- Written by Stefanos Tsarouchas
- Published: 05 April 2014
S. Tsarouchas: Why don't you work with the same composer twice?
Neil Burger: Well, I think all my movies are very different from each other and because of that, their different stories, they demand a different style, a different vision and different visuals to serve that story. So I often tailor the crew to that vision, whether it will be the director of photography or the production designer or the composer. It depends. For THE ILLUSIONIST Philip Glass was the perfect guy to write this symphony for it, that still had sort of a mystical or haunting quality. For LIMITLESS it was a completely different sort of electronic score, also kind of haunting actually in a way. I just heard some parts of it recently. I was actually going to work with Paul Leonard-Morgan on DIVERGENT again, but this was a big epic adventure. The studio saw it as this Blockbuster and I guess, so did I, but I also saw it as a very intimate story. The idea of having Hans Zimmer work on it, obviously Hans has done all these big franchise movies like Batman, Superman and so on and I thought, that it was very exciting to work with him. I was interested in exploring, what that would be like to work with him.
S. Tsarouchas: But isn't it also kind of a problem, since Remote Control Productions does almost everything in Hollywood and most music for Blockbusters nowadays sounds exchangeable?
N. Burger: If you think like, who I use to be the cameraman. The director of photography was not somebody that has done these big movies like that. It was somebody, who actually had a very intimate way of lighting a person and that was interesting to me. Look, Hans, he's an incredible talented guy. He has done all these movies, but there is a reason, why he's so sought after, that he's talented. He also did 12 YEARS A SLAVE, which is a completely different movie.
S. Tsarouchas: Yes, it was different, but I don't know. Have you seen 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE?
N. Burger: I haven't. Does it feel the same?
S. Tsarouchas: For me it does for the action scenes. It's also from Junkie XL
N. Burger: That's right, Junkie did 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE. I've heard the music, but didn't see the movie. Yes, but on the other hand we also have, what is also very important, a lot of the music, that's scoring its song, that we used from Ellie Goulding obviously, but also from people like Woodkid or Skrillex or Gesaffelstein. That was an interesting idea. I was looking for something that had a very kind of tribal feel, because the society was almost tribal, but not ethnic and it had a very kind of percussive, I don't know, something that felt sort of mysterious and dark. I think actually, we almost got that more with the songs. Not necessarily Ellie, because that was sort of the voice of Tris, but with people like Woodkid or ASAP Rocky or something like that.
S. Tsarouchas: I read in an interview that Junkie XL gave, that he was introduced by Hans Zimmer to the producers a long time and then he talked to you for a long time. (...) How do you talked to a composer about the music you want for a film?
N. Burger: I talked to them by having musical references. I had a couple of pieces that were weird, sort of fragments of soundtracks from some very old movies. They weren't even a whole musical piece, but they were just like the sound of a particular timpani or a particular drone, that I heard like in a 1960's film, that moved me, that wasn't that thing itself, but that hopefully inspiring the thing itself and then also played him some pop songs, something from P J Harvey, something from Radiohead, that had a particular kind of strange feel. It wasn't like we were looking for the whole song or that, but just a quality of the sound and that I was looking for something in that spirit.
S. Tsarouchas: Can you talk a bit about the spotting sessions. Did you do them or did you just let Junkie XL do his thing?
N. Burger: No. I'm certainly open. I've a specific idea and like with everything else, like working with the cameraman, you say like: “Let's do it here and be below the eye line.” A great cameraman would say like: “That's fantastic! Let's go on a little big longer lense and than we would kind of crane up.” And you would either say: “Oh, that's fantastic!” Or you say: “No, I really just want to be here.” So, there's always a give and take or with giving a performance to an actor and they take it somewhere else. You say: “I want you sitting there and with the sun here.”, but then they do something else that's wonderful and the same with the composer. We need some music, that take us from here, but then to stop here, when she says that line. A great composer will give you that, what you'rr looking for, what you think you're looking for and then more. Or sometimes a great composer says” What about nothing? Don't do anything!”
S. Tsarouchas: Many of the Blockbuster type films from Hollywood nowadays have music from start to finish. Sometimes it's too loud and in your movie the music is really quiet, most of the time, just underscore. Why choose that way? Hans Zimmer and his composers often top with the music the action scenes.
N. Burger: Yes, all that music can get wearing. It wears you done after a while. So I think that those silences are very important and that is something as a director you have to be very careful, because as you say, a composer would be like, we just have this piece of music and go all the way, it's like: “No, stop! Stop! Just let it breath, let it open up and so that we can hear the character think.”
S. Tsarouchas: The funny thing is, two months ago I talked to Randall Poster and he told me, he's doing this film. How do you work with him? He knows lots of songs. Do you also have your own list and you talked to him, we can choose that or that?
