American screenwriter and director Neil Burger started out in experimental film and music videos before making his feature debut in 2002 with the fake doc Interview with the Assassin.
Since then, he’s most famous for the surprisingly successful Limitless and that other magic movie from 2006 The Illusionist – which got a bit lost in the shadow of The Prestige.
Now he’s back with another adaptation, this time taking on the first book in the Divergent series. with an $80 million budget it’s the biggest film of his career and the start of a major franchise. We caught up with him recently to talk about the movie to large scale filmmaking, putting together this young cast, crazy schedules and more.
[This interview was conducted by phone on the 31st of March 2014]
CLICK: Did you start out in your career wanting to make certain kinds of movies?
NB: There was a combination of different things. I was always interested in kind of surreal mysteries. And I sort of liked very dark… black comedies. Like Dr. Strangelove crossed with a Mike Leigh movie like High Hopes! So I like all of those movies. And surreal mysteries are more like The Illusionist.
CLICK: How did that take you to Divergent?
NB: Well everything that I’ve done has been very different – each movie. And I like that, I’m interested in lots of different things. I’d done Limitless and I was looking to do sort of an epic adventure actually. And this came along and it has that epic quality – this ordinary person who through this hard work and sheer willpower gets the skills to survive in the world that she’s in. she’s not a superhero, she doesn’t have powers, she’s just a really strong, wilful person. And I like that. And I also like the fear landscapes, the surreal inner mindscape, creating that world and that logic.
CLICK: Part of the appeal was that it was a bigger film?
NB: I did want to do a bigger film. But as I said I wanted to do more of an adventure which often is a bigger movie. Obviously it has the more intimate personal themes of who am I and where do I belong? But certainly the trilogy also has larger themes and ideas of how do we possibly ever get along peacefully. How do we find a way to live together? And when the story starts out, they seem to have a method in place, this five faction system which isn’t necessarily what I would have thought of to structure society but seems to be working for them. And then when it comes apart for the characters in the movie its very shocking. And later in the trilogy it’s really them trying to figure out how they ever found a consensus not to mention peace.
CLICK: It’s already close to $100 million in the States.
NB: That’s right yea.
CLICK: That must be a great feeling. Were you always confident it was going to be that big a hit?
NB: You know you’re always nervous that it’s not going to click somehow. But as I was coming onto the project the first book was having a strong fan base and was successful. And just after I came on the second one came out and did well. So I think I and the studio felt like there was a really enthusiastic core fan base. So I felt confident there. It’s hard to put a movie into the world and to get it seen by people. So it’s always nice to have a group of people who are already interested in it.
CLICK: It seems like it’s only been 18 months since you were announced as the director on this.
NB: That’s right!
CLICK: Was the last year and a half just crazy for you!?
NB: They have been! It’s been sort of 24/7. Because we really just finished editing at the very beginning of March – like mixing and looping. I think I saw the final check print on March 2nd or something like that.
CLICK: Is that just part of working on something like this?
NB: Yea it was a crazy condensed schedule. It’s a big movie, its maybe not The Avengers but it’s still a big movie with a lot of moving parts. There’s a lot of visual effects even though a lot of them are invisible. There’s a lot of music and characters in the movie, there’s a lot of story to tell.
CLICK: And would that schedule be part of the reason why you’re not back for Insurgent?
NB: Yea. Because we just finished. And this movie came out in March in the States and the next one they want in cinemas in March of 2015! In order to do that they start shooting in two months and that was going to be impossible for me.
CLICK: Is it strange to hand off to another director?
NB: It is a little strange actually. I’m really proud of the movie and I had a very particular vision for it and I feel like we achieved that. And I’m really proud of the cast that I put together and I’m really fond of all of them as people. So it is hard to let it go but on the other hand it’s a relief as well because it has been such a crazy schedule.
CLICK: And it’s interesting as well because you’ve set the tone for the future features – with this cast, etc.
NB: Yea. And I’m an executive producer on the next two movies. But I won’t be directing it which is a little weird but ultimately I’m ok with it.
CLICK: With your experience in the past writing movies would you like to maybe work on the script?
NB: Yea that’s what I’m trying to figure out right now. I’ve got a couple of things that I had written in the past that I’m playing around with doing next. And then I’ve got a couple of new ideas that I’m thinking about writing and I’ve been sent some other things. So I’m kind of juggling a handful of different potential projects. And I’m not sure which one I’ll do next.
CLICK: And when you were casting someone like Shailene Woodley was that on the back of your mind - that you were putting this young woman into what could be such a massive franchise?
NB: Not really. I wanted the best actress to play this part. And to me she is certainly one of two or three of the best actresses of her young generation. So that’s what I was thinking about, what would make the best movie. And I shot the movie that way too – almost like an independent movie even though there’s a lot of it. And as for how it was going to affect her, she was game. And look you never really know what’s going to happen. It’s hard to think about maybe it’s going to be a blockbuster. So we have to think about this and that. You don’t really go into it thinking that way.
CLICK: Divergent is certainly the biggest movie you’ve done, what was the biggest difference you noticed in working on something of this scale?
NB: There was just a lot of this movie! A lot of characters and that was really the biggest challenge. And there’s a lot of story and storylines in the movie. Obviously Tris has a relationship with Four at the centre of it. But she also has a relationship with her friends in Dauntless. And then Eric and Peter and Jeanine Matthews are antagonists. And she has a relationship with her parents and her brother and with Maggie Q’s character! There were so many different things that had to be balanced and woven together. It was kind of a crazy challenge trying to make it all work.
CLICK: Having seen the film, it doesn’t really feel like it’s aimed at a young adult audience. Is there still a stigma attached to that term – young adult?
NB: I think there is a stigma to it. Certainly it’s based on a young adult novel but for me I wasn’t interested in making a young adult story. It appeals to young people but to me the story is an adult story and the themes are adult. Grown up, mature, nuanced and universal ideas. So that’s what I was going for and I think that’s what we’ve got. Because at least in North America half the audience has been over 25 and had been connecting to it. But there’s definitely a stigma attached to the young adult thing. And I think in a way we actually have people rooting against us because there’s a lot of critics out there who didn’t like the Twilight movies and they feel like this is just a retread. Or that we’re somehow copying The Hunger Games. Which – on one hand we probably wouldn’t be here without the success of The Hunger Games but it’s a different story. And I don’t know that people with Captain America are saying – well here we go with another Batman, Superman, and Iron Man movie! It’s a particular genre and we’re exploring different ideas within that genre.
CLICK: So for a male, older audience. How are you pitching it to them?
NB: Look the ideas of the world – where do I belong? What do I go out on a limb for or who? When do I compromise and when do I speak with my own voice? And if I do go out on a limb for something what’s the cost of that? I think those are ideas that anybody who’s alive in the world has to deal with all the time.
CLICK: Finally, you’ve made a big movie now. But if you could do any movie of any scale, a dream project, what would you make next?
NB: Well that’s a really good question… it’s difficult to know. I’m partly stumped because there was something that I really wanted to do but I can’t tell you what it is that is just too close to something else. So I’ve been robbed of my passion project! But um… I don’t have the answer to that sorry!
CLICK: Maybe something smaller scale, a personal film next?
NB: Yea that’s exactly right, I’m looking to do something… contemporary and dramatic and real world next.
Divergent is in cinemas from the 4th of April 2014
Read our interviews with Shailene Woodley and author Veronica Roth and win great prizes in our content hub here.