‘Divergent’ emergent: Neil Burger directs Lionsgate’s new bid for a dystopian young-adult franchise

Sometimes a filmmaker has to look a long time before finding a project that’s the right fit. And then he often has to wait an even longer time just to get it green-lit and off the ground. But every so often, the perfect project just falls in a filmmaker’s lap. Ready to go. That’s how Neil Burger (The Illusionist, Limitless) found himself attached to Divergent—arguably the most anticipated film so far this year. He didn’t have to go looking for it. Divergent came to him.

“After I finished Limitless, I was lucky enough to be sent a bunch of books and scripts that people were asking me to do, and one of them was Divergent,” Burger recalls. “It was in book form, kind of an editor’s manuscript. I don’t think it had even been published yet.”

It didn’t exactly leap out at him like a revelation. In fact, he says, “It sat on a pile on my desk and I just never got to it. But, very strange, it was always at the top of the pile. I was always looking at the name and the graphics on the cover, and all the time it was looking back at me. And then, months later, Summit called and said, ‘We have a script coming in for this project that we want you to think about. It’s not quite ready, but we wanted to give you a heads-up that it’s coming, in about two weeks. It’s called Divergent.’ And I looked at that book sitting on my desk. I said, ‘I don’t have to wait for the script. I can just read the book.’”

Which he did. And he liked the story of Tris Prior, a teenage girl trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic future. Divergent is one of those books that people find hard to put down. The kind you read in one day. As Burger says, “It wouldn’t let go of me.”

For the uninitiated, Divergent’s Tris (played in the film by Shailene Woodley) has just turned sweet 16 in a dystopic Chicago—now a shell of a great metropolis, walled off from the rest of a world that poses an unnamed threat to the city. In this society, turning 16 means submitting to an aptitude test that will determine which of five “factions” one is suited to spending the rest of one’s life with. That’s when Tris learns that she’s “divergent”: She doesn’t really fit anywhere. This makes her dangerous to her rigidly compartmentalized social order, and that is why her divergence remains her closely guarded secret, as she joins the faction called Dauntless—the protectors of the city, known for their bravery, their warrior skills and their militaristic sense of honor and duty. Of course, there’s a hidden dark side to this faction. And there is an even darker side to the elitist, intellectual Erudite faction, which is seeking to overthrow the balance of this world. Our heroine is inextricably caught up in all this. Right in the middle, in fact.

A top title in the burgeoning young-adult fantasy fiction genre, Divergent is the first book in a trilogy penned by Veronica Roth. It is driven by warfare and other death-defying action, but at heart it’s a coming-of-age story—reminiscent enough of The Hunger Games to attract studio attention, yet different enough to stand on its own merits. All of which means that expectations are high, not just on the part of Summit and Lionsgate, but from the millions of young readers who have made these books worldwide bestsellers. Will the movie version deliver? That is the question. And therein lies the pressure for everyone involved.

Burger admits to feeling “a bit of” that pressure. “Whenever you spend a certain amount of money…well, look, all movies are a little expensive, so even with ‘small’ movies, however much money is being spent is precious to the people spending it. So when you get up there where we are—we’re not massive, not hundreds of millions of dollars, but still a lot of money for Lionsgate and for Summit—there are always nerves with that. And then there’s the pressure of trying to set up this ‘franchise,’ if you will. That’s added a whole other dimension to it. But there’s nothing actionable you can do [to guarantee success]. Nobody can say, ‘Well, it’s going to be a franchise, so you’ve gotta do this and this.’ They wish they could say that.”

Burger has always been acutely aware that the movie’s core audience will be showing up with built-in, firmly fixed ideas of what the Divergent world should look and feel like. But he points out that with all its large-scale action and tortured teen romance, this “classic hero’s journey” lends itself to the movie medium. “We were able to be faithful to the book and make a good cinematic experience at the same time.”

Of course, there was the need to condense and streamline that is unavoidable in any page-to-screen transition. Scenes get cut. So do characters. Not every fan is going to be 100% happy. “When you lose a character, people who are fond of that character—and there are a lot of characters in the book—are going to take it hard,” Burger says. “We feel for that and try to make it work.” Judging from this film’s long list of acting credits, Burger appears to have kept speaking-part casualties to a minimum.

