By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood March 21, 2014 at 2:57PM
When asked if he was "Divergent," Neil Burger replied affirmatively but admitted that his biggest films -- "The Illusionist," "Limitless," and "Divergent" -- are all about the quest for empowerment: Ed Norton pulls off a grand scheme to win back the heart of Jessica Biel and to fit in with the social elite; Bradley Cooper takes a psychotropic drug to overcome writer's block and becomes superhuman; and Shailene Woodley's Tris utilizes her extraordinary versatility to lead an uprising against a fascist regime.
However, "Divergent" (based on the popular Veronica Roth book trilogy) comes across as "The Hunger Games" meets "Inception," which makes it a distinctive YA franchise. For Burger, though, he wanted "Divergent" more grounded than any other dystopian movie, making it almost anti-dystopian, shooting on the streets of Chicago with minimal VFX (he applied an 80% non-CG rule for every shot). The iconic locales are familiar yet the walled, bomb-blasted city is oppressive, with trains representing the opportunity for escape.
"'Divergent' made sense to me when I read it, Burger recalls. "As a filmmaker, it's a huge opportunity and an exciting challenge to create a world set in the future and also visually I liked the idea of those fear landscapes. That's something that I did in 'Limitless' with the psychotropic representing the Bradley Cooper's inner mindscape. And I thought that would be interesting to further explore with these the aptitude test and these fear landscapes. What does that look like and what's the logic of that dream?
"And I liked Tris' classic hero journey as the least likely person to survive in the world that she throws herself into. But through hard work and sheer determination, she's able to make herself better."
But Tris doesn't fit into her society's five factions (Dauntless, Abnegation, Erudite, Amity, and Candor), making her Divergent, an outsider as well as a threat. Yet her outside-the-box thinking helps her thrive. This, along with the survival theme so prevalent in recent movies, provided thematic impetus to Burger.
"My vision for the movie was to do it in Chicago and to do it as real as possible [with the help of "Gravity" production designer Andy Nicholson and "R.I.P.D." cinematographer Alwin Kuchler]. We've seen lots of movies set in the future, some great, some not so great, but they all seem to have the same computer-generated skyline, even 'Hunger Games.'