Filmmaker Interview: Director Neil Buger on His Film “The Lucky Ones”

By:  Gordon K. Smith

Director Neil Burger’s first film was the JFK-conspiracy mockumentary “Interview With The Assassin”,  the second was “The Illusionist”, the better of 2006’s dueling period magician mysteries.  But there’s no running theme of tricks or deception in his third, “The Lucky Ones”, which he also co-wrote with Dirk Wittenborn.  There’s one surprising, almost surreal moment involving a bit of freak weather, but otherwise it’s a realistic comedy/road movie about three people — Cheever (Tim Robbins), TK (Michael Pena) and Colee (Rachel McAdams), thrown together by circumstance on a trip from the east coast through St. Louis, Kansas City and Las Vegas.  Oh, and they happen to be Army veterans back in America after a tour in Iraq, but Burger will be quick to tell you, as he did in a recent phoner, that this is no “Stop-Loss” or “The Deer Hunter”.
Knowshi:  How did the story originate? 

Neil:  I wanted to do a story that would speak to our times…I had the idea of a road movie that would capture the temperament of the country through the eyes of those who’d been out of the country — Iraqi vets returning to the country after long tours…I interviewed real returning vets to see how they felt about the things they encountered.   And I drove that trip myself,  the one the characters take, part by myself, part with my cowriter.

Knowshi:  The first film that came to my mind while watching THE LUCKY ONES was THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, the 1946 Oscar winner about three World War II vets readjusting to American life.  What do you think is the same, and different, for today’s war vets, like the ones in your film? 

Neil:  There are a lot of similarities between them.  Some things about war don’t change.  But there’s also a disconnect now for today’s soldiers.  And another big difference is that this is a road movie, about characters who never come to rest — they’re always in the process of reconnecting.  And importantly, this is a funny movie — these people use humor to get what they want.

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Knowshi:  The main actors — Tim Robbins, Michael Pena, and Rachel McAdams, are all fine, but MacAdams is a real revelation.   She really inhabits Colee, a tough but good-hearted Southern gal who just wants to return her KIA boyfriend’s guitar to his family.  How was she cast? 
Neil:  Once I met her, I immediately saw that she had the openess similar to Colee’s, a small-town girl quality, even though she’s really from Canada.  The right geniality. She’s something of an angel living in a dream world, even though she’s been to war.

Knowshi:  Did McAdams study with real soldiers? 

Neil:  Yes, she trained full-time at a real boot camp, Ft. Campbell in Kentucky.

Knowshi:  Then they must have approved the script. 

Neil:  They did, with only a few reservations, maybe about the sex, but they thought the film’s feelings rang true with real veterans.

Knowshi:  How did the real soldiers react to a Hollywood actress in their midst?

Neil:  They didn’t know she was.  She was undercover as a real soldier, in a real, existing unit returning to the camp for retraining…supposedly transferred from a unit with women.   Rachel trained alongside other female soldiers, and no one ever recognized her.

Knowshi:  At one time a script like this would have had the younger male and female characters fall in love.   It’s admirable that these people are comrades and friends first. 

Neil:  And who knows?  Maybe Coley and TK  do hook up later after the movie ends.   Maybe not.  But Coley will not abide lying or cheating of any sort, and T.K. is supposed to be engaged.  And T.K., as we learn, is a bit impaired, so he can’t do it for most of the film anyway, and it’s too late by the end.

Knowshi:  Good to see the underrated actor John Heard in that Kansas City party scene.   He seemed headed for the A-list in the ‘80s in films like “Cutter’s Way” but he never quite got there.   How did he come to do that small role? 

Neil:  Oddly enough, I was asking my Chicago casting director for a “John Heard type” to play the role of Bob in that scene, and he said, “Why not ask John Heard?”   So we sent the script to John, and  to our surprise, he wanted to do it.  He flew from L.A. to Chicago (where the scene was actually shot), did the part, and flew back.  Some people have asked me if he had a bigger role that was cut down, but no, that was it.

Knowshi:  That party scene follows a faith healing scene at an evangelical church service.  It looks like a real church. 

Neil:  It was.   We found a church that was game, after several turned us down.

Knowshi:  It’s also very difficult for smaller productions to shoot inside Las Vegas casinos, isn’t it? 

Neil:  Yes it is.  You have to go through a lot of hassles.  One casino we thought we had a deal with didn’t come through, so you don’t see the characters actually inside a casino much.

Knowshi:  Iraq-themed films haven’t done well so far at the box office — what makes “The Lucky Ones” different? 

Neil: It’s not a war movie, and it’s not a political message movie, although it is a look at a political movement.  It’s a love letter to these three characters…they embody what’s best about America and Americans.   They learn from their mistakes and change for the good.  And it’s funny.  It plays like a crowd-pleaser.   It’s a funny journey through America.

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