But ultimately, the key to making the movie work—both artistically and commercially—is distilling the essence of what made the book work. That essence, quite simply, is the protagonist, the spirited, vulnerable, conflicted, born rebel Tris. Which is the good news for Burger, since he’s got the impressive Ms. Woodley (The Descendants) playing that role. Woodley has the heart for Tris’ complex swirl of emotions and loyalties, and, doing her own stunts, she nails the action stuff too. In this movie, that’s saying a lot.

Burger knows he’s lucky to have such a naturally gifted young actress at the center of his saga. But he’s also blessed with an strong surrounding cast: broodingly hunky Theo James (Mr. Pamuk from “Downton Abbey”) as Tris’ romantic interest Four; quirkily charismatic Zoe Kravitz as Tris’ best friend Christina; a whole ensemble of bright, newish faces playing fellow Dauntless initiates; prestige names such as Kate Winslet and Ashley Judd lending their grace notes—all that, plus a little action genre royalty, in the lithe form of Maggie Q.

It couldn’t have been like pulling teeth to get great performances from that group. But the greater challenge for Burger was getting into the Divergent future-world, and finding a distinctive way of bringing it to onscreen life. “There’ve been a lot of great movies set in the future, from Blade Runner on down,” he notes. “So the question was: How do you do it in a way that feels new, that’s a fresh point of view, that doesn’t feel like just a rehash? You look at a lot of movies lately that are futuristic, and they all sort of have the same CG cityscape. Even though it’s incredible work they do—and it sometimes feels amazing—it always feels a little bit painted. It doesn’t feel real. I don’t feel like, ‘Whoa!’”

Burger knew he didn’t need a team of f/x wizards to whip up his Whoa cityscape. Roth provided him with that by setting her book in Chicago—a great-looking city that, compared to, say, New York or Toronto, is practically virgin territory in terms of movie locations. “Chicago is an amazing city,” he enthuses. “A monumental city. A vast and grand cityscape. I said, ‘Why don’t we use that? Why don’t we use the great production value that’s already there? Let’s use the real city. Put our characters on the real streets, with real sun in their eyes, and real shadows, cast by the buildings, cutting across their faces, and real wind in their hair and real concrete under their feet.”

In the book, post-apocalypse Chicago, after a great, mysterious war, has been left largely standing, looking the way it does now. Many of the book’s action scenes are set at well-known—and very photogenic—landmarks: the Ferris wheel on the pier, the towering, black Hancock Building, the elevated trains that the Dauntless warriors-in-training use in so many tests of strength and courage. Those locations were all available to Burger, and he has made striking use of them, creating what producer Douglas Wick has referred to as “a sort of dream city.”

But for all his commitment to keeping it real, Burger’s future-world is still loaded with f/x embellishments—most of them relatively subtle, many even invisible. Burger says that a lot of it involved going in to digitally subtract what shouldn’t be there—“stoplights or signage or whatever.” But there are also some digital “flourishes” that place this production design firmly in the future—such as the big turbine windmills that adorn the rooftops of Chicago’s abandoned skyscrapers, providing an apt power source for the Windy City.

“Obviously, that doesn’t exist in Chicago, so that was something we had to add,” Burger explains. “But in general, the CG ideal was that eighty percent of what we would see in any frame would be real. That was kind of my directive. That was the way we were going to make this feel different than other movies set in the future. More immediate, more intense, more personal to Tris’ story.”

You get a good idea of what he means when you see Woodley and James, hanging off an actual weatherbeaten Chicago train, romantically entwined in each other’s arms and legs. Or Woodley, really leaping off a tall building, into an actual gaping hole in the ground. In arresting moments like that—not to mention the one in which the daredevil Dauntless initiates zipline off the top of the Hancock building, on a collective dare (“That scene had been cut from the script I first got. I said ‘You’ve got to put that back in.’”)—Burger found himself working on a larger scale than ever before. But clearly, it didn’t take him out of his comfort zone.

“It didn’t feel any different,” he says about the shoot. “It only felt different in that it was longer. There were more complicated events that happen in this movie, and a number of scenes with a huge number of extras. Just bigger events that take up more time. Not really bigger than anything I’ve done before. Just more of them in one movie, happening one after another on the schedule.”

There was that bigger budget too. And all those elevated expectations. But Burger says he never felt constrained by studio's, er, creative input . “I was kind of left alone, to shoot it the way I would any movie. The way I behaved with the actors, the way I behaved with the crew, the way I moved through the schedule, the way I shot a scene.” In short, the director who has acquired a reputation for making the most of small budgets felt the freedom to do his usual thing. “Just with more money,” Burger adds.

