‘Divergent’ director: Working with young cast was like ‘herding cats’

March 25, 2014 | 3:21 p.m.
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Ben Lloyd Hughes, Zoe Kravitz and Shailene Woodley in "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

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Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Ben Lamb, Zoe Kravitz and Jai Courtney in "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

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Shailene Woodley, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn and Ansel Elgort in "Divergent." (Jaap Buitendijk / Summit Entertainment)

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Theo James, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller and Ben Lloyd Hughes in "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

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Shailene Woodley, author Veronica Roth and director Neil Burger on the set of "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

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Theo James, left, and Shailene Woodley in "Divergent." (Jaap Buitendijk / Summit Entertainment)

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Shailene Woodley, left, and Theo James in "Divergent." (Jaap Buitendijk / Summit Entertainment)

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Director Neil Burger, left, Jai Courtney and Theo James on the set of "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

“Divergent” was No. 1 at the box office over the weekend, and pre-production for the sequel “Insurgent” is already underway.

The second installment in the planned movie trilogy, based on the bestselling young adult book series by Veronica Roth, is slated for a March 20, 2015, release and will be directed by Robert Schwentke, the German-born director whose credits include “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” “Flightplan,” “Red” and “R.I.P.D.”

Neil Burger at his home in Manhattan. (Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

Neil Burger at his home in Manhattan. (Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

Schwentke takes the reins from “Divergent” director Neil Burger, who laid the groundwork for the story’s second act. Burger, who expressed sadness to be leaving the franchise,  said he’s proud of his decisions for the first film, especially its casting.

Shailene Woodley, the 22-year-old actress whose performances in “The Spectacular Now” and “The Descendants” turned critics’ heads, stars as the film’s young heroine, Tris Prior, a girl trying to find her place in a future world where people are categorized by their personalities and strictly divided into factions based on those virtues. Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn play her parents, Kate Winslet portrays her nemesis and Theo James is Four, Tris’ mentor and love interest. The film also features a sizable cast of up-and-coming young actors as Tris’ fellow initiates in Dauntless, the faction based on bravery.

Hero Complex chatted with Burger, whose previous credits include “Limitless,” “The Illusionist” and “The Lucky Ones,” about casting “Divergent” and leaving it behind. (Also, be sure to check out Part 1 of the interview, about Tris’ tale as a classic hero myth.)

You have an incredible cast in “Divergent.” How did you go about picking these people?

It all started with the character of Tris and trying to find this actress who would be the best actress for the role, not necessarily the one that looked the most like her, but the best one that really represented Tris’ spirit and could make the journey that Tris makes from being kind of an ordinary girl or young woman to being a kind of a kick-ass warrior. So we found Shailene, and I’d seen Shailene in “The Descendants” and been really knocked out by her performance there. She had absolutely just the right kind of combination of vulnerability and rebelliousness for Tris, and we went from there. Shailene is a formidable actress. She’s really strong, so then if we’re looking for somebody to be the antagonist, to be Jeanine, you need somebody who you believe in that role but who’s really powerful. And I cant think of many more powerful actresses than Kate Winslet. I needed someone who has real authority and real power in their persona and just in their bearing. They don’t have to try to look important or strong or smart, they are those things already, and you get it as an audience immediately. And then for the character of Four, we needed somebody who was a man, who was really strong and could push. Shailene’s an actress who pushes on the other characters, and we needed someone who could push back even stronger, so it took some looking, but then we found Theo James.

What was it about Theo’s screen test that made him the right person?

Shailene was just a little intimidated by him, and she hadn’t been by any of the other actors.

So what was it like working with such a young cast?

It was a little wild, actually. There were the main actors and the supporting actors. There’s half a dozen of them or more, they’re all 20 or 22 years old, but then there was a whole group supporting them too, so we had just dozens of 20-year-old people around, and it was a little bit like herding cats. But it was great because the spirit and the sense of fun on the set and the sense of playfulness along with really good craft, really good acting, was fun and exciting.

Theo James and director Neil Burger on the set of "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

Theo James and director Neil Burger on the set of “Divergent.” (Summit Entertainment)

Are you sad that you worked so hard on developing this world, and now you’re handing off to someone else for “Insurgent”?

A little bit, yeah. There was no way I could do the next movie. Actually, initially we were making the deal for me to direct the next movie. To finish this one, it was always going to be crazy. I was always going to be finishing one movie at the same time I was prepping the next, and I thought I could just do it. It was going to be really, really stressful and strenuous, but I could just pull it off. And then we shot a couple of additional scenes, mostly to fill out the world. It’s a very complicated society — with factions and the factionless and the fact that she’s divergent and how you explain that whole world — and so we shot a few extra things to help that. And once we decided that we were going to do that, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was too much. I was prepping the reshoot on this movie, “Divergent,” while I was supposed to be prepping a whole movie for “Insurgent,” and at the same time I was trying to finish the editing and the mixing and the music selection, and everyone was just, like, forget it.

So there weren’t talks of just delaying “Insurgent” a bit?

Well, you know, they really are adamant about this March date. We talked about six months later, and six months later puts us into the fall, which is “The Hunger Games” movie. And to release a movie in the summer is incredibly expensive because you’re fighting all the Marvel movies that are budgeted at three times the amount  of our movie. Our movie is not as expensive as those other movies, and because of that, it has a marketing budget that’s commensurate with that. And that was the calculus, and then that was that.

Neil Burger and Shailene Woodley on the set of "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

Neil Burger and Shailene Woodley on the set of “Divergent.” (Summit Entertainment)

Looking back at “Divergent,” what are you most proud of?

I felt like two things. No. 1, I had a very specific vision for the movie, and I feel like I accomplished that and I achieved that, and also I’m really proud of the casting, from having Shailene in it, who’s really one of the best actresses of her generation, to Kate Winslet, who is perhaps the great actress of her generation, to then bringing this guy Theo James into everything that he deserves and showing the world what a movie star he is. I feel really proud. And all of the other supporting roles, from Zoe Kravitz to Miles Teller to Jai Courtney to Tony Goldwyn, I love them all, and they’re all really good actors. I’m really proud of the casting, and I really like them, so that’s one of the hardest things, to let that go. On the other hand, it was a really intense process, and I feel proud of this one, and so I’m good with it. It’s a bit of a relief as well to not be setting off into the craziness of the next one, and to be solving all of those problems and making it work.

Read Part 1 of this interview here and Part 3 of this interview here.

– Noelene Clark | @NoeleneClark | Google+

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