Director Neil Burger exploded onto the scene in 2002 with his debut film ‘Interview with the Assassin’. The pseudo-documentary style film was soon followed by his sophomore effort, ‘The Illusionist’ in 2006. The film, which starred Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti and Jessica Biel quickly became a fan favorite and established Burger as one of Hollywood’s most exciting up-and-coming directors. In 2008, he thrilled audiences and critics alike with his next effort, ‘The Lucky Ones’ with Oscar winner Tim Robbins in the lead role. Now, in a whole new decade, Neil Burger stands ready to release his forth film entitled ‘Limitless,’ which is based on the novel “The Dark Fields” by Alan Glynn. The film, which stars Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro, is a paranoia-fueled action thriller about an unpublished writer whose life is transformed by a top-secret smart drug that allows him to use 100% of his brain and become a perfect version of himself. His enhanced abilities soon attract shadowy forces that threaten his new life in this darkly comic and provocative film. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Neil Burger to discuss his roots in the entertainment industry, the challenges involved with bringing ‘Limitless’ from script to screen and much more!
What led you to become a filmmaker and go that direction?
Growing up I was always drawing and painting, it’s kind of what I did. It was just to relax, to keep your sanity or whatever is, it was just what I really enjoyed doing. Then as I got older I was sort of circling around set design, so I started doing some theatre, I was doing photography, so it was all kind of like circling around filmmaking. Then I finally really got interested in moving images and at first thought I was going to do art films, more like stuff that you would … like they were paintings, but they were moving … and then started getting interested in narrative and writing short stories and then writing scripts and little scenes and making short films and yeah slowly just was all kind of headed toward that. So that’s kind of my … that’s where I was coming from.
Well, it seems like it’s working out for you so far.
Yeah, before, but like you say whose gonna push us any harder and you never know when it’s all gonna just kind of go collapsing down, but so far, so good.
Obviously you came from a bunch of different mediums. Who is your biggest professional influence as a filmmaker?
Let’s see … I mean the directors I like are Scorsese and Cooper, but also Mike Leigh. You know Mike, because you know the British filmmaker … “Secrets & Lies” and things like that … so sort of a number of different people, but they’re all cinematic in a different way … cinematic in a sense that it’s like all incredibly well observed and to me that’s what cinematic is.
Your latest project is “Limitless.” What initially attracted you to this project?
Well, they sent me the screenplay to direct and I just really dug it. I liked that is was this guy, who was sort of this down and out artist, this down and out writer who was just kind of at the end of his rope and then found a way to sort of become the perfect version of himself. I also liked … I also felt like it was a … it’s not intelligent and even potential but very much about power as well and that always interests me. The other movies I’ve done, they’re always about characters who are sort of out of power, who then try to find some way to empower themselves, to kind of make their life worth … more worthwhile. So that theme and this and I also really liked that it was a New York story – it takes place in New York – and those issues of power are very much kind of a New York story. New York being kind of this power sensor and Manhattan being kind of like the big brain, as I was thinking of it and so I thought it was a really honest and accurate depiction of various power societies, if you will, in New York.
Now you weren’t the writer on this one obviously, and this was the first time in that aspect.
Did you have any reservations about that going into it?
I did. I did, yeah. The other films, you’re right, I had written them as well as directed them and that was … that’s really the way I saw myself as a writer/director and I was just going to direct the things I wrote, but I got this and I really liked it and I thought well here’s an opportunity to just be a director, which means like just to interpret what’s on the page and then go off and run with it. That’s what a great director does, is they just take it and they run and they make it. They’re not stuck with what’s on the page, they just are … whatever they need to do to make the scene better or more intense through the whole movie that way, they do and so it was a great opportunity to do that. I actually thought it was really liberating as a filmmaker to not have written it.
One of the big things in the film – obviously the center point as well – is the change that Bradley Cooper goes through when he takes this pharmaceutical.
How difficult was it to bring to the screen something that’s so internal and visualize that? Can you tell us a little bit about that process?
Yeah. I mean that was the real challenge, to visualize and represent how he sees the world and the change that he undergoes. So for me it was also trying to figure out how do we show that in a way that we haven’t seen before. I just didn’t wanna like push into his pupil and then see it dilate and then we were, “How often have we seen this? I’ve only seen that a million times in various films” and I wanted the audience to be with him as he underwent that change, but also to kind of make it … I wanted it to … I didn’t want it to be a typical digital visual kind of effect that you see a lot. I wanted it to kind of almost be organic or sometimes even sort of handmade, but most of all I wanted it to have an emotional connection to him. So, I just spent a lot of time thinking about it and drawing things and figuring out how he sees the world and what’s a cool representation of it and doing a lot of research and looking at a lot of strange photographs and art and video clips and things like that and slowly working up and experimenting with my own shooting to come up with various looks or effects to show how he was experiencing the world on that drug.
