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Shailene Woodley, Theo James and more take us inside the world of 'Divergent'

Shailene Woodley and Theo James
Shailene Woodley and Theo James
Summit Entertainment

“Divergent” (directed by Neil Burger and based on the best-selling book series by Veronica Roth) is an action-adventure film set in a world (specifically, a dystopian Chicago) where people are divided into distinct factions based on human virtues. Tris Prior (played by Shailene Woodley) is warned she is Divergent and will never fit into any one group. When she discovers a conspiracy by a faction leader (played by Kate Winslet) to destroy all Divergents, Tris must learn to trust in the mysterious Four (played by Theo James), and together they must find out what makes being Divergent so dangerous before it's too late.

Neil Burger, Shailene Woodley, Theo James and Veronica Roth at the 2013 Comic-Con International press conference for "Divergent" in San Diego
Carla Hay

Regardless of how people feel about the movie, “Divergent” (which is also an IMAX film) stays very faithful to Roth’s book of the same name. Vanessa Taylor and Evan Daugherty co-wrote the “Divergent” screenplay. In July 2013, public got a sneak preview of clips from “Divergent” at Comic-Con International in San Diego. Several stars from “Divergent” held a press conference at Comic-Con. Here is what Woodley, James, Burger and Roth said at the press conference.

Neil, what’s it been like to work on this grand of a scale on a movie like “Divergent”?

Burger: What I liked about it was Veronica’s book, obviously. For a director, what’s wonderful is to try to create a new world that’s set in the future, and create all that visually. But really, what I liked, and what was at the heart of it, were the human elements of this young woman’s journey.

Yes, it’s based on a young adult story, but I felt like it was a universal story about, “Where do I belong? Who am I? Who am I loyal to? Am I loyal to my family? Am I loyal to myself? What am I really willing to go out on a limb for?” I liked all those ideas, and I thought that they were, in her book, really tightly tied to the action about what happens.

And then, I felt like it expanded out to something much larger, which was, “How do you keep a society together?” In the beginning, it seems like they’ve figured it out. They’ve got this five-faction system, which is kind of a cool idea. They seem to be living in peace and harmony because of it.

And then, it all starts to fall apart. I liked how the character of Tris goes through all of that. And I liked the fear landscapes. I thought they were really cool.

Shailene, you worked with Miles Teller in "The Spectacular Now" How was it to work with him again in "Divergent" And was it to work on a green screen?

Woodley: Working with Miles again? It was awesome! Miles is great. Green-screen acting is, by far, way more difficult than human interaction. It was a big learning lesson, on this movie. It was really fun. I’ve never done a movie of this scale before, with themes this big and a world that’s completely different from the world that we live in today.

So a lot of it was challenging for me, I found, because I had to erase my preconceived notions of what I was used to, acting in movies, which is generally reacting off of somebody else and creating a new world, and adapt my style of artistry to the style that this movie lent itself to. It was really exciting. Veronica created such an amazing world, and then Neil visually brought it to fruition in a way that I could have never imagined it. We’re so lucky to be pieces in the puzzle of this dystopian future.

Shailene and Theo, have you auditioned for any other of the big movie franchises?

Woodley: I did audition for “The Hunger Games,” back in the day. ["The Hunger Games" star] Jen Lawrence actually helped me with “Divergent.” I still have yet to meet her, but I asked her about her experience with “The Hunger Games” and how her life has changed, and going from small independent movies to something as big as “The Hunger Games.”

And she gave me a really beautiful advice. She said how much she appreciated it and how much it’s changed her life in positive ways. She really helped me on this journey, initially.

James: I went for "Star Wars" — the new one — as Chewbacca’s son. It’s an integral role, so cross your fingers.

Veronica, how much of “Divergent” was influenced by your own faith and philosophy?

Roth: I’ve always thought of “Divergent” as an indictment of myself, because the virtues are based on how I would form my own personal utopia, if I were arranging a utopia, it would be a world where everyone holds themselves accountable and is responsible for their actions. These are the virtues I would choose.

