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Pure Human: Neil Burger on Voyagers

Back in 2002, the screenwriters, directors, and show runners Brian Koppelman and David Levien, now the masterminds behind Showtime’s series “Billions,” asked me to come to a screening of a new film they produced. I was interested, but at the time I wasn’t living right, and was weary, and tried to beg off. This leads into a long story in which Spike Lee figures prominently and which I’ll save for my autobiography. In any event, I was persuaded to see the movie, “Interview with the Assassin,” written and directed by Neil Burger, and I’m still awful glad I did. The faux-documentary, concerning an errant journalist who’s convinced he’s discovered the man who “really” assassinated John F. Kennedy, is a tricky, smart, harrowing and provocative piece of filmmaking. Subsequently I got to know Burger, a personable gentleman with a great eye and story sense. And while I’ve enjoyed all his films, which also includes hits such as the YA sci-fi entry “Divergent” and the big-brain-pharma cautionary tale “Limitless,” I’m especially excited when Burger’s working from his own ideas, which can yield such gems as the criminally underappreciated 2007 picture “The Lucky Ones.” So I was excited in late 2019 about “Voyagers,” an original sci-fi picture he had shot in Romania with a cast that features Colin Farrell, Tye Sheridan, Lily-Rose Depp, and Fionn Whitehead.

The picture begins familiarly: in the future, Earth has become uninhabitable. A ship will travel to a new home. The question of how actual people are going to be able to step on a habitable planet that’ll take so many years to get to is solved, in part, by making the ship’s own voyagers children. Farrell plays an adult who volunteers to look after them, knowing he’ll spend his whole life confined to the ship. Sheridan, Depp, Whitehead and an all-around excellent ensemble of young actors are the rest of the ship’s inhabitants. As they grow up, and discover things about their upbringing and their mission that they were not meant to know, at least not right away, conflicts emerge. So do power struggles. Things get ugly and then deadly.

I spoke with Neil about the picture a couple of weeks ago. The conversation has been edited for clarity—but not very much, given Neil’s own clarity.

I want to talk about “Voyagers,” and talk about your journey in film, as we call it. To tie in your journey in film and this specific film itself, which I like a great deal, this is the first film you’ve done from an original idea in a while, no? 

It is. Yeah, I mean the first couple I did—“Interview with the Assassin” was original. I wrote it and directed it. “The Illusionist” was based on a very short story that I expanded quite a bit, and wrote the screenplay. “The Lucky Ones” was an original idea that I co-wrote, and then I ended up just doing a bunch of movies in a row that other people had brought to me. And so yes, this is a return to working from an original idea.

Some of the pictures you didn’t generate from your own ideas were franchises. I know from knowing you that during all this time you continued developing projects that you wanted to do, that you generated, but didn’t happen. How did you get equanimity in terms of work? Doing work that you can do and bringing your passion to it, obviously, and doing work that is closer to your heart but have that scale that needs a strong sort of studio backing. Did your attitude for this come from your background in ads, or how do you get the sort of serenity to move from project to project? And how did you make sure that you’ve got a personal one like “Voyagers” done?

Well, I had done advertising, you know, shot commercials initially, but my background before that was as a painter. And so I very much had that sense of what I'm making being my own personal expression. But as you said, I was always working on different things, and some of them rise to the top and some of them are too difficult to get made, or the actors don't come, or they fall apart at the last minute. I do think it’s important to keep working. And I feel like everything I’ve done I'm incredibly proud of, and I felt actually a personal relationship to, even something like “Divergent,” which is about a young woman in this sort of dystopic future. I was completely with her and her journey was really meaningful to me, and I couldn’t have done it otherwise. I couldn’t have created a visual palette for it or anything else, let alone a narrative one, without feeling incredibly deeply about it.

And at the same time, yeah, I'm always writing and developing things for me to do. It’s hard to get movies made. You see filmmakers who make one after another that’s just theirs and it’s a very rare, lucky thing, and certainly something I'm always shooting for. And I’m happy to have, again, gotten back to a place where I wrote and directed and produced this and controlled it.

“Voyagers” has a very tricky plot, but a viewer might not realize watching it the first time, how so much of it is driven by the characterizations and what they represent. The first person we really get to know is Colin Farrell’s character who’s super interesting; he really does represent the dictionary definition of altruism, in that he’s getting on this ship and sacrificing a part of himself and his life in order to help these kids. And not to reveal any spoilers, but the best laid plans don't always work out. I'm wondering what the inspiration for that was.

Yeah. I think Colin’s character, Richard, has a real sort of thematic function in the sense that he does represent goodness and selflessness and self-sacrifice. And that’s very much a theme in the movie—why should we be good? If we’re all going to die in the end anyway, why can't we just do whatever we want anytime, without regard to how it affects any other people? It’s a potent question, you know, that we all deal with in small forms or large forms all the time. Nations deal with it, individuals deal with it. And he represents the version of selflessness. He really gives to these kids and, as you said, he sacrifices, really, the rest of his life for their well-being. And it actually is the thing that throws the switch of the storyline, too. If he hadn’t gone, the mission actually probably would’ve been okay. Because as good as he is, he’s also human and what the kids pick up from him, include his secrets and his own doubts about the mission. They sense it, and it has an effect on them.

