Neil Burger Talks DIVERGENT, Changes from the Book, Casting, Deleted Scenes, His Favorite Films, Shooting Digitally, Comic-Con, and Much More

     March 24, 2014


With Divergent now playing in theaters, I recently landed an exclusive interview with director Neil Burger.  For those unfamiliar, the film is based on the Veronica Roth novel of the same name and takes place in a society where people are divided into factions based on their personalities.  Tris (Shailene Woodley) is a young girl who doesn’t fit into any of the pre-assigned groups and faces grave consequences due to her status as a “Divergent.”  Hit the jump to watch the interview.  Divergent also stars Theo James, Ansel ElgortRay StevensonZoe Kravitz, Tony GoldwynAshley Judd, Ben Lloyd-HughesMaggie QMekhi Phifer, Christian Madsen, and Kate Winslet.

During the interview, Burger talked about how Divergent is the biggest movie he’s ever done, if he read any fan sites before shooting, changes from the book, the casting process, the runtime, deleted scenes, what will be on the Blu-ray, why he’s not doing the sequel, if he’d be willing to come back for the 3rd installment (Allegiant), Comic-Con, his favorite films, why he shot on the Alexa, other screenplays he’s written, and so much more.  If you’re a fan of Burger I’m very confident you’ll enjoy this interview.  Hit the jump for our Neil Burger interview.

neil-burger-divergent-interviewQuestion:  A lot of people think making a movie is fun and a casual thing.  What has this been like for you?  You’ve probably been on this 24/7 for about two years.

NEIL BURGER:  I’ve been on it 24/7 since maybe Fall of 2012, so not quite two years—for about whatever that would be, 18 months or something like that.  It has been crazy because it’s not as big as something like Avengers and it’s not a 200 and something million dollar budget.  But it’s still a big move that we basically started from a standing start and had to come up with a visual look for it and a whole visual point on view what the city’s like.  Not all of it is indicated in the book.  The book has great ideas in it but not a lot of detail on how the world is.  You don’t know do they use money, where they get their materials, their resources, and all that stuff has to be created so that the world makes sense.  So, it was a lot. 

This is the biggest movie you’ve ever done.

BURGER:  Absolutely. 

I’m definitely curious, looking back at the process, what did you expect was going to happen and what ended up happening?

BURGER:  It is totally my biggest film and I wanted to do a bigger film.  I was looking for kind of a big movie to do but it had to be the right one.  They had to be scenes that I could connect with personally and characters that I wanted to connect with personally.  On one hand it is a big movie, size-wise there’s a lot of events and there’s a lot of visual effects that are very visible that are there, but on the other hand, I was allowed to shoot it kind of like an independent movie.  I was pretty much left alone to make the movie and to come up with things visually as I would in any other movie.  It was just a lot more movie, that’s all. 

When you first got the gig, I’m assuming you looked at some Divergent message boards or what fans were saying.  Was there anything you saw from the fans that you hadn’t thought about that you were like, “This is a really good idea.  I need to make sure this gets in there.”

BURGER:  Between you and me, that’s not really the way I work.  I really work more from—I read the books thoroughly and she hadn’t even written the third book yet but I kind of quizzed her about where it was going.  Then I tried to make a movie that made sense of this world that was not an obvious world.  Certain futuristic movies are very much about “If we continue down this road as a society or as a civilization, this is where we will end up.”  That’s what that futuristic movie is like, you know Bladerunner, that’s what it’s about.  This movie is not about that.  This movie is not about the future really, it’s not about futurism.  It’s set in the future but it’s more of an idea that’s been put together as a way to explore actions of human nature that are really relevant right now.  Then it was like, “Okay there’s all these ideas in this book that are cool.  How does it really fit together into a world.  How did the train really work?  How do the Dauntless really ride the train?  How did the doors to the train open?  Does anybody else ride the train and why not?”  Figuring out all of those—there were like 10,000 of those ideas that had to be figured out and given a visual point of view.  

divergent-neil-burger-shailene-woodleyWhat were the big changes?  Was there a storyline or character that was a radical change from the book?

BURGER:  The biggest change that we made is radical but it doesn’t feel radical.  It serves the spirit of the book.  I wanted to make the book more of a utopia to start with, more of a communal utopia.  In the book it’s kind of a classic dystopia, bleak, crumbling world.  But I thought that we wanted to make—Tris wants to be a part of the world.  She wants to find her place in it, she wants to belong.  I wanted to make the world, at least on first glance, worth belonging in, worth belonging to, so that we would be with her as she was making her choice.  Whereas I felt like if Dauntless was this horrible, cruel place right from the beginning, then why does she so want to be a part of it?  And you sort of would question her choice and get frustrated with that character.  So, that was a big thing, to make it a communal utopia.  There were other things as well.  

