INTERVIEW: Neil Burger on ‘Limitless’ and ‘Uncharted’

The director of Limitless, on Blu-Ray today, talks about how close close Shia LaBeouf came to starring and how Uncharted is shaping up.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

It seems obvious in retrospect, but Neil Burger's Limitless was a surprise hit last March. The Bradley Cooper vehicle, about a shiftless lay-about who gains wealth and power thanks to an experimental batch of "smart" pills, grossed almost $80 million domestically and over $150 million internationally from a budget of just $27 million. Those numbers, and the fact that Neil Burger's direction was uncanny (even if though did have problems with the script), has led Hollywood to take notice. He was recently announced as the new director of Uncharted, the adaptation of the hit videogame series which is expected to be a major summer blockbuster. We talked to Burger about the process of making Limitless, what scene Robert DeNiro contributed to the film, the state of Uncharted and also about his long-gestating remake of The Bride of Frankenstein for Universal Pictures.


CRAVE Online: You’re having a big year.

Neil Burger: Yeah, you know it’s good to have a movie that, you know… does okay. (Laughs) – Thank God, you know? […] I’m just relieved, after all that work.


CRAVE Online: So Limitless was quite a hit in March, but it kind of flew under peoples’ radar until then. Was the studio suspecting a major success?

Neil Burger: I’m not sure what the studio was expecting, but I was. Not to sound ridiculous…


CRAVE Online: No, no!

Neil Burger: You make the movie to be successful! We thought we made a good movie and that was a crowd-pleasing movie, and we were a little annoyed that we were under peoples’… “Don’t people know about this movie and how good it’s going to be?” You always feel that way a little bit unless you have a major marketing machine behind you. But it came out, and we had a little burst of energy right before the beginning… And the other thing is, a lot of movies […] they come out in March but they’re done six months earlier. So they’re on a festival circuit or there’s like some pre-screenings. We finished the movie two weeks before it was released. So, we didn’t have that run up of publicity. So anyway, but we did have a really cool premise, which is, “What if a pill could make you rich and powerful?” That sort of grabbed people’s attention, and then they seemed to like the movie on top of that.


CRAVE Online: I actually really liked the premise. It occurred to me that this is kind of a superhero story for adults, who don’t really fantasize about flying or lifting cars over their heads, but getting more done with their time.

Neil Burger: (Laughs) – Right, right. And becoming the kind of perfect version of themselves. Not in a superhero way, but like… Yeah, being the person they want to be, getting the things done that they want to get done.


CRAVE Online: Absolutely. And God knows I wish I could get some of those pills. You shot the hell out of this movie. Obviously it’s a bit of a cerebral concept, but you did some interesting things with the color timing and CGI to try to get the subjective viewpoint of Bradley Cooper in this movie. Where did you start with that?

Neil Burger: Well, that was the real fun and the real challenge of directing the movie and coming up with a visual style for the movie. How do you show what it’s like to be in this guy’s head? How do you show how he sees the world when he’s on this drug, when he’s coming on to this drug, and when he’s coming off of it? You know, when he’s falling apart. So, for me that was one of the most important things I was working on, way before the pre-production of the movie. It’s just like, how to visualize that. How to symbolize it, how to show it. What does it feel like? Even while I was writing or trying to come up with it. What is that intuition or that inspiration? How do you visualize that? And so the idea is that in the movie, the visual effects or the visual ideas of the movie all came out of this long process of trying to come up with ideas or images that would reflect what it was like to be him.


CRAVE Online: Now of course you got Bradley Cooper, who is only breaking out as a huge star right now, which is obviously very fortunate. Good timing in that regard. But you almost had Shia LaBeouf.

Neil Burger: Well, we had Shia […] The movie started out at Universal, and at the time we were having trouble finding somebody that they would make it with. Shia is a huge international star, and sort of the wrong age for the movie, but he was one of the few people we could make it with. And so we thought, “Okay, we can do this as sort of a 24-year-old guy who’s just coming out in the world.” And then Shia had a car accident, like a couple years ago, and he hurt his hand and he wasn’t able to do the movie. So then we started looking for somebody else, and it was just at that time when The Hangover was coming out. Bradley’s star was on the rise, and he was just sort of breaking, and we thought “This guy.” And it went that way.


CRAVE Online: How did you approach Robert DeNiro to take what is a fairly small role for him, [even though] obviously he’s an important figure in the film?

Neil Burger: Well, I had actually met DeNiro before. After I had done The Illusionist, I had met him and talked with him a little bit. So when I was thinking about who would be the best person to play a really powerful and intimidating man of that age – (laughs) – you know, DeNiro was front and center on that list. So we talked to him about it and sent him the screenplay, and at first he felt that maybe there wasn’t enough for him to do. And [he] actually pointed out some interesting things about the character, that he felt was missing. And then we kind of fleshed out a few things in response to some suggestions he made, and then he really liked it and came aboard. So that was great?


