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Whereas some adaptors of dystopian fiction have the task of creating an entirely new world on screen, the team behind Divergent had a different type of challenge facing them: Veronica Roth's series of novels take place in a futuristic Chicago where the community is divided into factions and isolated from the rest of the world. So Chicago's empty industrial spaces came in handy for the movie's production designer, Andy Nicholson. 

The filmmakers worked with The Science & Entertainment Exchange, an organization that connects scientist consultants to show biz people, to get a sense of what a future might look like. "It was about trying to work through imagining [Chicago has] been isolated from the rest of the world for 100 years and it’s 150 years in the future so everything’s stopped for 100 years," Nicholson said. "It becomes a society that has to be very self sufficient, so how would it work?" 

Nicholson, who was nominated for an Oscar this past year for his work on Gravity, talked to us this week about developing a dystopia in one of America's most well known cities. Here's how he did it. 

Assess the level of damage

Nicholson explained that the Divergent team decided that the city in the movie wouldn't look decrepit. "In the first book certainly you’re not ever really told what happened to isolate the city, why it’s isolated," he explained. "I know in the film there’s a line about 'after the war,' but that was never really something that was the main reason. When we talked to Veronica she said, 'Well maybe there are some buildings that are destroyed, maybe they are damaged, but we don’t really know.' We decided that there wouldn’t be a huge amount of destruction." In the movie audiences see a Chicago where many buildings are still standing, only most are in general states of disarray.

Nicholson looked at the conditions of abandoned factories to get a sense of the "general grime" that accumulates and maintains a steady level.  And while he determined that there wouldn't be much overgrowth because of Chicago's weather, the roads would be broken up because of the severe winters. That is one of the reasons the world of Divergent doesn't have many cars, save for the one belonging to Kate Winslet's villain Jeanine Matthews who lives on a level of luxury most others in the city do not. "Things would be grubby, but there’s not as much pollution because there are no cars," he said.

Use what was already there

When Nicholson arrived in Chicago after doing concept work for the film in the U.K., he went scouting, at that point still unsure what they would use. "I started looking at industrial spaces," he said. "Compared to a lot of North American cities where these industrial spaces have fallen into disrepair, there were just a lot of empty, but still maintained, still heated, and consequently in- not-too -bad shape factories in 1920s or 30s architectural spaces, which gave us a great look for Divergent." His best find, he said, were buildings on Pershing Road, which were used for scenes featuring Dauntless, the warrior faction heroine Tris joins. For instance, that's where the Dauntless jump from a train onto a rooftop in one of the movie's early pivotal scenes. "It had a very specific look that was easy to identify. you’d know where you were," Nicholson said. "There’s sort of a North American industrial architecture that you do see in other towns. It was just amazing there were a bunch of buildings in Chicago that were still there, well maintained and safe to shoot in. That was a great starting point for that." 

One of the spaces that the production used for interiors like the fight sequences in Dauntless also had a prior life: it was an empty steel mill that had just been stripped. 

Show what's keeping the world away and what's keeping everything going

In the book the fence that separates Chicago from the rest of the world isn't that "impressive," according to Nicholson, but the adaptors settled on the notion that the fence had to act as more of a metaphor. "We decided to go for something with the scale that we went for because I wanted to feel like maybe it wasn’t just the fence keeping some evil out, maybe it was also jamming radio communication," he said. 
"We decided it was between 300 and 500 feet high, and you kind of see it in the background in shots. And that was an important metaphor for the isolation and yet we never talk about whether its for protecting them or keeping them in." The opening shot of the film takes viewers from the vast expanse of fields outside of the city, up over the fence into its heart. 

Nicholson said that Burger was intent on demonstrating to audiences how the society was able to function. "One of the first things Neil wanted to show was how the city is powered," Nicholson said. "We ended up settling on having wind turbines and using them on the tops of some of the buildings. There already are a few wind turbines on some low buildings in downtown Chicago, and we just extrapolated from that and turned it into an obvious, visible way that the city was powered." 

There are still parts of Divergent's world that haven't been fleshed out. For instance, the first installment mostly focuses on three of the factions, leaving two unexplored. The series plans to switch directors for the next installment, Insurgent, hiring Robert Schwentke for the movie planned for 2015. That means audiences could see a shift in tone and style as they did when director Francis Lawrence took over The Hunger Games series for Catching Fire. Nicholson and Burger, however, will always get credit for doing the important early work of transforming a familiar landscape into something foreign. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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