Sarah’s Backstage Pass interviewed director Neil Burger when he was here in Chicago promoting his new film “The Lucky Ones” (2008). A graduate of Yale University and director of the acclaimed movie “The Illusionist” (2006), Burger’s been named by various press outlets as “the director to watch.” His newest feature film, titled “The Lucky Ones,” of which he wrote the screenplay and directed, will be hitting theaters on September 26, 2008. The movie has three big-name stars: Tim Robbins, Rachael McAdams, and Michael Pena. The film centers on three soldiers who are back from Iraq and an unexpected road trip they take together across America.
I met Neil in a lavish suite in the new Trump Tower. To say that the view of the magnificent Chicago skyline from the suite was breathtaking is an understatement! I’ve had the privilege of observing Mr. Burger as a director on the set (I was an extra in the party scene) as he directed Rachel and Michael in their dance scene. It was apparent that his directing technique included input from the actors. He’d ask questions and continue to discuss the scene, sorting out the details. He has a collaborative style with mutual respect between the director and his actors.
Sarah Adamson: I want to thank you for taking the time to meet with me today. I have to tell you that I saw “The Lucky Ones” at a screening in Chicago and I loved it!
Neil Burger: Great, thank you, I also know that you were on the set in Barrington Hills and I remember the weather wasn’t cooperating.
Sarah Adamson: Yes, I remember the rain and they had to keep drying off the dance floor. (I portrayed a party dancer)
Sarah Adamson: I’d like to start by asking you about the advantages of writing a screenplay and then being the one who is actually directs the movie. Can you shed some light on this?
Neil Burger: The advantage of that is you are the author of the movie completely. It often allows you to do what you need to do, and people defer to that, saying, well, he wrote it; he must know what he’s talking about. (Laughing) The problem is sometimes you can get stuck with that original idea, which is actually great, but sometimes you need to just let that go and just go with what is in front of you. When you are purely directing, a director’s role, as you know, is an interruptive role, and you can just really go with the best thing for the scene.
Sarah Adamson: How did you come up with the idea of a road trip for these characters?
Neil Burger: It came up because I wanted to do a movie about ‘America now’, a snapshot of the changing American character and, quite frankly, the changing American landscape. I thought the best way to do it was via a road trip across America, as seen through the eyes of Americans that have been out of the country for some time. It was kind of all encapsulated in the original idea.
Sarah Adamson: Did you ever take a road trip cross country?
Neil Burger: I’ve taken many cross-country trips (local roads; from Connecticut to San Francisco) where I didn’t take the highway the entire time. The difference between these characters is that they are just trying to get to where they are going and needed to take the interstate. They are going as fast as possible, so the trick here was to be true to that and not on some scenic byway.
Sarah Adamson: I have to tell you that I just loved the one scene during the road trip in which Colee who is craving a sense of family and wants the connection simply asks to have a picnic. If all of American could just step back from their busy lives and take a picnic it might serve many purposes.
Neil Burger: Yes, really I’m glad that you liked that part, thank you.
Sarah Adamson: Can you tell me about the casting process for the main three characters? (Tim Robbins plays Cheaver, Rachael McAdams plays Colee and Michael Pena plays TK)
Neil Burger: I had a shortlist of people I was interested in, and they were all on it. Tim was the first person that read the script, and he loved it and wanted to be involved. Rachael was. Next, I really wanted her to do it because I like her work. She’s a really fine actress, and then when I met her, I wanted it all the more just because she has openness as Colee has. Rachael has a sort of gentleness, but on the other hand, she’s tough and has the determination and feistiness of Colee.
Michael really has this animal instinct. He plays an arrogant, tough guy, know it all. Michael’s kind of a cocky guy and really a good athlete. He’s a great basketball player and golfer and also somewhat of a know it all like TK. He’s a very instinctive kind of guy as well.
Sarah Adamson: Yes I remember him on the set at 3:00 am as he was humming a Rocky song and boxing into the air.
Neil Burger: That’s right; you know what I mean because you were on the set.
Sarah Adamson: His acting in the movie is incredible… the timing especially.
Neil Burger: He’s great isn’t he?
Sarah Adamson: I was very impressed with his performance.
Sarah Adamson: The character development is so strong in the movie that at times I forgot that these people just meet, they seem like they’ve known each other for a long time. How do you account for that? Could you tell us about the development?
Neil Burger: Initially, both the characters and actors were strangers. None of the actors knew each other before the filming began. They were stuck in that van 8 hours a day for two-thirds of the movie. Each day they would get out of that van, and they’d go to dinner together or out to listen to music. The next day they’d get up and get back in that van together. These three strangers developed this great bond, as did the characters in the movie. I’d hope that I’d nudged them along in this direction. I also think we just got lucky as well. They have great chemistry.
Sarah Adamson: It’s definitely apparent in the film.
Sarah Adamson: Tim Robbins is one of my all time favorite actors. What was it like to direct him in this movie? He’s such a genius.
Neil Burger: It was good. He’s a really good filmmaker, and it was a pleasure having him on the set. It was great because his Cheaver character becomes the father figure to the younger ones, and in a way, he’s the glue that held the little trio together. He’s a real fun lover as well and he made it fun for them. He’s such a good actor. He just got whatever I asked him to do and many times did it in an incredibly subtle way. He’s such a pro.
Sarah Adamson: Did he amaze you at times?
Neil Burger: Oh yeah, all the time! Like in one of the scenes, a small reaction was needed, and he would do it with just a look. You would get it all by knowing what it’s like to be that guy. I still really enjoy re-watching his performance. I see new things all the time.
Sarah Adamson: I love the way that you included several comments from varied Americans the threesome meet along the way concerning their appreciation for the job they are doing for their country and their reactions. What were you hoping to achieve by doing this?
Neil Burger: I think there is still a fundamental disconnect between the soldiers that have been away and the people back home. The people back home have all been living their lives either by making money, self-actualizing, or other things that we are interested in. These guys find that they are strangers in their own land. The movie really is about America now and the disconnect these people feel.
Sarah Adamson: I like that, “America Now”. I always ask this question last and it varies depending upon the person being interviewed. What advice do you have for young aspiring writers or directors?
Neil Burger: Determination, determination, determination… You just have to keep at it as it can be very thankless and you need to be very self critical but not be delusional because maybe it’s really not for you. Although if it’s really you, then you’ll need to walk a fine line without beating up on yourself either. It’s hairy, almost like winning the lottery, as it’s a hard thing to work for, but if that’s what you want, then that’s what you need to do.
Sarah Adamson: Thank you so much and best of luck with the film.
Sarah Knight Adamson© August 2008
*Author’s note: I screened “The Lucky Ones” at the Lake Street screening room with the press in Chicago, which included Roger Ebert. I was wondering if I’d be seen in the film or not. When the dance scene came on, I smiled as that was the first time I’ve seen myself in a film and nudged my brother Richard Knight Jr., who was sitting next to me. Later during lunch, my satirical brother said, “You should have stood up and taken a bow.”
*As a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association at that time, I was not allowed to review the film as I was a paid extra in “The Lucky Ones.” The by-laws of our group prohibit reviews of any films in which you worked or are involved with.
Here’s Roger Ebert’s ★★★ review: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-lucky-ones-2008