Another big thing was to weave Jeanine more into the story.  She is the grand antagonist and she makes only very few appearances in the book.  I actually added a number of more scenes with her in the movie.  She appears at the choosing ceremony, which she isn’t in the book, she’s in the final confrontation in that control room, which she is not in the book.  There was a number of things like that, that I added just to make the movie work.  I wouldn’t have made the movie if I thought the book needed a lot of changing because it had like a classic hero’s journey.  However, there’s certain things just to make it dramatic that a movie needs either to set up the antagonist and to payoff that antagonist in a climactic way. 

The movie is just about 2 hours and 20 minutes.  Was everyone on the same page with the running time?

BURGER:  No, everybody wanted it sorter.  Really, the movie itself is about 2 hr. 11 min.  and the credits and all that, it gets to be about 2 hr. 18 min. or something like that.  Everybody wanted it shorter, I would’ve liked it to be shorter but there are so many events in the book that we didn’t want to leave out.  In fact, the first screenplay that I read—when I first came on board there was a script that had been developed before I came on board—it didn’t have the zip line scene and it didn’t have Christina being hung over the chasm, and a couple of other things like that.  And I thought, “You know what?  Those are really important scenes, especially the zip line.”  As you see this woman who kind of soars as a person, literally and figuratively, she soars out over this world and comes into her own, I thought it was really important.  

divergent-neil-burger-theo-jamesI understood why they took them out because they were trying to make the movie shorter but I just thought, “We have to have those.”  There’s a lot of training in the movie but it’s important to see that Tris isn’t a superhero.  She just doesn’t come in to some magical abilities and then she’s great at what she does.  She actually works really hard for what she’s doing.  Basically trying to fit all of that story and to be as faithful to the book as possible, there’s so many events and so many characters that all have their own little storyline and I wanted to put them all in and unfortunately it takes time to do that.  Plus, we’re setting up Act One of a larger trilogy.  It’s sort of like an origin story for our hero. 

What was the length of your first cut?

BURGER:  I think it was about, just the assembly, was probably about three hours.

Was there a version of the movie that was 2 1/2 hours or 2 hrs. 20 min. that looked really good or was it just actual deleted scenes?

BURGER:  There are some deleted scenes and then there’s like a tightening that goes on of taking out excess shots and things like that, kind of just hone it down until it’s moving and telling the story in the most economical way. 

I’m curious if there was a scene or two that was in the cut to the very last second and you wanted to find a way to shorten it a little bit.

BURGER:  We did various versions of that until things came out and ultimately we put things back in.  There’s a scene, a character named Edward who is an important character actually in the next book but is less important in this story, at least to Tris’ journey.  He’s important to the fans but he gets knifed in the eye by Peter and it’s a chilling scene, and it’s not in there obviously, which was really painful to take out.  I think some of the fans will miss it but there was just no way to get it in and keep the movie moving. 

Are you going to have the extended cut on the Blu-ray?  Or do you feel that scenes that weren’t in the movie should be in the deleted scenes area?

BURGER:  We’re going to put them in the deleted scenes area or the additional scenes, whatever you want to call them.  We’re including a couple of extra scenes just to show to the fans and for ourselves. 

Assuming this and the second one is a hit, is there any chance you’re willing to come back for the third installment or do you feel like you’ve made your contribution?

divergent-shailene-woodley-veronica-roth-neil-burgerBURGER:  I think it’s all possible.  I do feel like I’ve made my contribution, I feel like I had a very specific vision based on Veronica’s book.  I was able to kind of take it and run with it to a good place and I feel really proud that I was able to achieve that, and I’m really proud of this cast that I put together.  On one hand, I feel like, “You know what? I did it.  I feel really good about it and I’m able to walk away from it.”  On the other hand, that question has come up, of doing the third one and it’s possible.  

Summit must be very happy with the way the film turned out.  Has that led to them handing you other scripts and opened the door to other opportunities?

BURGER:  I have been reading scripts a little bit, and there’s been a couple of things that have come from Summit, but things have been crazy, we really just finished the movie.  I think I looked at a check print two weeks ago maybe.  I finished on Wednesday of whatever that would’ve been, March 4th of something like that, I think it’s even more recent than that.  Then, we’re looking at check print on the week of March 4th and really just finished.  So I didn’t really finish for about two weeks and it was 24/7 right up until the end only because we’d only been in post production for six months.  We finished shooting at the end of July last year.  For the amount of visual effects and the amounts of story in this movie, it’s a quick turnaround.  

