Illusionist, The by Neil Burger

A supernatural mystery that combines romance, politics and magic, The Illusionist is the latest film from the producers of the Oscar-winners “Crash” and “Sideways.” The film is written and directed by Neil Burger, who received acclaim for his 2002 debut feature, “Interview with the Assassin.”

The film stars Oscar nominees Edward Norton (Fight Club, American History X) and Paul Giamatti (Cinderella Man, Sideways) as two men pitted against each other in a battle of wits. Norton plays a mysterious stage magician, Eisenheim, who bends natures laws to his will in front of awestruck crowds. Giamatti co-stars as Viennas shrewd Chief Inspector Uhl, a man committed to uphold the law and for whom magic holds no place in his ordered world. Jessica Biel shares the screen as the beautiful and enigmatic Sophie von Teschen, who finds her future inexorably altered when she encounters the man called Eisenheim, and Eisenheim comes dangerously close to unlocking the dark secret of the monarchy that she holds.

When Eisenheim begins to perform his astounding illusions in Vienna, word quickly spreads of his otherworldly powerseven reaching the ears of one of Europes most powerful and pragmatic men, Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell, Dark City). Certain that the illusionist is nothing more than an accomplished fraud, Leopold attends one of Eisenheims shows, convinced that he can debunk him during the performance. But when the Princes beautiful fianc and companion, Sophie von Teschen, assists the magician onstage, Eisenheim and Sophie recognize each other from their childhoodsand a dormant love affair is rekindled. With Eisenheim and Leopold vying for Sophies affection, it quickly becomes apparent that both will go to any length to claim and keep her love.

According to old chemical philosophy known as alchemy, one can transform one element into another, such as a base metal into gold. Yet alchemic processes can and do happen in our day. When Burger first read Pulitzer Prize-winner Steven Millhausers short story Eisenheim the Illusionist (published in the collection The Barnum Museum), he was duly impressed with the story, but wasnt quite certain how to go about instigating his alchemic transformation from story into film.

Burger remembers, Its a beautiful gem of a story, lyrical and transcendent. The images and tone of it are quite cinematic, but the story itself is more of a fragment and somehow, not a film. I loved the story, but it wasnt immediately clear how to solve the narrative puzzle and transform it into a full-blown movie.

While Burger was editing his first feature, he happened to be talking with producers Brian Koppelman and David Levien about the difficulty of depicting magic on-screen. I mentioned there was a short story I had always wanted to make into a film, and they both finished my sentence by asking, Is it Eisenheim the Illusionist They knew the story well, but admitted to being unsure about how to make it into a film. Bluffing somewhat, I assured them that I knew exactly how. Koppelman and Levien then set out to acquire the rights to the short story.

For Burger, the challenge was to preserve what was beautiful and mysterious about the story, but also create a dramatic context for it. He invented new characters for the storyCrown Prince Leopold and his fiance, Sophie von Teschenand expanded the role of Inspector Uhl, who receives just a few mentions in the original story. Burger continues: The question was, how do you tell the story of Eisenheim, a man who is an enigma, a mystery How do you get inside his head without giving away his secrets I decided to tell his story from Inspector Uhls point-of-view. Everything we see is something Uhl has witnessed or one of his agents has told him. At other times, his story becomes conjecture, what he imagines might have happened, and not necessarily true at allbut still loosely from his point-of-view. Hes creating the legend even as he tries to figure it all out. Its a subtle but fairly rigorous organizing principle for the storytelling.

Making Magic

Burger conducted extensive research into magic, as well as the story's setting: fin-de-sicle Vienna. I read everything I could about the Hapsburgs, about the Secessionist movement, and about the magic from that timeboth the illusions themselves and the social world of the magicians. Most of the tricks that ended up in the film are based on real illusions done at the time, and the characters I invented are also based on real people. I wanted it all to be as believable and honest as possible, all the more so since the story examines the idea of how we perceive truth and illusionand blurs the boundary between those two concepts. If youre going to exaggerate certain elements, to have it be dreamlike or surreal or uncanny, you have to make sure that the rest of it has a rock solid foundation in the period.

Eisenheim the Illusionists performances call into question everything the audience (and ultimately, moviegoers) take for grantedhis illusions challenge the laws of nature and the universe. As Burger explains, Im interested in that moment when you come face to face with something unexplainable, incomprehensible, and how that event changes your perceptions about everything. The magic in The Illusionist is not about How does he do it, but rather about the uncanny sense that nothing is what it seems.

Burger continues, Theres a quote in the story that says, Stories, like conjuring tricks, are invented because history is inadequate to our dreams. That goes for the art of cinema in general and The Illusionist in particular. My goal was to have the film completely inhabit that realm of dream and mystery. Burgers intent was to make the setting look authentic but the themes timeless. He explains, I wanted to be true to the time period, but not a slave to it. Its not a story about the morals or manners of the time. Instead, it seeks to explore larger themes about power, perception, truth and illusion.

