Directing ‘Divergent’

03.18.14

‘Divergent’ Is Not ‘The Hunger Games,’ Says Director Neil Burger

Director Neil Burger knows that you thought his take on ‘Divergent’ would be a lot like ‘The Hunger Games,’ and he worked doggedly in order to change your mind.

The director of Divergent is facing a major conundrum.

Everyone—everyone—is asking director Neil Burger how his film version of the phenomenally popular young adult novel compares to The Hunger Games. “Every time I say something about The Hunger Games,” Burger says, “I get, like, death threats.”

Journalists, including this one, seem to have no respect for the rising director’s life, however, because we just won’t let up about the comparisons, forcing Burger to talk about them. He gets it, of course. It was his initial thought when he landed on the shortlist to direct the feverishly anticipated Divergent film, which hits theaters Friday.

“At first, I was like, ‘Hmm … is it too close to these others projects?’” Burger tells me, before clarifying that “other projects” really just refers to that one big, fat, best-selling, $1.5 billion-grossing (and counting), zeitgeist-seizing project. “The Hunger Games,” he admits. “A little bit. It’s a female heroine in a dystopic world. That’s pretty much where it begins and ends, but even with that, you hear about the similarities all the time.”

(For the record, Burger is quite fond of The Hunger Games, too, even in the face of threats on his life. “I love The Hunger Games! Divergent is just, to me, very different. You know?”)

And so, at lunch in New York City (I had a burger with Burger—heh), the director of the 2006 period drama The Illusionist and the 2011 thriller Limitless spent a lot of time talking about how his very adult take on the latest young-adult craze is very much not like The Hunger Games.

It should be obvious to some how Divergent, the massively popular first book in the YA trilogy by young writing phenom Veronica Roth, became the shorthand for “the next Hunger Games.” Divergent, broadly, has similar themes to Suzanne Collins’s series. It’s the dystopian future, and a headstrong female teenage protagonist, defiant in the face of a corrupt government, turns into Enemy Number One as she gradually becomes aware of the politicians’ oppressive tactics and leads a civilian rebellion against them.

But it’s in the finer details of Divergent where the plots, well, diverge. In the future, Chicago is divided into five factions, classifying citizens into one based on aptitude tests: abnegation (for the selfless), amity (the peaceful), candor (the honest), dauntless (the brave), and erudite (the intelligent). Tris, played with gritty gumption by Shailene Woodley (The Descendants), discovers she’s “divergent,” meaning she possesses the traits of more than one faction—a fact she must hide after discovering a secret government program to eradicate divergents completely.

After Roth’s series (after Divergent comes Insurgent and Allegiant) shot to the top of the bestsellers’ list with all the speed and precision of one of Katniss’s arrows, and especially after a big-budgeted movie adaptation of the franchise was approved, the Hunger Games comparisons lit up like a girl on fire. Though after reading the script he was confident that Roth “had her finger on something very unusual and very special,” Burger did brace himself for the cornucopia of Hunger Games comparisons.

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Lionsgate, Summit Entertainment

“It’s like, ‘Oh you’re the next Hunger Games?’ Or, ‘Are you going to measure up to the Hunger Games?’ Or, ‘You’re just a copy cat.’ It’s inevitable,” he says. “So I was like, am I going to have to inevitably answer all those inevitable questions?” In the end, he ruled that facing the firing squad was worth it.

“I just really liked the story,” he says. “I think Veronica has her finger on something that’s kind of elemental and universal, no matter what your age—those questions of Do I need to conform to what everyone else is doing? Do I hide that I’m different? Do I pretend to be the same? Or if I am true to my own voice, what are the consequences of that?”

Armed with a plan that was equal parts erudite and dauntless, Burger plunged into the project, rising to every challenge. First, and maybe most crucial, was the casting of Tris. After seeing Woodley in The Descendants, Burger knew she could hit the tricky balance of emotional fragility and ferocity that makes Tris tick, so he put the up-and-coming starlet at the top of his list.

Other actresses, including Saorsie Ronan (Atonement, The Host) and Alicia Vikander (The Fifth Estate, A Royal Affair), were being considered for the role, but all it took was one meeting with Woodley for the largely untested starlet to convince Burger and studio execs that she was right for the part.

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Jaap Buitendijk

“When I met her, she seemed to have all the right emotional qualities,” Burger says. “And then the week after I met her she was going off to do some sort of survivalist camp in the desert where you learn to escape being kidnapped or something like that, and make your way back through the desert alone with just a pint of water and break yourself out of handcuffs. Like, what? I thought, well, this solidifies it. She can do it.”

Equally as pivotal was creating the dystopian version of Chicago, crafting a city that was both bleak and derelict but also futuristic and reflective of technological advances. Burger placed a large portion of the difficulties on himself. “I wanted to do as much as I could the real way, in the real streets of Chicago,” Burger says. “I had this rule where 80 percent of everything in the frame—or more—had to be real. Not digital, not created, not CG.”

That includes the book’s famous train-jumping scenes, the dauntless travel throughout the city by hopping (literally) on and off trains that don’t stop. Burger had a train car built on elevated tracks like the ones in Chicago, and it actually moved, so that he could film the actors running alongside and jumping onto the moving train with as few visual effects as possible.

That’s not to say that Divergent is lacking in visual effects. “It wasn’t an Avengers- or Iron Man-sized shoot,” Burger says. But the scope of the film, the expansiveness of the set, and the sheer scale of the story required the director to pull off more visual tricks than he’s ever had to before. “Limitless was $30 million,” he says. “This cost about $78  million, maybe closer to $80 million.”

One scene that require no CGI but may have been the most important to nail, considering how many times it’s played out in fans’ imaginations, was the first kiss between Tris and the mysterious Four (Theo James), who becomes her political ally as well as love interest. Burger was aware of the weight of the scene, and actually shot it twice. After the first time, he rewrote it, simplifying the dialogue and making it more about the quieter moments, and moving it to a different place. Why? “I felt like it needed to be iconic,” he says.

The end result, an emotional highlight in a film that hinges on raw emotion believably triggering a civil war, is, indeed, iconic enough to live up to the hype of all those passionate fans’ imaginations of the scene. The success of the film is because of Burger’s commitment to making a blockbuster that never loses its character-driven direction—an action film that’s as explosive emotionally as it is visually.

That should help Burger escape death threats from Divergent fans, a group very protective of their beloved franchise and very keen to ensure that its film adaptation does justice to its source material.

As for those Hunger Games fans? May the odds be ever in his favor.