CRAVE Online: What were some of his ideas?

Neil Burger: Just that he felt like he needed to sort of describe how he was different from Bradley Cooper’s character. Bradley Cooper’s character had just sort of blown onto the scene from out of nowhere and hadn’t paid his dues, while his character had fought his way up from nothing, year after year, making small incremental gains and building on those. And so there’s that big speech in the middle of the movie where he talks about climbing the greasy rungs and things like that. He [had] that sort of idea and Leslie Dixon, the screenwriter, wrote a page-long monologue in response to that. So that was one of the things.


CRAVE Online: That was actually my favorite scene in the movie, when he put Bradley Cooper in his place.

Neil Burger: Yeah. It’s great.


NEXT: Neil Burger gives the latest updates on Uncharted and his Bride of Frankenstein remake…!

CRAVE Online: Did someone just see Limitless and call you and say “We want you to do Uncharted?” Was it directly through Limitless?

Neil Burger: I know one of the producers of it, so yes, they did see it and they sent it me after having seen the movie, and I had spoken to that producer a little bit over the years. So I knew about the project, so when [Limitless] broke and was successful and they liked it – they liked it stylistically – they showed [Uncharted] to me and it was really interesting, and I gave them lots of ideas on which specific things which they seemed to like, and now we’re off and running.


CRAVE Online: Are you going to be keeping a lot of David O. Russell’s work…?

Neil Burger: No, I haven’t seen his screenplay on it. Mainly we’re beginning from scratch and going back to the videogame. Because there’s a lot of cool stuff, actually, from the videogame, if you know it…


CRAVE Online: Yeah, I’ve played them all.

Neil Burger: It’s really one of the most cinematic videogames, and one that has really developed characters. So, you know, there’s a lot of cool, really intense things that, if they work for the film’s story, I want to use them.


CRAVE Online: What differentiates Uncharted from similar film franchises like Indiana Jones or National Treasure?

Neil Burger: Well, I think Indiana Jones is, you know, fantastic. The grandfather of all those movies. But I think Indiana Jones is nostalgic. It takes place in the 1930s, and the later ones are a little bit later, and it kind of plays on that nostalgia. Whereas Uncharted is very much up to the minute, of the moment. It’s very “now” and contemporary and it has this sort of rough and very intense feel that a movie like The Bourne Identity has. It’s really up to date in its own way. The Bourne Identity isn’t your father’s Cold War movie and this is a very different kind of treasure hunt movie. It’s very real and it has kind of an insane, wild feeling that comes out of the character; Nate being this con man and a bit of a hustler, living by his wits, ballsy and capable of anything.


CRAVE Online: Are you aware of the internet campaign to get Nathan Fillion to star in the movie?

Neil Burger: I’ve seen a little bit of that, yes. That was brought to my attention. So, you know, I think he’s a good actor. I think there’s a lot of really good actors who don’t even look like [Nathan Drake] who could play it! Where we are right now is that we’re literally starting from scratch on the screenplay, and I think that once we finish it, then we’ll go to actors and see who’s available and who’s right for the parts. Whenever that happens.


CRAVE Online: Fair enough. The videogames are obviously incredibly acclaimed, mostly for their gameplay. But one of the criticisms of the story of the games – I’m curious to hear your take on this – is that Nathan Drake is arguably a not particularly likable character. He’s a career criminal who kills hundreds of people in the games…

Neil Burger: Right. […] Well, I think in the same way that Indiana Jones was an updating of 1930s B-Movies, we are taking the videogame and inspired by the videogame, but then we have to make it into a movie. Which is do what a movie does best, to take you over and to make it exhilarating. What gamers like about the game is that it’s real, and that it looks real, and you can be this person and do these amazing things. With a movie, though, you’ve got to take that feeling and do it a different way. We need to make you completely identify in the movie with the characters, and take you on a ride that is as exhilarating and wild, but we’re doing it with different means.


CRAVE Online: Well, I’m really looking forward to seeing your take on it. I have just one more question and then I’ll let you go. A few years ago we’d heard that you were in talks to do a remake of Bride of Frankenstein, and I was wondering if that was still a going concern.

Neil Burger: We wrote it! […] And it’s a fairly different take on it, and then it’s a matter of whether Universal… They liked the screenplay, and then they have to figure out how it fits into their schedule of things that they want to do.


CRAVE Online: Was that more of a modern update, or was it more of a…?

Neil Burger: It was. It was. It was very contemporary.