Tuesday, May 29, 2012


It’s a wild career Peter Berg has created for himself. The kid from Shocker and Aspen Extreme grew up to have an eclectic mix of directorial offerings. Everything from wicked, black comedies like Very Bad Things and damn solid action flicks like The Rundown. He’s even dabbled in the Summer blockbuster like Hancock and this Friday’s Battleship. I think that movie made Cole angry. Berg’s most important work of art came in the form of Friday Night Lights, arguably the best show in the past decade. You be the judge which side of that fence I fall on. Clear eyes. Full heart. Can’t Lose.
But we can’t exactly run a Commentary Commentary on the full series run of that show. That would take too long, and there’s not enough Monster in the world to keep the writing juices flowing. So we’ll do one on The Kingdom, Berg’s 2007 film about an FBI investigation of a suicide bombing in Riyadh. That’s in Saudi Arabia, something you’d know if you’ve seen this film’s opening credits. Or watched The Daily Show more often.
Enough about TV. On with the Commentary Commentary for The Kingdom.

The Kingdom (2007)

commentators: Peter Berg (director)
  • Berg spent 10 days in Saudi Arabia a year before filming began on The Kingdom. He toured the compounds where American civilians live there, and this, along with his discovery of just how little was known about them, is what spurred the design of the film’s opening credits.
  • Berg points out Minka Kelly, who played Lyla Garrity on Friday Night Lights. He also notes Kyle Chandler, who played Coach Eric Taylor on the show. Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t lose. I promise no more FNL references.
  • The director took great care in cutting between two events that were taking place thousands of miles away from each other. The show-and-tell scene with Jamie Foxx being intercut with the violent act that’s taking place in the Western housing compound in Saudi Arabia is Berg’s way of using our comforts against us. Thanks, man. That really helps.
  • As intense as the opening action sequence is in The Kingdom, Berg mentions an even more visceral cut of the scene. He mentions the suicide bomber in this opening scene is the first filmed depiction of a suicide bomber, at least that he or his crew could find. Four Lions missed it by that much.
  • “FBI agents aren’t soldiers. They’re not military-trained, although they are trained in weapons,” says Berg, noting his clear admiration for agents of the bureau. “They’re basically college-educated scientists who like to collect evidence and like to go after bad guys.” Berg wanted to use the FBI as a way into the story, to cut the act of terror in the opening scene away from religious or political ties. He also mentions the first thing they were looking for when casting the leads was “intelligence.”
  • Berg asked Brad Pitt – We can assume they’re friends. Everyone in Hollywood is friends with everyone, right? – if he would do a cameo for the film. Pitt reluctantly agreed, and he appears as one of the FBI agent extras in the debriefing scene. He’s not easy to spot. Berg points out, “There he is,” on a shot that is just Berg and a large, bald, black man. Pitt must have been the large, bald, black man. Nice makeup.
  • The “shaky cam issue” is raised, as Berg mentions people who comment on his shooting style. “I can never really explain why I like it so much, other than it feels more like what the human eye sees,” he explains. “I do try to stabilize it as I can.”
  • Berg mentions he met Jennifer Garner when he did a short stint on Alias. He brags that he “thinks” he was the first actor to ever get to kiss Garner on the show.
  • The director also points out The Kingdom was the first American film to shoot in Abu Dhabi. Now we know what Abu Dhabi, suicide bombers, and kissing Jennifer Garner have in common.
  • “It’s interesting. I have no idea whether people understand what Jamie Foxx is doing in this chunk of the film,” Berg says a mere 20 minutes into the film when Foxx is trying to get his team into Saudi Arabia. The director brings up accusations of charity donations by Saudis to fund terrorism in recent years. The FBI is who investigates these illegal transactions. I think I learned this on Homeland.
  • The scene of the flight to Riyadh was almost entirely unscripted. The game of Scrabble was improvised on set, as well, and the dialogue they needed to fit in was worked around the game. Berg does point out that “whelp” is a word. They checked.
  • Berg is quick to note Ashraf Barhom‘s character is not insulting Garner’s character when he offers to move her into the bathroom to sleep there. In Saudi culture, women don’t sleep near men unless they are married to them. Barhom’s character is trying to do her a favor. “They’re a very foreign culture,” says the director. More things we learned on this week’s episode of “Peter Berg’s Culture Shock.” Fridays on Discovery.
  • The blast site the team investigates was modeled after an attack in the early 1990s at the Khobar Towers in Khobar, Saudi Arabia.
  • Berg notes a moment after a scene with an old woman and a cat. A few minutes after filming a take, the cat attacked the woman, clawing at her arms. Berg says the woman “toughened up” and they were able to finish shooting, but that sounds like a prime set-up for Very Bad Things 2.
  • The music in The Kingdom was written and composed by Danny Elfman, though some claim it sounds too similar to the band Explosions in the Sky. Berg admits he used an Explosions in the Sky piece as a temp track for the film, and, when it came time for Elfman to write the music, the director pushed him in the direction to make it sound closer to the band.
  • In Matthew Michael Carnahan‘s original screenplay, Haytham, played by Ali Suliman, was written more as a character torn between two sides. His father was extremely religious, and his brother was killed by American soldiers in Iraq. Carnahan originally had him written as someone split between helping and fighting the Americans. Berg mentions Carnahan’s original ending was “much tougher.” In that ending, everyone died. Yeah, that’s quite a bit tougher.
