Death Defying Acts: Houdini Picture

Blending fact with fiction, the romantic drama “Death Defying Acts” is set around the triumphant tour of Britain by revered escapologist Harry Houdini and the mysterious woman psychic he meets.

In 1926, the great escapologist Harry Houdini is on the last leg of a triumphant world tour. At a time of great scientific debate he arrives in Edinburgh a superstar and offers a fortune to anyone who can meet his psychic challenge. Mary McGarvie and her daughter Benji perform a music-hall act and decide to try and out-con the great con-man himself. With the two con-artists playing each other for all theyre worth, they face the biggest risk of all, falling in love.

The script was developed over a number of years by co-writers Tony Grisoni and Brian Ward. Atthe outset was not a film about Houdini. Tony Grisoni explains: It started from the idea that at the centre of any magical act theres always an audience thats desperate for the magic to be real, the audience want there to be something extraordinary about whats going on. They dont want it to be like everyday life. We started with the relationship of a mother and her daughter Mary and Benji -and Houdini came into it much later.

Brian Ward adds: The main characters were originally in more of a traveling circus rather than a music hall and one day Houdini just dropped into the story and from that we developed the story about people who were sublimating love, in Houdinis case literally tying himself up with ropes and chains. There was a kind of denial of love in him and when we found that out about him, it seemed to fit very well into our story. But it was also always a story about the idea that there is magic out there if you want to believe it.

Gillian Armstrong

Written for the screen by Tony Grisoni and Brian Ward, the film is being directed by Gillian Armstrong. She was, according to the producers, the ideal person to take the helm: Gillian is somebody whose work Ive been a big fan of since My Brilliant Career. She has a very distinct voice as a director, a strong visual style, is a good storyteller, a good director of actors as well as someone who works well in period; making it come to life through interesting detail, without resorting to clich. In addition her work always has strong characters and this script has very strong, complex, interesting leading characters.

Producer Marian Macgowan concurs: Gillian has a very strong visual sensibility, but most of all shes interested in the human drama, so shes able to tell an emotionally powerful story in a very visual way.

For her part, Armstrong needed little persuasion: When I first read the script I really loved it. It was such an original take on a famous icon. I knew nothing at all about Harry Houdini, except like most people he has entered our consciousness for some reason and we know the name and that he was something to do with escapes, chains and locks, but now I know a lot about Harry! He was a fascinating man and I loved learning about behind the scenes and the element that was about magic, illusion and performance and I think we all love that. His love/hate relationship with psychic beliefs and the afterlife was really interesting.

Study of Fame

Another part of the story that particularly appealed to Armstrong was the contemporary relevance of Houdinis super-fame: Thousands of people would flock to streets or bridges, wherever he did his stunts. The thing about Harry that interested me was that it was not just about his act but about how he sold his act. He was a great self-promoter and very clever at branding and at working the press. He worked out how to make himself stand out well above every other act with his witty and clever concepts and he captured the worlds imagination. He was the worlds first superstar. But behind the fame was a very complicated, troubled man.

Guy Pearce

Australian actor Guy Pearce was cast in the central role: We were very fortunate to be able to attract Guy Pearce to play Houdini. I couldnt think of a more perfect actor. He has the visceral, physical style of acting that matches very much who Houdini was as a person and also as a performer. And Guy Pearce has that really unusual unique blend of being a leading man with the diversity of a character actor.
Marian Macgowan adds: There are a lot of layers to the story for Guy as a performer to work with, but what Guy also brings is a great physicality. He performs with a strong sense of his physical being.

For Armstrong, it was Pearces ability to immerse himself in a role: Hes just such an incredible actor. The thing I love about him is that hes a chameleon. He can change completely. He also has great depth and intelligence as a performer. I knew that Guy would do everything possible to be as fit and credible to play Houdini. He had lessons with a magican, he worked in a gym for months to get the physique Houdini would have had and by the end of the scenes underwater he could hold his breath for longer than our stunt man. He learnt to get out of a strait jacket, hanging upside down. Thats how passionate he was about the role. He can do half of Houdinis act for real now!

Pearce was initially reluctant: I had just played Andy Warhol in a film where it was important to stay factually correct. So a part of me was saying do I really want to take on the role of a self promoting megastar Pearce accepted, but was determined to approach the character differently than he had for Warhol. Although I am playing a real person again, this was more of a what if story, so I was able to let go of being so rigid with the research material and work within the world of the script. The physical side was a challenge. I had to do a lot of preparation, learning to hold my breath for a really long time, to hang upsidedown for a long while. It was astounding the stuff that I learnt as far as what we can actually do to ourselves to transform. I had quite a serious physical routine.

Catherine Zeta-Jones

Actress Catherine Zeta-Jones was cast to portray the ficticious Mary. She has a background that is not dissimilar to our character. A performer who comes from the stage, our character, Mary, is very charismatic, very street smart, very clever and very alluring, mysterious and a natural performer.

Armstrong adds: When we thought about casting Mary, Catherine just seemed the most perfect choice. As well as being a great actress, in a lot of ways shes close to Mary. She also has a lovely sense of fun and I think great vulnerability in this role. And for her it was like going back to her roots. We actually shot a scene in Covent Garden outside an old theatre and she said she used to be a hoofer in a show in 42nd Street or something for two years. When she read the script she just said, this is me, I have to do this role.

