Director Neil Burger on bringing Divergent to the screen and stepping off the sequel train.

In Divergent, the film version of Veronica Roth’s best-selling novel, Shailene Woodley (The Spectacular Now) plays Tris, a young woman in a post-apocalyptic society where the population is divided mostly into five factions, each representing a different character trait. But when Tris is tested like everyone else at age 16 to see which faction she might belong to, she is found to be “divergent,” meaning she has characteristics of several factions – and that is enough to make her dangerous to the ruling order.

Divergent is directed by Neil Burger, who touched on sci-fi with his last film, the mind-enhancement thriller Limitless, but dives full-on into the genre with this one. Rather, he plunges into one specific area of sci-fi: the dystopian young adult melodrama. The blockbuster success of The Hunger Games has paved the way for Divergent (and potentially, its two sequels) to reach the screen, while more adaptations such as The Maze Runner and The Giver are getting in line for their shot at box office glory.

Den Of Geek sat down recently with Burger to discuss the pressure of being the “next Hunger Games,” what was important about shooting on location, how to visualize the book and why he stepped away from making the sequel, Insurgent.

Den Of Geek: Let’s just get this out of the way: the cover of a recent Entertainment Weekly blared that all eyes were on Divergent as the y/a adaptation that Hollywood needs to succeed. Is that an unfair burden to put on a film? 

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Neil Burger: I think it’s inevitable because it’s kind of an emerging genre. I mean nobody’s asking like when, you know, Iron Man comes out, “Oh well, here comes the next superhero movie — is Hollywood going survive and is the genre going to survive?” And they don’t say like well, big copycat movie, you know, superhero movie. It’s an existing genre. This genre of these young women, heroines in a future society — it’s kind of new and there’s been a couple movies like that but not a lot. So it’s inevitable that people are asking, is this a genre or is this a movie that’s copying another movie. So I understand it. I feel like this movie is very different. I mean it does have a female heroine in a future society. Beyond that she has such a different journey than any of those other stories. Visually it’s very different. You know there are these fear landscapes, these controlled nightmares (editor’s note: these are part of the personality test that each young person must take). There’s a whole psychological aspect to it that’s very cool and different. So I think when people see it they’ll understand that.

Was it sort of a natural evolution for you to go from Limitless, which touched on the edges of sci-fi, to a full-blown future science fiction scenario?

Well, yeah. I mean I think all my movies have been different and I like that. I’m interested in a lot of different things and so something comes to my attention and I’m like wow, I’d like to do that. I can’t do everything. I wouldn’t be good at certain things but there are certain things that I am interested in. I’ll pursue them even though they’re 180 degrees from the last movie. I think the one thing that is connected to Limitless is what I was talking about before –- those fear landscapes. You know, Limitless explored that kind of psychotropic, psychological world of mind expansion, and I like doing that — playing with mirrors and how to portray that world. And so in this one I actually do take it a further step with these fear landscapes, with these kind of controlled nightmares that she’s put into. And it’s been fun to sort of explore, you know, what that inner psychological landscape is like.

Was it a hard movie to visualize in terms of how to differentiate between the factions? How much of that was on the page and how much did you and your production people have to really dream up to get these concepts on the screen?

Well, it’s a complicated concept for a society. A lot of movies or stories like 1984 or Brave New World, they’re about now. They’re about, “if we continue on this path of society this is where we will end up.” This story isn’t really about that. This story isn’t about the future or about futurism even though it’s set in the future. It’s kind of an artificial construct of a story — these five factions — in order to explore human nature I think. So the idea of five factions isn’t necessarily an intuitive idea of the way society might be. But it is what it is in the story. And so then the trick as a director was like, okay, how do we set that up? How do we make it feel like it is natural and make it feel somehow relevant to where we are today?

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To me the ideas are, who am I and where do I belong and do I conform to society’s norms and if I don’t, if I’m different, do I try to fit in and hide in plain sight? Or do I speak with my own voice, and if I do, what’s the cost of that? I liked those themes. I thought they were very real and real world and I wanted to treat them in an honest way. So I wanted to have the performances be real and the people be emotionally kind of present and be intimate with them. So I wanted visually the world to be very real as well. So that’s why I really wanted it to be set in Chicago and that’s where I began sort of visually, from that place of like keeping it as real as possible.

Does using real sets and real locations keep it grounded?

That’s right. That’s exactly the right word. I wanted it to feel grounded and even though it’s set in the future I wanted it to have almost like a “You Are There” quality. Like, you know what?  The future will come and there will be people on the streets and they will be not like us but sort of just like us. And, you know, things will be dirty and they’ll be pieces of paper blowing down the street or, you know, some things will be crumbling and some things will be new. So I wanted to keep it real which is why I wanted to do it in Chicago.

You’ve got some of the most highly touted young actors around in this film. Shailene and Miles in particular are getting a lot of attention right now. Can you talk about working with them?

Obviously I’m really proud of the movie but I’m particularly proud of the casting in the movie. From Shailene who I think is, you know, really one of the best actresses of her generation, to getting Kate Winslet in the movie, who’s really one of the best actresses of her generation. And then to have Theo James, who is like a real star about to burst, and to have gotten the right role for him and the right performance out of him to see him emerge. But the other cast in it are incredible. Miles Teller is a great actor and I was so pleased that he was willing to do the movie. Jai Courtney, I think, is kind of a revelation actually. He’s got such strength in his screen presence that’s intense. Zoe Kravitz is fantastic. Not to mention Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd, you know, they’re amazing. So it was just a dream for a director.

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You’re not doing the second film, Insurgent. Is that by choice?

Well, originally I was going to do the second one and we were making my directors deal and it was always going to be tough because I was going to be finishing this one at the same time. They were overlapping because we were going to start shooting in May — two months from now. And it was always going to be a crazy schedule but I was like okay, I can do it. I’m going to pull it off. And then we decided on this one to shoot some additional scenes to better kind of explain the world because we needed that. And once we did that, that was like the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was like, I can’t be prepping additional shooting on this movie at the same time I’m prepping the next movie at the same time I’m trying to mix sound and finish post-production. So that was it. It was like, “I can’t do it.”

Were you sad? You built it and then you have to walk away.

I was very sad in a way because I just loved those actors and I felt very proprietary over the whole project because I cast it and I designed it and then I had to sort of give it away. It felt sad but on the other hand it had also taken such a long time. It had been kind of grueling and now it’s kind of a relief ultimately. So I felt like, you know what? I’m really proud. I feel like I had a very specific vision for this movie and I was able to achieve that and get this great cast and the movie turned out really well and I’m really happy about it. And so that’s good.

Read our Divergent review right here.

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