Director Neil Burger on ‘Limitless’ & Replacing Shia LaBeouf with Bradley Cooper

Did you know that as humans, we can only access ten percent of our brain at one time? Neil Burger’s new psycho-thriller Limitless, examines what’s possible if we had access to all of it. The result is 90 minutes of Bradley Cooper getting rich beyond belief, having lots of sex, getting involved with some very bad men, and then crashing down hard. Costarring Robert De Niro and Abbie Cornish, it’s one of those non-stop movies that keeps plowing forward until its delirious climax. It marks the first time its director Neil Burger (The Illusionist) has helmed a movie he didn’t write (Limitless is based on the novel The Dark Fields). Here is Burger on directing someone else’s work, breaking into Hollywood, and why Bradley Cooper replaced the film’s original star, Shia LaBeouf.

When I saw the film a few months ago, it had a different ending. It’s not that different. It’s more of an expression of what was there, and it has a moment afterwards with Robert De Niro’s character, as well. There’s more beats. The ending you saw was abbreviated, which we knew at the time. We had a 42 day schedule and we were jamming.

You shot some scenes right by our office, at Broadway and 19th. How was it shooting in New York? That was so great, because we did things where it would just be me, a camera man, and Bradley with his long hair, and we would just walk down the street with nobody really noticing us, and we would cut across traffic and just follow him, and nobody would even blink.

There’s a lot of visual gimmicks in this movie, like sped-up scenes and graphics. Is that kind of stylization new to you? Well, The Illusionist is stylized in a certain way. The Lucky Ones is a much more raw, immediate hand-held one, as is Interview With the Assassin. But I love playing around visually. I worked really hard to try and figure out how we represent how he’s seeing the world, and how he moves through space and time.

This is the first film you’ve made that you didn’t write. How did that happen? They came to me with the script, and they asked if I was interested, and I thought, No, I’m a writer/director. But then I thought, how great would it be to just direct something, and really run with it visually and narratively, and not have to worry about coming up with a great line on set. I did that as well, because when you’re directing, you necessarily take on the whole thing including the script, and you’re changing the structure and adjusting things, but you’re also able to just take what’s on the page and say, Well, it’s cool, but let’s do it in a different way. And sometimes when you’ve written it, you’re kind of loyal to what you wrote and what you need to do as a director, which can sometimes be in conflict.

Since you’re a writer, did you have sympathy for changing some things from this writers original screenplay? A little bit, but not a huge amount. That’s always difficult, but you figure it out. When you when you write a movie, and then you hand it off to the director, it’s your baby, and then the director suddenly knows more about it. And then the director hands it off to the actors, and suddenly the actors know more about it than you. And it goes down the line, and eventually it goes back to the director in the editing room. But then it goes to the audience, and in a way the audience ends up knowing more about the movie than you do, because of the way they intuit things.

On the outside, it seems like all your films are very different from one another. Is there a pattern there? There is, actually. To me, it’s about powerless characters who do something extreme, or do something to kind of take power. Interview With the Assassin is two guys who feel like they don’t matter in the world, and then they do something bizarre to give worth, even though it’s through a criminal or notorious means. And in The Illusionist, he’s a successful magician, but he’s dirt compared to these aristocrats, so he does something to get this woman he’s in love with, and it sort of upsets the whole power structure of the society. Same with The Lucky Ones; these soldiers come back from Iraq, and they’re like strangers in their own land, and they band together to have something here. Eddie, played by Bradley Cooper, he’s a nobody; he feels like he’s just going down the drain, and then he has this opportunity to become this perfect version of himself, and he takes it and runs with it, but there are some consequences.

I was surprised how violent the movie got in the later stages. Yeah, it sort of goes off the rails. I was shooting, and was like, What are we doing?! The movie is kind of this fever dream, and has this energy of cartwheeling forward, so it’s like, well, where is this going to go? He’s going off the rails, so the movie in a way goes off its own rails as well, deliberately. We wanted to make wild and off-the-wall choices, because we felt like that was representative of what he was willing to do to hold onto what he had.

Is it true that you initially had Shia LaBeouf as the lead? Yeah, the movie was at Universal, and we had trouble finding somebody that was bankable, but not too expensive. So Shia was kind of a younger guy, but an international star with Transformers, so he was going to do it for a while.

It would have been a totally different movie. Totally. We would have had to rewrite it, because it’s written for a guy in his early thirties that’s really been down that road. But it would have been interesting, but it didn’t happen and I really liked Shia, but it was a blessing for us because The Hangover was just coming out, and Bradley’s star was really rising, and he had always been on our radar, but it was always like, is he bankable? Is any star bankable? And so suddenly maybe he was, and there was a studio that was willing to take a shot with him.

So if The Hangover wasn’t the hit it was, you couldn’t have cast Bradley Cooper. Probably not.

What was it like directing Robert De Niro? It was fantastic, actually. He’s obviously one of the greatest film actors ever, and my favorite actor, and I’d be on set with him, and Travis Bickle and Jake La Motta, and all his roles are on that face. You have to stop yourself from thinking that way, and get down to the work at hand. I’m sure he’s had different phases in his career where he was more difficult to work with, because he’s been around for so long, and for good reason, but with me he was fantastic.

You underwent some reshoots. Can you talk about those? With the ending, we knew when we were shooting it that we were working so fast that it was not quite there. So it was a matter of finding a time and place where we could get it them both back. Was it a studio thing? No, it was more a filmmaker thing, and they were very supportive of that.

How did you break into directing features? I always grew up drawing and painting, and I was an art major in college. I was not a film buff, but was always thinking about moving images, and started realizing I was more interested in moving images. I started doing photographs and set design, and dancing around motion picture stuff with theater photography, and then I pitched MTV this idea about public service announcements promoting reading—like music videos, but instead it was reading and literature and language being promoted. So I did those, and I got a TV commercial contract dropped in my lap, which wasn’t something I was interested in, but it made me a better director, and I shot under all different circumstances, and I was working on writing, and getting more interested in doing a feature. I just kind of kept at it, and then made Interview with the Assassin, a very low budget thing.

Would you be interested in working with a blockbuster budget? I’d like to do a good blockbuster, a smart one. It would be interesting. It’s a difficult time in the business. People are making less movies, they’re making less adventurous movies. It was a very good fall for interesting dramas, but a lot of dramatic stuff had been shut down recently, and was just not being made. So you see a lot of directors like Sam Mendes who are taking a breather, and doing something that’s big, just to kind see what goes on. If you do something small, it just falls by the wayside, or if it fails, you really hurt yourself. Sometimes those big ones can fuel the next film. But that’s a delicate process too, because then you can fall into something that’s crap and brands you in a bad way. So it’s a funny kind of negotiation. But I’m interested in making good movies. If it’s good and it’s big, then that’s cool too. And the other thing is, unless you’re independently wealthy, you have to pay the bills too. That’s hard too because you don’t want to make something you don’t believe in, just for the money. You want to make something beautiful and fantastic and cool every time.

How did you feel about the title change? At first I was a little reluctant.

I liked The Dark Fields. I did too but people came to the end of the movie and were like, Why is it called Dark Fields? So it was kind of asking for a change and it’s growing on me.

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