‘Divergent’ Director Neil Burger Reflects on the YA Franchise Starter and Hollywood’s Dystopia Craze 10 Years Later

It’s been 10 years since the first “Divergent” film arrived in theaters, introducing author Veronica Roth’s concept of a society divided into factions to the big screen. “Divergent” was one of the first post-apocalyptic YA franchises to land after the success of smash hit “The Hunger Games,” and indeed Summit Entertainment doubled the film’s budget after they saw what a phenomenon “The Hunger Games” was.

“There was pressure, and for me as a filmmaker, [it was about] ‘How do I make a difference? How do I make it special?’ There was a number of things that I wanted to do with that,” director Neil Burger told TheWrap in an interview reflecting on the making of the film.

Shailene Woodley was cast as the franchise’s lead, Beatrice Prior, a 16-year-old girl about to take her society’s Aptitude Test to figure out which of the five factions — Abnegation, Erudite, Dauntless, Candor or Amity — in which she would choose to live out the rest of her life. Theo James, then known for a role in the “Underworld” franchise, was cast as the series’ romantic lead Tobias “Four” Eaton.

The rest of the ensemble filled out with future stars – Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller and Ansel Elgort — and Burger landed Oscar-winner Kate Winslet to play the film’s villain. But while the 2014 film was a success (it grossed nearly $300 million against a budget of $85 million), the “Divergent” franchise would eventually become a cautionary tale as the film series ran out of steam before it could conclude its story.

Below, Burger reflects on the making of that first film, the decisions he made to make the film stand apart, putting together the cast, and how he declined to direct the sequel “Insurgent” because it looked to be a “recipe for disaster.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Similar to “The Hunger Games” starring Jennifer Lawrence as fictional heroine Katniss Everdeen, “Divergent” followed Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), a sixteen-year-old girl about to take her society’s Aptitude Test to figure out which of the five factions — Abnegation, Erudite, Dauntless, Candor or Amity — in which she would choose to live out the rest of her life. Abnegation-born, Beatrice’s tension lies in the desire to please her parents and stay put in the faction of selflessness versus choosing her own path and following her instincts to Dauntless, the faction emphasizing bravery.

Director Neil Burger reflected back on making the first film in what became a trilogy over Zoom in February, detailing his approach to making a future world as realistic-looking as possible as well as the competition forged by “The Hunger Games” and the young adult dystopia boom.

“There was pressure, and for me as a filmmaker, [it was about] ‘How do I make a difference? How do I make it special?’ There was a number of things that I wanted to do with that,” Burger told TheWrap. For example, we shot in Chicago, the story’s set in Chicago, and I didn’t want to have computer-generated landscapes. We changed a lot, but we shot on the streets of Chicago, in the real sunlight, all that stuff outside as much as possible. I had a rule that 80% of everything on screen had to be real.”

Burger felt that this was accomplished with the cast having their feet on the ground in real places, and he thought that adherence to that principle could still happen in the present day. The story’s themes of herd mentality versus individual identity initially attracted him to the project.

“I liked the idea of building a world. I was attracted to the themes in the movie, this idea of these factions, what’s your true self and ultimately, are you true to yourself, or are you true to the group?” he said. “And what if you’re different Can you change? Can you be different or are you endowed with certain traits and stuck with them?”

Burger also shared details not known at the time the film was in production as well as insight into what became of the franchise.

TheWrap: The budget was reportedly doubled based on the success of The Hunger Games. What was it like working with the studio on this?

Burger: I think initially the budget was $40 million. And then they they doubled our budget when they saw that ‘The Hunger Games’ was successful and that they thought that we could also follow in that sort of success, so we were double our own small budget.

What do you remember about the casting process? Was there a lot of competition? I know you knew you wanted Shailene Woodley.

We were looking for somebody that was supposed to be 16. In the book, the initiates are 16, and we changed it to 18 to help ourselves out. I’d just seen “The Descendents,” and I thought “That’s who it should be.” She had a very real quality and she also had this rebellious energy to her, certainly in that movie. I knew I wanted that even though she was playing this initially mild person who turns into this badass. I had my eye on her from the beginning, and we got her.

The rest of the casting was, that’s obviously one of the things I’m most proud of. We’ve got Miles Teller in it, and we’ve got Ansel Elgort in it, and really his second movie and then finding Theo James was fantastic. He’s like a combination of Paul Newman and Bruce Lee. He’s, he’s fantastic. He was just so perfect for the role and then of course Kate Winslet.

What was that like when you finally landed Kate Winslet in that role?

We wanted somebody who had that personal charisma and power. She’s playing a character that’s very powerful, but is also very manipulative, and she’s kind in a lot of the movie to Tris, but it’s all for an end. So it was like, ‘Okay, who can do that and who, when you look at them, has that sort of gravitas?’ We were just lucky to get her.

