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


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 Cuar?n 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 clich? 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.


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?


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.


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.