Strolling around Manhattan’s Chinatown and Central Park, where he filmed scenes from his new film “Limitless,” director Neil Burger is reliving his movie’s arc. And his career. Which may not be all that far apart.
“I always think about what’s the difference between being tenacious and having an inability to learn from failures,” he says on the warm Saturday in March, reflecting on his checkerboard directing path. “The difference between the homeless guy who wanted to be a great painter and the guy who is a great painter could be anything. It could be something small, like he dropped his keys at the right time and looked up and saw the gallery owner on the street. Or it could be something you never even find out about.”
In “Limitless,” based on Alan Glynn’s techno-thriller novel “The Dark Fields,” a schlubby, down-on-his-luck New York writer named Eddie (Bradley Cooper) stumbles onto that small thing in a brief, chance encounter with his former brother-in-law, who gives him a drug called NZT. A miracle street narcotic in the form of a translucent pill, NZT enhances mental performance beyond any reasonable expectation. (Yes, it’s fictional.) Before long, Eddie has not only shaken off his writer’s block but taken the financial world by storm — all so quickly he’s barely become aware of the drug’s physical toll or the goons who want to get their hands on it, and him.
But as much as “Limitless,” which opens Friday, contemplates the emotional and ethical implications of a mental-enhancement drug — “instead of a nose job, a brain job,” in Burger’s coinage — its real preoccupation is the value and cost of success. And Burger, sans NZT, knows from these themes.
Tall, with a patrician bearing and a thatch of dignified gray hair, the 48-year-old director radiates a calm that comes from going through the Hollywood ringer. He’s moved from anonymous commercial work, to the critically acclaimed “The Illusionist,” to the box office disappointment “The Lucky Ones.” In between were numerous projects that never got off the ground.
“I definitely would get to the point where I felt like this is never going to happen, and I didn’t quite get what’s wrong. Or how to make it right,” he said, recounting his feelings during those nadirs (Cooper said in an interview that he and Burger would converse on-set about their early-career peaks and valleys.).
A suburban Connecticut childhood spent drawing fictional worlds — space colonies and the like — led the director to a fine-arts education at Yale University. It might seem like a charmed life, but soon after graduation he had moved to Los Angeles and found himself, like many struggling young filmmakers, in a dismal existence, living next to people like a “washed-up makeup artist who’s in the business, but not really.”
Burger caught a break in 1991 when he pitched MTV on a group of public-service shorts about reading. That begat a series of television-commercial gigs, even though he knew the medium didn’t suit someone interested in longer-form storytelling. The director continued with a fruitful but largely anonymous advertising career for years, mostly from New York, where he has lived for the last 15 years with his wife and, now, their two children. As his film career remained stagnant, he even developed a script about a man forced to move back in with his parents after a failure. That movie didn’t get made either.
In the early 2000s Burger scraped together money for his first feature, the microbudget JFK conspiracy-theory mockumentary “Interview With the Assassin.” It garnered some nice reviews but didn’t exactly launch him onto Hollywood’s radar.
That changed in 2006 with his second movie, “The Illusionist,” a turn-of-the-20th-century murder-mystery about rival Vienna magicians that was a critical and box-office success. At 43, Burger was now seen as a director who could handle even difficult period material with a commercial sure-handedness. His worrying seemed a thing of the past.
Then in 2007, he made “The Lucky Ones,” a road-trip dramedy with antiwar overtones, starring Tim Robbins as one of a trio of soldiers home from the front. But with similar films such as “In the Valley of Elah,” “Rendition” and “Stop-Loss” crashing every week, studio Lionsgate stuck Burger’s movie on the shelf. When “The Lucky Ones” was finally released in September 2008, it flopped. “I understand from a business perspective where they [Lionsgate] were coming from,” Burger said of the dithering. “But it was incredibly depressing.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, “Limitless” feels like the work of someone who’s been hoarding ambitious visual ideas, even if he had only about $27 million to bring them to life. In the more intense drug scenes, viewers are given terminal-velocity zooms around Manhattan and flashy changes in lighting, stylish tricks meant to portray the effect of a mysterious pharmaceutical.
“ ‘The llusionist’ is very controlled period piece and there are certain dictates to that. This seemed like a wild story,” Burger said. “The great challenge and fun of it was to show visually what it was like to have inspiration from the drug.”
Even though Burger has been on the Hollywood roller-coaster before, he can’t conceal his fears about the next loop as he awaits the critical and box-office response to “Limitless” — when he sees an ad on a taxi for a movie opening the same day, for example, he voices his worry about the competition. But it’s more than the fact that “Limitless” is a comeback attempt — from the day he read the script, he said, he felt it scratch at his own anxieties.
“There was something I responded to about an artist with this dream of success, and it’s just not happening and it’s never going to happen,” Burger recalled. “And you never know: Is it that you don’t have it, whatever it is, or lightning just hasn’t struck?”