Looking back on it now, there’s nothing like Comic-Con in terms of the passion of the fans.  It really is a unique place.  Attending as a filmmaker, does that sort of hit you and affect a future project in terms of going back?  How did your experience there impact future movies?

BURGER:  It does kind of color your vision of other movies in a way, only because they have a built-in audience like that and they have a built-in enthusiasm.  It’s really gratifying and exciting to know that there’s going to be an audience for your movie no matter what—and a big one, one that’s really excited.  So then you think about doing something that say it’s smaller drama and it’s hard, you think, “Oh man.  Nobody’s going to be cheering about this movie.”  And that’s okay but when you do one of these movies it’s great to know that you can always ask like, “Were you worried that the fans…”  And it’s like, no you’re not worried at all.  It’s fantastic that people are so devoted to the movie already.  As I said, I wasn’t worried about not pleasing them because I liked the book and I knew that the book would work as a movie.  I knew that we were going to be faithful to it. 

I learned from the cast and producers that the cops were called a number of times to their building because of partying.  Did you ever hear about this?

divergent-neil-burger-theo-james-jai-courtneyBURGER:  Yeah.  I talked to them all the time.  I love those guys but they were like this gang of cats, this herd of cats.  You know, they’re all in their early twenties and they’re living a good life.  They’re actors, they’re talented, and they’re good looking, and fun-loving, and really good people.  They’re having fun.  Not so much fun that it got in the way of shooting but it was a little bit of herding cats a bit on the set.  But when they weren’t shooting, I think that they were a gang of great friends, like a dozen of them.  And there were other young people in the movie too who were more of like the key extras who played other Dauntless initiates.  They were all around too for the whole movie, so they had fun.  Yeah, I talked to them about it and I just warned them not to have so much fun that they made my job more difficult. 

You put together a hell of a cast.  How much was it casting directors, how much was it you saying you really liked an actor?  How did that come together?

BURGER:  There were certain people I knew about and wanted, and they were my first choice, like Shailene.  I thought, she’s the one who should be Tris and we spoke to her and people listened and they understood.  She was in right from the beginning.  With Theo, I didn’t know about Theo, I had seen the Downton Abbey episode but I wasn’t thinking about him for the movie until my casting director suggested him.  There was sort of a back and forth on people like that.  I knew Zoe Kravitz and thought that she would be great.  I didn’t know Ansel Elgort, that was somebody that they knew and suggested.  And he’s … great idea.  A lot of the ideas, because they’re younger like Christian Madsen, he hadn’t done … he’s just done a few small movies, really independent movies.  But the moment I looked at him, I was like, “He’s Al.  He’s the guy.”  So, it was a great collaboration and they had fantastic ideas.  They’re young up-and-coming people so then it was a matter of, “Who’s the best actor?” 

A lot of directors say that when an actor walks in the room to audition, within a matter of a second of two, they just know whether or not they’re right for the role.  Is that the case with you?

BURGER:  I don’t know whether it’s a second or two but in the first audition you really often know whether—in this case, I can think about all those people.  Including, somebody like Tony Goldwyn who’s obviously been around and he’s great, but we saw a lot of really good actors of his age group who were all really good.  Then when I saw Tony, I was like, “He’s the dad, he’s perfect.”  I’m trying to think if I always feel that way, I’d say often you do, yeah.  Certainly with Theo, absolutely, he came in it was like, “Oh thank God.  He’s the guy.”  

shailene-woodley-divergentDo you have a favorite film or a very small list of favorite films?

BURGER:  If you think of my movies, they’re all really different.  I like different kinds of movies but I’ll give you three films that are going to help you not at all, I’m sure:  La Dolce Vita, Dr. Strangelove, and Raging Bull.  All black and white, by the way.  Those are three of my favorites and there’s a huge list besides that.  They’re great films.  And then there’s smaller films like, Mike Leigh’s High Hopes and Naked actually, are incredible movies.  There’s a completely different thing, they’re much more intimate.  

I’m sure you’re invited to seminars where they show the latest technological advances in Hollywood.  Have you seen anything that has really impressed you in a way that you think it’s going to make a big difference to filmmaking in the future?