Edward Norton

I dont tend to write with actors in mind, says Burger, but I knew I needed someone who could embody the mystery, as well as the romantic side, of Eisenheim. Edward Norton, of course, is a powerful presence, extremely intelligent and passionate about his craft, as well as life in generaljust like Eisenheim. And I hadnt seen Edward in too many romantic roles, and certainly not in period. I liked the idea of seeing him in a new role and I knew hed bring a fresh perspective to the part. In general, it was a pretty easy choice. I knew hed be greathe always is.

He completely inhabits the role, continues Burger. He threw himself into learning the magic, and conducted himself as those magicians did, in such a perfect way. We tried to do all the magic in the movie as closely as possible to how the tricks were done at the time, so Edward is actually performing the tricks that you see him do. Hes so dedicated, he learned how to do them all.

Paul Giamatti

For the role of Inspector Uhl, says Burger, I wanted someone a bit different, unexpected. The investigating detective is a pretty common role in movies and I though Paul Giamatti could put a different spin on it. We havent seen Paul in this kind of role before, and yet he has a quiet power that was perfect. Inspector Uhl is the eyes, ears and heart of the story. He has a good souleven if not much is left of it after years of decadence and corruption. In the movie, there are not a lot of expository scenes about Uhls character, and yet, we understand all of his inner conflict and turmoil just by looking in Pauls eyes.

Rufus Sewell

When Burger met British actor Rufus Sewell, he immediately knew he was the one to play Crown Prince Leopoldthe representative of that aristocratic world in which both Eisenheim and Uhl must function. The writer/director remarks, The movie is really a battle of wills between the three male characters, with Eisenheim and the Crown Prince each trying to leverage Uhl for their own ends. The actor playing the Prince had to be a formidable foe for Nortons Eisenheim. Leopold is a strict rationalist and has no patience for superstition or talk of magic. It was vitally important that he be played as fiercely intelligent and truly powerful, even as he is flawed or ruthless. Rufus has an amazing intensity, a fierce cerebral quality, and he certainly doesnt suffer foolsjust like the character.

Jessica Biel

Jessica Biel was the last leading member of the cast to join and admits the role of Sophie is very different from anything I have done before. Director Burger was looking for someone with a classic beauty who would be believable for the time period. He also wanted a relative newcomer, someone with whom the audience wouldnt have clearly formed associations. He says, Jessie has a timeless beauty, but more importantly, she has a fearless sense of adventure. I saw Sophie as someone who had been raised in a very strict and refined world, but who also had the boldness to break out of it if given the opportunity.

To re-create the world of The IllusionistVienna at the turn of the 19th Centuryfilmmakers turned to Prague to provide a period-appropriate setting, with principal photography beginning in and around that European capital in March 2005. Burger comments, Prague is a perfect stand- in for 1900 Viennamost of the streets are still paved in cobblestones and lined with gas lamps. The locations in and around the city are incredible. For example, we were able to use Archduke Ferdinands home for the Crown Princes hunting lodge. Ferdinand was an obsessive hunter, shooting something like 15,000 animals in his life, and the character I had written was the same kind of killer. The place is covered in trophy heads, dead animals everywhere. Its an unbelievably strange and opulent placeit couldnt have been more perfect. The filmmakers were also able to magically find two theatres to use as practical locations for filmingone in Prague and one in the nearby rural town of Tabor.

All of Pragues atmosphere physically represented the mental look Burger was after: I wanted the film to have an almost hand-cranked feel to it, not that we were actually going to use a hand-cranked cameraalthough for a time I did consider it. I wanted that look, not to make it seem old, but rather to take it out of time, beyond the world of rationality and into the realm of mystery and dream. Everything you see is real, recognizable, but somehow heightened. I wanted it to have a kind of sinister beautylovely on the surface, but with a disturbing, unnerving undertone.

Film's look

My main reference for the look of the film, continues Burger, is an early color photography process called autochrome. It was invented by the Lumiere brothers, who, in the late 19th Century, were instrumental in creating all sorts of early cinematic effects. And they were also magicians! Autochromes have a very different kind of color and contrast palette. Some people think theyre hand-tinted, but theyre not. They are indeed photographic color, but what I like is that they have the emotional impact of black and white. I showed these references to [director of photography] Dick Pope and then together we translated it into the particular look for this story.

Autochrome photography flourished from 1903 to the 1930s and is unique in that each autochrome is a singular transparency imagethere is no negative. Each image is captured on a specially-prepared glass plate that has been coated with tiny, colored starch grains (of red, green and blue), which is then covered in a layer of carbon black, filling in the spaces between the grains. Finally, a silver gelatine emulsion is applied over the color screen. When the plate is exposed, the base side is turned towards the subject being photographed, and the color screen acts as a filter over the emulsion. The developed plate renders a positive image with delicate color qualities.

Award-winning cinematographer Dick Pope (Topsy-Turvy, Nicholas Nickleby, Vera Drake) tells of the book that Burger showed him that contained color photography from the early 1900s: Neil had obviously been carrying this book around with him for some time that explained the autochrome process, which very simply consisted of glass negative slides with a primitive kind of emulsion. The book contained really wonderful images and he had a very strong desire to make The Illusionist look like that.

