On set with the stars of 'Divergent' in Chicago
Veronica Roth's bestseller gets a movie makeover
By Bryan Reesman
Veronica Roth's young adult sci-fi tale "Divergent" is the first of trilogy and part of a multi-million selling book franchise that is now being turned into what could potentially become the next big Young Adult film franchise. Directed by Neil Burger ("Limitless"), the big budget production features Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jai Courtney, Zoe Kravitz, Kate Winslet and many other familiar names were on set in Chicago.
For those who don't know, "Divergent" takes place in a future, post-apocalyptic Chicago where society has been split into five factions -- Abnegation (The Selfless), Erudite (The Intelligent), Dauntless (The Brave), Amity (The Peaceful) and Candor (The Honest) -- that help maintain a societal balance. When teenagers reach 16 years of age, they are tested and then allowed to choose to stay in the faction of their family, or choose a different faction they feel suited for that will also result in severing ties with their loved ones. When Beatrice Prior leaves her Abnegation family for the Dauntless, she renames herself Tris and takes a dark, often violent journey during her warrior training. She begins to fall for one of her trainers, a mysterious male by the name of Four, and becomes aware of a growing conspiracy among certain factions that threatens peace. An even bigger problem is that her rare aptitude test results did not find her suited to one faction and thus she has been labeled "divergent," a fact she has been asked not to reveal lest her life become endangered.
It seems that the YA formula includes an awkward teenage girl learning who she is while residing in a world that seeks to pigeonhole her and break her down. Add the inevitable cute boy, various real world dangers and a quest for truth and freedom, and you've got yourself a book! Okay, I'm teasing a bit.
'Divergent' vs. 'The Hunger Games'
"I think one of the most easy parallels to make is "Hunger Games," observes Amy C. Newbold, who plays Molly. "The difference I think with Dauntless [in "Divergent"] is that all of the initiates have chosen this. In that way they feel that it’s a characteristic that they are close to, this idea of bravery, and it’s something that resonates with them. I feel like that’s a little different than your name being pulled out of something and being thrown into this arena where you have to kill. We aren’t asked to kill anyone, so it is brutal but it’s chosen. It’s more about the characteristic, the virtue of bravery than it is about the actual inflicting pain on others or pushing you to your breaking point."
An interesting aspect of Roth's writing style is how she gives just enough detail about character appearance and locations to give readers an idea of the picture she is painting, but then leaves them room to finish the canvas. Which made me all the more intrigued when I arrived in Chicago for a set visit this past May to check out the exteriors of the Abnegation houses, the interior of the Prior household, the "rooftop" where the Dauntless jump to and The Pit, i.e. the cavern where the Dauntless fraternize, plus viewing sketches of various sets.
Divergence from 'Divergent'?
Naturally fans of "Divergent" are wondering how a compelling 500-page book is being distilled into a compelling two-hour movie without losing its magic.
"There are some things in the book that logic-wise wouldn’t make sense in a theatrical way," notes Shailene Woodley, who plays Tris. "We had to switch the way we are presenting it because logically it just didn’t line up."
Zoe Kravitz, who plays Christina, remarks that her character's romance with Will, played by Ben-Lloyd Hughes, needed a little fleshing out onscreen. "It’s hard because even in the books there isn’t that much [flirtation]," she explains. "All of a sudden they’re a couple. So we’re trying to find ways in scenes to add little flirtatious moments and chemistry. But we have great chemistry, so it’s easy to do."
Theo James, who plays Four, reveals that they have kept Four's age unspecified. The idea is that his onscreen character is a few years older than his book counterpart. "I think for him to have the experience as a leader and as someone of high skill that as he is -- the jump that he joined two years ago and now he’s this legend -- it makes more sense that he’s been there a bit longer, only a few more years," he says. "But it means that he’s had more experience than these initiates who come in."
I intently watch the filming of a scene where Tris and Four chat at a party while he is in an inebriated state. The way in which he hints at his attraction to her in the book becomes more blatant onscreen when he overtly tells her she is beautiful. With less time to tell the tale, compromises have to made. "It has to be different," stresses Shailene. "There are some things about the book that I miss. I think their relationship in the book is slightly different. Obviously there’s only a certain amount of scenes that we can play in this movie, and so we had to pick the most important ones. But it’s good, don’t worry."