And then the process of writing the book was seeing that I would be a terrible God of the universe. Just don’t do it. Don’t give me that responsibility. That’s kind of where the world and all those virtues come from — just from a very personal place.

What would be in your own personal fear landscape?

Burger: Like right now? You are in our fear landscape.

Roth: Lots of bugs.

James: Hummus, probably, in some kind of way. Basically, just various dips that you can put pita bread in.

Woodley: [Tris] gets pecked by crows. That’s pretty terrifying. I would not like that, at all.

Roth: My mom picked the crows. Did you know that?

Woodley: Did she?

Roth: I said, "Spiders or crows?" She said, "Crows."

Woodley: I think that’s worse than spiders. That’s awful. I’m not into that idea.

Roth: Yeah, way creepier.

There are positives and negatives that come with a high-profile movie like “Divergent.” What made this movie worth it for you?

Woodley: The whole anonymity thing is a very interesting concept. I think if you live the life that you want to life, and you are the person that you want to be, there’s really not a lot to be afraid of and there’s really not a lot of negatives. You can create a life outside of yourself that this industry is able to infiltrate, but then you can create a life inside of yourself that nobody has access to. So I’m just excited.

James: I’m extremely scared, yeah. Every day, I wake up very scared. No. It’s definitely a question you have to really contemplate. You have to be sure you want to do it. If you’re entering something that already has a fan base and has people invested in it and has books, that Veronica wrote, that are great pieces of work, as long as you put everything into it and try to make a movie that you are proud of, then the rest hopefully will come with it and people will be as proud of it as we are.

We literally finished two days ago, so we’re very fresh off it and we feel very proud of it and are very excited for people to see, in Hall H, this piece of footage that Neil and the guys put together. When you’re doing a movie, you know what you’ve done and you know what your colleagues have done, and you’ve seen bits and bobs, but it’s when you see something cut is when it’s really gratifying. You say, “Oh, OK, now I see it, in the context of the world.” You can see that it’s going to be a really strong piece of work.

Shailene, did you read the “Divergent” book before you started filming the movie?

Woodley: I definitely read the book. I read the book before there was a script that I read. Luckily for me, it was written from Tris’ point of view. Veronica did a lot of the work for me. Before scenes, I would go back to the book and see what Veronica put in there, in Tris’ mind, to understand the mind-set of each scene. That really helped me a lot, to get into the emotional stature of where Tris was in that particular process.

Veronica, you did a press conference here at Comic-Con in 2011. How does it feel to be back here now?

Roth: Man, it's crazy! Two years ago, I did a very brief press conference. I was scared out of my mind. I was a table just like this, and it was just me. I was like, "OK, how's this going to go?"

But this year, it's just so exciting to have something to share with people, and to have that something be so awesome, I think." Yeah, I'm really excited for everyone to see this footage, and I'm really excited to see them get to talk to these wonderful people. It's all been great.

Veronica, did you high school have factions or cliques that influenced "Divergent"?

Roth: My high school wasn't one of those easily dividable high schools. I was a nerd, I guess. This [Comic-Con] is a great place to be a nerd! Comic-Con? Bring it on!

Shailene and Theo, what did you admire most about “Divergent” characters?

James: I had an affinity with the character from the very first time I read anything on it. He was different to me because he had a very grounded, quiet sense of masculinity, which I don’t think you see much these days. In my mind, the character is reminiscent of those old movie stars, like Paul Newman — this strong sense of masculinity without having to show it, and who are watchful and intelligent, but also encompassing all of those traits of someone with strength and a strong sense of being.

Woodley: I really admire Tris’ sense of selflessness. She grew up with that, and it was ingrained in her from a very young age. That is a trait that we could use a lot more of, in the world today. I think that, coupled with the bravery that she’s forced to call upon makes for a really profound complexity. I really found her admirable.

