Director Neil Burger discusses his latest film starring Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro
Director Neil Burger first gained attention in 2002 for his debut film the pseudo-documentary Interview with the Assassin. But it was his sophomore effort, '2006s The Illusionist starring Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, and Jessica Biel, which put him on the map in Hollywood as a director to keep an eye on. He followed that up in 2008 with The Lucky Ones starring Rachel McAdams and Oscar winner Tim Robbins. The director was even rumored at one point to possibly be directing a remake of Bride of Frankenstein. Now Neil Burger is about to release his forth film entitled Limitless, which is based on the novel "The Dark Fields" by Alan Glynn.
The film stars Bradley Cooper (The A-Team) as Eddie, an unemployed writer down on his luck when a friend introduces him to an experimental drug called NZT. The drug allows Eddie to be highly focused and very confident, and he uses it to become extremely successful in the business world. A wealthy business mogul named Carl Van Loon, played by Robert De Niro (Goodfellas), sees Eddie as a way to make him more money but things become complicated when the drug starts causing Eddie unusual side effects and he begins to run out of his supply. We recently had a chance to speak with director Neil Burger about his new film, its intriguing plot, casting Bradley Cooper, directing Robert De Niro, and what project he might direct next. Here is what he had to say:
To begin with, can you talk about how you became involved with this project?
Neil Burger: It was a screenplay that was brought to me by the producers and Universal, who was at that time the studio they wanted. So it came to me. I had just finished doing a movie called The Lucky Ones. I was looking for my next project and there it was. I just loved the idea of this premise. What if a drug could make you rich and powerful? Then this guy who was a down on his luck writer, who basically had to give up his dream, and then gets another shot at it.
What did you initially think when you read this script about a drug that can make you a better person? Did that idea kind of fuel your creative juices as a director and a storyteller?
Neil Burger: Yes, it did intrigue me for good reasons and bad. On one hand I think we all want to change our lives, we all want to be the perfect versions of ourselves and we all want to kind of be hit over the head and have all our problems go away. On the other hand I thought, what is the meaning of this? What is the meaning of this for hard work and somebody's own natural intelligence? So it raised a lot of questions I was interested in.
The way Bradley Cooper's character reacts to the drug and behaves on its power in the film, do you think that is how the ordinary person would handle this type of opportunity in real life?
Neil Burger: I mean I think so. The fictional drug in the film is called NZT and with Bradley, I always say that he seems like he is on NZT anyway. He seems to have it really together. He's smart and he can talk circles around you just the way he is. So in a lot of ways he's kind of the perfect guy to play the part. As well as being able to play a guy who is the loser and the more vulnerable side.
How did you end up finding Bradley Cooper and casting him in the role?
Neil Burger: Well we were looking for a guy who was like thirty years old or so to play the part of this guy who has been at it for a while. He wanted to be a success and it was just not happening. So we needed a guy who could do that, the failure side of things, and then we needed a guy who would be able to do the really intense success story. So you know there were just a few names on the list and you are always looking for somebody who can do it and that the studio will finance the movie with. Bradley Cooper was just coming off The Hangover and we just thought that he was the perfect guy to do it and that this was our opportunity. So we jumped at the chance. He and I met one day, kind of hung out for an evening and talked about it all. You know, we were on the same page and then we went ahead with it.
Can you talk about the level of authenticity that an actor like screen legend Robert De Niro adds to your film? Was everyone really excited when he agreed to come onboard the project?
Neil Burger: Yeah, I mean look he plays Carl Van Loon who is a very powerful guy in his own right. He is intimidating but also a serious businessman and we wanted somebody who brought that sense of power to the role. So who else but Robert De Niro? So that obviously took some doing but we worked really hard to get him in to it and even wrote some new lines for him and then he was in. So it was like a dream come true because he's my favorite film actor.
You mentioned that you added some lines for Robert De Niro; did you have to tweak the role specifically for him once he was cast?