Divergent is just the latest departure in a career that has so far been full of them. From the start, Burger has been nothing if not eclectic, from the starkly staged minimalism of Interview with the Assassin (2002), to the classically old-school, exquisitely appointed  period piece The Illusionist (2006), to the loosely rambling road movie The Lucky Ones (2008) to the edgy, street-smart psychological thriller Limitless (2011). None of these films looks or feels like any of the others. But in each, that highly distinctive style is utterly organic with the material.

“All of my films have been different from each other,” Burger acknowledges. “And I kind of like that. I’m always interested in figuring out how to stylistically serve the story as much as possible. There are certainly things that I’m not suitable for and wouldn’t be able to figure out how to do. But I saw something in Divergent that I thought would be a new set of challenges. After The Illusionist, you can imagine that a lot of period pieces came my way—which I wasn’t against. But I just found something that grabbed my imagination more, in a different area.”

He’s talking about The Lucky Ones, in which three Iraq War soldiers on leave (Rachel McAdams, Tim Robbins and Michael Peña) bicker, banter and bare their souls on a cross-country road trip—most of which was shot inside an SUV. That was a far cry from The Illusionist’s dark forests and gas-lit theatre stages, just as Limitless, with Bradley Cooper stoked on a drug that taps into that 80 percent of brain we never use as he navigates New York City’s mean streets in a state of suspensefully mounting paranoia, was a far cry from The Lucky Ones.

It’s not so much a been-there-done-that thing with Burger; it’s more a matter of what new and different world to explore next. Steven Soderbergh has made a brilliant career of constantly switching things up. Burger looks to be well along a similarly fruitful path.

He didn’t set out to be a filmmaker. That wasn’t his dream as a kid. It wasn’t the plan when he entered the Fine Arts program at Yale. And yet, in retrospect it makes sense that he wound up making movies. “I was always sort of circling around it. When I was a kid I was always drawing, not landscapes and still-lifes, more drawing worlds—worlds that sort of had a narrative. Worlds where things were moving. Then, in college, I was painting, but I was also interested in architecture and photography, and I did a bunch of set design for the theatre.” At some point, he says, “I figured out that filmmaking combined all those different interests.”

His first film was actually a senior project in high school. “I was never really a film buff. I don’t know why we made a film in high school. Not because I thought I was going to be a filmmaker.” It wasn’t until college that he started “playing around with a camera and editing things together.” Eventually, that led to teaming up with a friend who “had an in at a production company in Los Angeles that got us an in at MTV.” That’s where they pitched their idea for a series of one-minute movies that promoted reading. “They were like public-service announcements, but they were edgier than that,” he recalls. “They were almost like music-videos, but instead of music it was literature and language that was being showcased.” The movies were called “Books: Feed Your Head.” They featured such actors as Aidan Quinn and Timothy Hutton, and they became an early-’90s staple of MTV’s daily programming. “They were the first thing I did professionally.”

From there, it was TV commercials, for the likes of IBM and ESPN, which he says made him a better filmmaker. Finally, he scraped up the financing for his first feature, Interview with the Assassin, a modestly mounted yet thematically provocative profile of a fictional JFK second assassin, which attracted attention and led to open doors. They’ve been opening ever since.

One door recently closed for him, however, when he had to pass on the chance to direct Insurgent, the next installment of the Divergent trilogy. This time it wasn’t his artistic restlessness, but an unavoidable scheduling conflict: With a March 2015 opening date already announced, Insurgent is already in the prepping stages, at a time when Burger is still racing the clock to fine-tune Divergent before its March 21 release.

“I’ve got another month’s work here,” he says by phone from L.A, on the first Monday in February. “Just 24/7, trying to get it done. It’s been crazy.” Ongoing f/x work and a few recent scene reshoots have drawn out post-production to the point that work on the first and second film has unexpectedly overlapped. “At first, I thought I was going to be able to prep the next one while I was finishing this one. But there came a point when I said, ‘I can barely do my laundry, let alone think about another movie.’

“On the one hand, I’m sad to give it up—sad not to be working with the actors and the crew we had on this movie. I feel like I’m sort of giving it away. On the other hand, it was just going to be impossible for me to do.”

And so, Neil Burger will soon finish work on Divergent with nothing else lined up. Nothing definite anyway. He’s not overly concerned. He has a couple of ongoing writing projects. “I’ve been slowly looking at them again,” he says. “And there are a few other things that have come my way. But I don’t know what’s next. I will soon be worrying about that.”
Chances are he won’t have to be worrying for very long.