January 12, 2012

Peter Berg is one of Hollywood's protean talents, having distinguished himself as an actor, director, writer and executive producer for both film and television. His latest project is On Freddie Roach, a six-part cinéma-vérité series (debuting Jan. 20 on HBO) that chronicles the life and career of the decorated boxing trainer against the backdrop of Parkinson's disease.

SI.com sat down with the 49-year-old director a few hours before Wednesday night's premiere screening in Manhattan to discuss his lifelong passion for sports, what he learned from his time in Roach's world and the much-rumored Friday Night Lights movie.

SI.com: You've taken on a broad range of projects, from The Kingdom to Very Bad Things to Wonderland. But you've kept going back to sports, with Friday Night Lights, Kings Ransom and now Freddie Roach. What is it about sports that lends itself to good storytelling?

Peter Berg: I've been a reasonable athlete my whole life. Played football. I own a boxing gym in Los Angeles. I'm constantly drawn back to the inherent drama and emotion at the heart of athletics.

SI.com: What is your background in boxing? Do you have a first memory of the sport?

Berg: It started at Camp Viking in South Orleans, Mass., in Cape Cod, where the counselors would pick campers. They made a boxing ring in the woods and they would make us fight each other and they would bet on us. That was my start, and it was pretty scary. It was very Lord of the Flies-esque.

I came of age during the era of the great heavyweight. George Foreman -- I was a little late on Ali and Frazier -- but guys like Foreman and Kenny Norton were around. My father was a big fan.

I then acted in a film a while ago called The Great White Hype and that was when I first sort of took any kind of professional boxing training. I just kind of fell for the sport. I love the strategy. I love the immediacy of the experience of boxing and sparring, and it just became a passion of mine.

As a director, one of the first things I've always done when I move -- we move around a lot obviously to make films -- is always try to find a local boxing gym. And I've had great experiences in different places, whether it's Arizona when I was doing The Kingdom and boxed in a gym in Phoenix. In Honolulu. Lots of time in Texas at Richard Lord's boxing gym in Austin. I always found it was a great way to meet locals and I've always loved the culture of a boxing gym. It's a very unique anthropological environment.

SI.com: Did you have a favorite fighter growing up?

Berg: The first fights I really remember watching and the first fighter that really captured me was Sugar Ray Leonard, with his swagger and his speed. I'd never seen anything like that. I loved Ali, but there was something about the speed of Sugar Ray Leonard that stands out as one of my first memories. Particularly the [Roberto] Duran fights.

SI.com: How well did you know Freddie before this project came about?

Berg: I first met Freddie -- I'm bad with dates -- a while ago. He ran a gym called the Outlaw Boxing Club that Mickey Rourke owned. A friend of mine brought me down there, and Freddie, I believe, was living at the gym at the time. Freddie taught me how to throw a left hook, a long, long time ago. I've laughed about it with Freddie and I've talked about it before, but the Freddie Roach today is absolutely no different than the Freddie Roach I remember. He was a humble, sweet, caring, respectful man then, when he had absolutely nothing other than his fists and his smile. Living in that gym, cleaning up, always having a kind word for a fighter. I first met him there.

The next time I came in contact with him was when I was acting in a movie in Montana called F.T.W., which was not a very good movie, though it had some good parts. Mickey Rourke was the star of it, and Freddie came up to train Mickey. And we were at a redneck, honky-tonk bar in Montana, all sitting at a booth. And Mickey was there and Freddie was there and a couple other guys.

We were all drinking beer and Freddie, who doesn't drink, was drinking coffee. And a guy came up and started giving Mickey a hard time, was sort of taunting him and hassling him. And Mickey -- who was actually a very shy guy, particularly then -- was getting nervous. And I remember seeing this flash of movement to my right, and seeing the guy fall and hit the ground unconscious, and seeing Freddie sit back down. In a second, he got up, knocked the guy out and was right back to his coffee. That was my second memory of Freddie Roach.

SI.com: How did the idea come about for this series?

