While at Comic-Con for a presentation in Hall H, co-stars Shailene Woodley and Theo James, along with director Neil Burger (Limitless) spoke to press about their action-thriller Divergent. Based on the best-selling first book in a trilogy by Veronica Roth, the film is set in a future society, divided into factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue. On an appointed day of every year, all 16-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives, but when that day comes for Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Woodley), her choice will surprise everyone, including herself.
During the interview, they talked about making a film on such a grand scale, working with green screen, what would comprise their own fear landscape, what drew them to their roles, how true the film is to the book, and what their best day on set was. Check out what they had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
Question: Neil, what’s it been like to work on this grand of a scale?
NEIL BURGER: What I liked about it was Veronica’s book, obviously. For a director, what’s wonderful is to try to create a new world that’s set in the future, and create all that visually. But really, what I liked, and what was at the heart of it, were the human elements of this young woman’s journey. Yes, it’s based on a young adult story, but I felt like it was a universal story about, “Where do I belong? Who am I? Who am I loyal to? Am I loyal to my family? Am I loyal to myself? What am I really willing to go out on a limb for?” I liked all those ideas, and I thought that they were really tightly tied to the action in her book. And then, I felt like it expanded out to something much larger, which was, “How do you keep a society together?” In the beginning, it seems like they’ve figured it out. They’ve got this five-faction system, which is kind of a cool idea. They seem to be living in peace and harmony because of it. And then, it all starts to fall apart. I liked how the character of Tris goes through all of that. And I liked the fear landscapes. I thought they were really cool.
Shailene, how was it to work on a green screen?
SHAILENE WOODLEY: Green screen acting is, by far, way more difficult than human interaction. It was a big learning lesson, on this movie. It was really fun. I’ve never done a movie of this scale before, with themes this big and a world that’s completely different from the world that we live in today. So, a lot of it was challenging for me because I had to erase my preconceived notions of what I was used to, acting in movies, which is generally reacting off of somebody else and creating a new world, and adapt my style of artistry to the style that this movie lent itself to. It was really exciting. Veronica created such an amazing world, and then Neil visually brought it to fruition in a way that I could have never imagined it. We’re so lucky to be pieces in the puzzle of this dystopian future.
Shailene and Theo, have you guys auditioned for any other of the big franchises?
WOODLEY: I did audition for The Hunger Games, back in the day. Jen Lawrence actually helped me with Divergent. I still have yet to meet her, but I asked her about her experience with The Hunger Games and how her life has changed, and going from small independent movies to something as big as The Hunger Games, and she gave me really beautiful life. She said how much she appreciated it and how much it’s changed her life in positive ways. She really helped me on this journey, initially.
THEO JAMES: I went for Stars Wars – the new one – as Chewbacca’s son. It’s an integral role, so cross your fingers.
What would be in your own personal fear landscape?
JAMES: Hummus, in some kind of way. Basically, just various dips that you can put pita bread in.
WOODLEY: Tris gets pecked by crows. That’s pretty terrifying. I would not like that, at all. I think that’s worse than spiders. That’s awful. I’m not into that idea.
Shailene and Theo, what drew you to your characters?
JAMES: I had an affinity with the character from the very first time I read anything on it. He was different to me because he had a very grounded, quiet sense of masculinity, which I don’t think you see much these days. In my mind, the character is reminiscent of those old movie stars, like Paul Newman, who have this strong sense of masculinity without having to show it, and who are watchful and intelligent, but also incorporate all of those traits of someone with strength and a strong sense of being.
WOODLEY: I really admire Tris’ sense of selflessness. She grew up with that and it was ingrained in her, from a very young age. That is a trait that we could use a lot more of, in the world today. I think that, coupled with the bravery that she’s forced to call upon, makes for a really profound, complex human.
What made this role worth all the negatives that can come with such a high-profile project?
WOODLEY: The whole anonymity thing is a very interesting concept. I think if you live the life that you want to life, and you are the person that you want to be, there’s really not a lot to be afraid of and there’s really not a lot of negatives. You can create a life outside of yourself that this industry is able to infiltrate, but then you can create a life inside of yourself that nobody has access to. So, I’m just excited.
JAMES: I’m extremely scared, yeah. Every day, I wake up very scared. No. It’s definitely a question you have to really contemplate. You have to be sure you want to do it. If you’re entering something that already has a fan base and has people invested in it and has books, that Veronica wrote, that are great pieces of work, as long as you put everything into it and try to make a movie that you are proud of, then the rest hopefully will come with it and people will be as proud of it as we are. We literally finished two days ago, so we’re very fresh off it and we feel very proud of it and are very excited for people to see, in Hall H, this piece of footage that they’ve put together. When you’re doing a movie, you know what you’ve done and you know what your colleagues have done, and you’ve seen bits and bobs, but it’s when you see something cut that it’s really gratifying. You say, “Oh, okay, now I see it, in the context of the world.” You can see that it’s going to be a really strong piece of work.
JAMES: It was good, actually, for me because I came in late. They had been looking for a long time to fulfill that spot, and they hadn’t found anyone. As soon as I went in, and I met Neil and Shailene, it was a very natural fit. It happened very quickly. And that is gratifying because I knew that they had invested in me and found something that they had been looking for, for a long time. That’s a good place to be in because you feel safe, and you feel gratified and wanted. He’s a tough character to find because he is young, but he’s an old soul. He has a lot of complexities. So, it was good.
Shailene, did you read the book before you started shooting?
WOODLEY: I definitely read the book. I read the book before there was a script that I read. Luckily for me, it was written from Tris’ point of view. Veronica did a lot of the work for me. Before scenes, I would go back to the book and see what Veronica put in there, in Tris’ mind, to understand the mind-set of each scene. That really helped me a lot, to get into the emotional stature of where Tris was.
Neil, how true to the book is the film?
BURGER: I think it’s going to be very true to the book, actually. Obviously, a movie is a different beast than a book. The great challenge of making this movie was to try to fit as much of the book into it. There are so many characters in the book that have their function and that are beloved, and there are so many great set pieces. There are too many, really, to fit into a movie, but we really worked hard to squeeze them all in and to come up with an idea for a movie that was even more fast-paced than usual and more condensed than usual. There are three villains. Tris has got a whole set of friends, and then there’s her relationship with her parents and with Jeanine Matthews. There’s a lot going on in the book, and there’s going to be a lot going on in the movie. It’s very faithful to it. Obviously, certain things are smoothed out or combined to make one essential, dramatic journey in the movie, where there might have been more turns in the book, but it’s pretty faithful, which is exciting.
Shailene and Theo, what was the very best day for you, on set?
WOODLEY: There were a lot of good days, to be honest, but the Ferris wheel day was pretty special. It was a night shoot, and we climbed this Ferris wheel for probably 12 hours straight, in the middle of the night. And it was also a full moon and the first super moon of the year. It was so beautiful, to watch the moon go across. It was just a magical moment in life. And how often do you get to climb a Ferris wheel? You never do. That was probably one of my favorite moments in life.
JAMES: The climactic scene of the movie is when Four has been put under this serum and he’s not himself, and Tris comes to save the day. There’s a fight scene between them, and then she essentially wakes him up through love. It was a very powerful scene, and we were both sweating. I had my hands around Shailene’s neck, and there’s this moment where we just connect that felt very real. It’s a great way of adding emotionality to a big action set piece. I think it’s going to be a really beautiful part of the movie.
Divergent opens in theaters on March 21, 2014.