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 PeÃ±a 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.
I 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.
You 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 PeÃ±a 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.