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Interview: Neil Burger on “The Lucky Ones”

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09302008_theluckyones1.jpgBy Stephen Saito

Despite all the talk about Iraq that may be generated by “The Lucky Ones,” Neil Burger’s latest film is far more interested in what’s going on in America. In fact, it might be the more foreign country to its trio of soldiers (Rachel McAdams, Michael Peña and Tim Robbins) who return home to find crowded bars spellbound by “America’s Got Talent,” and conversations with civilians limited to a series of empty “thank you for your service” platitudes to fill the air. But that isn’t to say that “The Lucky Ones” isn’t hopeful — when what’s supposed to be the end of a long journey for these war vets becomes the start of a cross-country trek, “The Lucky Ones” becomes a pleasantly old fashioned road trip movie where the destination isn’t as important as the company you keep. Fortunately, it’s good company to be in, which surely must’ve been a relief for Burger both as a storyteller and in a more practical sense, since “The Illusionist” writer/director shot much of the film in a cramped van as it passed by and stopped in real locations across the country from New York to Las Vegas. I recently spoke with Burger about his diverse filmography and what he learned from being on the road before the camera rolled and long after.

You wouldn’t guess that “The Illusionist” was directed by the same person that made your first film, “Interview With the Assassin.” In the same way, “The Lucky Ones” seems to bear little relation to “The Illusionist.” Your next film [“Dark Fields”] is in the sci-fi genre. Is there some connection between them for you?

They’re related in a way. Obviously, “Interview With the Assassin” and [“The Lucky Ones”] are very much about America. “The Illusionist” is a departure from that, but the thing that links it, I think, is that like the other two, they’re about people that have no power trying to somehow empower themselves. In “Interview With the Assassin,” it’s that cameraman and even the guy who claims to be [the second gunman in the assassination of John F. Kennedy] — they’re trying to make themselves important in the world. Whether he really did it or not, he feels like he hasn’t gotten his due, and the cameraman is looking for some roll of the dice to bring him up in the world. In “The Illusionist,” it’s different, but it’s [Eisenheim, the magician played by Edward Norton] using his skills to move through this very hierarchical society that wants to keep him down. This one’s the same. These three people come back, they’re like nobodies. They’ve got really no power and it’s like how do they make their way through this cultural/political landscape.

09302008_theluckyones2.jpgI also thought that “The Illusionist” and “The Lucky Ones” might share a bond as far as inspiration was concerned — when you came back from shooting “The Illusionist” in Eastern Europe, did that give you a different perspective on America?

That’s exactly right. You have that shock of reentry; everything that was familiar is suddenly foreign. [In the film] these three characters find that they’re strangers in their own land. They’re completely disconnected from the average folk here. Coming back here from “The Illusionist,” I was shooting over there about six months and completely wrapped up in this 19th century world. You come back and it’s eye-opening. It’s nothing that you don’t know, but somehow you’re seeing it with fresh eyes. In the case of this story, I thought, “What better way to look at the country now than through the eyes of three people that have been out of the country for some time?” Particularly serving their country as soldiers — I thought that put a more provocative spin on the whole thing.

One of the film’s most interesting aspects is how you employ the three soldiers largely as observers when they’re in public. The film as a whole actively invites the audience to look at the characters the soldiers encounter and possibly see themselves or people they know. How much did you want to make America a character in this movie?

The initial idea was that it was always going to be more in the background, a cloud hanging over them. In what we did, those guys just want to have a good time. They just want to be normal and get back to their families, but instead, they find their life isn’t that easy and they end up being strangers in their own land. But it was always walking a very fine line between the humor and the seriousness, and dealing with whatever political issues that were coming up. It was always [part of the movie that] they weren’t going to talk about the war; yes, they’re soldiers, but first and foremost, they’re Americans and they’re human beings. To me, the war is just one small part of what’s going on in this country and it’s more a symptom of something larger, so that’s where I wanted to keep it. It has its place, but it’s not the only story and not necessarily the main story.

09302008_theluckyones3.jpgYou actually took the road trip yourself before you wrote the script. Did you have any moments of reconnection with America that surprised you along the way?

The thing that I picked up…I don’t know, it’s kind of this one small thing. [slight laugh] Something that you see a lot — you see fundamentalism and you see pornography, sometimes in the same shopping center or either side of the highway. You go blasting down a Missouri road and there’s a megachurch and an adult outlet store or something like that, facing each other. And I thought my God, that sums up the complexity of America.

You’ve had to hit the road again to promote the film — have you learned anything from the reactions you’ve been getting?

I have actually. People have been really with it. There’s been this collective experience; people are laughing and then they’re crying at the end. What I realized, which I think I knew when I was writing it, because I’d always intended to use the humor to approach the serious issues in a more roundabout way, and what I learned from this — there are some outrageous moments in the movie and they seem to bring people’s emotions to the surface. It roils them up, so that when there’s something that’s more serious, more somber, more heartbreaking, their emotions are available to them and they feel it all the more. The big laughs knock the scab off so when we probe the wound, it’s that much more painful. [slight laugh] It was interesting to figure that out.

[Photos: Michael Peña and Rachel McAdams; Tim Robbins; director Neil Burger on set — “The Lucky Ones,” Roadside Attractions, 2008]

“The Lucky Ones” opens in limited release on September 26th.


Final Countdown

The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at


Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.


Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…