Earlier this year, Summit Entertainment launched a new franchise with Divergent. The adaptation of the first novel in author Veronica Roth’s trilogy bore some resemblance to another post-apocalyptic franchise, but director Neil Burger ensured that his futuristic sci-fi thriller would stand alone. He began by assembling an excellent cast led by Shailene Woodley, opted for a colorful visual approach heavy in luminosity, and took care in pleasing passionate fans of Roth’s source material. The result was a fun, thrilling, and somewhat surprising film that took in over $270 million at the worldwide box office and paved the way for the sequel, The Divergent Series: Insurgent, which is poised for release on March 20, 2015.
With Divergent being released on Blu-ray and DVD this week, I recently got the chance to speak with Burger over the phone. During the course of our interview, he discussed his reaction to the film’s success, the double-edge nature of the pre-release Hunger Games comparisons, the pain of removing the eye-stabbing subplot in the editing process, how much he knew about Allegiant ahead of time, and more. Additionally, Burger revealed that he was actually going to direct Insurgent but reshoots made the timetable impossible, and talked about the possibility of returning to the franchise to helm one of the Allegiant films. Read the interview after the jump.
NEIL BURGER: Thank God!
What was your reaction to the film’s success? Were you confident that you had something special and that it would connect with audiences, or were you a little surprised it did so well?
BURGER: No I wasn’t [surprised], I mean look, I wouldn’t have gone into it if I didn’t think that it had real possibilities. We thought it was going to be a hit all along; we had all the makings of it especially with the fantastic cast and a book that was just continuing to build its audience, and a great team of collaborators that I was working with. We’re confident. So then when it is successful and it hit, it’s a relief because you never know obviously, but also it made sense to us. We liked the story, we were proud of the movie, we thought we had been really faithful to the book, and we had a great cast and a lot of cool things in the movie.
In the months leading up to the film’s release, obviously there was great anticipation for the movie, but in the constant search to package things into an easily digestible pitch it became labeled as “The Next Hunger Games.” Were you ever afraid that label might hurt the film, or did you see it as just kind of benign?
BURGER: I think it worked two ways. One, a lot of people writing about the movie used that as shorthand and it could either be a good thing or they could use it to dismiss the movie like we were a copycat movie or something like that. It’s very much its own story. It is a young woman in a post-apocalyptic society, but after that it’s just a whole different kind of story and a different journey that she goes through. On one hand it’s very flattering to be compared to a big success, and then sometimes it’s very frustrating because you want people to see the movie that you’re making and not be continually comparing it to something that it’s not. So it goes both ways.
BURGER: That’s right, people will be comparing whatever some other movie is to ours.
Definitely. Jumping into the Blu-ray, one of the deleted scenes that I think everyone was excited to see was Will getting stabbed in the eye, and the Blu-ray actually has a couple of scenes pertaining to this subplot. Was that one of those scenes that was really tough to cut, or was it an instance where it was obvious early in the edit that it just wasn’t really serving the central story?
BURGER: Oh it’s heartbreaking to cut those scenes. Everybody’s worked really hard on it, especially Ben, and we tried to keep it in as long as we could. As you say, there’s another deleted scene that is the aftermath of that situation, which was also an exchange that I like between Tris and Four and Eric. But at a certain point you’ve gotta be ruthless with the movie because you can have these great scenes, but they aren’t specifically building the story that needs to be built at that moment. If it isn’t really in line with Tris’ journey, then sometimes they have to go and it’s really painful. And it is part of Tris’ journey, but the movie was long and it was like, “What does she need to be doing next?” Those are the kinds of decisions that you’re making when you’re editing, “Is this believable?” and “Where do I want to go next?” The scenes before it was like, “Hmm, why does she need to go there? We should really be making a leap into another part of her particular story,” and that’s what we did and it was so painful to cut it. However, it’s the kind of thing that you realize once you’ve done it that you’ve sort of freed the movie in a certain way into, again, the movie being greater than the sum of its parts.
BURGER: Right. But that is exactly what happened, it’s like you might have some great scene that you love but for some reason—and you can’t necessarily put your finger on it—the movie’s not working or it seems slow or ponderous in some way, and even though it has your favorite scene in there, actually the favorite scene is the culprit. That’s the painful thing about editing, is trying to locate those things that are holding the movie back and then having the guts to cut them. And it is painful to do it.