Christian Madsen plays Al, the gentle giant whom Tris befriends and boosts his confidence and self esteem. In moments of weakness and peer pressure, he betrays her. The actor felt that an important scene showing Al being nice to Tris before turning on her was necessary as it had not been included in the script. "I told Neil there should be something, one more thing between Al and Tris just to give him some compassion, so when he turns on her it’s a little bit more like the book," says Madsen. "So they rewrote the scene where I’m sitting talking with her, and it shows this nice side to him before he turns on her. It was awesome, so that’s what I was looking forward to. I just shot that, so it’s downhill from here."
Ben-Lloyd Hughes, who plays Will, reveals that while there is a Dauntless initiate death early in the book, that does not surface in the film. "What I love about that early on is it cuts the excitement of the whole thing and brings a dose of reality about how this is life-and-death and just got real," he says. "And I love that about the book. Although it is about young people and it's exciting, there's a real life-and-death element to it and high stakes. We don't have that at the beginning of the film, which I personally love. But they do have the stakes, which is the most important thing. They convey it in a different way, although they don't have someone literally dying."
Capturing the look
The twelve-structure Abnegation complex I spy sitting beneath the shadow of the Sears Tower fits that faction well. They are drab, cookie-cutter concrete buildings sporting three square or rectangular windows and a door. There seems to be nothing to distinguish them individually. The inside of the Prior house (on the soundstage) is very utilitarian and is devoid of furniture except what is needed. Everything serves a purpose, whether it is a hung tool bag to hold something, a cabinet to store something or a chair and table to offer someone a place to sit and eat.
On the flipside, the large cavern and nearby chasm where Dauntless members fraternize and let loose after training is grander albeit more jagged and uneven, and it actually somewhat resembles what I had in mind when I was reading the book. Although I did not envision small LEDs illuminating the hallways.
While I examined sketches of various locales from the story -- sleek stone and glass buildings from the Erudite faction, the stately, semi-circular Choosing Day ceremony room where teens choose their factions, and then in contrast, more run-down parts of Chicago -- I noticed that not everything is gloomy or worn down. An important visual distinction that director Neil Burger wants to make with "Divergent" is that it will not serve up the expected post-apocalyptic vision. Not everything has completely gone to hell.
"We didn’t want to do it like '1984' or 'Children of Men'," emphasizes Burger. "Tris wants to be part of the system, so if she’s buying into it, I want the audience to buy into it as well. They should want her to be part of it. If it’s so bleak to start with, then [you'll think] she's making a big mistake right from the get-go. I wanted those places, the whole society and Dauntless in particular, to be kind of luminous. That’s why we're doing the lighting -- the pit being made out of white marble instead of a gray or a black or a brown stone -- to make it luminous and buoyant in a way."
But don't worry, there is plenty of grit to be found in future Chicago and in the Dauntless training environment. "I was actually surprised happily by how raw everything was," remarks Zoe Kravitz, who plays Tris' good friend Christina, about the set. "We’ve been shooting in real industrial spaces like abandoned warehouses. It was nice seeing that they really left it raw and real. They didn’t make it some kind of Disneyland version of the book, which I think is really cool."
Woodley says she was drawn to "Divergent" partly because of the way that the relationship between Tris and Four evolves naturally and without clichéd melodrama or game playing. "I feel like it’s very real, very personal and realistic to how a lot of relationships are," she says. "Of course there’s drama, but it’s very different than the Bella/Edward relationship. They’re completely on the opposite sides of the spectrum."
"I would say similarly the one thing for the character Four that I love is when he’s on the [Ferris] wheel," says James, referencing the Navy Pier sequence. "She says, 'Are you afraid of heights?' And he’s like, 'Yeah, I’m afraid of heights.' But there’s a way to get around it, and then he talks about it. He’s at home in his masculinity so that he can be vulnerable."
