Screenwriter Leslie Dixon is known best for her comedic writing in films like “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Overboard,” but when she read Alan Glynn’s thrilling novel The Dark Fields, she was captivated by the story of Eddie Morra, a down-and-out writer who takes a miracle drug which allows him to reach his true potential. Eddie quickly rises into the world of the rich and famous, but he captures the attention of a shadowy group that will stop at nothing to keep this secret to success under wraps.
After acquiring the rights to adapt Glynn’s book herself, Dixon sold her screenplay to Relativity Media, which brought on Neil Burger (“The Illusionist”) to direct the film. Dixon and Burger agreed immediately that their first choice for the role of Eddie was Bradley Cooper, and they set out to shoot “Limitless” in New York City. I had the opportunity to speak with both Leslie Dixon and Neil Burger about how they got interested in the project, about their respective creative processes, and about production in New York City.
Evan Crean: Leslie, it seems like the majority of your writing is comedy so what in particular got you interested in doing a thriller?
Leslie Dixon: Well, I had always wanted to. There were two things: I worked with John McTiernan on ‘Thomas Crown Affair,’ and he had done ‘Die Hard,’ he’s a really good director. And it turned my thinking around about what I was capable of. He was very encouraging of my working on action sequences and didn’t seem to think that I had limits in terms of what I was able to do. He’s a tough old bastard and he was hard on me and it was good that he was.
I came out of that experience with a desire to write completely different types of movies than the ones that I had been doing, but it’s not like people were laying those out at my feet as job offers. People don’t think of women really, Katherine Bigelow to the contrary, for thriller writing assignments. I knew I was just going to have to write something to show people that I could do it if I wanted to work in that genre. I also realized I wasn’t writing the kind of things that I was first in line to buy a ticket to. I actually really like visceral films; I like everything that Fincher does, and I like Quentin Tarantino…My stomach will tolerate just about anything, so why not write something in that vein?
EC: How did you know that Neil was the right director for this project?
LD: I liked his sense of storytelling in ‘The Illusionist,’ but actually it was his first film made for very little money, ‘Interview with the Assassin’ which had this terrible, intense, jittery, jump out of your skin feeling from the very first shot, that I knew he could do this in a fun way.
EC: I was just going down your filmography and I saw that there are a couple of actors there that pop up in some of your movies more than once; John Travolta, Bette Midler, and Kirstie Alley. Is it mostly coincidental or do you like working with them?
LD: The John thing is coincidental because who in the hell would ever say that John is the first person we think of to put on a dress and play Edna Turnblatt? That was the brilliance of Craig (Zadan) and Neil’s (Meron) idea. I wouldn’t have thought of it. I mean he’s at the height of his career at the moment and that he would do that? It was so brave of him to do that. It was a complete coincidence but a happy one, because he was great. (Laughing)
EC: He was amazing.
LD: He was so sweet basically playing my husband’s mother. The Bette thing and the Kirstie thing are not coincidences because they have such fun, great, larger than life personalities. They’re so much fun to write comedy for, so much fun. If you’re a woman and you want to write a female driven movie, you want to write for a woman who’s funny. I also found that Bette could be very, very vulgar, and R-rated, and never offend anyone. She could say anything she wanted, no matter how disgusting and middle-America would just laugh their heads off with no problem. That was an invaluable tool because I’m disgusting, so I could channel my inner disgustingness through Bette without ruffling anyone’s feathers. And Kirstie is just so much fun.
EC: When you’re working on a screenplay is it often that you have specific actors in mind when you’re writing?
LD: Yes, but not always. For example I really didn’t know who was going to play Eddie in ‘Limitless’ because it really required an intelligent actor with a giant range. Your basic action lunkhead of the week, as I said before, isn’t really going to be right for this part. There’s a lot of actors that I like very much but I would have been afraid, because of all languages and the verbiage. You have to rattle off paragraphs of multi-syllabic dialogue as if you just thought it up right that second. Not everyone can do that.
EC: Neil, you’ve written your three previous movies. Since you didn’t play a role in writing “Limitless” did that change your approach to the material as the director? Or did open more doors for you to experiment on the visual side of things?
Neil Burger: I think it certainly opened more doors for me, because it was a strange experience for me not having written it, but a liberating one, because you can look at a scene and go ‘Well it’s set in an office, but couldn’t it just be in a warehouse as well? Wouldn’t that be more interesting?’ Then shooting something cool with that, or just something more that enhances the story, or told the story even better. Sometimes when you’ve written something you’re sort of stuck with that original idea and you aren’t as flexible. So purely directing it, it was great; it let me kind of just run with it.
EC: You’ve mentioned in previous statements I’ve read that one of the ways you wanted viewers to experience Eddie’s journey in the film is through his various different worlds. Could you describe some of the visual techniques you use in the film to distinguish Eddie’s experiences?
NB: Before he takes the drug, New York is very harsh. Things aren’t going very well for him so we paint this picture of New York being very gritty and grimy, and totally unpleasant because that’s how he’s seeing it. There’s a whole color palette. It’s grayer, its grainier. It has this handheld quality. Then when he comes onto the drug, when he’s on the drug, everything is going really smoothly. The colors are glowing and the camera moves really just slide along with him. It has a really wide angle lens quality to it because he’s taking in the whole world. Then when he comes off the drug, that’s a whole other thing. I created these effects so that you could experience the world, the way he experiences it. So you would process the information the way he did. I wanted the visuals to help the audience get inside his head and see the world he saw it.
EC: “Limitless” was shot in New York City where I read that you also live. Does being a New York native give you a home field advantage? Were there any benefits that you feel like you brought to the production from your own working knowledge of the city?
NB: Yeah I think that it did really give me a home field advantage. I really love New York and I’ve lived here for a long time. I know not just the different neighborhoods but the different kind of class cultures in New York from the up-and-coming, down-and-out kind of artist to the powerful worlds of finance.
All of those worlds play a part in this movie because Bradley Cooper’s character has such a journey, coming from being such a complete failure, from being on the edge of not being in society to being right in the thick of the most powerful components of it.
So I liked that, and it was really important to me to let New York, be New York. A lot of films come in and they shut it all down, and they kind of chunk it off in some way, whereas I wanted the energy of New York which I’m really familiar with. I wanted that energy to play a part in the movie and kind of drive the movie because that energy is so much a part of his story and the story of the city.
EC: I don’t know if this is a question you get a lot so please forgive me, but if you had the opportunity to try a drug like NZT, the one that Bradley Cooper does in the film, do you think you would? What major goals would you want to accomplish if you could harness that kind of potential?
NB: I think we all want something to knock us on the head and change our lives. So yeah, it would be really tempting if something like that existed, to straighten out your life and become the perfect version of yourself. It’s interesting because on the one hand it would be really interesting to learn a dozen different languages and be able to travel and be in those cultures effortlessly because you could speak the language. That would be an amazing thing. Sometimes I feel like just to get all my own work done would be great. You always feel like you’re behind, and they’re six other things that you wish you could get to but you can’t. It would be very, very tempting.