BURGER:  That’s a good question.  I actually don’t think it’s the technology, I mean, I think it’s a technology thing but it’s not a technology … I think that what’s going to change in filmmaking is a technology thing, but I don’t think it’s because of a technological break through.  I actually think that the narrative structure is going to change because of things like YouTube and so much internet … there’s so much film coming over the internet.  I think that’s there’s going to be sort of different story structure that emerges, that comes out in a small bites of information.  Or a small bite of story rather than—and I don’t think it’s just because of attention span.  I just think that there’s something interesting that’s emerging.  I don’t know quite what it is but because of the way people are consuming information and story in a different way. 

What camera did you use to shoot this film?

BURGER:  We shot it on an Alexa, so it’s shot digitally.  I was hoping to have one more chance at film before it goes away but again, we had so much to do that it did make it easier for us to shoot.  You’re always a little bit more careful when you’re shooting film, which is a good thing in certain ways, but a more difficult thing when you need to have multiple cameras going at the same time.  So, we shot digitally and it’s a sad thing.  Somebody was talking to me about the amount of film, it was from 2010 to now, it’s like 1% of the amount of film.  And it’s just like going off the cliff. 

divergent-shailene-woodley-tony-goldwynIt’s basically done, unless you’re like a Chris Nolan.  All the labs are closing.

BURGER:  And even Chris Nolan, I think, in about two years isn’t going to have any recourse. 

I don’t think he’s going to be able to show Interstellar on even the L.A. theaters that used to do film.  I think they’re all going digital.  The actual film projectors for IMAX theaters are basically done.

BURGER:  Yeah.  I talked to the IMAX people I think that they’re—that’s his story not mine—but I think that they’re going to try to do for Interstellar one more round of IMAX for him. 

I heard the same thing, that the CityWalk and the Rave will maybe do film.  But it’s going to be a very limited run.  But I’m curious, why did you choose the Alexa instead of the Red?

BURGER:  We tested them and we felt like the Alexa was more faithful to the skin tone, it had more accurate depiction if you will, of peoples’ skin and their faces.  It was more true.  

Did you use any old 70s lenses or did you use the newer lenses?

BURGER:  No, we did.  We tested a whole bunch of lenses and Alwin Kuchler, who’s the DP, wanted to test these old panovision lenses from like the early 60s.  And they just had a peculiar slightly vintage coating on the lenses themselves, on glass, just a different way about them and I really liked them.  They just gave kind of a glow to everything and a softness to everything, and that’s actually something that I was looking for visually.  You were talking about what I changed about the story, one of the things that I wanted to do, to change about like dystopian world which are often gray and grim and bleak, and cold, and dark, was to make it more luminous and glowing.  Just to have a sense of kind of light through it and a warmth to it as well at the beginning.  One, to give the story visually a place to go and two, because as I said before, as far as Tris is concerned, this is a society she wants to be a part of.  Those lenses really added to that, so yeah, we used vintage lenses.

divergent-shailene-woodley-theo-jamesI’ve talked to a lot of people who are using digital cameras with older lenses and that seems to be the magic trick that seems to be working.

BURGER:  It is a good trick and it really worked for us.

Do you think for the future, you’ll be using digital cameras all the way because the industry is going in that direction?

BURGER:  I think so.  Yeah, it’s disappointing in a way but that’s that.  That is what it is.  It seems like there’s sort of no choice anymore.  And look, the digital cameras are getting better and better, and the projection is getting better and better.  You still however, put it up against film—we tested it against film too.  We almost did film.  We screened them side by side and the digital is great, really good, really close, film’s better. 

The biggest issue is digital projection, in terms of making it bright enough.  If it’s not a great projector, it looks like crap.

BURGER:  Yeah, that’s right, it does.  Hopefully, they’ve spent a lot of—there’s been a lot of changing of the theaters and all that.  But there’s always been bad film projectors as well. 

You wrote Lucky Ones, Illusionist, Interview with the Assassin.  Do you have screenplays that you’ve written that are sort of sitting on the desk?

BURGER:  Yes, I do, and I have a couple of them actually.  I’m sort of thinking, “Okay, is this the time to do this one now?”  And I have other things that I’m writing right now.  I’m trying to decide which one to go forward with.  Ideas, things to adapt, so I have a lot of things that I’m kind of juggling and deciding on. 

It has to be a weird moment for you because you’re probably going to be in a position where you’re going to be offered a bunch of stuff, you know?

BURGER:  Yeah. 

It’s that lucky time for every filmmaker.

BURGER:  That’s right, that’s right, that’s really exciting and fun.  Really, I haven’t decided which one I’m going to kind of push forward with but I definitely have that in mind.

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