N. Burger: Yes. It's a little bit in the same way, that I spoke to Junkie. I had these musical references, that I played to him and in that case sometimes there were more songs. I had songs, that I played against certain scenes, that I showed him. He understood and then came back to me with like: “Okay, here's the new P J Harvey!” or here is somebody that is like Florence and the Machine, Florence Welch, but is doing it in a slightly different way! So again, that is that back and forth of him hearing my reference. What am I sought of the vision for the music and then he's got his finger on things, that haven't been released yet. Woodkid is a very good example, you know that music, that guy? He's a French musician. That song "Run Boy Run" that was almost exactly the rhythm. I've given him as a reference for something like that was different. Either those was done with sticks or something like that and the onces that I played him, had been done with cattle drums or with something like that. There was something, that was rhythmically exactly what I was looking for, that felt sort of mysterious and kind of ... or Gesaffelstein, that again had a quality, that I was looking for. So he found those in sort of a new version, that was great.
S. Tsarouchas: Was it hard to get Ellie Goulding on board doing the voices and all the songs?
N. Burger: Well, that's the other thing. So there was this rhythm, that I was interested in this kind of carnal, free, sort of the Siren song of Dauntless, but then we were also trying to get the sort of the inner personal voice of Tris, to have that be represented musically. I didn't know, who that should be. What it's most successful in the book is the description of Tris' inner voice, her feelings and her thoughts. But how do we do that? Let's do something with that! Let's get that somehow musically and so Randy, I think suggested Ellie Goulding. Then it was just a matter of going after her. I mean, one of the advantages of being a big movie, is that those artists, if they like doing a song for the movie, that it's going to be heard. At first we just used a couple of songs from her last year's album and then we thought, let's get her to sort of be a voice, and let's get her to write a song as well. We ended up keeping those. They're not old songs, but often movies, they won't use anything that has been released before. We thought, it's beautiful! We're using them. We think, they're great! So we used a couple of her songs from her previous album and then she was just sort of finishing writing something, that we used for the end. We then recorded her against our orchestra, vocalizing for certain parts.
S. Tsarouchas: Did you get all the rights to all the songs you wanted or not?
N. Burger: I'm trying to think, what we did, if there was anything we didn't get. I think, we got what we wanted to be in the movie. It wasn't like, we were trying to use a Rolling Stones song and it was to expensive. We were looking at Woodkid, Gesaffelstein and ASAP Rocky and ... they aren't incredible, but they're sort of Left field, not sought out there, but there are just a little bit different and ASAP Rocky is obviously very known, but Woodkid less known in North America at least.
S. Tsarouchas: Is this kind of a new trend, that Hollywood nowadays is doing all those young adult novels into films like VAMPIRE ACADEMY, released in Germany two weeks ago. Now your film! At the end of October we'll have MAZE RUNNER. CITY OF BONES was a bummer. Is this kind of a new genre, fantasy / scifi for young adults?
N. Burger: In one way it is. Obviously it always happens that if you put out Batman and it's successful, suddenly you've got IRON MAN and CAPTAIN AMERICA and what have you! Some of them work and some of them don't work. Any kind of business is chasing that success and trying to find a sure thing. However I think, that there is something interesting about this genre and maybe not so much with the MAZE RUNNER, but if you think of THE HUNGER GAMES, that there is this kind of female empowerment going on. There is something happening there. I feel like, why it should be happening now and why it's taking so long? I feel like after these movies there will be the opportunity to have these strong women characters at the center of any kind of movie, that its sort of a step in kind of feminism, at least sort of feminism in the cinema to have these women. They aren't superheroes, but they are strong, strong people.
S. Tsarouchas: Was there any talk to do the film in 3d?
N. Burger: Briefly, but not seriously. I didn't really wanted to do it in 3d. 3d gets very cumbersome and I felt like, the ideas were very real and very honest. These sort of themes of, who am I and where do I belong, who am I loyal too? And I wanted to really be right in there with her, in her eyes and in her faces and almost be kind of on her shoulder. 3D doesn't really lend itself to that kind of intimacy. It has a sort of different thing, obviously that's interesting, but not the way cinematically I wanted to be kind of close to her.
S. Tsarouchas: How about the sequel, will you do it?
N. Burger: I'm not doing it.
S. Tsarouchas: Why not?
N. Burger: Because they start shooting in two months and I finished editing, not just editing, but I finished the movie one month ago today. So it's all very fresh. For a while I was trying to do both, but that would going to overlap editing and prepping the next movie and then it got to be to much.
The interview took place April 2nd, 2014 in Berlin