And when they sense it, they started to lose their faith in him, and their trust in him. They think that he wasn’t telling them the full truth, which he wasn’t and isn’t. That’s the beginning of the collapse.

There’s a point in the film where the male teens discover they’re being fed something to make their hormones less rampage-prone. It reminds one of the old days of seafaring and saltpeter. And after that there’s a lot of scenes that look at it in that nature versus nurture, and the old saw about boys will be boys, and the old saw about how life, more specifically sex, will find a way. And these are all huge issues. Was your initial inspiration the themes, the story, or the characters? 

Well, I started off with some images in my head, actually, some things that just kind of came to me, which is often the way it works with me. And the first one that came into my head was just these young people kind of slumped around the inside of a very tight spaceship, or that’s what I gathered it to be … but in some sort of futuristic setting. They were kind of almost looking like they were resting after the hunt or something like that, and kind of in a disheveled state. And then the next image was chasing this kid down this narrow hall and catching him and attacking him. Those images are in the movie, but when I thought of those, well, they came to me and I was like, “What is that?” And I sort of thought about them more, and I kind of began to tease it out into a narrative idea.

So out of those images, like a small scenario, and then a story, and then I understood; to me, those images became about human nature in a vacuum. And about who are we at our core, when we strip away all of our cultural influences? Whether you can really do that or not is another thing, but the concept of doing that: do we have a core set of values, a core set of sensibilities? Who are we? Are we good? Are we bad? Are we just animals? Are we evil? Do we tend to the good? And so I wanted the movie to be an exploration of that sort of, as I said, human—is there such a thing as being a pure human?

When you talk about the imagery, this brings me to the design of the film. You’ve got them in this space that has a lot of components to it, but by necessity it’s practically claustrophobic. And so your own sense of visual design—obviously in sci-fi there are lots of precedents for the large scale space travel, going from “2001” to “Silent Running” and beyond. How did you work on the design, and how was the design accomplished? You shot in Europe, yes?

We shot in Romania because we needed really big stages. I wanted the ship to feel real. You know, there obviously are real plans for going on multi-generational space flight and they involve a whole range of different sort of ships. But basically it’s very expensive, and it’s very energy intensive and the weight is a huge factor: the heavier you are, the more fuel it takes. So we tried to sort of think about the ship as kind of confined and small. And that they only have the bare minimum on the ship for eating, for sustaining life. So that was my initial idea; that it would be tight and it would confined. It wouldn’t be like a shopping mall in space or something like that, which you see in other sci-fi films these days. It’s just not practical.

I wanted a kind of minimalism with the design, and I wanted it to be believable, that they’re in these narrow corridors that lead to these cramped compartments, and that’s where they live, that’s where they’re stuck living. And I also had this idea—again, going back to the idea of human nature in a vacuum—they’re like laboratory rats. The voyage is an experiment in a sense. So I wanted the look of the thing to be very clean and minimal, and so I decided it’s all going to be white. It’s just going to be white walls and white floor and white ceiling, which is—for DPs they’re like, “Not white. Please don't give me white.” And I was like, “No, we’re doing white and we’re going to make it work.”

The ship is a character, but not because it’s got sort of spooky backwaters or things like that. It’s a character because it’s so intensely minimal and confined. So I also wanted to highlight that human nature by its minimalism. And same with the design of what the kids are wearing; just simple blue sort of T-shirts and sweatpants.

Right, it’s white and blue. Even the weapons are white, and you’ve got the blue light reflecting off the white, which maybe mollified your DP a bit.

It did a little bit, yeah.

In developing the story, did you realize that you’ve got something, potentially, in a sub-genre here, e.g., almost YA in space? YA sci-fi, which is where “Divergent” also landed you.

Yeah, sure.

Having done “Divergent” were you comfortable to take that flight?

Well, it’s interesting because I have to admit that I wrote “Voyagers” so long ago, it was before “Divergent” and “Hunger Games” and things like that. And at the time I was like, “Uh, what a good idea.” But then as time went on I was like, “Uh, maybe I don't want to make this because now it’s being done,” and also there were more space movies that were being done, “Gravity” and things like that. And I thought, “Well, maybe this is sort of past its expiration date.” But when I did do “Divergent” I must say working with a huge group of young people was really one of the greatest pleasures, and one of the things I'm most proud of in that movie is that cast. 

So once “Voyagers” started coming around again and it was like, “Uh, somebody wants to make this,” I got excited about it again. What’s interesting about a genre movie like this is that you actually can go right at the themes we were talking about. I mean, you can really ask those questions outright, which in a way, in other stories, you can’t quite do. The theme sort of emanates. But here we’re going right at it. I really welcomed the freedom to be able to go right at those thematic questions.

