Prestige with Christopher Nolan

With a handful of films, Christopher Nolan has established himself as a creative filmmaker, one with a striking ability to evoke the mysterious and disorienting, whether in independent or major action blockbusters.

Nolan first came to prominence after his promising debut, Following, with Memento, the ingenious, backwards-moving thriller about a desperate man trying to avenge his wifes murder while suffering from the loss of all short-term memory. Lauded as a cinematic masterpiece that played with notions of time, space and subjective reality, Memento continues to confound audiences and is now studied by film students.

Nolan went on to cut his teeth on a bigger thriller, a remake of the Norwegian noir film Insomnia, in a fresh version starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank, which once again took the audience on a dizzying journey into crime and fear. He then made another leap, this time into superhero territory, tackling Batman Begins, which unveiled the untold origins of the Dark Knights emergence as the savior of Gotham City. The film was hailed as one of the most original and engaging of all superhero movies and went on to worldwide acclaim, the rare summer box-office blockbuster that met with equal critical success.

Nolan and Magic

Says producer Emma Thomas: Traditionally, filmmakers have avoided the subject of magic because there is this feeling that if youre not seeing it live that its too easy to get the wool pulled over your eyes. But Chris started with the idea that movies are already a kind of magic trickand instead of concentrating on the magic shows themselves, the story is all about what happens behind the scenes in the lives of two driven magicians who are devoted to and obsessed with creating the most baffling illusions.

How It All Began

The films genesis began just after Nolan directed Memento. Around that same time, executive producer Valerie Dean read and fell madly in love with Christopher Priests acclaimed novel The Prestigeand immediately knew that amidst its complex blend of history and science fiction, its tale of an out-of-control magical rivalry would make for an original film.

Dean gave the book to Nolan, who was equally intrigued. The book created a terrific relationship between the narrative form of the novel and the techniques and ideas used by magicians to fool you and engage you in deceptionand I felt the exciting thing about making a film of The Prestige would be to find the cinematic equivalent, Nolan says. Theres quite a strong relationship between what magicians do and what filmmakers do. The filmmaker is very similar to a magician in the way we release informationwhat we tell the audience and whenand how we draw the audience in through certain points of view. We use our own techniques, blind alleys and red herrings, to fool the audience and, hopefully, to create a satisfying payoff. With The Prestige, there was an opportunity to really play with these concepts right before the audiences eyes.

Nolan in turn asked producer Aaron Ryder of Newmarket Films to obtain the rights. After his experience on Memento, Ryder trusted that Nolan would create something distinctive with The Prestige. Hes a truly gifted storyteller, says the producer. Chris was born to direct movies. I feel his films are some of the best films being made today and I just loved the idea that he wanted to make this film to be a magic trick in and of itself.

Writing with his Brother

The director approached his brother Jonathan about tackling the massive task of adapting Priests intricate novel, composed in part of confessional diaries, into a suspenseful screenplay. Having previously worked together on Mementowhich Christopher Nolan adapted from Jonathan Nolans time-shifting short storyJonathan was intrigued by the prospect of doing something equally challenging, yet entirely different.

This time around, the fun would be in trying to write a movie as an illusionone that would dazzle, deceive and ultimately surprise the audience. The movie definitely had to function as a magic trick, Jonathan says. But that concept left him in entirely unexplored territory. He continues: When I started writing, I had a bunch of different classic movies in mind that I thought I might pay homage to, but after I was done, I realized that Id never seen anything quite like this one before.

Adapting Intricate Book

He began by paring through the onion-like layers of Priests novel. The book is a very complicated, very ambitious, sweeping epic with tons of ideasand it took me about 18 months to figure out how to cut it down into something that resembles a film, Jonathan comments. I had to find the structure, which was tricky, because the story is so complexly interwoven. What we came up with is a three-part flashback structure based on this idea of the three-part structure of a magic trick.

Utilizing that three-part structurecomprised of The Pledge, The Turn and The Prestigehelped the Nolans cut to the core of why people have always been so fascinated by magic. A lot of it turns on this idea that Chris and I were fascinated by: that the audience for a magic show knows that what theyre about to see is a trick, Jonathan explains. If they actually thought a woman was going to be sawn in half, they would be very upset, and definitely not amused. So they know its a trick but they also want to feel fooled, so thats why that third act, or The Prestige, is so important. The real world is rigid, theres not a lot of mystery to it, but people dont want that to be the caseand thats where magic comes in. If weve got all the rules figured out and this is the way the world works, where you get a job, save your money and then diewell, who wants to live in that world I think we all would prefer that the universe have some surprises, some tricks up its sleeve.

