It’s a couple of days before his movie, “Limitless,” opens, and director Neil Burger is nibbling at sashimi in a restaurant, pondering a question of whether he’s got more at stake with his latest film.
“‘Interview with the Assassin’ got me some attention’ – and with ‘The Illusionist,’ it felt like there was more at stake,” the 48-year-old director says. “With this one, I know what it is: It’s a fun ride that I know people will enjoy. I hope it does well – but I feel like it’s a little out of my hands.”
It was out of his hands – but it also did well. “Limitless” opened at No. 1 at the box office this past weekend, outdistancing the weekend’s other newcomers (“The Lincoln Lawyer” and “Paul”), as well such holdovers as “Rango” and “Battle: Los Angeles.”
From the man who made seemingly personal films such as “The Illusionist” and “The Lucky Ones” – films he wrote and directed – being a director for hire on a popcorn movie like “Limitless” seems out of character for Burger.
“It’s not out of character,” Burger protests. “It’s right in character. For one thing, I like a story that’s a crazy and wild ride. And, really, it’s not so different from my other movies. There is a thematic thread that connects them.
“They’re all about a character who feels powerless in the world and has the opportunity to do something about it. Whether they’re doing the right thing or not, they’re challenging the limits of their moral identity. All four of my films have been about power, whether overtly or not.”
“Limitless” stars Bradley Cooper as Eddie, a struggling writer whose life is a shambles – until he stumbles across a pill that allows him to use his entire brain (and not just the 10 or 20 percent that myth would have us believe we use). But that puts him into a variety of jackpots, including becoming the target of thugs who are after the drug itself. And he comes to the attention of an investment shark (played by Robert De Niro), who wants to tap into his ability but can’t tolerate failure.
“I was editing ‘The Lucky Ones’ and the studio and the producer came to me,” Burger says. “I wrote my last three films but this one was by Leslie Dixon and I liked it. I was looking to do something bigger, something a little more free-wheeling, something where I could let loose.”
Still, for a studio picture, it wasn’t exactly an extravaganza: “It cost $26 million, which, by Hollywood standards, is low-budget,” he says. “Given the number of locations and visual effects, we were running and gunning.”
The biggest challenge? To find a visual equivalent to what Eddie feels when he takes NZT, the underground drug that ramps him up.
“How did he see the world? How did he process information? That was the challenge and the fun,” Burger says. “We wanted visual effects that felt organic and emotionally connected to what he was feeling. We wanted to figure out how to get into his head and do it in a fresh way.”
The film raises questions about the efficacy and morality of taking a drug like NZT. Eddie discovers that the drug threatens his health – and tampers with his own sense of who he is.
“To me, the question is not whether you would do what Eddie does – it’s the ethical question, which is unending,” Burger says. “Is it worth the risks to your health – and your moral identity? It’s not a question of ‘I’m disabled and I need relief.’ It’s closer to steroids, the way athletes use them. So then you have the question: Who hit the home run? The athlete – or the steroids?
“If you had a drug like this and it meant you could cure cancer or solve the world’s problems, then I have no problems with that. Otherwise, it’s a thorny issue. And that’s forgetting about the side effects. All these things have side effects. You put a chemical in your body and you throw the dice. Luckily, this is just fiction.”