"I was just like, 'is it going to be another one of these movies?' Some of which are really good, but I wanted to do something different," says Neil Burger of his dive into young adult territory with his adaptation of Veronica Roth's Divergent
. "Weíve seen a lot of post-apocalyptic movies, weíve seen these other young adult movies. So I just thought that there was a way to do it in a much more cinematic way, to tell it visually, and also to tell it in a more real way. 'What are you made of? Who are you loyal to? Who are you?'"
Those are the questions that plague the young female protagonist Beatrice "Tris" Prior, as played by Shailene Woodley (The Descendants
), living in a future society where all of society is divided into five factions: Abnegation (The Selfless), Erudite (The Intelligent), Dauntless (The Brave), Amity (The Peaceful), Candor (The Honest). Tris discovers she is Divergent, meaning she doesn't fit into any of these factions, though she ultimately decides to go down the warrior's path of Dauntless. With the help of her sexy instructor Four (Theo James), she goes through the terrifying process of initiation into this deadly fraternity.
The film begins in the Abnegation housing development, as does our journey on set.
Tris and her family dwell in these square concrete dwellings built on an undeveloped patch of green space in the city of Chicago, which cooperated with production on 40 locations. Divergent
will shoot for five days here so it's an important set, existing in the shadow of the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) which is known as The Hub, an imposing skyscraper where the choosing ceremony takes place.
Construction is underway with guys on Skyjack lifts hammering away on what look like square concrete slabs but are actually plaster over wood frames. Little window slits are the only view to the world outside. There are boxy H2OG devices on the side of the buildings for harvesting rainwater, while the ground is gravel and mudÖ at least for now.
"Itís different in the sense that obviously the book is what? 400 pages?" Woodley says of some of the differences between Roth's book series and the film they are making. "The script is 90 pages and thereís some things in the book that logic-wise wouldnít make sense in a theatrical way so we had to switch the way we are presenting it, because logically it just didnít line up. But itís good guys, don't worry, itís good."
Some of those changes are apparent as we are taken to Cinespace, once a Ryerston steel plant currently in process of being converted into a film studio. Upon entering the Divergent
offices of Catbird Productions we head to the art department where an array of sequence paintings are on display, giving us a sense of the world being created. An opening sequence shows a tanker ship in the middle of a marsh that was once Lake Michigan. All the rivers dried up. City streets look like a slightly enhanced modern Chicago with chunks of buildings gone while signature elevated train tracks remain. The artwork confirms that Abnegation Zone will indeed have grass when it is completed. Beatrice's house is pretty rundown, the tight quarters conveying a prison atmosphere.
At Dauntless headquarters, the kids picked have to jump from a train onto a building. Once there they have to jump into a dark pit where (unbeknownst to them) a net will catch them. The Pit itself is crudely carved out of limestone underground. The Transfer Dorm looks like subterranean army barracks. Dauntless training is in a huge abandoned warehouse, with the sparring room resembling a sumo wrestling ring, round on a concrete platform. There's even a platform with a big post that people throw knives at while others stand there. It's a dangerous place, to say the least.
Once we get a glimpse of the High School on Michigan Ave's exterior, we see a change. The architecture is more advanced/slick. Ergonomic chairs. The Hall of Choosing has five bowls on a stage in an auditorium. The Erudite campus is lots of glass-domed study areas. There is definitely a societal disparity of haves and have-nots in this world based on exclusivity. Fear simulation is a black chair in a huge round domed room ala "Brazil." The Fence is a huge electrified rusty structure. Train concepts are only slightly futuristic, the metallic gray tubes have no seats and are basically cattle cars.
"We wanted to do something that was more real, not raw in a gritty way but raw in an immediate and intimate way," says Burger. "So one of the things we wanted to do was shoot on the streets of Chicago and we didnít want to do CG skylines or digital landscapes. So I thought itís set in Chicago and Chicago is this monumental place, why not use that? That's the skyline, itís already here, give or take a few building that mightíve been lost in the war. It's pretty much the same. So the idea of shooting a movie thatís set in the future but on the streets that are familiar."
We're then taken outside to a parking lot where the rooftop jump stunt is being performed with doubles. The stunt director/second unit director wears an eyepatch, which is a sure sign that he knows about danger. The "roof" is only a few feet off the ground, while a truck rig pulls a subway car and three suited stunt guys jump off onto the gravel roof. Behind all this action sits a greenscreen at least 30 or 40-feet high. This first stunt almost goes off, with the first two rolling and getting up, but the third falls on his back and yells cut, laughing. An Assistant Director comes up to the Dauntless extras and asks jokingly, "Any of you guys wanna jump?"
Next we're led back inside for a crucial party scene inside The Pit where Beatrice and Al (Christian Madsen) enter through a doorway into the throng of celebration. Strobe lights and drinking punctuate the enormous cavern lined with greenscreen to make it look even more vast later. The temp music used for this shot was Daft Punk's "Get Lucky." As Shailene approaches James' Four their chemistry is palpable.
FOUR: Hey Tris!
FOUR: I'd ask you to hang out with us, but you're not supposed to see me like this?
FOUR: Real, I guess.
BEATRICE: The real Four! Is "Four" your real name?
BEATRICE: It's okay.
FOUR: Gotta have some secrets. You did well tonight. You were brave.
BEATRICE: You think I'm brave?
FOUR: I think you're beautiful.
BEATRICE: You're drunk. I'm not beautiful.
FOUR: You are, there's a beauty in strength and you know that. Anyway, I'll let you get back to your friends.
Shailene Woodley and Theo James are clearly great together on screen, adding a whole world of subtle sexual tension and conflicting emotions to their scenes.
"The great thing about their relationship at the beginning is that theyíre not suddenly in love," says James. "I mean obviously they kind of are as soon as they see each other, but they have this fractious thing because heís trying to remain some sort of authority and she's discovering herself so they are kind of back and fourth. Then in the second book it happens as well, they're always kind of together, their love is very forceful, but at the same time there's all the other things going which I think is much more interesting. But that key scene that is in the movie."
Neil shoots rapid-fire takes one after the other with little downtime. The green lights are LEDs, lending a futuristic look to the stone atmosphere of The Pit. All the stone is hollow foam, the kind of thing that never looks good in person but impressive on monitors.
We then go to the gold room of the prop truck where we get to hold one of their electromagnetic rifles, along with some throwing knives and boot knives. We also see Kate Winslet's white Bentley, which is not only very big but the only car in the film.
Like Burger's previous films The Illusionist
, he's tapping into sci-fi fantasy elements with a distinct eye towards reality. Whether there's room for a new YA franchise after "Twilight" and "The Hunger Games," as evidenced by the failure of "The Mortal Instruments," remains to be seen, but Burger's approach to Tris's story shows a great commitment to the arc of the character.
"I really liked her journey, that she began as this person who didnít know where she fit in," Burger says. "She had ideas of where she should be, but is that something of a whim? Or is she hoping sheís something that she's not? Then she really fills those shoes."
opens in theaters and IMAX on March 21, 2014.