Producing the movie adaptation of Veronica Roth’s YA novel “Divergent” was something different for husband-and-wife producers Lucy Fisher and Doug Wick. One of many young adult would-be franchises these days, $85-million “Divergent,” which opened to $56-million last weekend, started out its life in development with Wick and Fisher’s Red Wagon shingle. They brought it to Summit Entertainment, which was later bought by Lionsgate.
With that merger Summit brought the last “Twilight” installments to Lionsgate, which was already producing and releasing the blockbuster “Hunger Games” franchise. But unlike most franchises, in this case the studio decided that the dystopian romance starring Shailene Woodley (“The Spectacular Now”) and hunk-on-the-rise Theo James (“Golden Boy”) was such a strong bet that they greenlit the sequel before the first film came out. So Wick and Fisher, producers responsible for such high-end fare as “Lawless,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “Stuart Little” and “Gladiator,” did what they had to: they pushed full steam ahead with both.
But they lost their director Neil Burger (interview here) once Lionsgate/Summit chose the sequel dates, which was not the producers’ decision. Burger had to complete some reshoots on “Divergent,” which would take his full attention. “There wasn’t really a way,” says Fisher in a telephone interview. “It was incredibly difficult to finish one in the middle of full-blown production and prep another. We barely had enough time to do it.”
So now instead of biting their nails over word-of-mouth, poor reviews and weekend box office numbers, Wick and Fisher are fretting about getting the next script into shape and working with a new director, Robert Schwentke (“Red”), on “Insurgent,” which starts in May.
I talked to Fisher about how they turned the first movie into an inevitable franchise.
Anne Thompson: What’s different about this movie from the others you’ve made?
Lucy Fisher: We’ve never worked on a movie where the sequel was greenlit before the first one came out. We’re already dealing with both. Usually you’re living to get through the opening of that first movie and take a breath, with a job well done or whatever. With a franchise, that mentality is very different, as was the press junket. It’s a different feeling in terms of an ongoing process.
Do you still feel pressure for the movie to perform?
The pressure is to be compared to “Twilight” and “Hunger Games,” which were huge gigantic phenomena. We don’t need to come close to them and we’d still be doing well. Those movies are held up as a beacon on the hill. Because the book is so successful we already have an audience for the movie, which is a wonderful feeling. We know people want to see it.
It’s a surprise how much some of the reviewers don’t seem to appreciate it. It’s well-made and beautifully acted, the cast is fantastic. It’s a happy situation to know for certain that people will want to see movie no matter what, that fans are happy with the movie. We had people who didn’t like the color of Shai’s hair, “more tawny, more honey.” There are no eggs being thrown at us from the people we made it for.
Who are they?
They’re the people who read the books basically: primarily female, male also, primarily under 25, but not all.
How did you land the property?
Red Wagon got sent the manuscript by the agent before it was published. We read it and saw a phenomenally interesting voice and premise, with rich veins of identity and conformity. Veronica Roth was still a senior at Northwestern. She was a kid herself, everyone was growing up on this movie. Shailene was 20 years old.
We had rights to all three books, which were sold as a trilogy. We had read one book and an outline of the second and third. The book itself hadn’t been published, it wasn’t a franchise when we sold it to Summit. It was doing well with 2 million sold, now it’s 17 million for the series. It kept growing astronomically. The third book [“Allegiant”] came out while we were shooting.
When we got the manuscript some people passed, Summit said yes. They knew this audience better, very well. After it got bought by Lionsgate, they both knew this audience. That’s a big resource for how you go about this and maximize it with publicity and the internet. It was a franchise from the beginning, which was odd, because the book was not yet big. We made deals for all three movies with the actors, who were not well known. Some had TV pilots that had not aired yet. Would they be available for third movie? We had to think it all through, like a jigsaw puzzle. We’d never done that before.
It’s about making the transition to adulthood, leaving home, figuring out who you are.
We drew on that. “Divergent” is choosing where go to college, leaving your parents in order to reach full adulthood, forging your own way. What are you willing to sacrifice? “Insurgent” is once you’ve graduated, you have to live in the real world.
How did you boil down the first book to two hours? You had exposition but lost some character development.
The books has many strands. We tried to service them all. So many subplots! Some pay off, some don’t. That’s the beauty and the disadvantage of working with a new writer. It was a lot of stuff to manage, while trying to not lose characters and make sure we service them all. We stayed true to the spirit of it. Obviously having Kate Winslet we wanted her to be there for the climax.
Summit chased the male as well as the female audience with successive “Twilight” installments. Was there pressure to reach males with what is primarily a romance?
“Twilight” never got the guys. It stayed a female phenomenon, and never became a male movie. Males do like the book “Divergent” and hopefully they will go. The romance between Triss and Four was an integral part of the book. Young adult novels often have a love triangle. This was a romance. Always it’s the action that brings in the boys. All of that’s in the book, the fighting, learning to be a warrior, fighting guys.
