To continue on with our Divergent Fansite Set Visit interviews, we are continuing on by sharing Director Neil Burger’s interview. We loved chatting with Neil because his insightfulness really showed us how much he cared for the details of the movie and in what great hands this story was in!
Read the full interview below and also make sure to visit all the participating fansites from this visit:
We were on the pit set, it is huge and is surrounded by cave-like gray-ish walls.
Neil: It’s a good set isn’t it?
Fansites: It’s amazing! We’re a little blown away.
Neil: Yeah. No, it’s huge. It’s not quite done yet actually, they still have some painting to do, but it looks good. It looks real. So we wanted it to be—You know, you’ve seen lots of things underground so we wanted it to be a little bit different like so it was lighter and sort of more luminous. Not kinda heavy, like a place you’d kinda want to be so, it’d be kinda grey and shafts of light coming through that are bouncing around. That’s the idea. Behind the marble, you know.
Fansites: What is that location? (Pointing at the concept art for the pit set)
Neil: That is a real—It was modeled after… It’s an underground marble quarry that was shut down in Colorado. But it’s totally underground. It’s just bizarre, rather than an open pit kind of thing so.
Fansites: What attracted you to this project?
Neil: Me? I wanted to do something—what really attracted to me was that it was a big movie and I really liked that it was a big movie that wasn’t like with superheroes or special effects or, you know what I mean, like supernatural effects. It was still like this epic journey but it was very much a human story. And I really liked, I really liked her story because I felt like it was really universal. The ideas of: “Where do I belong?” “What are you made of?” “Who am I loyal to?” “Am I loyal to myself, am I loyal to my family, am I loyal to my group?”. You know I think all of those ideas were really universal. And I just liked how those ideas fit into this kind of grander, epic adventure.
Fansites: How did Shailene fit the role for Tris for you?
Neil: Well, I think the first thing was that she was the best actress, and if you’ve seen The Descendants… And I mean, she hasn’t been in that much. Some people know her from that ABC show. Which, whatever. But in The Descendants, she’s… she’s incredible. And had just the right kind of combination of rebelliousness and vulnerability that I thought was just perfect for Tris. She’s a great actress, maybe the best of her age group. And so that was the most important thing. And obviously we’ve been shooting and we’ve seen the dailies and we’ve seen it on film and she blows me away every time.
Fansites: How about Theo as Four?
Neil: And Theo! So then, because we cast Shai, Shailene is a very strong person, which again is great for Tris because you know, she does speak up to Eric and she does stand up for herself as she moves along, so she’s perfect for that. But she’s just a really strong actress and we auditioned a lot of people and there were a lot of people who couldn’t quite—You know you get these guys who are really good but it’s very—you know it’s one of those things, it’s sort of a chemistry thing. And so [Theo’s] amazing because first of all he’s an incredible fighter. He’s like an incredible martial artist. So it’s like perfect for Four being kinda the best fighter, the best warrior. And then, he’s really good looking! He’s really REALLY handsome and he’s just like so at home in his own skin. He’s like SO comfortable. And he’s kind of a tough guy, actually, yet he has like a sensitivity to him as well. He’s like the perfect combination. Because he’s like really hard, you know, he’s like tough and he can be really cold but in a good way, in the way that Four is kind of like unknowable and unreadable. But then he is… you know, kind of this incredible person beyond that.
Fansites: Some of the cast members have described [the Divergent Movie] as earthy and gritty, what’s your overall vision?
Neil: Earthy and gritty? Luminous, actually. And not really gritty but just kind of like really high energy and sort of dangerous actually. Which is kind of what her experience is. I mean it’s like, what has she gotten herself into? And then each step of it is, you know when she’s abnegation and then she chooses to go on these trains. And then even when she gets through that, and she thinks she’s made it and then it’s actually much worse than it ever was. More dangerous, much more risky. So that’s what we’re looking for, you know having that sort of edge. And the luminousness was kind of like a sense of trying to do something different. We’ve seen a lot of post apocalyptic movies that are gritty and kind of dark and grim and I didn’t want to do it that way. One, because I didn’t really see the book—I mean the book plays a little bit with that but I just wanted to go at it in a different way than it seemed like Tris buys into the society, initially she wants to be part of, she wants to find her place in that society. She wants to find where she belongs. She’s buying into it, so I wanted to actually present a world sort of through her eyes that seemed worth being part of. That’s where the luminousness comes from that there’s like kind of a sense of, you know she thinks that there is a goodness and a sense of purpose to the whole society at first.
Fansites: What were the challenges with this movie?
Neil: Getting it—you know it’s a really like rangy story, there’s like, there’s so much story and there’s so many different pieces of it sort of linked in the chain. One is to fit them all in and be true to the book in that way, get all of those good pieces in and then there’s just crazy stuff like shooting on moving trains and on top of a real ferris wheel and things like that so.
Fansites: Is it nerve-wracking with the book having such a huge fanbase and the fanbase being so adamant about what the movie entails and what it doesn’t?
