Neil Burger directs the thrilling sci-fi Limitless, a morality tale on speed that stars Bradley Cooper as a down-on-his-luck writer who stumbles upon a designer drug that allows him to tap into his full potential. With the Blu-Ray hitting the streets on July 19th, Burger sat down with me to talk about the film.
Burger’s The Illusionist in 2006 proved he could handle a mysterious, shadowy period piece; Limitless proves he can do just as well with sleek modern thrillers and edgy sci fis. His next project is the much buzzed about Uncharted, a video game-to-film adaptation about a charismatic adventurer named Nathan Drake.
We actually talked to the Burger before the film hit theatres (hence the part 2 in the title of this interview). But, now that we’ve had the chance to see the film a few times, we have a whole new set of questions for him.
We Got This Covered: What attracted you to this project, and were you a fan of Alan Glynn’s novel “The Dark Fields” before you got involved?
Neil Burger: I must say I didn’t know Alan’s novel before I read the screenplay…now I’m very familiar with it, you can imagine. But what I liked about it…I loved the premise about a guy who was struggling and about to give up his dream, and then he gets another chance in the most crazy and unexpected way. And then it asks this question ‘what if a pill could make you rich and powerful, what would you do?’ and I found that intriguing.
WGTC: How do you feel about drug abuse and what kind of message or statement were you trying to make with the film?
NB: Well I think that the movie, you know…you’d be hard pressed to find someone for drug abuse. You know the movie is a fantasy, and to me it’s like a fable but without a simple message or moral at the end, instead it raises questions because the answers aren’t so pure or aren’t so clear.
It’s like, that he has this success because of the pill doesn’t seem right, but if you could cure cancer with the pill, would there be anything wrong with that? If you’re just taking steroids so you can hit a baseball over the fence, it doesn’t seem quite right, but if you’re taking a pill like NZT and you could do something that was truly great, you know, is there anything really wrong with that? So those were the questions, and they’re all sort of basic questions, and there’s no easy answers; but those were the questions we were interested in.
WGTC: I liked the sleek feel to the film. How did you approach the sci-fi elements of the story and maintain such a great balance?
NB: Well, to me, the movie is heightened and there isn’t really a pill like that, it’s like steroids for the brain, but there’s always those questions like ‘what would that do?’ and what would really happen if you were on a drug like that. And as a director that’s always the challenge and the fun of it, figuring out what it’s like being him and how does he see the world and how does his mind work? How does he process information and draw conclusions and make judgements.
The trick was to figure out a great way to visually tell all that, but yet to keep it very real and grounded. That was important to me, to have the tone be totally–even though it is this sort of heightened concept of reality–yet to keep it very grounded in reality.
WGTC: How much did you rely on special effects?
NB: It was all about trying to find out a way to show what it was like to be on the drug, and what it felt like to be him and how he saw the world. So you use whatever effects that serve that, but I didn’t want it to feel special effects-y, or digital in anyway. I wanted the effects to feel more organic.
Like when the letters are falling from the…when he’s trying to write and he finally figures out what he’s going to write and it becomes clear, and it wasn’t as if letters were actually falling out of the ceiling, it was just a way to symbolize that it was all flowing for him at that moment. Yeah obviously that was an effect, but there were other effects that we did that were all in-camera effects. So we did whatever we needed to do to show his world.
WGTC: Tell me about Eddie’s narration and voice over part. Was that in the script, or was that something you brought to the film to establish a literary element, or a certain mood?
NB: Whenever you adapt a novel, and a novel is necessarily almost an internal conversation of a character, and you try to put it in a movie which is an external…well there’s all that action, even is it’s not an action movie, it’s about what people are doing. So it was in the script, and there was a lot of narration in the script.
And I usually don’t like narration in a movie, but there was so much of in this script that I just decided I was going to toatally go the other way and just embrace it, and use it. Because if this movie was anything it was a movie that you could just do everything in. You could use graphics, you could use narration…you know the movie I did The Illusionist, which is a period piece, obviously you have to be kind of controlled in how you tell that story because you have to keep people’s minds in history. But with this I could just do anything. So with the narration we just took it and ran with it.
WGTC: How did you choose Bradley Cooper for the lead role, especially given his background in comedy and his huge success with a comedic role in The Hangover? How was it working with him in this genre of film?
NB: Well we chose him because we were looking for a guy who we thought was this guy, who could play Eddie as sort of a down-in-out writer who was very vulnerable and on the verge of giving up, and then also as a guy who was very powerful and smart, and even intimidating.
And Bradley is a really good actor, and you’re right, he’s known for doing these comedies but in Limitless I think you see what range he actually has, that he is a really great actor. So that’s what we saw in him, and he just happened to be coming off The Hangover when we were looking for someone, and it was the perfect moments, and his star was kind of on the rise and we got him at the perfect moment…and he was certainly the guy for the role.
WGTC: What do you want people to take away from this film?
NB: Well, I think as I’ve said before it’s like, what would you do? Is it ok to take this and have success…what’s the cost of having everything you want? You know, he seems to have everything, but his life is sort of…how much longer is it going to be working out for him? So as I said it’s like a fantasy or a fable but without a simple message. The messages and the questions raised are much more complex. So hopefully it raises those questions and people discuss it.
WGTC: So did you want there to be an element of ambiguity at the ending?
NB: I think that there is some ambiguity, but I think it’s satisfying at the ending. It’s more that I wanted those questions to come up…what comes after this? Is there a pill for love? So then the questions become ‘are you truly connected to this person or is it just the pill?’. Or in this case it’s ‘are you really smart, or is it just the pill?’ and ‘is your success really your success and how long does it go on, and is it a legitimate success if it’s the result of a pill?’.
WGTC: What was your favorite scene to shoot? Favorite to watch?
NB: My favorite scene to watch is when Bradley Cooper comes into this hotel lobby where he’s meeting Robert De Niro, and he’s late and he’s decided not to take the pill and he then sees on the TV that that girl has been killed. And watching Bradly sort of react and try to bluff his way through the meeting with De Niro when they’re sitting in these couches is my favorite scene to watch, I really like it.
And my favorite scene to shoot was in the stairwell, when he’s just coming into the drug for the first time and he’s talking to his landlord’s wife.
WGTC: What’s your favorite movie genre?
NB: My favorite movie genre? Ahhh, a dark comedy. Yep. No that’s not true. It’s kind of a surreal mystery. The Illusionist was a little bit like that.
WGTC: Can you tell me anything about Uncharted? Is Mark Wahlberg still involved and is there a possible role for Bradley Cooper?
NB: We’re re-writing the script from scratch, and I’m just jumping into that right now, about to sign off. Until the screenplay is written you never know who’s going to be acting in it or not. But there are a lot of good actors out there who even look like Nathan Drake and who could do it.
I love the project, I think it’s a great adventure and it’s a wild insane ride…the game is and the movie will be. I mean it’s a pretty great character at its core, Nathan is a bit of a con man, a hustler…knows his stuff, ballsy..it’s great.
WGTC: So you’re planning on staying pretty true to the game?
NB: Yeah, absolutely. And then you know you have to do what a movie does best, as well…build on what’s cool about the game and then make it into a movie.
WGTC: Sometimes it’s hard to find that balance.
NB: Yeah, I think there will be in this one, this one is a very great adventure, and it’s just a matter of pulling out the the very cool intense stuff that works for the film story, and making sure the story supports those elements and also makes us really connected to the character.
That concludes our interview but we’d like to thank Neil Burger for taking time to talk to us about Limitless. Check out our review of the Blu-Ray, which releases on July 19th.