TR Interview: Neil Burger, Director of Divergent, on His Warmer, Gentler Dystopia

By Luke Y. Thompson in Books, Movies
Tuesday, March 18, 2014 at 2:30 pm


As a filmmaker, Neil Burger has been trying to get teens to read books for a long time. Children of the '90s may remember MTV's "Books: Feed Your Head" campaign, in which celebrities read aloud evocative passages from famous books while appropriate imagery unfolded onscreen, not always depicting exactly what was said but evoking its tone.

Now, as the director of Divergent, he's the latest guy to bring a young adult literary franchise to the screen, one that hopes to hit the zeitgeist like Twilight and The Hunger Games have. The one-time director of Meat Puppets videos has come a long way, but is he as Dauntless as his heroine aspires to be? I sat down with him to find out.

Luke Y. Thompson: I know I'm a couple of decades late, but congratulations on the Feed Your Head book ads.

Neil Burger: Oh yeah!

LYT: The Kafka metamorphosis one still sticks with me.

NB: Oh, good! Did you see them at the time?

LYT: Yes.

NB: Oh, good. Yeah, yeah.

LYT: It seemed like at the time, MTV actually felt the desire to do good.

NB: I know, I know. It's a totally different world now.

LYT: It's interesting with this movie - I was just thinking, it's one of the few dystopias where the government's method of control involves empowering people, as opposed to keeping them stupid with the media, but just playing them off against each other.

NB: Right.

LYT: It's a really different take on the thing.

NB: Well, the way I went at it was to try to - I mean, I felt like - there's a couple of things I did. Tris wants to be part of the society to start with - she wants to fit in. So, one thing was to somehow make the society worth being in. I didn't want people to reject it right out of hand. I wanted to make it seem like it was successful, that this 5-faction system was working. So I kind of pushed the story a little bit to being more like a communal utopia, to start with. Usually you see dystopic stories, and they are - everything's very bleak and gray and blue and cold. So I went at this one being, as a communal utopia, as a successful society, and kind of warmer tones and kind of a luminous quality to it. That was to make it a kind of a slightly different future society, and one that seemed to be working.

LYT: It feels like in real life, there might be an extra clique of couch potatoes who didn't want to participate in any of them.

NB: That's right. But actually, it's a working society, and nobody gets to do that. Everybody sort of has their place, and their function and their job. Those [lazy people] would be the Factionless. Those are the people that don't fit in.

LYT: It's also interesting that in a lot of movies about cliques, traditionally the nerds and the science geeks are the good guys, and the jocks are the bad guys. Here, it's kind of flipped. Do you think that says something about where we are as a society, and maybe the way we've learned to respect the military a little more?

NB: I don't. I think it was really just that it was - it was something that Veronica [Roth, Divergent novelist] set up, and I think it was just a way of - those people who are smart, they're not really nerds - they're more - they are intelligence, and there's a vanity and a pride that comes with that intelligence - thinking that you're smarter than somebody else. They are doctors and teachers and things like that. And the Dauntless, really - they are military, but there's nothing militaristic about them. I mean, there is, in a degree, but they don't walk in - they're much more sort of like Navy SEALs - there's a freedom to that. There's a looseness to that. They kind of embody fearlessness, whether it be sexually or otherwise.

LYT: You sort of touched on something else I was going to ask. It seems on paper like the smart class and the brutally honest class would be the same, but it seems like the difference is the vanity level. The brutally honest class don't delude themselves with the vanity in the same way.

NB: Well, the smart class is willing to use their intelligence to manipulate things in their favor, whereas the Candor, the honest ones, they won't do that, because they value honesty to a fault, even when you wish they wouldn't tell the truth.

LYT: When you've done a movie like The Lucky Ones, which deals with the real-life military, and then you're sort of dealing with this fictionalized one. How much of the real stuff do you bring into this world?

NB: Well, you know, as a director, you always bring in your experienced, even to a futuristic story. Because I think these stories set in the future are only as relevant or as interesting as they are relevant to what's going on now. So with The Lucky Ones, I met lots of soldiers, as research, and we had guys that were helping us during the shoot. You learn what their lives are like and what they're going through. In this case, these guys are more like, as I said, like Navy SEALs, who sort of have this devil - may - care attitude to everything. They're really well-trained and they're really competent, but they're very cool and they do their own thing.


LYT: This thing here, which is going to make no sense to people reading the text, but this fighting stance that they have [with crossed forearms] - where does that come from?

NB: That came from me wanting to come up with a new fighting style. I felt like, what's the coolest way to do - there's all this hand-to-hand fighting, and I was like, "How would they fight 150 years in the future?" A cool fighting style now is Krav Maga, for example. But Krav Maga has been around for 20 years, and it's been in movies for 10 years - we've seen it. So I was starting to think, "Where is fighting going?" And we decided to make up our own style. So I put it to Garret Warren, who is my stunt coordinator - he worked on Limitless as well: where would fighting go? So he came back with this idea, and we shaped it a little bit into this kind of hammer-fist fighting style, which is a very efficient way to hit, to use that part of your hand, instead of the front of your fingers and knuckles. So that's where we developed that, and I think it's really cool.

LYT: Obviously, from Metamorphosis and MTV on, you like adapting stuff. Is there an extra challenge in this, because it's got such a fan base? My wife hates the Alfonso Cuarón Harry Potter movie because they changed it from the book, for example.

NB: Right, right.

LYT: Do you feel that kind of pressure with this, or not so much?

NB: You know, you don't want people to hate the story. We're fans of it to start with! So there is that pressure. I mean, a movie is a different beast than a novel. She's got 450 pages to write her way around problems and to get inside Tris' head, and out of it. A movie has to kind of function dramatically, one sort of obstacle and dilemma leading to the next, so it has different things, and it was very challenging to try to fit all of that book into the movie, but I think we did a pretty good job of it, and I think we're pretty faithful to the novel. We've had these pre-screenings, and people who love the book are generally happy with how we did the movie.

LYT: Tris wins the fight with Molly in the book, though - right?

NB: Tris wins. Well, she does not fight Molly in the training area. That was something that I added into it. But she wins the fight in the belfry, which I don't think is in the book either. She wins that fight, just before capturing the flag.

LYT: It's interesting, because I think the cliché in the movie is that you're led to expect that this character has all this untapped rage that's going to make her great as soon as she channels it, but in this one it's like, no, she's really not good at fighting. She really still has to learn even that part of it.

NB: That's what I think is interesting. It's not a super hero movie. She's not a super hero. She's actually somebody who is the least likely person to succeed in this society. But she goes into it because she's sort of hiding in plain sight and she, just through sheer determination and hard work, slowly works her way up to a place where she's able to survive.

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