Theo, since you weren’t on many “Divergent” readers’ radar for this role, what was it like to come into this film?

James: It was good, actually, for me because I came in late. They had been looking for a long time to fulfill that spot, and they hadn’t found anyone. As soon as I went in, and I met Neil and Shai, it was a very natural fit. It happened very quickly.

And that is gratifying because I knew that they had invested in me and found something that they had been looking for, for a long time. That’s a good place to be in because you feel safe, and you feel gratified and wanted. He’s a tough character to find because he is young, but he’s an old soul. He has a lot of complexities. So it was good.

Shailene, did you read the “Divergent” book before you started filming the movie?

Woodley: I definitely read the book. I read the book before there was a script that I read. Luckily for me, it was written from Tris’ point of view. Veronica did a lot of the work for me. Before scenes, I would go back to the book and see what Veronica put in there, in Tris’ mind, to understand the mindset of each scene. That really helped me a lot, to get into the emotional stature of where Tris was.

Neil, how true to the “Divergent” book is the film?

Burger: I think it’s going to be very true to the book, actually. Obviously, a movie is a different beast than a book. The great challenge of making this movie was to try to fit as much of the book into it. There are so many characters in the book that have their function and that are beloved, and there are so many great set pieces.

There are too many, really, to fit into a movie, but we really worked hard to squeeze them all in and to come up with an idea for a movie that was even more fast-paced than usual and more condensed than usual. There are three villains. Tris has got a whole set of friends, and then there’s her relationship with her parents and with Jeanine Matthews.

There’s a lot going on in the book, and there’s going to be a lot going on in the movie. It’s very faithful to it. Obviously, certain things are smoothed out or combined to make one essential, dramatic journey in the movie, where there might have been more turns in the book, but it’s pretty faithful, which is exciting.

Theo, is it true that you’re also a singer?

James: Wow, I thought you were going to ask me to sing. Yes, on the side I like to do that. That is something I’ve done since I was very young. I did music at college. So yeah, it’s part of my thing. It’s a good way to purge yourself of one kind of work sphere and dive into something else.

Burger: [He says jokingly] It’s an a cappella group, right?

James: [He says jokingly] Yeah, a cappella hip-hop with Euro hose beats. I just dance naked in red hot pants.

Burger: [He says jokingly] You’re ruining this panel.

Veronica, was there any scene in the “Divergent” movie that you felt was exactly as how you envisioned it when you wrote it in the book?

Roth: The scene that felt the most familiar was the Ferris wheel, because it is the Ferris wheel that is in Chicago that I wrote about. They were climbing that Ferris wheel, on the ladder that I researched to make sure it was there.

I was like, “Oh, this is exactly right!” A lot of it felt very familiar, because as Neil said, it’s very faithful [to the book]. I was trying to think of pivotal scenes that had been cut the other day. I don’t think I can remember any.

Shailene and Theo, what was the very best day for you on the “Divergent” set?

Woodley: There were a lot of good days, to be honest, but the Ferris wheel day was pretty special. It was a night shoot, and we climbed this Ferris wheel for probably 12 hours, 13 hours straight, in the middle of the night. And it was also a full moon and the first super moon of the year, which I'm such a geek of.

Burger: It was 38 degrees outside as well.

Woodley: It was so beautiful, to watch the moon go across. It was just a magical moment in life. And how often do you get to climb a Ferris wheel? You never do. That was probably one of my favorite moments in life.

James: That was special. The climactic scene of the movie is when Four has been put under this serum and he’s not himself, and Tris comes to save the day. There’s a fight scene between them, and then she essentially wakes him up through love.

It was a very powerful scene, and we were both sweating. I had my hands around Tris/Shai’s neck, and there’s this moment where we just connect that felt very real. It’s a great way of adding emotionality to a big action set piece. I think it’s going to be a really beautiful part of the movie.

Woodley: I agree.

For more info: "Divergent" website

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