POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS
From a screenplay by Leslie Dixon, Neil Burger takes us on a pharmaceutical-fueled joyride through a conspiratorially intelligent New York business world in Limitless.
Neil Burger’s Limitless, from a smart, fast-moving script by Leslie Dixon and based on the novel, The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn, arrives at an interesting moment in the study of human consciousness. In the film, Bradley Cooper plays Eddie Morra, a writer struggling with a long-missed deadline and a recently broken relationship. A chance encounter hooks him up with a black market miracle drug, a pill that magnifies brain function exponentially. It goes without saying that he bangs out the rest of his novel in a day, but what next? What would you do if you suddenly became a cognitive Superman?
Limitless explores these ideas in a thriller that boasts a smooth performance by Cooper, a great De Palma-esque New York City chase scene, Robert De Niro in a supporting role, and at least one Park Chan-Wook-style bloodbath. It’s also got something of the unsettling vibe of a Seconds or Manchurian Candidate as Cooper’s brainpower reveals not only his own inner strengths but conspiratorial patterns in the larger world.
Burger, a Filmmaker magazine “25 New Face” following his debut feature Interview with the Assassin, keeps this speculative tale grounded in reality and recognizable human behavior. In fact, given current medical science, Limitless may only be one step away from science fiction as drug companies tirelessly work on medicines that will do everything from reversing Alzheimer’s disease to performance enhancing our everyday minds.
Neuroscientists are also exploring today, however, the deleterious effects of our “always-on” modern lifestyle, with its Pavlovian jolts from Internet-connected mobile devices pinging our brains. (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?” was the question Nicholas Carr asked in a 2008 essay in The Atlantic.) So I found Limitless’ proposal that the gigabytes of information that wash over us daily are not just digital noise, numbing us into a confused passivity, but rather data to be harvested by a future, better version of ourselves an entertainingly optimistic one. By deftly handling these ideas within the confines of a wide-release (2,500 screens) thriller, Burger continues to create, as he did in The Illusionist, an accessible mainstream picture that, like his protagonist, is a notch smarter than the rest. Relativity opens Limitless this March.
You’ve made three films as a writer-director. And this film, Limitless, is from Leslie Dixon’s screenplay. How did that happen? Well, they came to me after I finished The Lucky Ones. Leslie and Scott Kroopf, who’s the producer, sent it to me, and I liked it. I was looking for something bigger to roll into really quickly, something that had a kind of crazy energy, which this movie definitely does.
Was it difficult to adjust to not being the writer? It was kind of liberating to just be in the interpretive role of the director. When you write something and direct it, you’re the author and nobody questions what you do. But there’s also a kind of a tyranny of the original idea. Directing [your own script] can sometimes become a cage or constriction. Whereas if you’re just the director, you can look at the page and say, “What is the best way to make this scene really sing?” You’re not constricted by all your initial thoughts or concepts. That’s kind of wonderful. And you have a different kind of respect for the word. There’s a lack of preciousness, actually, when you’re directing somebody else’s screenplay.
But does the writer part of your brain feel like it has to come out? It does a little.
That it has to personalize it, or change it just to make it yours? A little bit, yeah. It has to kind of shape the scenes in a way that I can understand. I have to be able to make the scenes flow, to make them expressive. But, in a way, it doesn’t matter [whether you’re the writer or not]. It could be the best-written scene in the world, but if the director doesn’t hook into it, he’s not going to be able to make it the best scene. So you always have to take it and shape it.
And how did that relationship with Leslie work out? It was a little contentious sometimes because she felt it was her baby. But in any film situation, you have to pass it off to the next person down the line. And I had to pass it on to the actors.
When you were first approached, were the producers looking for someone who had “a take” on this material, or were they looking for someone who would execute what was on the page? They were looking for someone who had a take, and Leslie was very generous that way. She said, “Frankly, I’m interested in knowing where you’re going to take this, what you’re going to do with it.”
And where did you want to take it? I liked the screenplay. It had the tone and the energy that I was interested in. In certain cases, it was a matter of making it more real, making it more intense, and, as a New Yorker, making it very much about New York City. The movie is about human intelligence, and [it features] these power players in the New York financial and art worlds butting up against each other. I was interested in that, and I was interested in making it be this fever dream, this kind of crazy, psychic ride this guy goes on.
I was struck by the great New York City location work. He lives in Chinatown — And he makes it all the way uptown. And yeah, everything gets slicker the more uptown he gets and the more he comes into his own.
Let’s talk about the concept. This is something of a high-concept movie. What was it about the concept that appealed to you? Initially, someone told me the concept and I didn’t like the idea that everybody’s on this pill and nobody’s really responsible for their own intelligence. And then when I read the script, it wasn’t like that at all. I’m interested in ideas about power, and this is about a guy who is basically out of power and who finds a way to empower himself. He’s a down-and-out writer, so how does he make it, how does he get taken seriously, how does he come to matter in the world? It is this magic pill that does it, but we tried to do it in a very real way. It’s not like a science-fiction thing. What he becomes is the best version of himself.
