Limitless: Making of a Paranoia Thriller

Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro star in Limitless, a paranoia-fueled action thriller about an unsuccessful writer whose life is transformed by a top-secret “smart drug” that allows him to use 100% of his brain and become a perfect version of himself. His enhanced abilities soon attract shadowy forces that threaten his new life in this suspenseful and provocative film. Screenwriter

Leslie Dixon was browsing through the shelves of a secondhand bookstore when she first came across the novel, The Dark Fields. A riveting, high-concept thriller written by Alan Glynn, the book had a premise that immediately intrigued her. What if there was a drug that would make you the best you could possibly be? A drug that allowed you to use every scrap of potential you possess? Would you take it?

“I bought the book and started reading it,” says Dixon. “About halfway through, I got a sizzle of excitement that it could be a Hollywood film. I eventually optioned it with my own money and wrote the script on my own to see if I could get it made without a lot of compromises. And here we are.”

The story’s provocative idea seemed like the perfect panacea for the Information Age, where an endless stream of data speeds past us all at an overwhelming pace. “The premise may seem to verge on science fiction, but that kind of technology is probably not far off,” says Dixon, whose diverse writing credits include such blockbusters as Mrs. Doubtfire, Hairspray and Freaky Friday. “I’m sure there are researchers in labs right now trying to make ‘smart drugs’ to improve memory, cognitive function and reflexes.” 

Eddie Morra, played by Bradley Cooper, is a writer slowly descending into oblivion. As the story begins, his girlfriend dumps him, his publisher threatens to drop him unless he can produce the manuscript he has promised and his landlady wants to evict him. But when an old friend slips him a tablet of the mysterious drug NZT, Eddie is transformed into an unstoppable torrent of ideas and accomplishments, bringing him the success he has always dreamed of.

“I think most people, myself included, would take that pill if it was offered,” Dixon says. “I think it reverberates with what’s really going on right now in our society. People are taking things like Adderall to give themselves an edge. It’s sort of ironic that we have begun to see drugs as a way to enhance our achievement rather than just to have fun.” 

Watching Eddie’s journey from obscurity to wealth and fame is an entertaining ride, she says. “And the things that he is able to do on that ride are things that we all aspire to,” Dixon continues. “He can effortlessly learn foreign languages. He learns to read music in a day. Women drop at his feet after half a dozen sentences, because he’s so charming and funny. All of these things are things that we wish we could do, and it’s fun to go there with the character. When things get hairy and it turns out that bad people are after him, watching him think and fight his way out of those situations is exhilarating.” 

Dixon gave the finished script to Scott Kroopf, a producer she has known since they worked together on her first film, Outrageous Fortune. “It was such a strong concept, beautifully executed and filled with Leslie’s great sense of humor,” says Kroopf. “She told me the amazing story of how she found it and did the original draft of the script for nothing. I immediately fell in love with it.”

The idea of a smart drug captured his imagination. “I have not yet met a person who isn’t intrigued by the idea of being able to use 100% of their brain,” the producer says. “You could see and perceive more. You might be more coordinated. You could learn faster and recover memories you thought you had forgotten long ago. Suddenly, it’s all accessible.

“Obviously, there is a price,” he adds. “Anything that is like a steroid for your mind is an intrinsically dangerous idea.”

Once Dixon and Kroopf agreed to produce the film together, they set about finding a director. Neil Burger, whose earlier films include The Illusionist and Interview with the Assassin, impressed them with his innovative concept for the movie. “I wanted the story to be completely believable, to play it absolutely real,” Burger says. ”Yet I also wanted to get into Eddie’s head, to show how he perceived the world when he was on the drug, how he processed information and what it was really like to be so smart. I had a number of ideas for unconventional visual techniques to show how he perceives the world.”

Perception is exactly what Limitless is about, according to Kroopf. “We had to find someone who is visually oriented for the movie to hit its full potential,” the producer says. “Neil was determined to find original ways to tell the story, so he embraced ideas that were visually more bold and daring than what many people do.” 

Burger saw the story as both a thriller and a picaresque journey for Eddie. “He goes from an Everyman who’s failing to a guy who is on top of the world,” the director says. “When I first read the script, I envisioned a freewheeling, fever dream of a movie with a really wild energy to it. That’s the way the character travels through the city on this drug. He’s cartwheeling through life.”

Eddie becomes accomplished and successful beyond his wildest dreams, but there is a downside, Burger observes. “The drug has horrible side effects. He has to stay on it or he gets piercing headaches. And when he takes too much of it, he loses blocks of time.

“The movie is about human potential, but it’s also about power and the powerful ride Eddie goes on,” the director continues. “The movie is very much about today, and it’s very much about New York. But it’s more universal than that. It’s about a guy who has a thirst for success that he’s never been able to satisfy. The question is what is he willing to do to get what he’s after? I want the audience to be there with him as he makes his choices. He’s such a winning character that you’re willing go down the dark turns with him, as well as into the light.”

At the heart of the film is one key question, says Burger: “What if there was a pill that would make you rich and powerful? Would you take it? I think we’d all love to do something special and make an impact on the world. This story is about a guy who actually finds a fantastical way to make that happen, and it’s all played very real. It’s not magic. He’s not a superhero; he’s the perfect version of himself.

“There are drugs like this already,” Burger continues. “Provigil and Adderall and others. NZT is like that times a thousand. It’s completely turbocharged. But if it’s all just tinkering with brain chemistry like a computer hard drive, where does personal responsibility come in? What are the limits of our moral identity?”

The completed film combines suspense, action and humor with stylish visuals for an unforgettable thrill ride. “It’s a great story with some really fantastic acting along with several surprising plot twists that give it excitement and thrills,” says Kroopf. “Think of it as the NZT ride. Bradley Cooper is in the seat right next to you and you’re going through it with him. The movie plays out in such a way that the audience enjoys the fun of the ride, but they also get to walk out and say, ‘Hey, if I was in Eddie’s shoes, what would I have done?’ It should be fun, but it probably will scare the hell out of you as well.”