The look Burger was trying to achieve was also reflected in the costumes and makeup: Often, the photography can only be as beautiful as what youre pointing the camera at. In this case, the look we were after depended on a very strict color palette, primarily golds and greens that would interact with our particular camera filtration. The production and costume design would follow that look.

Burger comments, Ngila is incredibleshe he knew I wanted to be true to 1900 Vienna, but not be a slave to it. The movie isnt about 1900, it isnt about Viennaits about this uncanny mystery and this magical experience. She, of course, got all this and took it much further. I had done a lot of research, but then Ngila added her own influences, and it just made the process incredibly inventive and fun.

In addition to the principal actors, there were hundreds of extras to dress on the days when scenes were shot in the street or in a large theater. Burger adds, Everyone was dressed brilliantly for the time period and the scenes looked incredibly beautiful and unique because of her.

Head makeup artist Julie Pearce also played a large part in creating the right look for the film. She says, I read the script at least three times, trying to get a feel for the makeup and the look. I did a lot of research into the period and also looked at research that Neil and Ngila had put togetherthe main thing about 1900 in Vienna is that there was so much facial hair, and I ended up coming over from the States with probably 300 pieces of moustaches and beards. Also, we kept the ladies makeup very light, because in that period there was no makeup as such.

Magic and Magicians

The role of any magician is to remind us of the mystery of existence and inspire awe and wonder at that mystery. Seeing a great magic trick or illusion gives you a kind of chill and makes you think that perhaps there are powers greater than those of man, regardless of whether the magician possesses them or not, offers filmmaker Neil Burger. But what if a magician could actually do real magiccould really return us to the dark and troubled heart of magic

The question throughout the movie is, does Eisenheim truly possess supernatural powers or is it all a trick continues Burger. We never really know for sure. That was a challenge in creating the magic for the movie, to walk the fine line of that question. Burger wanted the illusions to appear to be the result of a supernatural phenomenon but, at the same time, to seem to have a practical method behind them. You should be able to read them either way. All the performances are based on real stage illusions of the timethen I pushed them to a slightly more fantastic level.

The first person I thought of when I was writing the movie, continues Neil Burger, was Ricky Jay. He is not only an incredible magician, but also an amazing scholar and historian of magic, especially magic of that time. I had met him quite casually some time before when he had done a simple, sleight of hand trick with a playing card two feet from my eyes. As I stared at the card in his hand, it changed into a different card. Im sure it was a basic trick for him, but it sent a chill through me that was completely unnervingin a way, mind-blowing. Its the reaction I described when I would tell people how I wanted The Illusionist to feel.

The writer/director met with the magician/historian, gleaning all he could about the mechanics of the tricks, the stage practices of the time and the old illusions popular during the Golden Age of Magicall the while, mindful of pushing the illusions to make them scale-appropriate for filming. I worked with him closely for several weeks, during which time we worked everything out and fine-tuned things that were in the script; he was an invaluable resource.

Prior to filming, Norton also studied with Jay, immersing himself in the technique and performing style of magicians of that time. He learned all the sleight of hand tricks and became an expert. All of those tricks you see, Edward did himself. As in all his roles, his ability to completely transform himself, to fully inhabit the character, is impressive. In this case, you absolutely believe that he has these sleight of hand skills, but more importantly, that he could possess supernatural powers or that he could bring down an empire. Hes completely convincing, says Burger.

In Prague, British magician James Freedman (a member of the exclusive Magic Circle and a stage pickpocket by profession) acted as magic consultant to continue coaching Norton and Aaron Johnson, who plays young Eisenheim, in mastering the art of sleight of hand for their roles. We did a lot of research to make sure the methods and the effects to the magic that we use in the film are authentic to the period, explains Freedman. Actually, when you have been involved with magic for nearly a lifetime as I have, you tend to know a lot of the secrets and methods already. One of the tricks we perform in the film is based on an established trick by a man called Jean Paul Robert-Houdin. He has been called the Father of Modern Magic, and he did an illusion where he borrowed a handkerchief from a lady in the audience. He made it disappear and then an orange tree blossomed, and two butterflies rose from the tree carrying the handkerchief. It was an amazing trick, but we have taken it a stage further in the film so that what you see on-screen is just bordering on the impossible. That is what good magic should be.

Neil Burger

Burger also wrote and directed “Interview with the Assassin” (2002), winner of Best Feature Film at both the Woodstock Film Festival and the Avignon Film Festival and nominated for three Independent Spirit Awards, including Best First Film and Best First Screenplay. Before that, he directed commercials for the likes of Mastercard, IB, and ESPN. Burger was also chosen to create a series of television spots for Amnesty International and their campaign for 'prisoners of conscience. He began his film career by creating and directing the award-winning Books: Feed Your Head campaign for MTV, promoting language and literature.