By Christine Spines
September 14, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Frank Connor
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This fall, at least five movies will explore conflict in the Middle East. With The Kingdom being one of the first in theaters, Hollywood will be watching closely to see if director Peter Berg can bridge the divide between popcorn and prestige by serving up flashy mainstream entertainment that addresses current events with sophistication and sensitivity. ”It’s kind of like tricking a kid to do his homework,” says Berg, whose track record of unlikely crowd-pleasers includes Friday Night Lights and The Rundown. ”You’ve got to make it fun.”

On paper, The Kingdom‘s plot, which kicks off with a large-scale terrorist attack that kills American contractors and their families, doesn’t sound so enjoyable. But Berg was interested in terrorism primarily as a setup for a fast-paced procedural thriller. The film is loosely based on the FBI’s investigation of the 1996 bombings of Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Berg first ran the idea by his neighbor, director Michael Mann (The Insider), who liked it so much he signed on to produce. (Former Universal production head Scott Stuber would eventually come on as a second producer.) The pair then enlisted Matthew Michael Carnahan, who also penned November’s Lions for Lambs, to concoct a socially relevant story that wouldn’t play like an episode of Frontline.

One way to do that was by casting actors who could break up the intensity with some improvised gallows humor. Jamie Foxx in particular embraced the challenge. ”I knew Pete would make it fun,” says the actor, who was approached for the role by Mann, his Miami Vice director. ”He’d put enough light humor into it to make it really move as a movie, as opposed to a documentary or a here’s-my-point-of-view movie.”

Berg decided early on not to shoot in Saudi Arabia (a country that doesn’t even have movie theaters). Instead, the production split time between the Arizona desert and Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Ironically, it was the U.S. portion of the shoot that turned out to be the most difficult. First, there was the Berg factor — he liked to keep his cast slightly off balance in the hopes of capturing more authentic reactions. Even more off-putting were the several weeks spent filming an elaborate car-chase sequence on an Arizona blacktop in 125-degree heat. Then things got really bad. A construction worker, Lance Gunnin, was killed in a motorcycle wreck on his way to work. Prop maker Tom Aguilar went to the hospital with stomach cramps, learned he had prostate cancer, and died a week later. Finally, there was the on-set collision between an SUV and a small crew vehicle in which 25-year-old prop master Nick Papac perished while the rest of the crew watched in horror. ”It was the most tragic experience I’ve gone through,” says Berg, who was a passenger in the truck that hit Papac. ”It galvanized all of us to honor Nick with every creative fiber in our bodies.” The Kingdom ends with a dedication to the men who died while making it.

Given the film’s wrenching history, Berg is especially eager to avoid further problems, and he’s praying The Kingdom won’t fuel Rambo-esque xenophobia or anti-American protests around the world. But so far, those worries seem unfounded. To Berg’s surprise, when he nervously unspooled the film for a heavily Islamic London audience, they reacted exactly the same way the Americans at an earlier test screening did — with an eruption of applause when good triumphs over terror.

After the credits rolled, Berg asked a young woman in traditional dress why she was clapping so enthusiastically. ”She said, ‘ Kick-ass action!”’ recalls the director, his eyes widening in amazement. ”At that moment I realized we have so many misconceptions. The movie wasn’t being looked at in terms of religion. It was just people accepting it as a story about people trying to stop extreme violence. And that’s a universal thing.”

This is an online-only excerpt from the EW Fall Movie Preview issue. Click to read the full feature on The Kingdom.

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