  • The Abu Dhabi government allowed the production the use of one of the helicopters for a scene. The caravan scene with the helicopter was shot with the military vehicle flying just thirty feet overhead. Berg points out how supportive Abu Dhabi was in the making of The Kingdom. He also points out how open they were to closing down neighborhoods so the production could shoot chase sequences.
  • Barhom had never played golf before signing on to be in The Kingdom. Berg took him on his first golf outing – add that to suicide bombers and kissing Jennifer Garner – and the director asked him why he wanted to be an actor. The “green beast” conversation Al Ghazi has with Foxx’s character was taken from Barhom’s response.
  • Berg’s first experience in Saudi Arabia was going to an Internet cafe at 4 AM. He remembers seeing dozens of teenagers wearing Eminem t-shirts, smoking, and playing video games. “As soon as I saw that, I realized certainly the country has come a long way and is really on the verge of a complete, cultural revolution,” he recollects.
  • “This is another thing we got from the FBI, that it’s very common for bomb makers to be missing fingers,” Berg says, “and other things.” He just drops that last bit in like it means nothing. Come on, Berg. We love you and all, but name names. Or body parts. Or whatever.
  • Berg brings up Ashraf Barhom on several, different occasions, and for good reason. The guy is an extremely talented actor. Berg goes so far as to compare him to a young Robert De Niro, particularly his performance in Raging Bull. Not Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle.
  • Berg mentions Nick Papac, a prop master who died while filming the large chase sequence on the freeway. The director dedicates the film to him and his family.
  • “I think Jen Garner says ‘Fucking’ real cool,” the director of this fine film.
  • Berg gets a lot of criticism about none of the good guys getting shot in the film’s climactic shoot-out sequence. He mentions he screened the film for a group of Navy SEALS, and afterwards he asked them about the fact that no Americans are killed. The SEALS responded that it’s completely accurate. The bad guys they’re fighting are the “worst shots” they’ve ever seen. They have no training, and they’re firing old, Russian guns. The basic strategy they take in a gunfight is throw as many bullets in one direction as possible. Kind of like Halo multi-player. “If it’s okay for the SEALS, it’s okay for me,” says Berg. Us, too.
  • The shot in the final shoot-out where a grenade blows the wall out behind Jennifer Garner was an improvised stunt Berg came up with on the day of shooting. He credits his amazing stunt coordinating team and special effects crew for pulling the stunt off on such short notice.
  • Berg remembers screening the film for the first time in Sacramento, California. At the moment Garner’s character appears to shoot all the bad guys in the head – There might have been some body shots – the audience erupted in cheers. Berg was concerned it was a form of blood-lust, that the audience was only reacting with joy to the sight of Americans killing Arabs. They screened the film in London a month later where the audience was roughly 25% Arab, and the moment received the exact, same eruption of cheers. “It made me feel as though it was not a political or religious reaction,” Berg says. “It’s frustration with religious extremism, and people united in their desire to see it dealt with.” Well said, sir.
  • Late in the commentary, Berg mentions one of the main reasons he wanted to make The Kingdom, and he feels he speaks for many of the people who worked on it, was so that it would show audiences generations from now the cultural complexities we faced in our time, particularly in how we handled violence. “We understand why it’s there, but I think we also understand that it certainly is not helping solve the problem,” he says.
  • Berg brings up the original ending again, going into more detail about how Haytham was conflicted in what side he stood on. When the lead characters are boarding the plane, Jamie Foxx’s character hugs him. In the original draft he realizes too late Haytham has a bomb strapped to him. The bomb detonates, and everyone dies. It was changed because, well obviously.

Best in Commentary

“I think that everyone would like to believe that somewhere in Middle Eastern countries exists moderates, people who are proud Muslims but are not interested in extremism and killing in the name of any religion, and that was certainly a core theme of this film.”

Final Thoughts

Peter Berg provides all-in-all a decent commentary for The Kingdom. It’s become all too evident in recent editions of this that a single director speaking alone about his film is prime time for dead air. Berg, like a number of directors before him, leave long pauses on this commentary, some more than a minute long. It helps bounce back and forth between two or three people, but Berg does the best that’s expected from someone flying solo.
While providing anecdotes from set, theories about the film, and reasons for why he wanted to do it, he’s also very good at pointing out what’s happening in the film. It’s not in a play-by-play manner, as many directors do on theirs, but more of a catch-up every 20 minutes or so. It doesn’t take anything away from the rest of the commentary, and it ends up helping the casual listener.
There is a lot of pointing out what shots were done in Arizona and what was shot in Abu Dhabi. We can’t tell the difference, man. We get it. It’s understandable that Berg doesn’t go through the ending action scene on a more detailed level, as the DVD/Blu has a feature on the making of some of those action pieces. Overall a fine commentary that goes with a fine package for a solid action film. Recommends all around for The Kingdom.

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