Why was Shailene Woodley the right casting for Triss?
We spotted her in “The Descendants,” we were going to meet her. We expected to do a nationwide search. She came in and she looked timid, wearing a dress like her faction Abnegation. She had been going to a two-week survivalist course where they blindfold you and put you in the trunk of a car. She was doing it for pleasure. The willful side of her loves danger. She’s from Topanga, she’s a hippie, she says, “I prefer to eat meat that I kill.” She likes to challenge herself, she’s intelligent, well-spoken. She’s been working since she was five years old. She’s a very together kid, with a great family. Her mom is a middle school guidance counselor. Shai is unspoiled, hardworking, has her head screwed on right. She has great antennae, she’s very authentic, real and grounded.
We met her and said “she’s the girl,” went to Lionsgate, we heard she was trying out for “Spider Man.” We didn’t want her to choose “Spider Man” and not us. She says, “I want to do both.” And she did. [She got cut out of “Spider Man.”] She has balls. It’s impressive. We felt she would ground the movie. Part of what works in the book are heightened real teenage emotions. That’s the quality that we most wanted to preserve. It’s a hard tone to have, and keep everything accessible and relatable.
Was she tentative with the action?
It didn’t seem that way to us. She did climb the ferris wheel to the top in 26 degree weather. We had to stop her from doing stunts that were too dangerous. She would have done them all, she loved that stuff.
How did you find Theo James?
Four was the hard role to cast. We thought Triss would be hard, but we found her in a second. Then we had a hard time matching her. We tested many people and read many American actors, and Australians. But her acting style was so strong that many boys couldn’t act against her, even her own age or a little older. She was too powerful. She has to be more scared of him. She’s so prepared as an actor, so good, that she was blowing people way. And good people. Some of them hadn’t learned their lines, weren’t used to going up to someone like her. They “would have practiced more,” well, they should have! She’d do 6 or 7 half-hour auditions in a day, from one to next, at 100% each time.
We were slightly scared zooming toward our start date and we didn’t have a good Four. The movie would be hurt if the love story didn’t work. Somebody asked, “Remember Mr. Pamuk in ‘Downton Abbey’?” Everybody remembers him. We screen-tested Theo and he was fantastic. Theo improvised off-scene, told Shai, “Come over here.” We thought, “Ok, this is going to work.” That was late in the day, every other part was cast by then.
We called Lionsgate, had the screen test sent over there, made phone calls to the business affairs office. Everyone was flipping out. We showed it to Veronica Roth, I was scared to show it to her. She didn’t have approval but we wanted her blessing.
He’s a major heartthrob. Girls screamed in the theater when he took his shirt off.
Theo didn’t want to take his shirt off, which is a cornerstone of the book, when he shows his back, he’s got to. That’s him showing his vulnerability to her, it turned out great.
How did Neil Burger prove that he was the right director?
We knew he could attract actors, since he has a lot of experience, his movies like “The Illusionist” and “Limitless” show an ability to get good performances as well as style. We heard various takes, so did Lionsgate, his seemed the strongest. He had a real affinity for it. He brought an intelligence and classiness to it. He was someone that Kate Winslet could say yes to.
He wanted you to shoot in Chicago, where the story is actually set.
Chicago is an important character in the film, yet it doesn’t have a full rebate. That was a hurdle. Neil felt strongly that the film was grounded and realistic, and that not being in Chicago would make it more more artificial. He wanted it to feel somewhat real as opposed to a sci-fi world. The budget grew organically as the book took off, and we became more confident that we would have a second movie and they saw the upside grow. It was $85 million all in. At a certain point, we had a lower number for the zipline sequence, it was lower-rent version. It wouldn’t have been as much fun. We told them you can get the column B or column A if you spend more money. It turned out to be a beautiful sequence. Their appetite grew along with the success of the book.
Were you surprised that Lionsgate/Summit greenlit the sequel so early?
They got behind it and greenlit it very fast off the first draft and put it in the pipeline fast. We were lucky to have that marketing team, between “Hunger Games” and “Twilight” Lionsgate are the biggest experts in the world on this audience. We were lucky to be tied in with those movies, mailing lists, email addresses, handing out books at the premiere, putting the trailer on “Hunger Games.” That was a great thing for us.
Didn’t you want to learn from your mistakes on the sequel, learn what worked and didn’t with audiences?
It was good news and bad news. We were making another movie, but making it faster. We are going to learn what we can, we had a learning curve from working on the movie. We’re not starting until Memorial Day, we have plenty of time to absorb whatever we can from the first one. We won’t try as many stories; we felt bad about that. Once we shot it was too hard to pull anything out. We would have had more time to concentrate on the stories we had. Each of the subplots will be given more time too. We were slammed by fans that we took one character Uriah out, a small part, you would have thought we cut a limb off. People love seeing Triss’s empowerment, the chemistry between her and Four.