When asked if he was “Divergent,” Neil Burger replied affirmatively but admitted that his biggest films — “The Illusionist,” “Limitless,” and “Divergent” — are all about the quest for empowerment: Ed Norton pulls off a grand scheme to win back the heart of Jessica Biel and to fit in with the social elite; Bradley Cooper takes a psychotropic drug to overcome writer’s block and becomes superhuman; and Shailene Woodley’s Tris utilizes her extraordinary versatility to lead an uprising against a fascist regime.
However, “Divergent” (based on the popular Veronica Roth book trilogy) comes across as “The Hunger Games” meets “Inception,” which makes it a distinctive YA franchise. For Burger, though, he wanted “Divergent” more grounded than any other dystopian movie, making it almost anti-dystopian, shooting on the streets of Chicago with minimal VFX (he applied an 80% non-CG rule for every shot). The iconic locales are familiar yet the walled, bomb-blasted city is oppressive, with trains representing the opportunity for escape.
“‘Divergent’ made sense to me when I read it, Burger recalls. “As a filmmaker, it’s a huge opportunity and an exciting challenge to create a world set in the future and also visually I liked the idea of those fear landscapes. That’s something that I did in ‘Limitless’ with the psychotropic representing the Bradley Cooper’s inner mindscape. And I thought that would be interesting to further explore with these the aptitude test and these fear landscapes. What does that look like and what’s the logic of that dream?
“And I liked Tris’ classic hero journey as the least likely person to survive in the world that she throws herself into. But through hard work and sheer determination, she’s able to make herself better.”
But Tris doesn’t fit into her society’s five factions (Dauntless, Abnegation, Erudite, Amity, and Candor), making her Divergent, an outsider as well as a threat. Yet her outside-the-box thinking helps her thrive. This, along with the survival theme so prevalent in recent movies, provided thematic impetus to Burger.
“My vision for the movie was to do it in Chicago and to do it as real as possible [with the help of “Gravity” production designer Andy Nicholson and “R.I.P.D.” cinematographer Alwin Kuchler]. We’ve seen lots of movies set in the future, some great, some not so great, but they all seem to have the same computer-generated skyline, even ‘Hunger Games.’
“To me, I thought those themes of who am I and where do I belong was very relevant and I wanted to play them as real as possible in the performances and how it was played emotionally. And toward that end, I wanted it to be visually real. And I wanted to use as little CG as possible. Even when they’re jumping on the train, it gives it a more immediate and messier feel.”
The narrative, not surprisingly, was the most daunting aspect, given the complexity of the world and the juggling of characters and factions. “There were a lot of iconic events and the first script that I got didn’t have the zip line in it, it didn’t have Christina [Zoe Kravitz] being pushed by Eric [Jai Courtney] over into the chasm and being suspended over the chasm. And I said you had to have those scenes back in. To steer my way through all that was difficult.”
But Burger was very much aware of the relevance of survival and reinvention. “It begs the question: Can you be different — and I don’t mean like Divergent — but can you change what you are? But then the survival thing in these dystopic stories is interesting and how that’s become pervasive and affects young people. I grew up in a time in the ’70s when there was still an optimism for the future whereas these movies all present a bleak promise.”
Even so, Burger won’t be returning for next year’s sequel, “Insurgent,” which will be directed by Robert Schwentke (“Red”). “I was gonna do both and prep the one while I was finishing this one, and it was going to be almost impossible but I was just gonna be able to balance it. And then we started to shoot a couple of extra scenes [in December] to better explain the world of Divergent at the beginning of this movie and then once I did that, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“It’s hard to let it go, but, on the other hand, it was a long slog and I’ve been away from my family in New York. But I’m really proud of the casting and I set out to make an adult movie out of a young adult story and I achieved that vision.”