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Limitless premiere: Marc Webb on the visual direction of the pilot

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Jeff Neumann/CBS

Limitless, CBS’ new action-thriller based on the 2011 sleeper hit starring Bradley Cooper, continues the film’s story, but follows a brand-new user of NZT, the designer drug at the center of the story: Brian Finch, played by Jake McDorman. And because he’s new, Brian’s giddily exploring his drug-enabled ability to access every memory he’s ever had, making him capable of doing almost anything.

That ability also looks fun on screen, thanks to an attention-grabbing visual flair the series injects when NZT’s in play. Shots glow in brighter hues, while graphic tricks show off Brian’s skills. When Brian processes information, for example, diagrams float around his head. When Brian thinks, multiple Brians appear, so McDorman acts opposite himself.

To Marc Webb, the pilot’s director, the techniques transformed NZT scenes into set pieces that virtually begged for bigger screens. Webb spoke to EW about why he signed on to direct, the “language” he used to illustrate the drug’s effect in the series, and how Brian differs from Cooper’s film character:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get involved with Limitless?

MARC WEBB: I had worked with [Limitless executive producer] Alex Kurtzman on the last Amazing Spider-Man movie, and he reached out and said, “You gotta check out this script,” so I read it, I loved it, and I wanted to get involved. I thought it was a relatively unique, rare opportunity to do something visual in the TV medium, you know? I think TV isn’t typically thought of as a cinematic envoy. And I thought it was an opportunity to play around with it, especially in the network world. [Limitless] had a language all its own. Part of our goal was to differentiate and make this show specific and idiosyncratic, and I think we’ve gotten the opportunity to do that.

Did you meet with Neil Burger, the director of the original film, and compare notes?

We emailed once or twice. [Laughs] But that was it. I don’t know if he’s seen the pilot or not, but he’s very helpful. I think Neil just did a wonderful thing with the movie, but Bradley was really the guy I was with the most. He had thoughts and insights into his character, and he was really helpful with Jake’s as well.

You mentioned Limitless has “a language all its own.” What do you mean by that?

There are little cues in there for when he’s on NZT. Everything’s brighter, his clothes fit tighter. We were a little more playful. It’s grounded and there are emotions that help communicate the gravity and the seriousness of the cases they’re involved in, but there’s also a real fun element to it. There were a lot of little visual flights of fancy, impressionistic moments that are there to tell the story. Like, we go inside his head a lot, and that can be done in a million different ways, but we want the directors to come in and the writers who are doing this to be emboldened, to explore and to create. Using effects in that way is something that I’ve gotten used to and helped to communicate that with the next directors.

How did you come up with how to portray those NZT scenes? Was it just from watching the film and spitballing about what’s possible?

Yeah, exactly. There was a board where we just talked about fun things you would do if you were on NZT. If you could access all of your memories and all of the potential that somewhere in your heart you knew you had, what would you do? Would you use it to help other people? Would you help yourself? Would you beat other people at chess? Would you learn the piano? Would you build a better mouse trap? Would you build an airplane? … That allows us to take different characters and take them to their logical extremes, which is so much fun.

When Brian’s on NZT, he does some crazy stuff. He stands on the subway tracks and plays chicken with an approaching train, for example. Were any Brian-on-NZT shots more challenging than the others?

I think the thing that was a really big hassle was the subway scene, that it meant you had to drive a subway car four inches away from your star’s face. And you had to do it 400 times, and even though it’s bolted down and there are millions of protections in place, you’re still hurtling massive steel at a human.

It sounds like the series will go for big sequences like the ones in the film, but what do you find different about the show from the film?

Brian’s different from Eddie Mora [Bradley Cooper’s character in Limitless]. There’s something sweet about Brian Finch, and Eddie Mora had a real edge to him. I think Brian has that too, but Brian is really warm and lovable. I mean, he’s always trying to do the right thing. He’s not perfect, he’s gonna mess up. I don’t think that was always true with Eddie Mora.

Right, he’s not going to be running for senator, as Eddie does in the film.

I hope not. I don’t think Brian’s interested in that. He wants to help people, he wants to be cool. 

Limitless premieres Tuesday, Sept. 22 at 10 p.m. ET on CBS.

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