to be a dink…just something I wanted to mention.

  9. jeffmcm says:

    I will not. Kindly stop making that request.

  10. Rothchild says:

    Very Bad Things is very messy tonally. But he was finding his footing. The Rundown is the best ’80s movie that came out in the…not ’80s. Friday Night Lights is like “Montage: The Movie” and I mean that in the best way possible. The style and structure of that movie lended it something you’d never seen in a sports movie. And The Kingdom is the shit.
    I wish Ladder 44 happened. Thanks a lot, Osama. Firefighters burning a building down as misdirection to pull off a huge heist is a recipe for awesome.

  11. LexG says:

    Go rent or buy SHOCKER and witness the awesome that is BERG.

  12. Noah says:

    I always really dug Berg as an actor, especially in A Midnight Clear. I think he’s a director who brings something to the table without taking anything off it and I think he has the unique ability to make mediocre scripts into good movies. I think it’s a shame, though, that he keeps choosing scripts that don’t have a lot of upside to them, that have relatively low ceilings. But he is a master of tone and you can see that all the way back in Very Bad Things, which is on such a razor thin edge of comedy and tragedy and walks that tightrope for its entire running time, refusing to choose a side.
    I’m curious to see what he’ll do with the umpteenth version of Dune and what tone he’ll use. But I’d really love to see him paired with a really great script, something akin to Heat or Collateral (if we’re going with the Mann thing) and see what he would do with that.

  13. martin says:

    Wonder if he gave The Shocker to Estella Warren?

  14. mutinyco says:

    Fuck shaky-cam or handheld or whatever you want to call it. It’s not new. It’s just cheap.

  15. IOIOIOI says:

    It’s not cheap. It’s life. It’s hard to keep a cool tracking shot when you are being attacked by a monster. Trust me. I know. Nevertheless, TIH has a great sense of humour Iron Hater. You just are not down with the NEW STYLE. Four and three and two and one and David Poland is nothing more then a MARVEL HATER, son.

  16. mutinyco says:

    Life is cheap.
    Movie tickets are expensive.
    Show me something professional that took time to figure out and execute.
    Handheld has its place. Just like the dolly, Just like the Stedicam. Just not all the time.
    Anybody who thinks life looks like a handheld camera has serious cerebral suspension problems.

  17. christian says:

    I thought the handheld camera in FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS was over-dramatic. It didn’t look gritty like Texas. But that’s me.

  18. LexG says:

    I wonder if Peter Berg and John Stockwell ever hang out and talk about being awesome.

  19. martin says:

    What about Peter Berg, John Stockwell, and David Poland.

  20. Nicol-
    I think the only mis-clarification regarding John Wayne is that for many years, especially those leading up to Vietnam, most males thought he was right on. Then the unfairness of the U.S. government coupled with the realization that Wayne (and Ford) were the epitome of jingoism caused many people to do a

  21. RudyV says:

    It’s been called “shakey-cam” because when it was first used in commercials 10-15 years ago the camera was intentionally being jiggled around as a way to force the viewer to keep their bewildered attention focused on the screen. It was blasted as needlessly irritating back then and hasn’t gotten any better. Calling it “that’s life” implies that you do nothing but watch home movies all day.

  22. leahnz says:

    when i first saw ‘blair witch project’ in the cinema with a group of mainly guys back in the days of yore, one of them got the dreaded ‘handheldcamera’ sickness and walked out of the theatre unable to cope. it’s akin to the extreme depth sickness immortalised in ‘the abyss': one out of ‘x’ number of people just can’t hack shakey-cam visuals and it makes them head to the vomitorium.

  23. RudyV says:

    And the effect is many times worse when projected onto an eyeball-entrapping IMAX screen. Many folks in that business complained that you simply cannot put a typical fast-paced quick-cut Hollywood action flick on an IMAX screen unless you really do want to make a lot of people sick.

  24. martin says:

    It helps to have a little technical knowledge when discussing these things. “Shaky cam” is a dumb term because it’s not a consistent effect except when referred to as early 90’s tv commercial-style. Handheld camera-work can vary from vomit-inducing to subtle, all dependent on the type of lens used, the weight of the camera, the skill of the cameraman, whether there’s any support system like a steadicam used, etc. Very long lens handheld with little weighted support can be hard to watch, the worst of Tony Scott, Greengrass, etc. But the same directors use it in more subtle ways depending on the scene. Blair Witch was shot with a very small, lightweight camera and so generally looked bad on the bigscreen, vomit inducing for reasons beyond just the shakiness of it. In general, handheld camerawork is the lazy man’s approach to covering a scene. It’s basically saying, shoot it however each take, then we’ll figure it out in post. But some use it well, so it’s a technique that gets a bad rap because it’s used too often and poorly.

  25. martin says:

    For an excellent example of handheld that really amplifies the film, see The Insider or Miami Vice.