Neil Burger: Well not so much but basically what we did was ... well he and I had met a few years before and talked about doing something. So he read the screenplay and he liked it, he liked the story, but he didn't think that there was enough to justify him being in the movie. So we talked about that and I kind of threw out some ideas to him when he told me that, which he liked. So I went back to the writer Leslie Dixon and she kind of fleshed out some scenes that in a way no matter who it was, Robert De Niro or any other actor, we probably needed to do. Sometimes you learn things just in those situations. You know you see that maybe this part is a little bit thin and whether it is Robert De Niro or somebody else we needed to build it up. So we did it for him and it wasn't so much tailored for him as it was just really enhancing the role. So in a way he did us a favor because he tipped us off to doing this work. We did it, he really liked the lines that we had written and suddenly it clicked for him.
There are some great scenes in the movie where Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro really get to go head-to-head with each other as actors; can you talk about directing those scenes and the mood on set during those moments?
Neil Burger: Yeah, well look they are both great actors. We obviously know that about Robert De Niro but it's the same thing with Bradley Cooper, he really has it. We haven't necessarily seen that in all of his movies but we see it here big time. You get to see what a tour de force performance it really is. So really it was a matter of directing each of them separately. You know the movie is about power, it's about intelligence and human potential, but it's about power. Bradley's role is that he is the guy who is enhanced, he's on the drug and that is his sense of power. De Niro has done the hard work, he has the experience, he's been around. So it was really just about setting each of them both up separately and kind of in indirect opposition to each other. Which obviously just increases the drama of the scene. Then I just unleashed them on each other.
Can you talk about the consequences that Bradley Cooper's character faces in the film as a result of abusing the drug and were you concerned at all about making a movie that is to a certain degree pro-drug abuse?
Neil Burger: Well look as I said the movie is very much about power and it could have been a magic wand that touches him and allows him to have this success. But it is a drug because actually the movie is played real and these drugs, these kinds of pills are right around the corner. You know what I mean? If you can be doing cosmetic surgery and have a nose job, or if you can take steroids and play sports better, then I think the same thing is about to happen with brain chemistry and with these drugs. It's like now you can have a "brain job" or something. So we wanted to address that and it's a complicated issue. In a way, is there anything wrong with it? I don't know? If you can cure cancer because you have some kind of enhanced intelligence based on a pharmaceutical, is that a bad thing? However on the other hand, if you have some sort of achievement that is based on the drug, well who did it? Is it you or the drug? So really the end of the movie is about raising all these questions that have been around throughout the movie. It is one of those movies where he triumphs in the end but there are some questions that go with it. So that is kind of my feeling about it.
The movie has a really quick pace and a very fast tone overall, can you talk about how you achieved that and your ultimate vision for the look of the film?
Neil Burger: Yeah I wanted the movie to have a freewheeling quality to it. I wanted it to almost be like a wild ride because that is the ride he is on. That is the experience he is having so I wanted the audience to go along with it. So everything I did visually was to put you in his head and to show you what it feels like to be turbo charged the way he is. What it feels like to process information and perceive the world like he does. It's the same thing with the music; I wanted it to have this sort of polished quality but with an electronic feel as well. So that it is enhanced but it has this dreamy yet intense quality to it. That was my sense of it. Obviously with the visuals I was just trying to invent visual effects that were connected to his perception of the world. Again, the audience stays with him and sees the world the way he sees it. They really get to go through the experience with him.
Finally, what are you working on next? Do you have any new projects that you are currently developing for the future?
Neil Burger: Well I can't really say. There are some things that are pending that are right on the cusp of happening so I have to be careful. But I do have some big blockbuster kind of things that are on the horizon and then more personal smaller films as well. I'm interested in both and it's just a matter of what clicks first.
Just to follow up, when you say "big blockbuster" does that mean you are in discussions to helm a studio franchise or a summer tent-pole? Is directing an adaptation of a comic book or a remake of a classic sci-fi or horror film something you would be interested in doing?
Neil Burger: Yeah. I'm certainly game for those and those are happening.