In Allegiant, the third film in the Divergent series based on the novels by Veronica Roth, the faction-based society living inside the ruins of Chicago has collapsed, with the Divergents Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) leading the rebellion. But an enigmatic message sends Tris, Four and their friends beyond the wall that encircles Chicago to find the Bureau of Genetic Welfare, a futuristic outpost controlled by David (Jeff Daniels) that has been guiding the affairs of Chicago all along. As war begins to erupt between the emerging camps they left behind, Tris and Four must decide whether to return to Chicago and if they can trust David, who has his own agenda.
The Divergent films are produced by Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher, the husband-and-wife team who have decades of producing and studio experience behind them. Fisher has been an executive at nearly every major studio, while their list of producing credits both separately and together include films like The Craft, Working Girl, Wolf, Gladiator, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Great Gatsby and many more. Den of Geek sat down with both recently to discuss splitting Allegiant into two movies (the second one, Ascendant, comes out next year), the state of the young adult (YA) genre, losing director Robert Schwentke for the last film and more.
Den of Geek: What is your overall perspective on these movies, where they fit into the YA genre and why some of these titles hit and some don’t?
Douglas Wick: I think it all starts with the source material. Is there an authenticity to it? Veronica Roth, there’s nothing derivative about her vision of the world. So she really had something to say and it was original, and the idea of the world being divided into factions and the rite of passage when you decide what tribe you want to join, or maybe that you don’t exactly fit in somewhere. There’s so many resonant ideas.
So, as a starting point, when there are those kinds of ideas, everyone can serve them. So if there’s a great base like that, if you don’t screw it up you have a chance of getting really good actors. You have a chance of getting a really good filmmaker. You have a chance of a production designer being given a really interesting task, which is saying: What would Chicago look like dystopian, divided into these different personality traits and each having their own kind of habitat? So that suggests great things for production design and great characters for us to chase and try and put together a great ensemble.
So I would say it starts with something original to say. I would also say for us, we don’t frame it in terms of YA. We frame it much more in terms of . . . a great story, whether we did The Craft, or Girl, Interrupted or The Outsiders, which Lucy produced. Each one of those, you didn’t really call it a YA movie —
Lucy Fisher: The term didn’t exist. This reminded us a lot of The Outsiders. She was 17 years old, S.E. Hinton, when she wrote that book and it was a huge bestseller. Adults didn’t even know what it was, but the kids did. It was completely told from a kid’s point of view, and these books (the Divergent series) are totally told from Tris and Four’s point of view.
But you need a little bit of luck. Anybody who tells you that that isn’t a factor…because there was so much pressure on the first book where people would say to us, “If this movie doesn’t open it’s going to mean the death of YA. Are you ready for that?” We said, “No. That’s a really unfair thing to plant on our movie.” But The New York Times wrote a thing about it and there were a lot of people saying, “There have been so many failures. If this doesn’t do it, then…” But as Doug said, the whole category existed without a title before YA. It is younger protagonists, but it didn’t mean you have to pander down to it or make it worse. So we treated it like a regular movie.
Was it very early on when it was decided that this last book would be two movies?
Wick: Yes, pretty early on.
Fisher: We got a manuscript of Allegiant while we were halfway through Divergent. So it wasn’t from the very beginning because we didn’t even have the book yet. In fact, I think Divergent was already happening by the time we got started on this one. There was certainly this precedent because of Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter, and Hunger Games. So it wasn’t like a brand new idea.
Was it easy to find a natural point at which to end the first movie?
Wick: Yes, because it had two climaxes in the book. It had the climax in Chicago and then it had the climax at the Bureau with Tris’s final confrontation with David. And that’s what we were looking for, was two standalone movies. The last book has a lot of story in it. And also, we have such an amazing ensemble of Naomi, Jeff, and then Ansel, Miles, Theo, Shai, Zoe, and then the new people. Just so much talent. So now we just have a little more room to explore those characters.
Fisher: Yeah, we’re always frustrated that we can’t do enough with each of the characters because it’s such a big ensemble. Luckily, or unluckily, Veronica kills off a few every time. But there are a few subplots that we couldn’t even do because the movie would have been way too long. Now we can explore Zoe, explore Miles, do more with them.
The story’s scope expands so much in this film, going outside of Chicago, going across the Fringe. What were the challenges of bringing that to life? You employ a lot more visual effects and green screens to create these new places.
Wick: You know that thing where opportunity is challenge? It was more opportunity than challenge. We were definitely hungry for a new visual life. In Insurgent we had more of the visual life at the sims. But by then, you’d explored the world of Chicago. So the opportunity to go outside was a really good one. The opportunity/challenge was, okay, now the audience has expectations, as do the characters in the story. What’s it going to be like as they journey there?