Berg: It was [executive producers] Jim Lampley and Michael Price and [Lampley's agent] Nick Khan. I was in Hawaii and I got this call, it was Jim Lampley. He wanted to know if I was interested in doing a show about Freddie. Frederick Wiseman was a big influence on me. [Wiseman's 1967 documentary] Titicut Follies was a very big influence on me growing up. Incredible documentary filmmaker. Wiseman made a documentary about my friend's boxing gym in Texas called Boxing Gym. I liked that.

I thought to myself, Well, if I do something on Freddie, I would love to do something in the spirit and tone of Frederick Wiseman, which is cinéma vérité. 24/7 and Hard Knocks have been done so well that it felt like we needed to find our own space. And I thought that what Wiseman did with Richard Lord's boxing gym in Austin was a good idea for approaching Freddie. So we talked to a couple different companies. At first AMC thought about doing it, and that didn't work out. So we shot a little promo piece that was very vérité, with no narration, very simple. And HBO just jumped on it.

SI.com: Was there any hesitation from HBO to pick up a project that appears to be similar to pre-existing brands like 24/7 and Hard Knocks?

Berg: No, to those guys' credit. There's a reason HBO continues to push the creative envelope. I think they felt like we were trying to do something different. We also presented it to them as the On series. Hopefully the next one will be on Mike Leach, who just got the head coaching job at Washington State. We just went to film him for a week up there in Washington. We're hoping to [make it an ongoing series], but it's not 100 percent done. They don't have to be sports-related, but it just so happens that I think Mike Leach is a fascinating story. The goal is to do a cinéma-vérité series profiling different people. The mantra is "people who are fully engaged in their lives."

What really hooked me on Freddie, which I hadn't thought about even though I knew he had Parkinson's: Jim said to me, "Imagine if someone walked up to you and showed you a piece of paper and on there was a date, and that was your expiration date. How would that affect your life?" Freddie has, I think, a date in his mind. I don't know that he would own to that, but certainly his mortality is something that he has to deal with every day, and as a result of that to watch him go is fascinating. That's kind of what we want to find in the series is people like that, that are living with a real purpose.

SI.com: In the course of following him, what did you learn about Freddie that makes him such a effective trainer?

Berg: I think he's an incredible listener. His powers of observation are ferocious. Talk to anyone from Manny [Pacquiao] to Amir [Khan] to [Julio Cesar] Chavez Jr. to [Mike] Tyson to Ray Mancini. I've asked many fighters, "What is it about Freddie?" And they all say that he watches. Technically, his ability to detect habits is unique. He's really able to figure out what an opponent is likely to do and adjust accordingly.

On a personal side, I think Freddie's a workaholic and I think something that the show deals with is, "At what price does success come?" Freddie works tirelessly and has had tremendous success in many areas, but there is an inherent loneliness to Freddie and sense of solitude that I think is common to many successful people in any walk of life. The idea that it can be lonely at the top is apparent with Freddie. He's creating his own program and it involves a lot of travel and a lot of time spent alone.

SI.com: What is it about that cramped room in the second floor of a strip mall in Hollywood that's made it the center of the boxing world?

Berg: There's no question Manny Pacquiao and Freddie's relationship is probably the fuel that's igniting his success right now. But every city that I've been to and every boxing gym I've been to -- whether it's Gleason's [in Brooklyn], Kronk in Detroit, Richard Lord in Austin -- there's something very unique. You can find billionaires training next to gang members and everybody kind of treats everybody with respect. And Freddie's philosophy epitomizes that culture, where anybody that walks in that room is treated equally. And there's a lot of blood on that floor and a lot of sweat and people understand that. It's a great and very unique environment.

And the cast of characters he has there: his mother, his brother, [trainer] Shane [Langford], who you'll see in the documentary, who's getting in knife fights every 15 minutes. There's something very honest about those people and very refreshing. And I think anyone that walks through those doors -- with or without the knowledge that Georges St-Pierre is in there, that Manny's in there, that Amir's in there -- there's something that's really cool about the vibe. That's boxing, but particularly Freddie Roach.

