Guest of Honor

Peter Berg Talks Military Tales and Starting the Binge-Watching Craze

The filmmaker chats with Rico about seeking out the truth for his docuseries "Live to Tell" and not apologizing for the time you lost binge-watching "Friday Night Lights."

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Photo Credit: Alex J. Berliner/ABImages

As an actor, Peter Berg has starred in the TV series “Chicago Hope” and in dozens of films. But he’s also become a major filmmaker. He directed the film “Friday Night Lights,” which he developed into the beloved TV series. And he helmed last year’s acclaimed thriller, “Lone Survivor,” about a Navy Seal team in Afghanistan.

Berg’s father was a Marine and the filmmaker continues his fascination with the military as executive producer of a new documentary series for the History Channel. It’s called “Live To Tell” and it features interviews with special operations soldiers about their battles in Afghanistan and Iraq. It premieres on Sunday, January 10, on the History Channel.

When Rico spoke to Peter, he asked the filmmaker if one of the soldiers made a particular impression.

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Peter Berg: In the first episode there’s a navy seal named Jocko [Willink]. I have had the privilege of meeting Jocko when I was doing research for “Lone Survivor,” and he’s just quite simply the most intense, righteous, and badass human being I’ve ever met in my life.

All these guys I find to be remarkable, but Jocko has got a particular uniqueness about him that I think anyone that sees it would be taken by.

Rico Gagliano: Is he the guy that starts the program?

Peter Berg: Yes.

Rico Gagliano: He has the first line in the show.

Peter Berg: Yes.

[Ed. note: a clip plays wherein Jocko says the following: “Sometimes I get asked, ‘What does it take to win?’ And that is, well… you have to have the will to kill because you cannot win without killing the enemy. And the other side of that coin is that you have to have… the will to die. If you’re going to go to war, you have to make sure you have those two types of will in the deepest part of your soul.” Below is the trailer for the series.]

Rico Gagliano: “The will to kill… and the will to die.”

Peter Berg: Yes, that’s Jocko.

Rico Gagliano: And to some extent, everyone interviewed on this show shares that creed. Did you find something that all these guys had in common that would lead them to such, a kind of extreme mode of thinking and living?

Peter Berg: Most of them either came up with family members who were in the military, brothers and fathers that served. And they were just put in that mindset early on.

Others were just deeply competitive, whether they were football players or they were hockey players. There was a very competitive chip in their psyche that has led them to wanting to test themselves. And the ultimate test is the military.

Rico Gagliano: Although, there was one guy that– I’m sure you get asked about this all the time. It’s a great moment actually. The guy is laughing as he says it. But he says that he got into the military because he saw a scene in the movie…

Peter Berg: “Con Air.”

Rico Gagliano: “Con Air.”

Peter Berg: Yeah. Well [laughs], that might have been a reason, and I have to watch kind of again because I don’t even remember the scene he references, but I sure laughed.

Rico Gagliano: He says he sees somebody kicking butt in “Con Air” who is a ranger and he’s like, “I want to be a ranger.”

Peter Berg: Right. So it’s one thing to see the film and say, “OK I want to be a ranger.” But it’s another thing to actually follow through.

I’m sure two months into his ranger training, when he had been up for five days and was deep in his own personal hell, that [there] was not thinking much about “Con Air.” There were other elements of his character that rose up beyond being a film fan.

Rico Gagliano: I’m sure that that’s true. Although, it is interesting because there’s that example, the “Con Air” example. There’s also the fact that, in the first episode of the series, a lot of the guys referred to their enemies in Iraq as “the bad guys.” Which is kind of a movie term as well, the bad guys that you’re fighting.

In talking to these soldiers, did you maybe realize the power you had as a filmmaker to influence people with the way that you portray war?

Peter Berg: Yes. I mean there’s no question that the military is very interested in Hollywood and trying to use Hollywood as effectively as they can to make sure they’re getting their numbers.

Rico Gagliano: Do you think about that though when you’re making these movies? It’s like am I making an ad for the army?

Peter Berg: I don’t think about trying to help the army increase their numbers. I do think about telling the truth.

I’ve had lots of young men in particular come up to me and say that they are applying to the naval academy after seeing “Lone Survivor.” You know, I have mixed feelings. I certainly don’t want to be responsible for somebody losing their lives.

But I do believe the U.S. military is important. And if a film that I’m a part of or television show that I’m a part of is responsible for convincing someone to join the military, I want to make sure that our politicians know what they’re talking about and have really thought it out and there’s damn good reason to send them into harm’s way.

Rico Gagliano: I want to ask you one question, if I may, about “Friday Night Lights.”

Peter Berg: Sure.

Rico Gagliano: Looking back, that was one of the first series that people binged on.

Peter Berg: I know.

Rico Gagliano: I’m very curious to hear your take on TV as a medium now in 2016. Do you feel like you changed it?

Peter Berg: Well, I don’t know that we changed it, but I am aware of the fact that tens of millions of people watched “Friday Night Lights” in eight-day bursts where they weren’t sleeping, and they were neglecting their children, and they probably weren’t eating well. And I wish some of those people had watched it when it was on the air because we probably would have had much bigger ratings. I don’t know how healthy it is. I can’t speak to the long-term effects of binge-watching…

Rico Gagliano: …On our culture

Peter Berg: But if “Friday Night Lights” is one of the original binge-watch shows, I am, in part, responsible. And I’m not going to apologize for it.

Rico Gagliano: All right, no one is asking you to. Here are a couple of questions that we ask everyone on the show. Question number one is: if we were to meet you at a dinner party, what question would you least like to be asked?

Peter Berg: “Weren’t you an actor?” And, “What shows did you play in?”

Rico Gagliano: What shows did you play in?

Peter Berg: That’s something they always ask me. “What shows did you play in?” And then I’ll list the shows…

Rico Gagliano: What does that mean?

Peter Berg: I’m not even sure. I think it means what shows did I act in. But basically, people will recognize me because I used to act and they’re either confusing me, they think I’m Ethan Hawke. And I have to spend a lot of time doing everything I can to prove that I’m not Ethan Hawke.

Rico Gagliano: I never would have made that connection, but it’s true. There’s a little Ethan Hawke in you.

Peter Berg: Or they’ve actually seen my in a film, but they don’t remember which one. So they’ll make me list every film I ever acted in till I eventually run out of movies. And then I’ll generally walk away annoyed.

Rico Gagliano: All right. So we’ll keep that to ourselves, next time we meet you at a party.

Peter Berg: Please.

Rico Gagliano: The second question is– it’s more of an order really: tell us something we don’t know.

Peter Berg: Well, I’m a big New York Giants fan and I don’t know when this is going to air, but Tom Coughlin is resigning today. He’s probably secretly been fired, but he’s officially resigning and I think that’s a big mistake. I think we should keep Coughlin for a couple more years. He’s the oldest coach in the NFL. You should read up on him. He’s a great man and he’s brought us to Super Bowl in the last 10 years. I’m a big fan.

Rico Gagliano: And yet you feel that he’s being fired, perhaps a little too soon.

Peter Berg: A little prematurely, yes.

Rico Gagliano: And your opinion matters, of course, because a couple of years ago, you directed the opening sequence for “Monday Night Football.”

Peter Berg: I sure did. That was, that’s one of my most proud moments. I was asked to create a new opening for “Monday Night Football.”

Rico Gagliano: Darth Vader is in that.

Peter Berg: He sure is. So before J.J. Abrams brought “Star Wars” back, I brought Darth Vader back in the “Monday Night Football” opening.

Rico Gagliano: Yes, it’s all because of you.

Peter Berg: Yeah, that’s right.