How ‘Battleship’ Enlisted the Navy

The ships and the sailors in "Battleship" are real, and the Navy is so happy with the Peter Berg film it is busy advertising its involvement

When "Battleship" docks in theaters Thursday evening, it does so with the endorsement and cooperation of the U.S. Navy. 

The aliens in the Universal Pictures blockbuster may be CGI creations, but the massive battle cruisers that lend the film its name are the real McCoy.

Likewise, many of the sailors shown launching missiles and barking orders are enlisted servicemen, while destroyers like the John Paul Jones and the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan, both featured prominently in the film, get to strut their stuff for the cameras. 

Producer Sarah Aubrey told TheWrap that the $209 million film version of the popular board game could not have been made without the participation of the Navy. Although much of the footage of the ship's bridge was done on a Louisiana soundstage, Aubrey estimates that roughly 50 percent of the shots in the film used real naval locations. 

"If the Navy had not been partners in this film, there's no way we could have pulled this off," she said. "We made this movie because we wanted to showcase the modern Navy, which is a Navy that has not been seen in a film before. The real people on the ships, you can't take your eyes off of them, and these enormous ships just look so cinematic on the open ocean."

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Getting the Navy's seal of approval took some doing. The armed forces branch receives about a half dozen requests for participation on Hollywood productions annually but only allows access to productions that it believes represent the Navy in a positive light. 

In this case, a movie that showed naval officers heroically taking the battle to villainous extraterrestrials was just the ticket. 

"The Navy is portrayed very well," Bob Anderson, Director of the Navy Office of Information West, told TheWrap. "Our sailors are shown, not knuckling under, but performing with great mental acuity to fight back against overwhelming odds and laying down their lives when necessary." 

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So happy is the Navy with its starring role in one of the summer's biggest action films that it has been touting "Battleship" in recruitment ads it runs in cinemas and featuring promotional content from the film on its YouTube channel and Facebook pages. 

But an endorsement from the Navy might not have come if the film's villain hailed from the Middle East or another of the world's perpetual hotspots. 

"By choosing to have the enemy be aliens, that way we didn't run into any political hurdles about having the U.S. Navy portrayed as fighting another modern navy," Aubrey said. "When we put ships in a fictionalized situation, we removed that potential problem."

To get approval, Aubrey says the filmmakers sought input from the Navy on the script, making changes where officers told them that the plot misrepresented procedures. One area of concern, Aubrey said, was that star Taylor Kitsch, who plays a senior weapons officer, not seem too youthful for his position. 

"They were not shy about telling us that it was important that he be right age for the job that he held," Aubrey said. 

Even the film's more fantastical elements had to have a veneer of realism to pass muster. When Navy ships encounter an identified object from space in the film, the film depicts the seamen following protocol — a warning horn is sounded, a vessel is sent out to investigate, all before any combat takes place. 

Aubrey said that central to enlisting the Navy's trust was the relationship that director Peter Berg had developed with the armed forces from his work on the 2007 terrorist thriller "The Kingdom" and from research he had done on a proposed film version of "Lone Survivor," a  memoir by ambushed Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell. 

It didn't hurt, Aubrey said, that Berg's father was an amateur naval historian. 

"We were pre-vetted for them," she said. "We'd already met a large number of people, some of the admirals, and we really got to understand how the Navy works. We had established a comfort level with them."

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Beyond ensuring accuracy and conveying the purity of their intentions, the filmmakers had to tailor their shooting schedule around the availability of the aircraft and ships. They were allowed, for instance, to film maritime exercises taking place at the Pacific Rim and take footage of carrier jets being launched, but only because those activities were already taking place. 

If the filmmakers need something extra and unscheduled, Anderson said that the Navy charges a set rate for any equipment or staged naval activities. Likewise, the servicemen and women are paid for their work in the film, he adds, but they are only allowed to participate during leave or liberty time. 

"Battleship" arrives after the Navy has been more or less on cinematic dry dock. Anderson said that even though the Navy has worked with television shows like "NCIS" and "Hawaii Five-O,"  requests for access from moviemakers have tapered off in recent years. 

"With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan most of the movies have been about ground wars," Anderson said. 

That could change if "Battleship" is a hit, and it could even goose recruiting. Anderson said it was difficult to prove statistically if a prominent film role for the Navy encouraged more people to enlist, but did say that there had been a spike after "Top Gun" was released in 1986. 

"We just hope that a lot of people see the movie and think that it's neat and that maybe that inspires them to check us out and see what we're all about," Anderson said.