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.
The 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 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.
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:
- Shailene Woodley and Theo James Talk the Pressures of the Franchise, Differences from the Book, and More on the Set of DIVERGENT
- Director Neil Burger Talks Making the Future Feel Cinematic Instead of Gritty, the Portrayal of Violence, Filming in Chicago, and More on the Set of DIVERGENT
- Producer Douglas Wick Talks Casting Four, Changes from the Book, HUNGER GAMES Comparisons, the Director Search, and More on DIVERGENT
- Zoe Kravitz Talks Bonding with Castmates, Fight Training, Consulting Jennifer Lawrence for Advice, and More on the Set of DIVERGENT