Now that the movie is out and you don’t have to worry about giving anything away, at any point in the process did you consider any radical changes that would’ve deviated from Veronica Roth’s novel?
BURGER: Not really, I mean I always thought that the book was very cinematic, and I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think that the book worked as a movie. To me it was like a real epic Hero’s Journey, which inherent in that is the way it begins and the middle crisis for the character and then really resolving in a certain way. We knew in her book there’s a lot of story to try to fit into a movie so there were a number of things that we condensed or pared down, but I think it was always really in the spirit of the book.
I also remember on set, and this was before Allegiant came out, you said Veronica had told you a bit about how it all ends. Did she tell you very much about where the story was going, or was it just little hints?
BURGER: She did tell me because I really interrogated her, because I needed to know as a director where everybody was going just because I felt like I was setting up a trilogy. If a character is going to end up one way, you start them a certain way. If they’re gonna end up the polar opposite of that, you might start them differently to have dramatic integrity to their journey. So I felt like I needed to know all of that, so I was just pumping her for information, not to mention information about the history of the world and what discoveries were gonna be made about the overall world. What was outside the fence and that kind of thing.
I was personally bummed to hear that you wouldn’t be coming back for Insurgent because I really liked your approach to the story. Were there any serious discussions about you coming back or was the timetable always impossible?
BURGER: Yes, at first I was actually onboard to direct it. We were making my director’s deal and that kind of thing and I was slowly prepping Insurgent while I was editing Divergent. It was always going to be really tough, we were gonna be editing the movie while we were prepping the second one and I thought, “Well okay this is gonna be brutal, but I can do it,” and then we decided to shoot some additional scenes for Divergent to explain the world more, and once we were doing that it was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was editing Divergent, I was prepping to shoot more scenes for Divergent, and then I was gonna be prepping a movie on top of that. It just took me over the edge and I thought, “You know, I can’t do this.” So at the end of last year it was like, “This isn’t going to work for either movie,” and so I bowed out. It was a hard decision. I’m fond of all those actors, and in a way that’s the thing I’m most proud of, the casting of the movie. So that was hard, but I’m proud of the movie and now it’s out there.
The cast is incredible. You clearly built a great foundation for the rest of the franchise.
BURGER: Yeah it’s a really amazing group. Obviously from Kate Winslet to Shailene, who’s one of the best if not the best actress of her generation, and Theo is this new guy who’s a real movie star I think. And all of the supporting actors are really just amazing, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, down to Ben Lloyd-Hughes and Jai Courtney and Ansel Elgort, who’s a new star now too. It’s really fun and rewarding, I’m really proud of all of them and I’m proud of the group as a whole.
Is it too much to hope for you to come back and direct Allegiant? Have you guys talked about that?
BURGER: I haven’t talked about that recently. We did talk about it at the end of the movie a little bit. We’ll see, we’ll see what’s happening and how they’re feeling. Like I said, it’s a great group of people in line and it’s a fantastic place to work.
So what’s coming up for you? Do you know what you’re doing next?
BURGER: Well I’m in very early—I’m working on a number of different things. I’m working on a couple of TV things and I’m working on a couple of film things too, and they’re all very early stages. One of them I’m writing myself, one of them I’m writing with somebody else, and one of them I’m supervising a writer, and they’re all sort of coming up at the same time and it’ll be interesting to see which one kind of reveals itself first and jumps ahead. And at the same time I’m reading a bunch of things I haven’t written, and there’s a couple of scripts that may go even quicker. But I haven’t decided which one that is yet.
Well I can’t wait to see it, I’m a huge fan of yours. You have a really strong handle on interesting visuals, and I remember on set you talked about wanting to imbue the world of Divergent with color, since many of the dystopian films out there were just drowning in grays and grittiness. Did you ever get any pushback on that, with the studio or whoever asking you to make it look more like everything else?
BURGER: No, I mean one of the first things I ever mentioned was to do it differently in that way, to have a sense of color in it but also to have a luminosity in it, a sense of light and a glow to it. Even in the pit, they’re not in a sort of dark, bleak hole, they’re in what seems to be like a marble quarry so the stone is white and there’s a huge skylight overhead so there’s a sense of sunlight, even down there.
Divergent is now available on Blu-ray/DVD.