In the way that Woodley and James find the characterizations fresh, Burger has relished the chance to offer a new spin on young adult and post-apocalyptic films. "I just thought that there was a way to do it in a much more cinematically and also to tell it in a more real way," declares the director. "What I really liked about it was it was really about human nature. What are you made of? Who are you loyal to? Who are you? I like that, and I really liked her [Tris'] journey, that she began as this person who didn’t quite know where she fit in. She has ideas of where she should be, but is that something of a whim? She's hoping that she’s somebody that she’s not, then she really fills those shoes and more. So I liked that journey. I felt like it was a true epic story, and I liked that those ideas were really tightly tied to the action."
One challenge was translating the intense, violent action from the book, which includes male and female fight sequences.
"We don’t hold back, it’s pretty brutal. Especially my fights, I’m so much bigger than them," says Newbold, whose bully character Molly beats on Tris' friend Christina during Dauntless training. She feels people will be surprised. "Especially with Zoe, not that she didn’t put up a good fight. She did, she's really feisty, and I loved that they allowed her to get a couple of hits in. I think my fights in particular will seem extra brutal because we’re not quite evenly matched."
That said, the trick has been to avoid being so intense as to warrant an R rating. "I think some of the violence is less about seeing a fist smash into a face or blood splatter," stresses Burger. "It’s much more about a harrowing situation that you step into the ring for the first time and have to fight somebody when you have no business being in that ring. There’s a sense of violence emotionally as well, with her [Tris'] parents being killed. Again, it’s less about how they die, and the fact that they do die is really disturbing, upsetting and intense."
One sequence I watch being filmed focuses on black-clad, teenage Dauntless jumping from trains onto a rooftop to show off their fearlessness as they get to school. In the book it seems almost silly, yet in real life it looks dangerous, and it is on set because of the truss attached to the back of the train car section being pulled at 10 mph. One of the stuntmen almost slips off trying to leap across the 8-foot gap, which could have resulted in a nasty injury. It will look even more intense onscreen when the green screen effects added in transport us from a parking lot set to a train track 70 feet above the street.
"Our stunt coordinators are badass!" proclaims Miles Teller, who plays Peter. "We have the same guys who did 'Warrior,' and [fight coordinator] JJ [Perry] has over 140 credits. I’d say in terms of the fight stuff, everybody will be happy with it. I don’t think we could’ve gotten any guys with any more experience. One guy has an eye patch, so he's badass."
That guy is veteran stunt coordinator Garrett Wilson, who is a former fighter. I did not have to time to get the story behind the eye patch, but it is clear he knows his stuff. Ben Lamb, who plays Edward, the Dauntless member who gets his eye stabbed out, admits that when he was introduced by Burger to Wilson via Video Skype that he at first thought it was a practical joke. "I’m going have to a talk with Garrett before we leave just asking how long it took for him to come up to speed with only having one eye," says Lamb.
"Movies have been around for an awful long time, and everyone's done everything when it comes to fighting," confesses Wilson. "However, we wanted to come up with a specific look and style that would make everyone go, 'That's cool and inventive.' Like when you saw martial arts for the first time in your life. Or muay thai. I remember the first time I ever say muay thai was in the Van Damme movie 'Kickboxer,' and I thought it was a really cool fighting style. We came up with a fighting style where people have their hands crossed. When I was a professional fighter, I used to fight with my right hand down and my left-hand up, so I was able to cover up easily and to throw a jab from underneath people's eyes. We're adapting that fighting style to this, and the other thing we drew from was George Foreman, who had this peek-a-boo fighting style."
"It’s a very aggressive stance and very forward leaning," remarks Lamb of the Dauntless fighting style. "It’s as pointy as possible. It's something you sort of look at and know it’s going to inflict pain, which is fun. We're learning pretty set fights, so each move is part of a sequence."
"The fighting was great," confirms Kravitz. "I think it was really important for all of us to look authentic and look dirty and not look choreographed. That was really important to Neil. And I fight Molly, who is twice my size. I’m very short, and that was good. I got my ass kicked, and that was really fun to do! You choreograph it to the point where you forget that it’s choreographed. It’s all muscle memory, and you just start fighting. It’s hardcore."
"Divergence" is out in theaters March 2014.