'Divergent' Director Neil Burger Explains Why He Won't Return for the Sequel
A version of this story first appeared in the March 21-28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Neil Burger isn't the first one-and-done franchise director.
Like Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight) and Gary Ross (The Hunger Games) before him, the Divergent helmer won't be behind the camera when the film's sequel Insurgent goes into production in late spring (Instead, Robert Schwentke will take the reins). But Burger is quick to point out that the decision to decamp the Shailene Woodley starrer was all his.
"Basically, we had made the deal for me to direct it," the New York-based director says over drinks at the Tribeca Grand Hotel.
But in December, Burger found himself simultaneously prepping additional photography on Divergent, doing traditional postproduction work on the film and in preproduction on Insurgent. He realized something had to give.
"There's always going to be overlap, but it was getting really complicated," he recalls. "There was no breathing room. They were like, 'We're holding to a March 2015 release date, and we have to start no later than May 2014.' It was a recipe for failure, at least with me onboard. I wouldn't be able to do either thing right. I reluctantly let it go."
Woodley, for one, found the Divergent-Insurgent director hand-off to be confusing.
"It was weird," Woodley says. "He was the leader of this entire pack, and he created this world, he dreamt it up, he made all of the executive decisions. It was strange to think that somebody else is going to come over and take it on."
Perhaps Burger's decision to abandon a potential blockbuster franchise should come as no surprise. The Connecticut native's path to tentpole helming could be described as nontraditional. The father of two teens (he is married to architect Diana Kellogg) studied fine arts at Yale before coming up with a bold idea for a series of PSAs for MTV promoting literacy. The ads led to a place in Ridley Scott's stable of young commercials directors at RSA Films where he joined the likes of David Dobkin and Tony Scott and helmed spots for Coke, MasterCard and ESPN, the latter starring the late Chris Farley.
He followed up his feature debut, Interview With the Assassin, with the magician drama The Illusionist, starring Ed Norton and Paul Giamatti. But the Yari Film Group drama nearly collided on the 2006 release schedule with the similarly themed The Prestige from Christopher Nolan.
"It was annoying that [Disney] released their movie right on top of ours," he says. "They didn't have to. I don't think they were respecting our movie. But our movie was made for about a quarter of what theirs was made for and they did about the same box office." (The Illusionist made $88 million worldwide, while The Prestige earned $110 million.)
Before Divergent, he was best known for the Bradley Cooper thriller Limitless, which became a surprise in 2011 for Relativity, earning $162 million worldwide. If Divergent's early tracking holds up -- the futuristic film is projected to earn up to $65 million in its debut weekend March 21 -- Burger should have no trouble finding a follow-up assignment. He is currently attached to two TV projects, which he declined to discuss. The projects would be a departure for Burger, whose TV credits include just one pilot, The Asset, which was not picked up. Still, he has no features lined up yet.
"A lot has been sent to me over the past six months," he says. "I have no idea what I'll do next, but I'm not looking for anything sci-fi. I'm looking for something contemporary. I like to change pace and not be bound by one genre or career trajectory. I'm kind of divergent in my own way."