So it was mostly the opportunity of just some new theatricality. We knew it was 200 years in the future. We knew technology would have evolved, so we knew we’d have some flying craft. We were very curious about what O’Hare Airport transformed 200 years in the future would look like.
Watching this movie and seeing the Bureau of Genetic Welfare sort of being this one percent that controls and manipulates everyone else, I couldn’t help but think of current politics. Plus now things like Trump’s proposed wall have relevance to your story as well.
Fisher: Veronica wrote it two or three years ago and we shot it a year ago. So there was no wall in our vocabulary except for the Berlin Wall when we were making it. There’s certainly thematic similarities now, for sure.
Wick: But also with Veronica, those are very archetypal ideas about the dangers of separation and the chosen few and the manipulation of the masses. So we were very aware of those politics. In the book, the idea that we can only survive by community is a very true thing. And the tendency to build walls, to divide ourselves, and making ourselves weaker and less. So I think we were very aware of those politics.
How much of a resource has Veronica been? Some authors step back from the films and then you have others who really want to be involved and have to sign off on everything every step of the way.
Fisher: She didn’t want to do that. We’ve had very good experiences with all of our authors. But I will say that I was assigned as an executive to a disastrous movie when I was an executive at Warner’s. A famously not good movie that wasn’t my fault. But anyway, the author was Tom Wolfe…
Oh, that movie (The Bonfire of the Vanities).
Fisher: That movie. I would keep him informed. And finally, he asked to have a screening in some place in the Hamptons where he had a house. I said, “I don’t think you should” or whatever. [laughs] I said, “Don’t quote me on it, but I wouldn’t rush to do it if I were you.” But he said, “No, when you sell a book, it’s like you sell your house. You take the money and then you don’t drive by afterwards and say, ‘I don’t like their curtains.’” That’s what he said. Veronica was much more involved than that, but she thought the book was its own thing. Sometimes we would ask her questions, more in the beginning, actually: How come you wrote it this way? And she would say, “I don’t know. I was 21.” [laughs]
I think, also, with the movie, you are going to bound yourself for disappointment if anybody thinks they are going to control it besides the director, really. And even the director is at the mercy of how the chemistry is with the actors or what’s happening that day or whatever it is. It’s not something like you can sit in your room and make it exactly how you want it to be. It’s a collaboration.
Wick: When Veronica was around, the actors were very aware that she had made them up and that they were all about the same age, and they would also joke that if maybe they got in good with her, one or two of whom she decided was going to die…the joke on set was maybe she would change her mind. And there was just something very interesting about, “OK. Here’s your creator.”
Fisher: Yeah. Also she would come and go, “I miss Tony Goldwyn.” We’d go, “Well, yeah, but you killed him!” [laughs] She killed a lot of people. I think now as a writer she actually thinks twice about killing characters off because she realizes in the movie that she doesn’t get to see the actor anymore.
Can you talk about what happened with Insurgent and Allegiant Robert Schwentke deciding not to come back and direct Ascendant?
Fisher: He was just too exhausted. This was two movies in a row 24/7, literally 24/7. We needed to make a decision and he honestly hadn’t slept in like two months. At the very end of this movie he just couldn’t face the idea of starting up immediately fulltime without even a break, without even really a vacation.
Do you think the new director, Lee Toland Krieger, will bring a different energy and a different feel? How much of the continuity is important to keep as well?
Wick: I think whenever you get new people, you want to bring their talent to it. Hopefully we’ll keep what was good and Lee — I mean Lee has already had a lot of ideas and additional things to bring.
Fisher: We changed directors between the first and the second one. They each have an aesthetic that obviously they bring. Some of it is established now because we’ve already been to The Bureau. But yeah, the last thing that we want is for people to think, “Oh, it’s the same movie.” We were lucky that this book isn’t the same story just recycled again. It is different. So I think it’s something to look forward to, to have another iteration evolve.
Was there any talk ever of shooting the two parts back to back?
Wick: We really didn’t even want to consider it.
Fisher: Too exhausting for everybody…
Wick: No, it’s just impossible trying to make a movie that works.
Fisher: Obviously it’s not impossible if you are Peter Jackson! [laughs]
What’s happening with the remake of The Craft?
Wick: We have a fantastic female director, Leigh Janiak, who did Honeymoon. She and her writing partner wrote a brilliant script. So it’s coming along.
Fisher: We’re real excited.
Allegiant is out in theaters now.