Tell me about the cast, because it’s pretty powerful acting from everybody involved. How did you assemble those folks?

Well, I mean luckily they responded to the script. I think the first person we had on was Colin Farrell. He really responded to the humanity of Richard’s character and the idea of a guy that in a way is packing for eternity. And what are the most essential things you bring with you? How do you bring the library of Alexandria with you, or some version of that? What volumes from that go with you?

And then Tye came on, and then I met Lily-Rose. She knocked me out. I think she’s so good in the movie. Yeah, she really has something. And Tye is such a solid actor. And Fionn Whitehead came on—they all came and they all auditioned. Isaac Hempstead Wright came in and he read for that part and it was like he had it, you know?

And Archie Madekwe is a great actor, and Madison Hu—I mean they’re all so strong and it was such a pleasure because they’re wise and talented beyond their years. You can just point the camera at them and they are fantastic.

I want to talk about Fionn Whitehead’s character, Zac, a little bit. Once he gets the first taste of power, he just turns, and it’s pedal to the metal all the way. And you don't let him get a soft moment after that. It’s very extreme and I'm wondering if you felt that, given the political situation of the time when you were shooting it, you had the license to just make such an outright villain? He becomes such a demagogic monster with almost no redeeming qualities. I think in maybe a different context that might have seemed excessive.

Well, from Zac’s point of view, he’s been confined in this ship against his will, not really knowing anything else, with no control over his life. And he’s smart enough that he senses that there’s something wrong about that. Obviously we know there’s something wrong about that, but his particular circumstance he doesn’t necessarily know anything different. But he’s smart enough to know that there is something wrong there. And so once he gets a taste of control and of power—and I don't mean power over people, not immediately, but just a little control over his existence—he’s not going back. He’s going to eat what he wants, he’s going to have sex with who he wants, he’s going to do what he wants, and it just snowballs.

But you’re right. The movie’s very much about fear and fear mongering and how fear can be used by people for their own ends to get what they want. And obviously we have seen that in the political context. When I wrote it, I’d written that character before the last few years of the political life, and I sort of saw it more as a cautionary tale against willful ignorance, against irrational behavior or against rationality. Suddenly it was meaning a whole new thing. It suddenly was not a cautionary tale, it was just commentary on what was going on right now. He was always that character, but it took on more resonance. There’s a moment where he knows he’s done something wrong, but he just chooses never to concede or to go back. And there are people like that.

I love how in so many of your films you are able to have this sort of sneaky undercurrent of narrative that keeps you off-balance. There’s a component concerning a menace to the ship that we as audience members will find … open to question.

Right, right.

And of course at a certain point in the narrative you do get unavoidable echoes of Lord of the Flies, albeit with now you’ve got all genders in the ensemble, which creates, certainly a good amount of difference. Were you comfortable with that influence or did you try to steer away from it?

I was comfortable with that. I love that book and I love the Peter Brook movie. It’s interesting, though, because whenever you do a movie about young people sort of acting out, or society breaking down you get the inevitable Lord of the Flies comparison. It is obviously related to that. It’s different though, if you factor in what they were reverting, which was clearly the cultural stereotypes of their time, of the British Empire, of war and of hunting, of being a man in society according to that code. In “Voyagers” it’s different in the sense that the kids they have no reference. So then it’s, again, back to this idea of what’s pure human. Who are we? What should we be doing? Do we act out? Do we grab somebody? Do we hit somebody if they make us mad, if we have that urge, or do we contain that?

Those are sort of the things that I was interested in. I was also very much looking at “Das Boot” because I liked the confinement of that, and I always sort of saw this movie as, well, obviously not a submarine movie, but I liked the sort of quality that a movie such as “Das Boot” has—of forced confinement and the almost literal pressure cooker created by that. Those were some of the influences, but yes I mean the Lord of the Flies is there. And there’s even some direct references to lines and things like that. I just decided to go for it, and I thought it was a meaningful place to depart from, to step up from, you know?

You’ve shot in Europe before, but Romania is probably new to you?

It is. We hadn’t shot in Romania. We shot in Romania because Romania has enormous stages that were not being used. In a way, I mean, obviously people have been shooting in Romania recently, but nobody had really been using these stages at Buftea Studio for a while. And they’re massive—as big as anything that’s at Pinewood, and they were just dormant. We did a little bit of work on patching roofs and things like that, fixing up office space and dressing rooms.

Again, it was supposed to be a small spaceship, but it’s still big and massive and has lots of things in it. So with stages 300 feet long and 100 feet high we could really get that done. 

"Voyagers" arrives in theaters tomorrow, April 9.

Glenn Kenny

Glenn Kenny was the chief film critic of Premiere magazine for almost half of its existence. He has written for a host of other publications and resides in Brooklyn. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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