Interview with Neil Burger for DIVERGENT

We caught up with the director of the post apocalyptic adventure, DIVERGENT

DIVERGENT is released in Irish cinemas this weekend. Set in the future, when Chicago has been ravaged by war, DIVERGENT is the story of Tris – played by Shailene Woodley – who is forced to choose between her family and the devised faction that suits her personality best. Tris gets into trouble when it is discovered that no one faction suits her completely. We caught up with director Neil Burger to find out more about DIVERGENT and the world of the film.

What drew you to the film?
Neil Burger: As a director it’s always a great challenge to get the opportunity to make a movie that’s set in the future and to create that world. That was a great chance and I also liked the themes of the movie; the themes of human nature and how we get along in a larger societal sense – how do we live in peace and harmony. I think that is one of the over riding films of the story. On a more personal level, the themes of identity – who am I? Where do I belong? What if I am different?… In this movie, if you’re different, you’re dangerous. I liked that and I liked that all those themes were really tightly tied to the action. There is action; it’s an epic adventure, so I liked all of that.

Did DIVERGENT feel like a natural progression from LIMITLESS and your previous work?
NB: It did. All my movies have been very different from one another; THE ILLUSIONIST and LIMITLESS could not be more different from one another, and this is really different from LIMITLESS. I am always interested in different things and I wanted to do a bigger movie, and this is bigger. However, I think between all those movies – even though they are different – to me, there is something that connects them all together, and that is in each of them there is a character that is trying to empower themselves and to change themselves. We see that in Bradley Cooper’s character in LIMITLESS, who is this down on his luck writer who then finds a crazy way to pull himself together and be the person that he always wanted to be, and I think it’s the same in DIVERGENT, in a very different way. Tris is this ordinary person who is the least likely person to succeed in the situation that she ends up in, but she puts her mind to it and sheer willpower, she acquires the skills and the grit and the power to survive.

Were you aware of the books and their popularity before you signed on to direct DIVERGENT?
NB: When I got the script, I didn’t know of the book. The book had only come out maybe nine months before. It was popular and it had been a hit but it was a growing phenomenon that isn’t where it is now.

You made DIVERGENT before the series of books was completed. How challenging was it to tell this part of the story without knowing how it ended?
NB: The second book had just come out when we started making the movie, and the third one [Veronica Roth] was still writing when we were prepping the movie. I talked to Veronica all the time and asked her questions about what was going to happen in the third book which, on the one hand was a great privileged position to be in; I had people who were fans of the book, who knew what I was doing who were asking me what was going to happen. I knew, but I obviously couldn’t tell them. I used Veronica as a resource to know what was going to happen to different characters so that I was setting them up properly in this movie.

How did you create the different looks of the factions and the dilapidated city of Chicago?
NB: Obviously the film takes place in the future, but to me it is still the city that we know, it’s people that we know, it’s human nature that we know and they have obviously been through a catastrophe but they are pulling together things they have available to them, which are things that we know and understand, and continuing on and making the best of it. To me that was a different way to go at the future; the movie is not really about the future, it’s not about futurism or what the new technology is going to be, it’s more about human nature so the context, the world that Veronica has created, and I have created, is kind of artificial – and I don’t mean that in a bad way – but it is an artificial construct or context to then explore those issues of human nature and personality.

There are differences between the book and the film, how do you hope fans of the books will respond to these changes?
NB: The film is out in North America now, and I think they are responding really well to it. Any of the changes that I made were made in the spirit of the book. We did expand Kate Winslet’s role, but Jeanine is the main antagonist, and we wanted to see her more and we wanted to Tris really go up against her, so we created more for her.

Were you conscious of striking the balance of telling the story both for the fans and people who were coming to the film knowing nothing about the books?
NB: To a degree… It’s great to have such a dedicated fan base and I wouldn’t have done the movie if I didn’t like the story the way it was. I didn’t feel the need to change anything, however, a few things inevitably get changed because it’s tough to fit all those events and characters into a two-hour movie. I think we have been pretty faithful to the book and I think people appreciate that.

Kate Winslet has never played a villain before, what made you think of her for Jeanine?
NB: Jeanine is supposed to be the smartest person in the society and one of the most powerful so for me, as a director, I thought ‘what actress has that powerful screen presence? That sense of authority with a first glance at her? who seems incredibly smart and has that power?’ Kate would be on a very short list of actresses. She’s really one of my favourite actresses and I think that she was happy and excited to play a villain because she hadn’t done that before.

Shailene Woodley was possibly best known until now for playing George Clooney’s daughter in THE DESCENDANTS. What made you think of her for such an action packed role?
NB: I had seen her in THE DESCENDANTS, so when I came ion to this movie I put together a list of who I would like to be in it, and she was the top of my list. In a way, she was not only the top of my list, she was the only person I wanted to do it. I suggested her to the producers and everyone met her and loved her. Even though she hadn’t done an action movie before, I thought, from THE DESCENDANTS, she had such a great quality of rebelliousness and vulnerability, she has this swagger and this hurt all co-existing in her character. Even though it’s different in DIVERGENT, she still has to play this ordinary, innocent person who then has to have this incredible strength to pull herself together and survive in this world.

You mentioned the action in the film, and there are some fantastic sequences, like the train jumps. How challenging was it to create these on screen?
NB: The train stuff was really challenging, trains are big and dangerous and I wanted people running along the side of trains on really narrow platforms and climbing onto them when they were moving, and jumping off of them. I also wanted to do them real; I didn’t want to do them on a soundstage or against green screen or something like that. Although we used digital effects to stitch some of the sequences together, we built our own trains, we built our own tracks and the actors climbed up on to the elevated tracks. We stitched all those together, but they are really doing it.

Finally, since you have passed the reins of INSURGENT – the sequel to DIVERGENT – to Robert Schwentke, what’s next for you?
NB: I literally just finished this movie about three and a half weeks ago so, as they used to say, the print is still wet. It has been a crazy 18 months, which has been great but I am going to take a little bit of a break. I have a couple of things that I am deciding between, but I haven’t decided which one yet.

DIVERGENT is released in Irish cinemas on April 4th

Words: Brogen Hayes