Neil Burger is a very interesting filmmaker. His work has gone from raw documentary style to eloquent period style to this month’s technically sizzling Limitless (my review here) without losing a beat. He’s not a brand name like a lot of directors working in the center of the American film market but the talents he’s worked with, the quality of his craft, and his ability to communicate to his audience showcase a man on the cusp of breaking out. With a first place finish in its first week and a very small decline in its second, it appears Limitless may change all that. I had a chance to speak with the filmmaker shortly after his movie won the weekend. The results await you…
Nick Nunziata: Congratulations on last weekend, it’s awesome.
Neil Burger: Thank you. It’s always nice when things go well.
Nick Nunziata: I have a long relationship with your work, thanks to the lovely Brian Koppelman and David Levien [who produced his first few films, including Interview with the Assassin & The Illusionist]. I got to see Interview rather early and raved about it on CHUD and have followed your work pretty damn closely. Seeing Limitless win the weekend feels like a victory for your fans too.
Neil Burger: Thanks, those guys are the best. Did you come to an early screening, was I at that screening?
Nick Nunziata: I saw a DVD. I’m out here in Atlanta so I’m not able to rub shoulders as much. I haven’t pegged exactly what your style is. You surprise me each time with each movie, so I’ve just decided to shut up and go wherever you wanna take me.
Neil Burger: Look, to me they’re very different. I like doing different stuff. Some guys like Quentin Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson, their first movies they were doing the same thing over and over again. You look at Mark Rothko, he’s doing that same painting over and over again. Me, I’m different. I like jumping all over the place. I like different stories and different genres but they’re all connected in some way. In my mind, in some of the thematic concerns they’re all related.
Nick Nunziata: They’re all the kinds of movies that could be populist works, but you approach it just a little left of center and as a result they feel fresh. What speaks to you? Are you a little broken, so that you don’t follow those sensibilities?
Neil Burger: The movies that I am influenced by are kind of out there films from Parajanov. My mind’s a bit of a blank. Scorsese or Kubrick is about as mainstream as my sensibilities got. Then I was looking at all sorts of strange German cinema or Chinese cinema. Iranian cinema. Very different things I’m influenced by. I feel I do know how to tell mainstream stories but these offbeat influence as well. I like the dark sense of humor in movies like The American Friend, the Wenders movie. These sort of twisted movies. That’s my sense of humor and the humor I like to bring to my work which just kind of skews it slightly even if they seemingly are a straightforward story.
Nick Nunziata: I think the result is a lot of replay value. You’ve become somewhat of a brand who’s always going to challenge your audience and deliver a rewarding experience. It’s a different vibe. Limitless has a lot of flourish and is a more modern story than I’m used to seeing from your work. New muscles being flexed and whatnot. The look of it and some of your visual tricks were really inventive. The endless zooms, were they something that jumped off the page to you or was it something that was born out of meetings with your visual effects supervisor?
Neil Burger: It’s something I developed. When I read the script I knew I wanted to find a variety of looks and effects to express what it was like to be on that drug and put us in his head and show how he processed information. How does he think? I was trying to come up with some grand scheme of how his mind works. I’ve always been interested in fractals in the sense that all the small bits in the universe are somehow reflected in the macrocosm as well. They’re mirrored parts of a larger whole. If you look at a fractal, like a snowflake and each little branch is made up of miniature mirrored versions of the whole. I thought of fractal zooms, which basically moved from these smaller shapes to these larger shapes and keep moving. I thought that was a great way to show how Eddie’s mind moves through the world. That’s usually done with natural shapes, leaves and things like that. I wanted to move down city streets in the manner of a fractal or infinite zoom where you seamlessly were in one location and you were there and didn’t realize how you’d gotten there. Continually moving forward to the next place.
Nick Nunziata: I’m sure there was a complex marrying of footage but it had the illusion of an in-camera effect. It didn’t feel digital at all. I’m sure it wasn’t easy to pull off.
Neil Burger: It wasn’t. Hopefully all those effects in the movie don’t feel too digital. I wanted them all to feel very organic and almost emotionally connected to the character. What is it like to be him and wanting him to be the guide and for the audience to be with him at all time.
Nick Nunziata: Well, it was very effective.
Neil Burger: Thanks.
Nick Nunziata: Obviously with all the commercials and music videos the toolbox has grown exponentially. It’s very difficult to see something you haven’t seen before.
Neil Burger: I didn’t want to give myself that challenge. Commercials just burn through stuff all the time. Or music videos. They’ll all towards selling that product. They rob the effect of all its meaning. To use a second hand effect for no reason to sell a can of Coke. The effect becomes useless. I’ve said this before, if that Bullet Time effect hadn’t been used before. Or Speed Ramping. I didn’t want to go anywhere near those effects.
You don’t know if you can invent something that’s never been seen before. We’ve see that effect of multiples of the same character in the same frame. It’s nothing new. For me, I liked it because it was a conceptual way of seeing Eddie in the world. Not that that there were ten of him cleaning up, but that he had the focus of ten men getting the job done. It felt joyous and exuberant to the purpose of the scene. I’m not reinventing the wheel but I’m doing what’s right for the scene.
Nick Nunziata: Was there ever the brilliant idea of doing this in 3-D or post converting it?
Neil Burger: Never post conversion. Before we shot there was half of a conversation during preproduction that was like “Hm, should this be 3-D?” but it was never serious.
Nick Nunziata: If it were a big studio film it might have been a different story.
Neil Burger: They didn’t have the money to do 3-D, post or otherwise.
Nick Nunziata: A lack of money often leads to the best creativity, but that’s some scary terrain.
Neil Burger: Yep.
Nick Nunziata: Bradley Cooper’s a guy that I love to death but hadn’t bought as a leading man. I understand why he’s a star but wasn’t sure I’d buy him carrying a film. Especially considering that the character’s not the most lovable in the world. What did you see in him the when the idea of him starring first came up?
Neil Burger: I’d seen all his movies and as a director you always do that. You see their strengths and their weaknesses. Traps they set and fall into. Wonderful things you want to pull more out that out of them. When I met him and we were talking I saw what a winning personality he had. He’s a really good man and a terrific conversationalist. A really winning personality as I said. I thought ‘that is exactly what we need for this guy to take us through this movie’. As you said, he does some dubious things. He definitely pushes the moral envelope more than once and he pushes it far. Yet you the audience, you stay with him and you like him and a lot of that is a testament his own charisma and his own personality. I knew that when I met him and felt it’d be helpful in making this movie work.
Nick Nunziata: When you started, The Hangover had happened but not The A-Team.
Neil Burger: The A-Team hadn’t even started shooting yet. The Hangover had come out, in fact it was still playing when I met him. His star was really on the upswing. We actually had to wait for them to shoot The A-Team and then we went into preproduction with him.
Nick Nunziata: There’s been a few things you’ve been rumored to be attached to. Hopefully something you’re writing. Any news on that?
Neil Burger: Hopefully sometime soon. I’d like to jump right into something. There’s a couple of things that are in contention, but I don’t know. One of them I’ve written and a couple of others I haven’t. We shall see. You never quite know.
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