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Director Berg Reflects on 'The Kingdom'

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Hollywood is churning out a wave of films about terrorism and war with plotlines that seemed to be ripped straight from headlines about Iraq and Afghanistan. The new film, "The Kingdom," shifts the action to Saudi Arabia.

It's a twist on the classic fish-out-the-water detective drama. FBI agents talk their way into "The Kingdom" to investigate a horrific terrorist attack at an American compound there. It's a fast-paced, full-throttle action film with a big body count and a subtle message about the tensions between moderates and fundamentalist in the Muslim faith.

The actor-turned-director Peter Berg said it was a challenge to make sure those subtleties weren't blown away by all the on-screen explosions.

Mr. PETER BERG (Director, "The Kingdom"): You know, Hollywood studios are not, for a variety of reasons, in the business of mass education and political grandstanding. You want to get a film today made particularly to a certain budget. You've got to see to it that there is a commercial component to it. And this film was, really originated - again, I wanted to make the film that dealt with a dominant news issue that dealt with the Middle East. If I get criticized for this film, that's generally the criticism I'm hearing.

People are asking me, like, what am I trying to say or what are we trying to do with this film. Is it an action film? Is it a film about tolerance? Is it a film about the futility of vengeance, you know? Or is it a film that just wants to let people experience things getting blown up.

NORRIS: But, you know, Peter, you're a film director. You want to make a commercially viable film. I'm wondering if you had to make compromises that you were uncomfortable with in order to find that balance so that you had, you know, sort of shoot-them-up popcorn movie that would be commercially successful and yet something that was also thought provoking.

Mr. BERG: No, I didn't, you know? Again, I wanted to make a film that felt commercial. And I also wanted to see, you know, for myself to explore the line, you know? How much spinach will an audience take, would risk take? You know, for example, we've devised on the credit sequence a two-minute stylized recap of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, starting when oil was found in the late '30s in Saudi Arabia by American geologists who were looking for water and goes to present day growth through 9/11.

(Soundbite of movie "The Kingdom")

Unidentified Woman: The latest terrorist attacks showcase the great division between the pro-U.S. monarchy and the extremist Wahhabi militants within the Kingdom.

Mr. BERG: And that to me is sort of representative of the overall film, you know? I wanted to see how much thinking an audience would be willing to do in an action film.

NORRIS: Were you, at all, thinking about the aftermarket for this film, not just the American audience, but the international audience and how they would view Americans, not just in the action sequences, but also — there is a bit of comedy on this film also.

Mr. BERG: I wasn't sure how this movie would be reviewed and perceived and experienced. When we did our first test screening up in Sacramento about seven months ago, I was surprised at how funny the movie played, how much laughter there was. And I was very surprised at how hard the audience cheered at the end, when our good guys get our bad guys. It scared me because I thought I was just experiencing full-on American bloodlust and I was not intending for that. So I immediately asked the studio if we could go to London and we could put some Muslims in the audience. And we did.

We went to a working class neighborhood outside of London, had a very large Muslim population component in the theater, and I sat back ready to really be run out of the theater and instead, kind of witnessed the exact same reaction -the same laughter, the same cheering. There was a group of Muslim women sitting next to me in the row, and they were clapping and cheering at the end, and they were particularly clapping at a point when one of the American characters killed a terrorist. And I was surprised. When the lights came up, I looked over at these girls and they were all pumped up.

And I looked at one of them and I said, excuse me. Were you cheering at the end of this movie? And she said, yes. And I said, why were you cheering? She sort of looked to me and she said, kick-ass action." And I firmly believed in that moment that you have absolutely no idea how someone's going to react emotionally to something.

NORRIS: Now, Peter, I don't want to give anything away here, but I had read somewhere that the current ending of the film…

Mr. BERG: Right.

NORRIS: …is not how it was originally scripted.

Mr. BERG: No.

NORRIS: What was the original ending?

Mr. BERG: At the very end of the film, after the bad guy has been caught, one of the Arabs that we weren't watching that closely reveals himself to be an, actually an al-Qaida plant. And he blows up the entire team as they're at the airport, getting on the plane. That's all of them. Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jen Garner, Jason Bateman. The last frame of the movie was the entire team being blown up.

And when I read it - I was reading it at night, my heart pounded when I, literally, just, like, this huge heartbeat when I got to that moment. I was sweating. And I picked up the phone and I called Michael Mann, who was up finishing the script. And I said, did you read it? And he said, I just finished it. I said, can we do that? And he said, there's absolutely no way we can do that.

NORRIS: How do you go from that to a film where you have this incredible car accident, where the car flips over multiple times and then there's a car chase and then there's this gunfight? How do you go from an ending where everyone dies to one where the bad guys are all bad shots?

Mr. BERG: Well, as much as I say I live in the moment, at a certain point, I was aware of the fact that, you know, the lights were going to come up on this film and the audience is going to be, you know, registering an experience and, and reacting to an experience. And I was conscious of not wanting to tilt the scale too far into the darkness with the end of this film.

NORRIS: Peter Berg, thanks so much for talking to us. It's been good talking to you.

Mr. BERG: Oh, thank you. Thanks to all your listeners. I'm a huge fan of your show.

NORRIS: That was Peter Berg, the director of "The Kingdom." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.