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Divergent Director Neil Burger on Train Jumping and the Power of Shailene Woodley

Photo: Joe Scarnici/2013 Getty Images

Are you brave? Smart? Honest? Peaceful? Selfless? What if you had to choose to base your whole lifestyle around one of those traits, even at the expense of the others? Tris, a teenage girl who was raised in an Abnegation household, discovers that she has some Dauntless in her — as well as a little Erudite — and makes the leap to try a new way of life. (Literally leaping, because the Dauntless have the habit of jumping on and off trains as a mode of travel.) Fans of the book series know all about this, even as the rest of the world is about to be initiated to this brave new dystopia via the film Divergent, starring Shailene Woodley as Tris, who fights her way through a boot-camp-like environment to emerge as a revolutionary. Director Neil Burger chatted with Vulture about unisex bathrooms, jumping off trains, and why he thinks Woodley should hook up with her co-star.

Have you read Allegiant yet?
Of course I have, yeah. [Laughs.] I know! I saw that story plastered all over the web — “Neil Burger hasn’t read Allegiant yet,” which always invites death threats, you know. [Laughs.]

Sorry! But because you hadn’t read it when we last talked, you mentioned that you went to Veronica Roth to clue you in before it came out, so you could revise Divergent accordingly. What changes did you make based on those conversations?
I’ll tell you this — when I first got the script of the movie and came on to it, it was kind of sketchy. There were some scenes that weren’t in the script, the zip line, or Christina hung out over the chasm by Eric, and I thought, “Those have to be in the movie.” They’re such iconic scenes. And I understood why they tried to cut them out when they were developing the script, but they had to be in there. So often, it was trying to fight to get everything into the movie, which was the real challenge.

With Veronica, I was asking her lots of questions about the world, why was it the way it was, and what was going on. I wanted them to go outside the wall. I was thinking that for the end of the movie, I should have them go through the fence, and outside the fence, which in a way they do. And when Four brings the Initiates to visit the fence, they climb up and they look out, and they sort of speculate on what’s out there. And Tris turns to Four and says, “Do you know?” And I wrote something, that he had been out there, that he had ventured out, and wasn’t going to tell what he saw. I asked Veronica, “What if he had been out? What do you think?” And she said, “I don’t think he could have been out there to any degree, venturing into the world, just because of what happens in the third book.”

If the zip line and the Christina-chasm scenes weren’t in the original script, what about Edward’s eye getting poked out?
Not only was that something else that I put back in — and we shot it — but we took it out. We had to keep it moving, and that was a really painful thing to cut, but we did shoot it, and it’s a great scene. It’s one of those things in movie-making, to make the whole better, you sometimes have to kill some of these. It’s called killing your babies.

Maybe it can be a DVD extra.
That’s a good idea. And there’s a scene afterwards that I wrote of Tris confronting Four, trying to explain what she’d seen, her suspicions about Peter, and him shutting her down, because Eric is right there. It’s also a good scene, but not in the movie. There were a couple of things like that, but not a whole lot. We sort of jammed a lot in, because there’s a lot of story, a lot of events, and we got them in, as much as we could.

Let’s talk about the train jumping. What was that like to shoot?
That was one of the bigger challenges to do. I wanted it as much as possible to be real, with the stunts, with everything, with the train. I didn’t want a train sitting stationary on a soundstage, with them jumping on and off against green screen. So we built our own train car, we laid out hundreds of feet of train track, and we also had them climb the real L-tracks. That’s not what they do in the book, it’s something that we added, but I just thought it would be very cool. And they are really running along that train, getting on, and then they are jumping off of a moving train. It’s connected together with some visual effects, but they’re really doing it, and that train is moving. Maybe it was about 15 miles per hour? You have to actually do it at a speed that they can run that fast to get on. You get to 15, and it starts to get a little bit hard.

Did you ever try to do it yourself?
I did! Oh, yeah. It was great. I always feel that way as a director — if they’re going to do it, I have to do it. But I did not get up on that zip line. I would have liked to do that. But the same thing, we strung a zip line through the streets of Chicago, and in all these things, we did them in a variety of different ways and combined them together, but we always did it for real. The zip line was a more complicated thing because it started up on a crane, like 200 feet in the air, so getting up there was no joke.

How violent were you willing to be with this?
Obviously we wanted it to be PG-13, and there’s a certain understanding of what can pass as that. There is violence in the movie, but there’s more of an emotional violence in it. She goes through these various trials that are intense, and just the hand-to-hand combat is rough. And she’s facing off against these men, in two different scenes, and she holds her own, but she takes a real beating. Our feeling was, she may be a woman, but we’re not playing her like she should have anything less just because she’s a woman. There’s no reason why she can’t be as strong as any man. A Dauntless woman would be like, “Don’t cut me any slack,” and would be insulted if you did. So we just threw her right into it, and Shailene did a lot of her own fighting, and those were intense scenes to shoot.

Okay, because one of those scenes is when the group of guys attacks her, and they almost rape her, at least in the book. And in the film, it’s a lighter version of that.
You don’t get that they’re sort of pawing her body, yeah. We could have done that, and we actually shot a little bit of that, but I think it was much more intense that they were just going to dump her over the edge of the chasm, so we fine-tuned it to that.

Whose idea was it to have unisex bathrooms with no doors on the stalls in Dauntless?
[Laughs.] That was mine. I thought, “Okay, she’s entered Dauntless. What’s the most intense thing she could have?” She’s living in this dorm with these guys, so what’s the bathroom like? To really explore, what are showers like, what’s going to the bathroom like? There’s a lot of different little touches I got to do like that, small things, like the end of the first dinner scene, where it’s not in the book that Dauntless lift them up and crowd-surf, but we thought, “What a great way to show that she’s found what she thinks is her home, where she belongs.”

What would be in your fear landscape?
Just directing a fear landscape! [Laughs.] Trying to figure out the best way to do it! Yeah, that was one of my favorite things going into it, because in Limitless, I had explored some of those trippy effects, psychotropic mindscapes, where we’re trying to represent them in the world of the mind. So I thought this was an opportunity to take it one step further. So the first idea was the aptitude test, to do that infinity mirror room, which is something I had played around with in Limitless as well, and then we were able to do it in a really cool way in this. And then with the birds, it’s like trying to envision what’s your worst nightmare, and what’s really the logic of a dream?

One of Tris’s fears is about intimacy with Four, and Shailene has great chemistry with Theo James. What was it like determining that, testing the two of them together?
It was incredible, actually. We did a worldwide search for Four, and so when we finally found Theo, I saw him, I met him, I thought he was great, and then we put him in a room with Shailene, and did a screen test. And I knew immediately, because they just had this electricity, this energy, where she’s a really strong actress, and it can sometimes overwhelm the actor she’s playing against, because she is so good and she is so powerful, but not here. He was the one that was sort of intimidating her, which was the perfect dynamic for their relationship. She was really infatuated with him, and he was sort of intrigued by her, and it was perfect. I always wonder, because people keep asking me, “Are they together? They’re a couple, aren’t they?” And I’m like, “You know what? They should be.”

Divergent’s Neil Burger on the Power of Shailene