Putting fiction on the screen: Neil Burger talks about directing films

By Dan Landau
Filmmaker Neil Burger kicked off the 2014 edition of WAMFEST (Words and Music Festival) at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Florham Campus with a screening of his 2011 film “Limitless.” The screening was followed by a conversation between Burger and WAMFEST artist-in-residence, Wesley Stace in Hartman Lounge in Hennessy Hall.
Known for directing blockbusters like this year’s “Divergent” and “The Illusionist” (2006), Burger shared some of his adventures in filmmaking with students.
Highlights of his conversation with Stace: 
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Above: Neil Burger (left) kicks off WAMFEST 2014 with a film screening and conversation with Wesley Stace (right). (Photo by Dan Landau)

Started in painting:

“Growing up, I was always drawing and painting—that was my thing. I wasn’t drawing still lifes or landscapes though. The images I was interested in happened to be moving. I’d look out a window and see something pass by and think that was interesting and want to paint it. So, I slowly realized that I was interested in film. I started making films in my last year of college.”

Making “Divergent:”

“Novelists have an advantage [over filmmakers] in that they can write their way around problems. For example, there’s a scene in ‘Divergent’ where one of the characters has to run and jump onto the train. It’s a harrowing, do-or-die scene. It’s hard, but she succeeds and it’s where she wants to be. In the book, there are multiple people who try and don’t make it and even die jumping from the building to the train. In the book, Veronica Roth writes around that. If you did that in the movie and saw people fall out of the train and die while no one is doing anything about it, the feeling would be, ‘why does she want to be there so badly? These people are cruel and uncaring.’ That presents a problem where you will lose the audience. The novelist on the other hand can write her way around those problems by getting into characters’ minds."  

Problems adapting books to film:

“‘Divergent’ is a very long book, over 400 pages, and it’s an ‘undisciplined’ book. It was Veronica Roth’s first work, so while she has a good story, there are issues like how it has three antagonists and four best friends and various family members. There are so many characters in the book and to pull any of them out would have broken the chain of the story. There are a lot of elements and nuances in the book that we couldn’t include in the film.”

Collaboration in filmmaking:

“People think as a director, it’s nice because you get to tell everyone what to do, but making a movie involves a lot of people and all these people bring their own ideas to the film. Great cinematographers and actors bring changes and quite often, they are great changes. They elevate the scene. On the other hand sometimes their ideas are not good or they are not understanding your directions—trying to get another human being to behave emotionally in some way that you have in your head is tricky. You have to tell them, cajole them, manipulate them, and even trick them into saying the lines the way you want them to. It’s an interesting process to do that.” 
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Above: Neil Burger (left) talks with Wesley Stace in Hartman Lounge in Hennessy Hall about his filmmaking career. (Photo by Dan Landau)
Stace is a critically-acclaimed singer/songwriter and novelist. He has released fifteen music albums, ranging in style from folk to pop, most under the stage name John Wesley Harding. He has also published three novels under the name of Wesley Stace.
WAMFEST is an annual series of unique conversations, collaborations, and performances hosted by FDU that attempts to break down barriers between different genres in the arts, particularly between what are considered “high” and “low” arts, and to celebrate what is shared among all artists and all audiences.  Guests have included, among many others, Bruce Springsteen, Robert Pinsky, Rosanne Cash, Paul Muldoon, Jonathan Demme, and Talib Kweli.   
WAMFEST will continue on October 16 with a conversation with acclaimed author Neil Gaiman. Salman Rushdie will perform with the American String Quartet on October 17. For information on these and other WAMFEST events, go here.