There’s a conundrum inherent in your material, which is that you’re directing and Leslie has written a script about people who have superhuman intelligence. So how do you as a normal human present that experience? Well, that’s always hard. How does an actor play a brilliant person? How do you show how that person would perceive the world? What sort of words do you put in his mouth?
How did you do it? Well, some of it was from the book, and the writer did an amazing job. Obviously, there have been movies like A Beautiful Mind that show how somebody’s brain works. But the difficulty of [that example] is that [the film’s John Forbes Nash, Jr.] was brilliant, but [also] insane. All of those conflicting numbers [on screen and in his mind] weren’t toward any kind of clarity; they were toward a confusion, really. So for me, it was like, “Okay, you can show a zillion numbers and words, but how you imply that [Bradley Cooper’s character] is able to sort them out, find the important word or equation within them?” There’s a shot in the movie when he first comes out of the drug and remembers that he’s seen a book before. You see a flashback to when he’s in graduate school and the title of the book almost becomes this retinal burn. It comes out of the past into his present and is actually fixed on the screen. It’s a way of representing that all that’s still there, deep inside him still that he’s able to access. There’s another shot in the movie when he’s trying to trade stocks for the first time. He looks up at the ceiling, and all the tiles flip, and then they re-flip again, and then the acronym of the thing that he’s going to trade and the amount of the shares are the ones that are left there. Again, this is just a way to represent how he sifts through all of this information.
So you were trying to come up with visual correlatives for memory? That’s right. And we were trying to do it in a way that was fresh, with things we hadn’t seen before. The Matrix’s bullet time, that frozen moment, would have been fantastic for this movie. But it’s so overused — it’s in the most basic Channel 9 news bumpers. Speed ramping or time-lapse, racing through the city at high speed — I love all that, but I can’t go there either. It’s just been used too much. So, instead of rushing through the city, I came up with this idea of a fractal zoom. It’s like you are rushing through the city streets but not at high speed — you are at an infinite zoom, moving relentlessly at real time but faster than everyone around you. Nobody could figure out how to do it until, after shooting, we brought on this company called Look Effects. This great guy Dan Schrecker was able to figure out how to execute this idea that I had. Some people were like, “Well, that’s not related to the flipping numbers, which isn’t related to the burned-in thing,” and I was like, “They’re all related, because there’s a physical nature to all of them.” I didn’t want [these effects] to feel digital. I wanted them to feel physical, that in his mind they are really happening.
Bradley has to go from this schlubby guy to this successful guy with superhuman intelligence. How did you approach that transformation with him? I wanted him to be very specific [in his different states]. You were asking about how you make somebody seem that they’re incredibly intelligent? Well, when he’s on the drug, he speaks without a pause, without hesitation. There’s never a “like,” or “um,” or “maybe.” It’s all very fluid and clear and concise and to the point. When he’s off the drug, he is starting and stopping, more hesitant, more mealy-mouthed about the way he talks. We did things with his hair, his skin, his beard, the quality and textures of his clothing, and then [Bradley] would take it further with the way he physicalized himself, the way he walked. When he’s “regular Eddie,” he’s kind of duck-footed and his posture is different.
Leslie told me that Robert De Niro dropped into the movie while in preproduction. How did that happen? I had met him before, after The Illusionist, and we had talked about doing something together. When it came time to decide who was going to play this powerful, 60-year-old guy in New York, I said, “We can go after Bob.” He read it really quickly and said, “I don’t know if there’s enough for me in here to do.” I had had some ideas about ways to expand that character anyway, so we quickly did them. Leslie wrote a couple of great scenes, and he liked them. And I actually gave another character to Bob’s character.
You merged two characters? I merged two characters. I thought, “How would we make this character more interesting than he was, and more powerful, because he was a natural foil for Bradley Cooper’s character?” There was a short list of people we were allowed to go to. And so it was, “How do you get those people in the movie without hurting it somehow?” And I think we found an elegant solution for it.
Going forward, you occupy kind of an interesting position. Your recent movies have been between studio movies and independent films, and you’re pursuing this path at a time where the industry’s changing tremendously. It’s a little weird right now. For instance, I have another screenplay that De Niro and I want to do. It’s small, but it’s a drama. It’s great — it’s almost Shakespearean in a contemporary way. And it’s no joke trying to get it made in this climate, where nobody wants a drama. And, even if you get it made, do you get a distributor? And if you get a distributor, do they put any money behind it, or does it just languish somewhere? So it’s confusing. On one hand, you just want to go out and make it and let the chips fall where they may.
Do you think about things other than feature films? New media projects? I do, a little bit. Just recently, people have approached me with some TV things, and I’m also shooting and doing some experimental films.