SI.com: You mention boxing falling on hard times. What are your thoughts on the growth of MMA and the future of fight sports?

Berg: I think that the great athletes are not going into the fight game today, that's first and foremost. You've got Georges St-Pierre, who's maybe one of the most gifted athletes Ive ever seen in my life. But guys like Brandon Jacobs, running back of the New York Giants, would have been a boxer in another era. Twenty years ago, he would have been a boxer. And I think combat sports are suffering from not being able to find the quality of recruit that they were getting back in the day. But I think that Dana White's a very smart guy and Bob Arum is also a smart guy, and it will be an interesting battle to see what happens.

SI.com: You mentioned it earlier, but The Great White Hype still has a significant cult following 16 years after it came out.

Berg: It does. That was a great script. Ron Shelton wrote that script.

SI.com: How much of "Irish" Terry Conklin was your personality and how much of him was in the script?

Berg: In fighting style, probably a lot [of me]. I'm not a great fighter but I tend to try to end things as quickly as I can. Pete McNeeley was probably pretty close to my fighting style -- the McNeeley-Tyson fight comes to mind. I went to the premiere of that and sat right behind Muhammad Ali, and that was a pretty amazing experience for me. We trained like fighters. I trained for three months with Terry Norris, a fighter who has a boxing gym in Los Angeles who's a great guy. And I just developed a real appreciation for particularly the mindset you get into when you actually get into the ring and how unique that is. What it feels like to have a real enemy for those three-minute rounds when someone is literally trying to punch you in the face. It's a unique experience and that was my first taste of it.

SI.com: Besides Kings Ransom, your documentary about Wayne Gretzky's trade to the L.A. Kings, what were your favorite movies in ESPN's 30 for 30 series?

Berg:The U was my favorite. It was daunting because I went first, and so I felt like we had to move very quickly. And Wayne is a friend of mine and that was a story I found interesting having lived in L.A. -- I had just moved to L.A. maybe two years prior to the Gretzky trade. That was a huge deal for me. Having Wayne in L.A. was an incredible, very exciting time. But what ESPN did with 30 for 30 was remarkable. I credit those guys. Bill Simmons is a good friend. He's the one that basically said, "You're doing this and you're going first." Looking back I wish I had a little more time maybe. But The U was my favorite.

SI.com: After all the time-slot swaps and near-cancellations, how gratifying was it to see Friday Night Lights get Emmy recognition?

Berg: For Kyle Chandler to get recognized was just great. We always knew people were watching. I could tell just from going out to restaurants and sporting events.

I just watched the entire first season of Homeland on my iPad. Half on the airplane and I'm literally now -- I was just in my hotel room trying to get through it. There's no question people are watching television and movies and, with the exception of really dynamic live sporting events, there's not an overwhelming imperative for people to be in front of a television at 9 o'clock on a Friday. It's just not going to happen.

Our Neilsen numbers were horrible, but we always sensed more people were watching. And I was just happy for everybody who worked their asses off for not a lot of money on that show and very proud of it.

SI.com: Why are sports on TV so popular, when fictional shows about sports almost unilaterally struggle?

Berg: I think that sports fans generally see through fictionalized sports and it's really hard to provide someone with that level of experience. The most interesting moment of live television I can remember -- besides the actual game -- was during the blackout in San Francisco. Did you see that?

SI.com: Of course.

Berg: The second blackout, it started getting scary. People started running on the field and the cops started coming around and [Pittsburgh quarterback Ben] Roethlisberger was looking nervous and you really had the feeling anything could happen. And those moments are very hard to generate, particularly on network television. But sports purists are going to want to just watch the real thing. So we had a big overcome with Friday Night Lights. We weren't pretending to be a show exclusively for football fans. Football fans came to the show, but fundamentally it was a show about culture and, really, about a marriage as much as anything else.

SI.com: What's the latest on the Friday Night Lights movie?

Berg: It's being written. We're actually going to really write it. We're going to go for it. Jason Katims is writing the script. We have what I think is a really good idea and we're going to see if we can make it happen.

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