DIVERGENT Set Visit Report; 30 Things to Know about the Next Big YA Franchise

     October 24, 2013

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Trends come and go rather quickly in Hollywood, and with every surprising success comes a slew of similarly plotted films that aim to capitalize on the popularity of a particular genre, theme, or basic story structure.  Though on the surface Summit Entertainment’s Divergent may seem a bit similar to a certain other futuristic YA franchise, author Veronica Roth’s source material stands entirely on its own with a thoroughly compelling story, a truly strong lead character, and plenty of thrilling twists and turns that keep audiences both invested and engaged.

Earlier this year, I was invited to the set of the feature film adaptation of Divergent along with a handful of other journalists.  Directed by Neil Burger, the filmmaker behind Limitless and The Illusionist, the film takes place in a futuristic society where people are divided into factions based on their personalities.  Tris (Shailene Woodley) is a young girl who doesn’t fit into any of the pre-assigned groups and faces grave consequences due to her status as a “Divergent.”  Read my full set visit report, including 50 things to know about the film, after the jump.

divergent-infographicAs a bit of a primer for those that may be unfamiliar with the source material, the world of Divergent is divided into five factions: Abnegation (the Selfless), Dauntless (the Brave), Candor (the Honest), Amity (the Peaceful), and Erudite (the Intelligent).  Once citizens reach a certain age, they must undergo testing to determine which faction best suits them, after which they are forced to decide whether to choose a new faction or stay put.  Each faction serves its purpose, and the futuristic society functions rather smoothly as a result—or so it would appear.

During her testing, Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) discovers that she is “Divergent,” which means she will never fit perfectly into any one group.  She is told that this is an incredibly dangerous classification, and when she discovers a conspiracy to destroy all Divergents, she must find out what makes her status so threatening.  In addition to Woodley, the cast includes Theo James, Kate Winslet, Zoe Kravitz, Jai Courtney, Miles Teller, Ray Stevenson, Mekhi Pfifer, Amy Newbold, Christian Madsen, Ansel Elgort, Ben Lloyd-Huges, Ben Lamb, Tony Goldwyn, and Ashley Judd. Watch the film’s first trailer below.

Those looking for a brief rundown of the highlights from the set visit can peruse “30 Things to Know” below, which is followed by my full set visit report.  For an intimate look at how the film adaptation came together, I recommend reading the latter.