What are the experimental films? They are just returning to some things that I did a long time ago: projecting films on buildings, and things like that. Art pieces. But it is hard right now; it’s such a brutal process to get a film made. At the moment I have a bunch of different projects. The De Niro thing is the small thing, but then there are some opportunities on larger studio movies. It’s an exciting choice, and it’s a privilege to have that choice. But it’s strange because you feel like you have to choose very, very carefully about your career, or else it’s gone around the bend.
LESLIE DIXON ON NURTURING YOUR INNER TARANTINO
By Scott Macaulay
“My paranoia is that people will look at my credits and they won’t think I wrote this film,” screenwriter (and Limitless producer) Leslie Dixon says of her new Neil Burger-directed picture. “I’m a girl, and my previous opportunities have been in romantic comedy, but I am actually a bloodthirsty insane bitch. I’m first in line for the most disgusting Z-grade horror films.” Before I can form a mental image of Dixon reclining in some Hollywood Hills bungalow, a pirated copy of A Serbian Film streaming on her laptop, she continues, “I thought Grindhouse was great, and I like the edgier Scorsese stuff. I like everything Fincher does. It’s insane that my buddy John McTiernan went to jail because I’d be writing for him. My 14-year-old boy and I, we watch Dexter together and scream.”
That Dixon, an A-list Hollywood scribe whose credits include Outrageous Fortune, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Thomas Crown Affair and Freaky Friday, would have a problem scoring gigs writing darker, yet still mainstream, movies seems a bit crazy, but that’s today’s Hollywood, where writers are ruthlessly compartmentalized based on gender, age and past credits. Of the edgier material Dixon delights in as a viewer, “I don’t think people will offer me [these films],” she says. “But needing work is not where I am in my life right now. What turns me on is more important.”
Looking for something that turned her on was how Limitless got started. “Every so often I get depressed by the things people are developing,” she says, “and I go to the Green Apple bookstore in San Francisco. I ask them what’s good just so I can cleanse my palette.” The store recommended Alan Glynn’s The Dark Fields. “I wasn’t looking for a novel to adapt,” she says. “But halfway through I got a weird tingling feeling that ‘this is mine.’”
“The premise of the novel was good,” Dixon says. “What if a loser slacker guy gets a smart drug? I knew an actor would want to play that part. It would be fun to watch out-of-shape, crappy-clothes Bradley Cooper have his girlfriend dump him because he’s a loser and then three weeks later he’s in a fancy suit bamboozling Robert De Niro.”
There was only one problem: Miramax, then run by the Weinsteins, owned the rights. “A Machiavellian state of affairs followed,” she says. “I didn’t want to make the movie there because the company was imploding. And they didn’t know what they had [in the material] — they cut another writer loose after a treatment. I was in Florence, hanging around a church in Santa Croce, and I had my hand on Machiavelli’s tomb. I’m sure it was a complete coincidence, but I woke up in the middle of the night with an idea. I called Harvey [Weinstein] and said, ‘I will write the script for scale but there will be no executive meetings and no interference. If you like it, you get the rights, and if you don’t, you let me have it…. And here’s where I did the bad thing. I turned it in during Cannes. It was a low-profile project they hadn’t paid much for. No one read it and I got back the rights.”
Of her draft, Dixon says the first half follows the book closely, and then it diverges, particularly with regards to the ending. “There are a number of set pieces — the ice-skating sequence, the Russians breaking into his apartment — that are not in the book. And the book ends in a motel room, with [protagonist Eddie Morra] waiting to come down from his pills and die. The audience doesn’t want to see The Panic in Needle Park. This is not a drug movie.”
Once she controlled the rights, Dixon, who wound up producing the film with Scott Kroopf and Ryan Kavanaugh, asked herself, “Could I get a movie to the first day of principal photography without going through the Hollywood development mill?” That mission was complicated slightly by Dixon’s insistence that she “has never wanted to direct. I have wanted to puppeteer a director, but that doesn’t work out. They are the last man standing. But I wanted [the financiers and director] to have to put up with me. I didn’t always get my way, and I respect that. I know what it takes to direct a movie. I just wanted to be able to natter in their ears.”
Dixon and Kroopf signed Burger to direct — an ironic choice since Burger has written all of his previous films. “We had to make an agreement early on that writing wasn’t something he was being hired to do,” she says. “Of course, he had thoughts, and sometimes we argued, but never did it get ugly. I think I am slightly trashy and whorier than he is — playing to the cheap seats. He’s classier — you know, he comes from Connecticut — and that made a good balance. And the moments when he had to be down and dirty, he didn’t flinch. He shot that stuff with relish.”
What’s Dixon’s advice for other typecast screenwriters, those, like her, with “an inner Quentin Tarantino?” “You just have to take the bull by the horns and write something,” she says. “And you have to use your gut as a moviegoer. It’s a dreadful thing to second-guess yourself. Once you start thinking about whether a particular demographic will show up, or what [the studios] might think, you wind up with a movie nobody likes.” As for pleasing the audience generally, Dixon admits, “I am trying to please the person who might have bought a ticket to this thing… if that person was me And not Rush Limbaugh.”