Here’s one of the season’s bigger head-scratchers: Why would Peter Berg make the same movie, give or take, with the same star, Mark Wahlberg, for release by the same company, Lionsgate, at the almost the same time, in late 2016?
A wily, passionate filmmaker, Berg — who directed Wahlberg in Universal’s 2013 hit Lone Survivor —might do things on impulse, but rarely by accident. In 2008, he flagged me onto the Sony Pictures lot, for a long talk about his unconventional superhero movie Hancock, at a time when the studio’s executives were still trying to keep him on their message: that there was really nothing all that unconventional about Will Smith playing a bedraggled, bourbon-swilling hero who looked almost as grizzled as did Berg (on his umpteenth day in the editing room).
Berg’s impulse was right. Hancock, not by accident, was almost as off-center as Suicide Squad. But it took in $228 million at the domestic box office and was Sony’s biggest hit that year.
This time around, Berg is directing Wahlberg as Mike Williams in the reality-based Deepwater Horizon, set for release by Lionsgate and its Summit division and Participant Media on September 30. Williams is an ordinary guy — an electrician on an oil-drilling rig — who suddenly is forced to deal with extraordinary things when the Deepwater Horizon rig blows out on April 20, 2010.
But Berg also is directing Wahlberg as Boston police Sgt. Tommy Saunders in the reality-based Patriots Day, developed by CBS Films based on a 60 Minutes piece and planned for release by Lionsgate and CBS Films in December. Saunders, a composite character, also is an ordinary guy — a Boston cop, one of thousands — who suddenly is forced to deal with extraordinary things when a pair of deadly pressure-cooker bombs blow up at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013.
Deepwater Horizon was shot first, starting in May 2015, as Berg picked up the project when J.C. Chandor dropped out. Patriots Day started on March 24 of this year and is nearing completion. A sneak peek at a still-private Patriots Day trailer delivered almost exactly the same emotional message as a Deepwater Horizon vid that has been public for months (watch it here): Both are a terrifying reminder that any day, at any minute, everything around us can go to hell.
(“I would argue that these two movies are essentially part of a trilogy,” said an executive involved with one of the new films. Universal’s Lone Survivor, in which Wahlberg played a real-life Navy SEAL whose 2005 mission in Afghanistan imploded, would be the first in a series, by this thinking.)
Leslee Dart, who represents Berg, said the filmmaker isn’t yet ready to talk about the alignment of Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day. Neither is Lionsgate, Participant or CBS Films, according to studio representatives.
But those charged with promoting Berg’s two unusually similar films clearly are trying to figure out whether they’ve got a problem, or an opportunity.
Knowing Berg, just a little, I’m inclined to think it’s the latter. In the past, he found the public pulse with Lone Survivor and Hancock (but missed badly with Universal’s Battleship, a fantasy thriller that was spurned by critics and the audience alike in 2012). Now, he’s obviously convinced that everyman is worried, about everything, every day. Maybe that’s a story worth telling, twice.