The funny thing about having her in it at that time and her performance, she was five months pregnant. She wasn’t playing somebody who was pregnant, so it was a lot of strategic costuming and strategic shooting and having her hold some tablet or something like that in front of her stomach the whole time. Just to hide her baby bump. She was great. She wasn’t in action scenes, but there are scenes where she gets pulled and shoved and things like that, and I think Theo grabbed her once, and again, he was never a guy that would like pull his punches. He would really just go right into it. It was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, she’s five months pregnant.’ She was wonderful and just threw herself into it.

What do you remember about the conversation to direct ‘Insurgent’ after ‘Divergent’?

I didn’t direct ‘Insurgent.’ I was on the fence of whether I wanted to do another one or not, and I obviously ultimately chose not to. It was a hard decision because I really loved the cast. The books were tricky adaptations, and it was a lot of work to get ‘Divergent’ to be ‘Divergent,’ even though it’s very close to the book in a way, but it was somehow trying to make all what’s in the book, feel logical and essential and make sense and fit together. ‘Insurgent’ had the same difficulty. [[“Divergent”] came out in March, and we were going to start shooting in June to make the same March date for 2015 [for “Insurgent”]. The script wasn’t anywhere, and I was like, ‘Maybe it’s a recipe for disaster.’

It seemed like the third book hadn’t been written yet at this point, but you had spoken to Veronica Roth about the ending of the series. Did you know that Tris ultimately died?

I think I did know that, yeah. I do remember that. I remember her telling me a little bit about [the ending], which was informative, because you want to know what you’re setting up. We were working on this movie that was supposed to be a trilogy, and so what you’re laying out in the first film is obviously going to pay off in the last one, but the last one wasn’t written yet. I think she had written it or was polishing it. You want to get it right that you’re not setting up somebody — their character — to be a certain way [if] they were going to be the same in the third one, because you want to have a change or whatever it is. I was trying to get as much information out of her as possible.

From left to right: Shailene Woodley and Theo James in "Divergent" (Lionsgate)
From left to right: Shailene Woodley and Theo James in “Divergent” (Lionsgate)

Did you see “Insurgent” and “Allegiant”? How do you feel about the way the franchise ended?

I did see them because they were my friends making those movies and they would call me during the shooting of them. I wanted to have a very stripped-down futurism, like, where are they getting their materials? If they have a gun, they’re having to manufacture their guns with whatever materials they have. They’re in this walled city without any kind of communication or trade with the outside world. So where are they getting their parts for these guns, for example, or for their vehicles? I wasn’t looking for a steampunk sensibility, but I was looking for our own version of that where they were reusing things. What did their fighting style develop from? and where were they getting their power? I was trying to have that all be as logical and real as possible whereas I think in the next ones, they just decided, ‘We don’t care about that. Let’s just have it be as cool as possible and space age. It’s the future,’ weird shapes to things, and that’s great too, but I had a very rigorous way that I wanted to go about it.

There were plans for an “Allegiant Part 2,” (“Ascendant”) but that didn’t happen. Were you a part of that conversation?

I advised them to just do one. There’s three books, do three movies. ‘The Hunger Games’ had split the last one into two and ‘Harry Potter’ had split the last one into two parts. I don’t want to say they got greedy, and I was like ‘You got this, it’s good. Just finish it off while you can, while you have the actors all together and things like that. So that was my advice to them, but they chose to split it in two.

And she lives at the end of “Allegiant.” Going back to the dystopian craze in the 2010s, do you think that could ever come back?

I guess so, but if you look at ‘The Last of Us,’ isn’t there dystopia everywhere? It’s become our go-to genre. I think it’s influenced people and young people a lot like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s where the future is going. It’s all going to hell.’ So it’s a very pessimistic view of the future, which has been very influential.

On the other hand, what there are less of though perhaps, is those YA movies, but it seemed to speak for a time and those young adult stories, in a way, they’re universal. They’re about identity and if you’re different in a world where everyone is the same, ‘Do you try to fit in? Do you hide who you really are, or, if you’re true to yourself, what’s the cost? Those are universal concerns, whether you’re a young person or an adult.

I don’t know if you’ve read “Fourth Wing,” but it’s a dragon fantasy book series, and the Rider’s Quadrant seems Dauntless-coded. They also have their own form of corrupt government. Why do you think we still come back to these themes?

It’s always about ‘Where do where do I fit? Am I a jock or am I a nerd?’ or, in the adult world, ‘Am I a business person, or am I an artist?’ People take those classic or iconic, labels and, in the case of ‘Divergent,’ it was virtues —bravery, kindness, selflessness. I think it’s a way to explore human nature and that’s really what “Divergent” is about. It’s an exploration of human nature and, can we live together because in a way, they seem to have created a society when the movie begins where everything’s working, and it’s like, ‘Can we live together? Or are we always going to be at each other’s throats?’

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