Researching Magic

Jonathan Nolan delved into researching the secretive world of gifted magicians. This became especially revealing when he met with some of the most shadowy figures in that already shadowy realmthe ingeneurs who come up with wild ideas for never-before-seen tricks behind the scenes. Theyre fascinating figures who eschew the limelight, and for a screenwriter, theres something very familiar about that, he laughs. The attraction is that they get to pull all the strings.

In researching magics illustrious past, Nolan also gained insight into why that grand legacy has faded into todays Vegas acts. I think part of it is that now there are hundreds of different versions of magic out there but we dont call them magic. We have television, video games, moviestheyre all spectacles that you can disappear into just as one used to do at a Victorian magic show, he says.

Heroes and Anti-Heroes

The Prestige heads into many unexpected directions, including having its two main starsHugh Jackman and Christian Balemorph from heroes to anti-heroes and back again. Jonathan always intended for the audience to choose sides. I think you cant really watch the movie without choosing an allegiance. But whoever youre rooting for, the idea is that youre likely to start questioning it by the films end, explains the writer. Yet Jonathan himself doesnt hold a special loyalty to one character or the other. I like both Angier and Borden, he says. To me, theyre flip sides of the same coin, two complementary halves of one person.

As he wrote, Nolan never shied away from letting the audience draw their own conclusions about all that is going on in the raging battle between Angier and Borden. I love contentious stuff, he admits. Chris and I still argue about aspects of Memento and weve had arguments about The Prestige as well. I think if you get to the point where people are sitting around a table arguing about what your movie means, then youve done your job as a writer.

Collaborating

After Jonathan wrote an initial draft of the screenplay with Christophers creative involvement, Christopher then jumped in with his own draft. The unique working relationship between the brothers has always involved one sparking the creativity of the other. Jonathan has his own theory for why they complement each other so well. Ive always suspected that it has something to do with the fact that hes left-handed and Im right-handed, he remarks, because hes somehow able to look at my ideas and flip them around in a way thats just a little bit more twisted and interesting. Its great to be able to work with him like that.

Victorian Age

The story emerges amidst an intriguing period rarely explored on filmthe Golden Age of magic at the turn of the century. It was the ultimate era for magicians as they pioneered the nascent beginnings of mass entertainment. On the cusp of a new industrial society, the public was obsessed with the very concept of magical occurrenceswhether on the stage or in the life-changing technological advances and scientific secrets of the universe unfolding before them. In this atmosphere, the best and boldest of magicians became huge, headline acts across Europe and the U.S. While few other than Harry Houdini, who began performing in 1899, are remembered today, back then numerous talented magicians had the chance to become household names and international idols.

Indeed, the times seemed to be magical themselves, especially with the coming of one of the biggest revolutionary changes in human history: electricity. Electricity must have really felt like magic to those who didnt understand it yet, observes producer Emma Thomas. With mechanical objects suddenly able to come to life, the public became fascinated with such mystical subjects as the afterlife, spiritualism and anything that seemed to defy the rational imagination.

But the last thing Christopher Nolan wanted to do was make a typically constrained, demure period movie. The Victorian Era is often mischaracterized as stuffy and repressivewhen it was actually an incredibly exciting time in human development, he explains. You had the second Industrial Revolution, the birth of electricity, the birth of cinema, the start of widespread international travel and science being turned on its head by new theories. You also had the beginnings of mass advertising with billboards and posters. It was a period of great adventurousness with changes that are still being felt today.

To capture this literally electrifying, alternate vision of Victorian times, Nolan wanted to depict the era in a way that would come off to audiences as dynamic, immediate and new. Every creative choice is opposed to the way period movies are usually done, explains Thomas. Wally Pfister shot the film with mostly handheld cameras with enormous energy, and the characters are brought to life by the actors with a very contemporary feeling. The background details are all fairly realistic, but Chris has made it so that period doesnt really matter anywhere near as much as the story.

Accurate to the Feeling of the Period

Christopher Nolan continues: I wanted to be accurate to the feeling rather than the details of the period. I think it was one of the first times in which the world felt overwhelmed with visual information. Posters were everywhere, text was everywhere, and there was a lot of imagery assaulting people as they walked down the streets, exceeding even what we have today. So thats the view we give of Victorian Londonone that feels very contemporary and immediate, and I think one that lends a more authentic feeling to what it would be like to be living then. Theres something about a lot of period films that allows the audience to sit at a remove from the characters. But we wanted to dive into this world in a direct way so it was very important to use the camerawork and production design to bring the audience deeper inside.

Above all, Nolan wanted the films multiple layers to be accessible to the audience, inviting them not only into the two main characters stunning fall from grace but into the very workings of the narrative. We wanted the audience to be aware of the effect the film is having on them as it is unfolding before their eyes, he summarizes.