How long did that process take? I know the film had kind of a long history. How long did it take you to come up with that?
Well, from the minute I started working on it, I was thinking about it, but I think when Bradley Cooper became involved and there was a little bit of a wait because he was still working on “A-Team” – he signed on, then he took off to do “A-Team” – and that made it very real and so that kind of jumped it up. So, that sort of six months or so while I was waiting for him I kind of came up with all the various looks and effects that were eventually in the movie. I storyboarded them and drew them and got visual reference so I could kind of explain them to the cinema photographer and to the rest of the crew who would be working on them. I had a lot more than are in the movie but then you kind of pare it down and find the ones that are really the most important to show what you’re after.
You obviously have a great cast in Bradley Cooper and De Niro. What do you think they brought to the table that someone else might not have?
Well, I think Bradley brought to it a – he’s a really, really good actor and we’ve seen him as a really good actor and now you see him as a really great actor. He’s like a tour de force role and you get to see really what this guy’s made of and he’s a great actor. So what he brought to the role I think is a real hunger for the part, it’s kind of the first thing that he’s done where he’s carrying the whole movie. So that was really important to him, but also you get … he’s obviously been through what the character Eddie Morris did. He’s been a struggling actor and I’m sure when he was younger he wondered, “What a mess, is it all gonna work out, or what’s going to happen” or whatever and then he also has some success and he’s a very smart guy and so he was able to do both sides of it, the more vulnerable side and then the side where he’s just talking circles around people. He has that brain and he has that verbal ability to do that, so he was perfect for it. Then De Niro, the character he’s playing Carl Van Loon, he’s a really impressive accomplished financier who’s gotten there through hard work, he’s paid his dues and just by being incredibly intelligent. He plays a powerful character and I needed somebody who had that sort of power and the ability to intimidate somebody as well.
Obviously, De Niro is a screen legend at this point and that comes with its own set of baggage. Was there anything that surprised you about working with him?
How easy it was actually. How generous he was as an actor, but also how willing he was to take direction. He wanted it, he asked for it and he knows that’s part of the collaboration to making a good character and making a good scene and a good movie. Anyway, so that was like incredibly generous to me as a director to feel like I could tell this guy where to stand or how to say a line or place, something like that, and he invited it and it was great.
Looking back on your work now since you started out, how do you feel you’ve evolved as a filmmaker?
Well, I mean you do evolve and I think you kind of get better working with the actors and being able to direct them but the tough thing when you’re directing somebody, like when you see a scene or a line and it’s like not quite what you were after and then you got to immediately figure out what’s wrong and then figure out an interesting way to say it so that the actor can really act on it – what you’re saying. It’s all happening really quickly because you got a few seconds between takes to put something right, so I think I’ve done better at that. I think you just sort of start to be able to encapsulate and understand how a story works and also just visually you just get more confident and get more tools in your tool chest.
Now obviously with the way things have changed with filmmaking I know a lot of younger people are looking to get into the industry. What would be your best advice from your years of experience, being a seasoned vet, to these young filmmakers?
Well, I would say to write is the … the thing when if you’re like a singer, you have to fix your own songs because you can’t rely on somebody else to give you songs to sing. So, it’s the same thing as a director. If you can write and create your own films so you can make a short film and then you can order something really small and start building up. It might take one, it might take 10, it might take a dozen, it might take 20 little films and then slowly piecing them together and then maybe getting a shot. So, that’s the most important thing. Oh, also just to keep working, keep filming, shoot a scene, edit it, figure out how its working, why it’s not working and then go back and do another one.
Awesome, that’s great advice. Just one more for you. What do you think is next on the horizon for you at this point? Where can we look for you next?
Well I’m not quite sure. I’m juggling a bunch of things. There’s things that I have written in the past that are now kind of rising up again and then there’s a few things that I’m being offered now and so it’s a funny film climate out there, it’s hard to get something made. So, it’s a good two years of your life if it goes quick, so it’s a very delicate kind of calculation to figure out what’s the next one. You wanna make something that you really believe in, but you also don’t want it to just kind of disappear and no one ever see it. So, a bunch of different happened and I’m not quite sure which one’s gonna click first.
Awesome. Well, again, I thank you very much for your time. I’ll let you get out of here a little early and I hope to talk to you again in the future.
Okay then. Thanks so much!