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

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LYT: When you're setting up something like this that's obviously intended to be part of a multi - part franchise, but you're only on for the first one, how much of it are you leaving for the next guy, and figuring out, "OK, I'm going to work out this stuff, but it's not going to come into play in the one I'm doing"?

NB: Right.

LYT: How much of that stuff do you work on that's going to be for the sequel, and not directly in the one you're directing?

NB: Well, you're right, we're setting up - it's book one of a trilogy, and so this movie is somehow Act 1 of the whole story, so it's hard, because some of the things that are set up aren't paid off, that are in this book and are in this movie, and that's always hard. We're used to movies wrapping everything up by the end. I actually was going to do the second one, but then it just became too much to do. So, I was sort of building and had my eye on that, in general. So I'm not really leaving anything for the other guy to do, it's more just making a movie that's complete, kind of a complete package.

LYT: Not having read the books, I can tell the birds are going to be significant down the line, because there's enough bird imagery.

NB: Right, right, right.

LYT: They're on the tote bag. They're in her dream.

NB: I haven't seen that tote bag.

LYT: Yeah. It's [Tris'] tattoo. How did you go about designing the tattoos?

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NB: Well, I was working with my production designer, Andy Nicholson, and I had an idea that I wanted the tattoos to be not inked - not done with needles, but, again, how would they be done? To almost do - originally they were supposed to be almost like blood tattoos. In other words, that in a way they kind of poisoned your skin, or they put some chemical on your skin that stimulated the pigment in your skin, in the same way that you have a bruise, you can get a black eye - you could get something like that.

And that was the original idea - that the pigment in your skin would change, and stay that way. Like having a toxic chemical put on your skin. And that's still sort of the method, but the tattoo themselves look a little bit more like a conventional tattoos now, whereas before they were going to look sort of like these scar kind of bruises. Then it was just a matter of playing around with - I wanted the style to be kind of, have kind of a raw quality to it, the way a woodcut has more of a raw quality as a print, then say something that's so perfect.

LYT: Are there ratings issues with showing blood? I mean, it's not that violent a movie, but the MPAA gets so hung up on specifics, and there's more actual blood you see in this than in a lot of PG - 13 movies.

NB: Yeah, we had to - yeah, we were right on the edge, and we actually had to take out a couple of small things, to get on this side of the edge.

LYT: Unrated DVD?

NB: It's not different enough, I don't think so - not really for this is such a broad audience that we're going for. And this is really not that different. It was more just snipping some things that were just a little bit more graphic.

LYT: Had you seen The Spectacular Now before getting Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller?

NB: Spectacular Now was not - they had shot it, but it wasn't - I suppose I could have seen it, but I actually was so convinced about Shailene from having seen her in The Descendants, that she was top of my list. I met her, and I was like, "She's the best actress working right now, and we want the best actress for this movie." So that's the way we went about it, and then I think I saw Spectacular Now shortly thereafter, and it just confirmed. And then Miles - that's not - Miles I just knew as a really good actor, and I wanted him to be in the movie somehow. So it was just a matter of convincing him to do it and finding the right part for him.

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LYT: It feels almost like - I don't know how aware you were of the whole Spider-Man thing, where they had her as Mary Jane, and then stupid people online were outraged.

NB: Yeah.

LYT: They were saying she didn't look like the sex-kitten Mary Jane in the comics. It feels like there's almost dialogue in the movie that addresses that. Miles is almost playing the asshole fanboy criticizing the way she looks.

NB: Yeah, right.

LYT: How much of that was conscious?

NB: No, no - nothing to do with Spider-Man. All that was written before all that was going on. It was more just - but he and she have this kind of brother - and - sister, kind of antagonistic relationship, where they're great pals, but they're always needling each other. And Miles is just like the best classic asshole! So he just goes right to it, at her, so it was great.

LYT: It also feels like it's sort of anticipating some of the most inane criticism people are going to...

NB: Yeah, right, right, right.

LYT: Like, "Oh, she's not hot enough."

NB: Yeah, yeah.

LYT: Like any of these people could get a girl like her, you know?

NB: Exactly, exactly.

LYT: So are you not doing the sequel because you're doing Uncharted?

NB: No. Uncharted was before. I actually left Uncharted to join this movie. I'm not doing the sequel. I was actually set up to do the sequel, we actually were working on my director's deal to do it, and then we decided to shoot a couple of extra scenes for this movie. It was already going to be a tight schedule - I was going to be prepping the next movie while I was posting this one, and I was going to be barely able to do both. And once we decided that we were going to shoot a couple of extra scenes - that was the straw that broke the camel's back. I couldn't - there was just too much to do to finish this movie, to try to start working on the next one.

LYT: So what is the next one; is it Bride of Frankenstein?

NB: My next one? Well, I wrote the Bride of Frankenstein a while ago, and I'm not sure yet. Nothing's announced yet, and I'm sort of juggling a couple of things and trying to figure out which one it's going to be.


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