How do you ask moviegoers to make an emotional connection to your characters when, just a half-hour earlier, you have a scene where a man's head is literally shoved to where the sun don't shine?
"Hancock" director Peter Berg still isn't sure he has the answer to that question or the tricky balance he tries to achieve in this long-gestating superhero movie about a drunk crime-fighter, played by Will Smith, whose constant screw-ups have him on the outs with the population of Los Angeles.
Berg says making the movie was an "epic game of chicken," pitting the filmmaker against studio executives, test-screening audiences and, ultimately, himself.
The concept of a superhero flying while swilling down a bottle of bourbon has obvious, inherent risks. But "Hancock's" real subversion comes not with its central idea but with the way the movie deviates from its high concept in its last half-hour, abandoning the humor behind its premise for a deeply emotional story about its characters.
"We're used to superhero movies having villains and big fights in the third act," says Akiva Goldsman, a producer on the film, which opened Wednesday. "There's this weird thing about big-budget movies, where they're supposed to stay inside their genre. Breaking that boundary interested us -- a lot."
"Hancock" has interested studio executives since Vy Vincent Ngo wrote it 15 years ago under its original title, "Tonight, He Comes." The story centered on a cantankerous superhero named Hancock who lives in Los Angeles and whose exploits always involve an unacceptable level of collateral damage, particularly whenever he flies into the downtown area.
Hancock hates his job, himself and people in general until he meets a good-hearted PR executive (played by Jason Bateman). Their relationship spurs Hancock to at least try to do better.
Director Tony Scott flirted with Ngo's screenplay in the late '90s.
So did Michael Mann. Goldsman hired Vince Gilligan to rewrite the script, and other directors -- Jonathan Mostow ("Terminator 3") and Gabriele Muccino ("The Pursuit of Happyness") -- came and went.
While Berg was making his last movie, "The Kingdom," Mann (a producer on that film) handed him "Hancock."
"The whole idea of fighting crime drunk was interesting," Berg says. "Then I found out Will Smith was doing it. I couldn't help but be intrigued."
Berg was also interested in the way the movie's tone turns on a dime at the hour mark.
"That was what did it for me," Berg says. "You read it and think, 'Wow. How will that work? Can it work?' It's the opportunity to do something new. Of course, if it fails, you go, 'Oh. That's why no one's ever done that before.'"
Getting to that turning point, though, took some finessing. The MPAA twice slapped "Hancock" with an R rating. Berg always knew he had to trim some things. He had, for instance, to choose which one of three instances of a particularly bad word to keep.
There were also scenes that the MPAA said were OK, but Berg and his cadre of producers -- which included Mann, Goldsman and Smith -- knew didn't work.
Example: Hancock, a superhero who can fly but has trouble landing, also appears to have difficulty consummating relationships. Berg shot an, um, explosive sex scene, but deleted it.
On the other hand, the scene where Hancock puts the head of a taunting convict up another prisoner's behind remains in the movie.
"I had maybe eight different cuts of it," Berg says, "and we ended up with this one when I saw the roof almost blow off a test screening in Vegas. At the end of the day, I couldn't ignore an audience when they're laughing that hard.
"I'm very happy with where the movie landed," Berg continues. "We had to work really hard in postproduction to balance out the movie's two different tones so it could feel like a single experience."
Of course, you can't please everyone. Just back from a worldwide publicity tour, Berg says the lone complaints came from Parisian journalists who asked why Hancock had to toss a French bully boy to the heavens.
"They wanted to know what was so funny about throwing a French kid," Berg says. "Why did it have to be a French kid?"
Berg's response: "We liberated your country in 1944."
"That usually ends the conversation," he says.