Earning $56 million in its opening weekend, Divergent is a bona fide hit, on its way to becoming a cultural phenomenon, or at the very least a film whose market value earns it a sequel. Although Veronica Roth’s sci-fi novel is the cornerstone of the adaptation’s appeal, Neil Burger’s hand behind the camera helped to win over audiences, as the director brought the source material to life.
Set in a dystopian post-apocalyptic version of Chicago where people are divided into five factions based on their personalities, the film stars Shailene Woodley as Beatrice “Tris” Prior, a teenager who’s warned that she’s Divergent, meaning she doesn’t belong to any one group. Soon she discovers a plot to destroy all Divergents, and must learn what makes her kind so dangerous.
Burger (The Illusionist, Limitless) spoke with Spinoff Online at the recent Los Angeles press day for Divergent, where the filmmaker acknowledged the value of helming a young-adult adaptation as a career choice as much as a creative one. Talking about his initial connection to the material, he offered insights into what he focused on to make it as successful a film as possible, and reflected on the challenges and opportunities of tackling movies like this one as opposed to films that might be more personal, but much harder to get made.
Spinoff Online: Obviously, not every young-adult property is equal in terms of its viability. What about this did you connect with that made you want to tackle it?
Neil Burger: I think it has like a true hero’s journey in it. And as she goes from being this ordinary person, really the least likely person to succeed and survive in what she chooses to do – and she’s not a superhero. She doesn’t have any super powers. And so what she accomplishes she accomplishes by sheer willpower and determination and hard work basically to make herself into this stronger character. So you really have an evolution of a character that is certainly unique to these kinds of stories. And that appealed to me. And I liked some of the visual opportunities as a director. It’s obviously very cool to create a future world and I wanted to try to do it just in a slightly different way. And also I really loved the fear landscapes and all that inner psychological world, and I explored some of that in Limitless with the sort of psychotropic, trippy effects to kind of represent what’s going on in somebody’s mind, and I thought that I could play around with that in this one as well. I’m trying to take it to another step, but obviously it’s a different thing.
Did you take lessons from any of the other YA adaptations of the last few years as of things either specifically maybe to do or not to do?
Well, as a filmmaker you’d look at everything, because you can learn from everything, for what not to do, what to do, what’s already been done before. So even if it’s a great idea it’s just like, you know what? They’ve seen that. Unless there’s a compelling reason why you’d do it again, maybe you don’t go there. You have to invent something beyond that, whether it be a story point or a characterization or something visual, a set piece or something. So I think my feeling really was I wanted to try to do as little as possible like The Hunger Games. And whether it be in the casting or in the design or in the shooting, the camera work, whatever.
“Divergent” Star Mekhi Phifer on Franchises and Coming-of-Age Films
Well, looking at Vampire Academy, Mortal Instruments, whatever, what to you is the difference between that movie doing poorly and Twilight doing well?
Timing, and the casting somehow resonating. I didn’t actually see [Vampire Academy] because I was so deep in post-production at the time it didn’t really matter at that point. And I haven’t seen Mortal Instruments but, yeah, it’s a good question, what makes it click.
I mean it as a compliment when I say it’s like you took The Breakfast Club and turned it into a futuristic universe. This was obviously something very personal for Veronica – what was the biggest challenge for you in bringing this to life in a way that was not going to be a sort of academic exercise, but a real universe?
Well, like you said, it was a personal for Veronica. But when I make a movie it’s personal for me. And so I’m bringing all my own kind of emotional detail, if you will, to everything – to the performances, to the characterizations, to whatever details. It’s, like, how does the world work? How do people really behave in certain circumstances? So it becomes personal for me too. And it wasn’t a young adult story that I was trying to illustrate somehow, it was a universal, grown-up story that appealed to me and the fact that it was a young woman undergoing this journey just was great in the sense that she has more obstacles to overcome as a woman. But I think everybody feels like they’re an outsider and that they have these obstacles to overcome. So what’s the best way to dramatize that so that it feels as universal as possible. So those, who am I and where do I belong and what do I go out on a limb for, those are things that you and I are dealing with every day and it doesn’t matter whether we’re 18 or whether we’re 40 years old or something like that. You encounter those dilemmas and those intense questions all the time. And so I felt that like the movie embodied those ideas and all those ideas were really tightly tied to the action of the movie which is kind of a rarity – so what was going on in the fights or the larger sort of plot set pieces were still tied to these issues of identity.
Mekhi Phifer talked about the fact that he created a character who is not sure exactly how he will be represented in future installments. How tough is it to create characters who may be explored in greater detail later, and how do you help an actor who doesn’t know what that backstory is find the right identity so that later on audiences don’t watch the movie thinking he was the jerk in the first movie and the most sympathetic guy in the third?
It was a delicate balance, trying to shape it all, because there are so many characters and so many of these storylines that it was a puzzle. And obviously I’d read Insurgent [the second book in Ruth’s trilogy], but I talked to Veronica about it as well, and about what was going to happen in Allegiant to certain characters so that we wouldn’t go off. Because certain things dramatically you’d want, you would find that in Allegiant they really would never have done that thing, so then you pull back on it a little bit. But it obviously needs to just work as a movie. And sometimes we wouldn’t tell the actors what was going to happen to their characters, and told them not to read Insurgent – and sometimes not to read even Divergent, because we didn’t want their performances to be colored by some greater knowledge. We sort of wanted them to be in the moment. Not all of them, but a few of them.
As you said earlier, when you take something on, obviously the commitment requires you to find a personal connection to it. But how much does the immediate commercial potential of something like this a consideration for you to take it on – that it could open a few more doors for you down the line?
Yeah, I’m obviously aware of that and the business sometimes works in that you do one for commerce and one for art, or that you earn a certain amount of industry or creative capital to do a more difficult movie because you’ve had box office success with the previous movie. I’m aware of that. It’s also really hard to get movies made. This movie was going to be made. They had a start date when I started, and I had been on something that was kind of spinning its wheels. But I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have that personal connection to it. I was looking to do something that was kind of bigger, take another step after doing Limitless. And this was suddenly right there and they wanted me to do it and I liked it and so it was a great kind of confluence of good luck.
Well, it seems like the industry as a whole wants to make more movies like this and fewer movies like pretty much anything else. How indicative is the trajectory that you feel like you’re going in of what your actual interests are? Because I imagine there might be things that you have a personal connection to this other kind of story that can’t get made these days.
Yeah, that’s a real challenge these days. It’s really hard and very sad. Because I do have interests in that all my movies have been completely different from each other, and each one’s sort of a 180-degree departure from the last one to a degree. And so I’ve got some things that I’m juggling, and trying to decide which one I’m going to do next. But there are ones where you look at it and you’re like, nobody’s going to make this even though it’s a great compelling story – it doesn’t have any roles for movie stars, or whatever. And that’s just an example, but it’s a funny state of the business actually right now. There are great movies being made – I thought the Oscar group this year was a lot of interesting stuff. But there’s sort of less and less of those to choose from.
Divergent is in theaters now.