  • divergent-neil-burger-theo-james-jai-courtneyWhen he started prepping Divergent, Burger knew a little bit about how the third book ends so as to ensure he wasn’t on the wrong path with any of the characters.
  • Burger wanted to differentiate Divergent from the other YA adaptations by telling the story in a much more cinematic way.
  • Some of the violence from the book was toned down in order to ensure a PG-13 rating. There’s less visual violence (ie. blood spatter) and more “emotional violence.”
  • One of the main things that attracted Woodley to the project was the relationship between Tris and Four: “It’s very different than the Bella/Edward relationship; they’re completely on the opposite sides of the spectrum.”
  • Burger wanted the film to feel real and not raw in a gritty way, but raw in an immediate and intimate way.
  • The producers were looking for a director who could juggle a difficult adaptation, loved character, and wouldn’t be overwhelmed by bringing an epic scale to the film visually.  After seeing presentations from many different filmmakers, they realized Neil Burger was the best.
  • The producers knew early on that Kate Winslet would be playing Jeanine, so Burger was able to tailor the character so that it would serve as a launching pad for Winslet’s talent.
  • The producers were aware of the story’s surface-level similarities to The Hunger Games, but felt that the urban world of Divergent would contrast with the rural feel of Hunger Games and help differentiate the two.
  • divergent-shailene-woodleyUriah was left out of the first movie because it would have been too difficult to ask a great actor to come and spend thirty seconds on screen just so they can have him return for the second film, in which Uriah will play a much larger role.
  • The film was shot on location in Chicago, the setting in the book, and Burger wanted to use as much of the city as possible. He decided to shoot the film like street photography but where the streets are 150 years in the future.
  • Burger also didn’t want the film to look bleak and flooded blues and grays as the colors. Tris wants to be a part of the system, so Burger made the social system feel luminous, especially Dauntless.
  • When asked which actors best fit what he imagined when reading the book, James cited Shailene Woodley (Tris), Miles Teller (Peter), and Ray Stevenson (Marcus).
  • Regarding differences from the book, Woodley says they had to change the way some things are presented in the film to ensure they make sense logic-wise.
  • In the film, Four has been in Dauntless for a few years longer than he was in the book.
  • The burgeoning relationship between Four and Tris is presented differently in the film, because there is only a limited amount of screen time that can be devoted to establishing the small nuances between the two.
  • Shailene kept wanting to push her stunts farther and farther.
  • divergent-shailene-woodley-theo-jamesIn filming the Ferris wheel scene in Chicago, the production used fake mud and decals designed to look like rust. This transformed the structure into a dilapidated Ferris wheel from 100 years into the future without relying too heavily on CGI.
  • The ambition from the beginning has been to make a great standalone movie and not just a film that sets up the sequel.
  • They made a list of fan favorite pieces of dialogue from the book that they tried to include in the movie, as long as it didn’t feel intrusive.
  • The cast is all locked in to appear in the sequels, should they get the greenlight.
  • The production had a very hard time casting Four.  They looked at a lot of would-be movie starts and up-and-comers in the vein of “beach handsome” or “Paul Newman-esque,” but no one popped until Theo James did his screen test with Shailene. They needed someone who was magnetically attractive but who also felt mysterious.
  • Producer Douglas Wick said they were so desperate to find the right Four that they looked at the tweets from fans to see who they were suggesting.
  • Summit/Lionsgate sat down with some of the actors and prepared them for the experiences ahead regarding the eager fanbase.
  • In the original script, Molly had no lines and was mainly a fighting role.
  • We don’t see Molly’s fear landscape in the film.
  • There is not a lot of dialogue between Christina (Zoe Kravitz) and Will (Ben) since the story is centered around Tris and Four.
  • Zoe Kravitz spoke to her good friend Jennifer Lawrence before signing on to Divergent, and the Hunger Games actress encouraged her to do it.
  • Kravitz was initially hesitant to sign on because she had seen how other major YA franchises had affected the lives of actors.
  • In designing the look of the film’s buildings and exteriors, the production designer and director imagined that society had continued on from the present for about 50 years or so, at which point an unexplained natural disaster occurred that stopped progress in its tracks.
  • Early on, Zoe Kravitz bought tickets for the cast to go to an Erykah Badu concert in Chicago, which is where they all began bonding.

Click over to Page 2 to read the full set visit, which includes a visit to the Abnegation sets, a tour of “The Pit,” and the filming of a scene between Tris and a tipsy Four.

Page 2

divergent-shailene-woodleyAbnegation Sets

Our first destination on the set visit was the Abnegation faction.  More specifically, we visited a block of about a dozen Abnegation homes that were under construction on a patch of land just below the Sears Tower.  As it is in the book, the people of Abnegation can see the remnants of the Sears Tower (now called “The Hub”) from their faction, so it was important to Burger and production designer Andy Nicholson to find a location for the set that was in view of the historic building.  Each house was small but not uninhabitable.

When we later saw the interior set of the Prior house on the soundstage, we could see that the bottom floor was made up of one large combined living/dining area, with a wall separating this space from the simple kitchen.  There was also a stairwell that lead to the upstairs bedrooms.

In keeping with the selfless lifestyle of the Abnegation, the exterior sets were incredibly plain, with an off-white concrete exterior, plain windows, and the barest of necessities including a small overhang above the door to shield tenants from rain, as well as standard rainwater catchers on the side of each house that serve as a convenient, simple source of replenishment.  While very ordinary looking, the houses also had a bit of a modern feel to them.  The simplicity of the structure and heavy use of linear features brought to mind many works of modern art.

The Abnegation set still lacked the finishing touches on the houses, including windows, doors, etc., and the production had yet to fill out the grass and landscaping.  The unit producer told me that the set was expected to be finished in about 10 days, at which point principal photography would move to the location for a week or so of shooting.  None of the houses were being built out (ie. finished on the inside), and this outside set was going to be used for exterior filming only.