  26. jeffmcm says:

    Wow, somehow I totally missed that Nicol comment. Nicol, I think the thing about John Wayne is that even though he made The Searchers, Rio Bravo, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, those are the exceptions that prove the rule on his resume. For every terrific Hawks or Ford movie he made, there’s a The Conqueror or The Green Berets; not to mention that he allowed his offscreen persona and politics to dominate his public image (which is supposed to be the worst thing an actor can do, right?)

  27. christian says:

    Whateva you want to call it, it’s become one of the the most abused and overused film techniques of the past few years. I blame the TV.

  28. Did anybody see Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble? I appreciated that so much more because Soderbergh chose to film it without handheld camera, which is like Jesus for arthouse film makers.
    “It’s not cheap. It’s life. It’s hard to keep a cool tracking shot when you are being attacked by a monster. Trust me. I know.”
    None of that makes any sense at all. Besides, I’m sure there is a way to keep a cool tracking shot in that sort of environment. I mean, they did it for decades before the whole handheld business came into effect. Unless I’m misunderstanding what you mean.

  29. Bartholomew Richards says:

    Wow, this was a response to my comment. I wasn’t expecting that.
    Anyways, DP, I didn’t mean to say that the shaky-cam(ish) issue was the only reason you liked Berg, but I’m aware it came across that way. My bad.
    I brought that up because I found the whole shitload of scenes in The Kingdom in which the characters have really stupid conversations about things like the clothes they wear on the weekends (I’m thinking about the convo between Foxx and Cooper when they were on they’re way to Saudi) to be unnecessary and gimmicky, both on the level of camera work and script. The Kingdom and Friday Night Lights were very different movies, it probably wasn’t a good idea to use the same techniques on both.
    These scenes are there to develop the characters, but a good script would be able to develop the characters with better dialogue and move the story forward. The technique Berg uses is slightly unconventional, and I thought it worked (a long time ago) in Friday Night Lights where the characters and events really were mundane, but in The Kingdom, where the characters and events are anything but mundane, it seemed really pretentious.
    For what it’s worth, I loved The Rundown and FNL when they came out. I doubt I would appreciate FNL as much if I saw it now, partially because I have refined my tastes and partially because I would probably realize how gimmicky the whole technique of letting the “shakey-cam” linger on the characters to “develop” them is.
    As for Hancock, I’ll see it, but I’m not looking forward to it. Not so much because of Berg, but because I hate compromised visions and movies made by committee. And whoever thinks the full R-Rated cut will be on DVD is probably wrong. It looks like they were compromising on this from the beginning.
    As for Berg, I think he has potential, but he has to stop with the gimmicky scripts and camera work.

  30. David Wong says:

    OK, that thing they do during the action scenes in Bourne, where they carefully choreograph scenes, then move the camera so violently that YOU CANNOT SEE THE SCENE? Call it what you want, give it a technical name, but it’s horrible.
    Yes, it appears they’re intentionally shaking the camera so you cannot see what’s happening on screen. Shakey Cam is as good as a term as I’ve heard. It’s terrible no matter what term you use.

  31. TheVicuna says:

    There actually is an “extreme Shakey-Cam” technique that Tony Scott used in the excreable DOMINO that involves putting the motor of a Makita handdrill against the camera body to create excess vibration.
    Hand-held has its place and can be wonderful. It’s a very fine line. Greengrass, who comes from docs, “gets it.” For the less skilled, it feels too much like over-mannered affect or playing dress-up — sudden zooms or tilts to hands for no reason, for instance, then back, in the same shot. Think of a typical courtroom scene in BOSTON LEGAL. It’s a sort of faux grit — adopt the trappings of indie cinema (devoid of context, of course) and you can be “cutting edge” too! — like the way Avril Lavigne and Ashley Simpson were first marketed as “punk” to tweens who didn’t know better.
    The bigger problem with so-called “shakey cam” is the advent of digital editing. What “reads” on a TV monitor doesn’t necessarily “read” projected 60 ft high. Seems like a no-brainer, but people forget this. Not just jittery hand-held, but ultra-quick cutting and the recent annoying vogue for extreme-extreme insert closeups of eyes and such (in the Suzanne Bier mode, not Sergio Leone style). The fact that it’s accepted belies the fact that most of these films are viewed on DVD anyway, not in a theatre.
    Now, if you really wanna get me started on the worst faux-grit trend out there today (and Berg, tonally gifted but visually still a poseur, is a big adherent of this) it’s bad digital intermediate. It’s everywhere and it looks like shit when used by the 99% of filmmakers who don’t have Roger Deakins in the room with them during the timing session. But that’s for another thread….

  32. leahnz says:

    whatever you say, vicuna, but that drill motor thing just sounds retarded. if i want that much vibration i’ll go stand by a jackhammer, that’s always a good time

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin