11:00 am EDT, March 18, 2014

A day on the set of ‘Divergent’

There’s something fascinating about visiting a movie set. Everything is just so normal on each one we’ve been to.

People walk around set as if it’s just an average day, not as if you’re filming a big Hollywood production (this one’s price tag came in at around $80 million, according to reports). Time moves slowly as the director calls for more and more takes of the same small, seemingly insignificant shot. Stars casually eat a nice BBQ lunch at long, plastic tables using plastic utensils and paper plates that any mere mortal would purchase on a budget at Wal-mart.

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Simply put, a day on a movie set doesn’t feel like it’s special or stressful to those who are working. There’s so much pressure to get it right, and yet, to onlookers it feels like there’s no pressure in the moment.

It’s May 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. We’re at Cinespace, a new studio still under construction in “The Windy City” for its growing film industry. The production house’s nondescript exterior may fool a passerby. Looking at it from the street, the only hint that something significant is happening within its walls are the couple of security guards positioned around the exterior.

Inside, A-list stars like Shailene Woodley and Kate Winslet are turning Roth’s dystopian trilogy into what Summit and Lionsgate hope can be called the next Hunger Games.

The normalcy of life on set extends to the cast, namely Woodley and her co-star Theo James. “Theo’s just a giant… dork,” Woodley says of him when we sit down to speak with her. “He’s just a dork. He’s such a lovely human being and it’s really exciting to work with him. I’ve learned a lot from him. He had an entire life outside of acting before he got into this business, so it’s really refreshing to meet someone who’s not all wrapped up in this world. Especially someone who’s playing Four.”

Woodley comes off as a normal, down to earth person. It’s a characteristic that she shares with her character in the film. “I relate to Tris in the sense that I think everybody is very normal, and I think it’s whether you allow your light to shine in the world which makes a difference,” she tells us on set at the end of the day. “By the end of this movie, her light is helping save Dauntless, Abnegation, everybody from the government which is very synergistic to things that are happening in today’s society.”

James connects with his character as well. The actor is one of the first people we spoke to at the beginning of the day while he was chomping on a pear. “The similarities: [Four] thinks before he speaks, and I think I’m probably like that, too. He doesn’t speak for the sake of speaking, which I like in him. He speaks because he feels it’s important or pertinent to whatever quality. I suppose my kind of closed, introvert, slightly grumpy side I probably share with him in some respects.”

He and Four have one important difference, however. “Four is quite damaged by – obviously – his childhood, and my dad’s a good guy, so that would be the difference, of many.”

The sets at Cinespace

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We arrived on set early in the morning. The ride from the hotel takes us into a section of the city where you wouldn’t expect a major movie franchise to be filming.

Upon entering the studio, you get a sense of the scale of the production. The biggest area, where the cast and crew eat, also holds the cast and costume trailers. The sense of normalcy is everywhere. Everyone eats, chats, and plays with one another as if it was another day at college or work. While walking around throughout the day, we frequently glanced into trailers and saw the stars lounging around either by themselves or with their actor friends.

After leaving the big leisure space we headed through a couple of stage doors. In this section are multiple sets standing right next to each other. On this day, the interior of the Prior family home in Abnegation stands just steps away from the interior of a train car.

We were allowed to walk onto both sets. In the Prior home the lights were off and it felt like we were coming home in the evening after dinner. The onsite publicist tells us the home’s floor, which consists of individual wooden blocks, was built by hand. The decor scattered throughout the kitchen is very detailed, but the home is simple as an Abnegation resident would want.

Speaking of detailed, the inside of the train car (which was built from the ground up) has small touches that you’ll probably never notice when watching the movie. We walked around the interior and noticed several cool things. For example, a map of train routes hanging on a wall inside the car reads at the top, “Brought to you by Abnegation. Our humble service maintains stability.” Right next to it is a sheet of paper detailing the times the train car has been inspected. A set designer tells us that the lights on stage outside of the car are programmed to match how fast the trains actually move in real Chicago.

On this day Shailene Woodley, Theo James, and a handful of others are filming a scene where Four helps pull Tris up into a train car as it’s moving. Eric, played by Jai Courtney, notices that she hopped on and asks who put her on board. “I did,” Four says sternly. The cast and crew shoot the scene over and over, each take very similar. One of the differences between takes they were trying to get right was the way Four pulled Tris up into the car, and how she pushed her hair back after a hectic run.

We watched them film the scene from monitors that were set up for us on the set of the pit. The experience of watching the cast film a train car scene as we sat next door on this huge stage was surreal. The pit was tall, dark, and had a white/silver color theme. There were various areas where characters could climb, and a couple of different levels where Dauntless members could walk around on. Unsurprisingly, it was the biggest set we saw during our visit. Since they weren’t using the pit set while we visited, the lights were off which made it feel particularly eerie.

Later in the day we headed to the film’s offices where we were able to view all of the concept art. Since we only were able to see a handful of sets, this art offered us our first and best glimpse at many scenes. The concept art hung up on all four walls included: The testing room, the Dauntless HQ, the Pit, the Tattoo Parlor, the factionless living in Chicago, the zip line, the fence, and the fear simulation. The concept art is beautiful, and after seeing the film we can say with certainty that the set design was adapted nicely from the sketches.

The cast and crew had great camaraderie around set which is reflected on screen between the various characters – particularly in Dauntless. We had a blast visiting with other sites and were impressed by how everything felt like such a big production when you consider it is only the first film.

The overall feeling on set was that while there wasn’t constant pressure, there was a passion to get things right by the book and by how each actor wanted to portray their character.

When watching in a theater, keep a careful eye out for the subtle details, and be on the look out for this writer’s name appearing a couple times in the movie.

Divergent opens in theaters this Friday, March 21.

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