Neil: Yes. That’s always kind of crazy because you want to be true to that and to the people that are devoted to that. And then you also have to figure out like a way to tell a movie story which has slightly different considerations. You know, Veronica had 400 and some odd pages to write her way around and things could happen but she could explain them and a movie doesn’t have that. It’s like, what you see right in front of you is what you’re reacting to. So some things have to be stream-line, but then you think “Ugh gosh, stream line, we’re gonna get in trouble for that” and then you kinda build it back in so it’s kinda like a constant sort of push and pull and tug-of-war trying to be true to it and also to keep the energy of the story moving forward in cinematic terms.
Fansites: It was a huge thing when the fanbase found out that Uriah wasn’t in the movie, it was really big, but we’re still going to see zip lining?
Neil: Zip lining’s in it, yeah. But that’s a very good example, like in the first script I got, there was no zip lining in the movie it was like how does this drive the story forward. That’s really what in a film the sort of things that are important. You know, how does this scene drive this story forward. Like it moves in a dramatic or an action film like that. And you could argue that the zip-lining really wasn’t necessary but I argued the opposite, I said that the zip line is such an incredible sequence that we have to have it in there. So it is in there. But again, it’s much more about her experience so, yeah.
Fansites: So how extensively have you talked to Veronica Roth? I know she’s visited the set…
Neil: I’ve talked to her a lot, actually. I’ve had long meetings with her and phone conversations and email exchanges and I had like a thousand and one questions for her to start with. And we just went through one at a time making sure I understood what was on her mind and how it all really fit together in her head so it could fit together in my head.
Fansites: We got to talk to her and she said that you were so in depth that you even asked her about commerce of factions? And things that she hadn’t even thought of. That she had to go back and be like “I have to re-imagine this world and think about these things”.
Neil: Right, Right. It’s true, well because again in certain things she didn’t need to, to have the book work. But in a movie, you’re like “Wait, where did he just come from and how did he have that and how did he pay for that?” or “How did he—“ you know. So all those questions are like… you know, film making is very logical “Wait why doesn’t he just go do this? If he’s got that problem.” And you always have to account for that, so yeah.
Fansites: What are some of the things you’re looking forward to have the fans seeing in Divergent as a movie?
Neil: I think the train stuff and the jumping you know, and all of those big exhilarating set pieces. You know, like the ferris wheel. They’re just these kind of iconic moments from the book. So it’s kind of great to go on and really realize them, kind of created them in three dimension.
Fansites: Are you worried about anything leaking? There’s a lot of sets that have showed up like on twitter and facebook… and things like that.
Neil: Yeah, I’m not really worried. I don’t I mean, it doesn’t really matter to me. I know that the studio, it matters to them keeping it under wraps but I’m just trying to, you know, make a good film. So you know, obviously you don’t want to give away something that somehow spoils the story. But, I think it’s inevitable.
Fansites: Are there any comparisons? I mean, the first I can think of is the pace of Divergent and Limitless, I mean is there anything for you…
Neil: Well, yeah. I mean I like that Limitless hopefully has a hard charging drive to it. And I think that that’s important in this case, you know because she’s like her point of view, from Tris’ point of view. And she makes this choice and it’s sort of just like poof, she’s off and running. There’s nothing she can do, she’s just on this train, literally and figuratively, that is just going to take her, you know potentially take her to her doom, if she doesn’t adjust and she has to just think on her feet. And you know, and if she doesn’t, she’s dead, basically.
Fansites: The age of the cast members, fans have been like “Oh they’re too old, or too tall” what do you think about that?
Neil: Well it came from you know, we chose Shailene, and Shailene is however old she is. And so in a way, we had to sort of age people around her. And as I said with Theo, we needed somebody who was stronger than she is and that wasn’t easy to find. Somebody that was you know, like as powerful as her and then more so. Sometimes that has to do with experience, you know, and then, also we just decided that it was, we wanted the best actors for it and to me, the story isn’t about—I mean it is kind of about kids, but I felt like it was like a really universal story, and that it was important that there was nothing childish about the story. Yes it’s a YA book but, to me it’s like what they’re going through is intense, and sophisticated and smart. So I felt like we just needed the best actors for it in their presence whether it was Peter or Will or whatever, so, we looked at actors who were like exactly the right age and we found what we thought were the best actors, we didn’t think it was a kid’s movie, you know.
Fansites: So age is just less of a factor?
Neil: To me, we sort of built, you know, you could say maybe it’s aged up slightly.
Fansites: It’s not like, “Tris is 16! Tris is 16!”?
Neil: Yeah, we’re not banging on the Tris is 16. You know, you could certainly believe that she’s 18 or something like that or that she’s like a senior in high school, you know that she’s just graduated from the equivalent of high school. Which in a sense is what that world is. But yeah, we basically just tried to get the best actors for the role. And we felt like we—look, we weren’t unaware of the fact that it could be too old. But we were like, you know what, to me this is an age-less story, and these actors are young but they’re not exactly the same age as in the book. But they’re the most powerful actors, so.
Neil’s gotta get back to work…
Thank you guys, Thanks so much. Have fun while you’re here. Are you guys here for the next couple days?
Just tomorrow… For as long as you’ll let us stay!
Oh okay, enjoy, good good good!
Thank You Neil.