Concept Art and Overall Design

Once we left the in-construction Abnegation set under the Sears Tower, we were driven even further into Chicago to CineScope Studios.  We were escorted upstairs to the production offices where we got to look at extensive concept art for the film.  I was instantly struck by the fact that Burger and his team were incorporating the existing city of Chicago very heavily into the design of the film.  Many of the pic’s locations, including the high school and the Erudite headquarters, were going to be portrayed by existing buildings in Chicago.

divergent-movie-shailene-woodleyThe production designer later told us that when approaching the film from a design standpoint, they imagined that society had continued on from the present for about 50 years, and then the unexplained natural disaster occurred that stopped progress in its tracks.  In contrast to the dilapidated or rural landscape of recent dystopian films like The Hunger Games, the design for Divergent is incredibly urban.

The design of the Dauntless faction brought to mind the spaceship quarters of Battlestar Galactica, and some of the rooms—specifically the bathrooms and initiate sleeping quarters—looked almost prison-like.  I was surprised to see that the Four’s quarters were quite large, resembling an empty warehouse or expansive studio.  I was also struck by the design for the film’s wall.  It’s markedly different from what’s described in the book, as it looks to reach at least 100 feet into the sky and is criss-crossed by metal structures that look like power transformers.  At the bottom of the wall is a significantly high concrete base, making it impossible to even think about trying to scale the barrier.

Touring “The Pit” Set

Once we made our way down to set, we were taken on a brief tour of the actual filming locations inside the soundstage.  The most impressive by far was The Pit, which was a massive set that had been transformed into the underground Dauntless structure.  While I was initially expecting a dark, drab, and dreary design for the location, I was surprised to see that Burger had made heavy use of white marble and lighter rocks instead.  The director later explained that he wanted the film to feel cinematic, and it was important for the audience to be able to believe Dauntless as a place that would be genuinely attractive to Tris instead of us instantly being aware of more sinister overtones.

Also of note on The Pit set was the extensive use of minimal yet attractive lighting.  The rock-covered hallways were lined with LED lights, and our attention was drawn to smaller, circular LED lights that were embedded within the cavernous walls.  Once we got a look at everything through the camera on playback, it looked great.  Cinematic is definitely the right word for the film’s design, but Burger also managed to make the location feel realistic and down to earth; you could almost feel the cold and dampness just by looking at this place.

The Filming

The scene that we saw being filmed involved Tris returning to The Pit from her first simulation and speaking with Four while he’s, well, inebriated.  While in the book I read Four as more playful in this particular scene, James played Four as being much more in control of his actions and less overt (ie. drinking, not drunk).  It was tough to judge the chemistry between Theo James and Shailene Woodley in this scene because we were seeing Four in an altered state, but their performances seemed pretty spot on to me.  To get all of the actors in the mood for the party atmosphere of the scene, Burger played Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” over the loudspeakers just before the dialogue in the scene began, and it became clear that James is quite the jokester on set; his dance moves were particularly striking.

Burger’s staging and camera work in the scene was really interesting.  In the master shot (ie. the shot that shows both actors on screen), the foreground was rather dark and there was a bright light way in the background that brought a great atmosphere to the proceedings.  He also appeared to be shooting everything handheld, which brought an added layer of realism to the scene.

divergent-kate-winsletFinal Thoughts

While I’ll have more from my set visit to share after the New Year, I can say I was fairly impressed with what I saw during my time in Chicago.  As a fan of the book, I was eager to see what direction the feature film adaptation would be taking.  Burger has a very strong and clear vision for his iteration of Divergent, and if Limitless and The Illusionist are any indication, his visual interpretation of the fear landscapes should be something special.  Moreover, he has assembled a talented cast of young actors that should be able to do justice to Roth’s characters while also putting their own spin on things.

Look for Part Two of my set visit next year, which includes interviews with Miles Teller, Christian Madsen, Ben Lamb, and Amy Newbold.

Divergent opens in traditional theaters and IMAX on March 21, 2014, and the third book in the series Allegiant is available now.

Peruse the rest of our Divergent set visit coverage below:

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