As soon as I read it I thought wow this is such a great character with many levels, completely different to the one I was playing at the time, says Zeta-Jones. I also thought it was a fantastic opportunity to work with such a great director as Gillian. I hadnt worked with a female director before and so I was interested how that dynamic would work. As soon as I met her I loved her and I knew it was going to be great.

Id heard Guy was very thorough and loved to rehearse, explains Zeta-Jones which for me is a dream because I love to rehearse and run lines and find different ways in which to do things. And we just got on really well. We worked hard, but we had a great time, we laughed and had fun.

Pearce agrees that they had a great working relationship: I found Catherine delightful. Shes completely professional and really good at what she does and shes also warm and got a great sense of humour so we all had a lot of fun.

Saoirse Ronan

Saoirse Ronan took the role playing Marys daughter: Before I started I was thinking, oh great, Im going to get to work with Catherine Zeta-Jones! I loved working with her as besides her being a great person, shes so fantastic at what she does.

Despite seeing scores of young actresses, there was no doubt in Armstrongs mind that Ronan was the right choice: Saoirse was breathtaking at her first audition, I saw a lot of talented young actresses, but she just stood out a mile above anyone else. Its a very pivotal role and her time on screen is almost as weighty as Catherine and Guys so it was very important that we had a girl who could carry that load and have the intelligence and sensitivity for such an emotional role as well. Shes very special.

Saoirse Ronan has a strong inner life as an actress. And it was important to find an actress at that age which is quite young who could have both childlike and adult qualities. Shes an amazingly accomplished actress for any age but particularly for the age of twelve. She understands her craft. She can repeat what shes done take after take. The camera loves her. She holds the screen really well, and shes been completely delightful to work with.

Her co-stars were equally enamoured with her. Catherine Zeta-Jones was very impressed with her talent: She is a talent that everyone should watch, I would equate her with a young Jodie Foster. She came straight off another film, threw herself into it, gave us cuddles every day and just incorporated Benji in a wonderful kind of ragamuffin tomboy way with a tenderness to her, which is just beautiful on screen. Shes a star. Guy Pearce adds: Shes just an absolute delight, a remarkable child far older spiritually than she seems physically. Every day she would say something that just stunned you as to how switched on she is.

Timothy Spall plays Houdinis manager and friend Mr Sugarman. I really enjoyed the script and there was something about the story that I really liked. When you read a script its a bit like when you first hear a song youve never heard before, you think theres something attractive about this, you realise its an original idea. I thought the four main characters were really interesting and its a three-way pull on whos going to get to hang on to Houdini. Its rare you get a script like this. He was also attracted to the project knowing it was to be directed by Armstrong: Im very aware of Gillians work, shes one of the best directors around. Shes bright, she knows her subject, she knows how to paint beautiful pictures and how to get to the emotional heart of things. Im delighted to be able to work with her.

Sugarman and Houdini are two people who are very close to each other. They share a lot of secrets and they come from the same place in life that makes them in their travels around the world performing very tied together.

Theres a love affair between these two characters that manifests itself very cleverly in the writing, like a kind of bickering couple. Finding an actor who could make that charming and appealing was really important to us. And so we were very fortunate that Timothy Spall was available. I have to say that he and Guy Pearce as they work together have managed to invent that relationship as actors in a way that beautifully duplicates whats on the page.

The film, set in Edinburgh in 1926, was filmed mainly on location, for production designer Gemma Jackson this presented a challenge, Weve had to shoot mainly on location, so weve had to find locations that somehow you could believe were the real thing and that we could embellish and build onto.

For example, weve used RAF Halton, to stand in for a smart Scottish hotel. It was originally a Rothschilds building, but its been really let go. So I had to up the ante and bring it back to its former glory, simplify it, get rid of the screaming carpets, bring in the appropriate furniture, put in lifts, give a sense of class really.

Some places required less work to create the required look, such as Wilton’s Music Hall, as Jackson explains: Although its really shabby and falling apart its an extraordinary place with an amazing atmosphere and you just kind of pull out a red curtain and it just loves it. The buildings from that period are just lovely. And theyre not really hard to make look perfect for this film.

Apart from creating an accurate period look, Jackson contributed to the look of the film specific to Armstrongs use of the camera: Both Gill and I are visual people. We never had one of those conversations about how the film would look, it just evolved with the scenes and what was required. Gill loves shapes to shoot through and round and so it just became apparent that thats how we would build up scenes. I would bring in beautiful screens and glass and reflective surfaces and there would be layers that she would always work through. And thats become a look of this particular film.

Jackson adds: With the costumes Susanna Buxton has stuck to the period accurately, but for the overall look weve remembered that were telling a story, its fictional and its around 1926, but were not slaves to it.

To take on a character of such iconic status was a concern of the filmmakers, particularly for director Armstrong: I think that whenever you do a story about real people and especially an icon like Houdini, who you know have devoted followers who know every single detail about his life it is daunting. But all I can say is that this is a historical fiction, our writers have imagined how he would have behaved. We did a lot of research and hope we are true to the spirit of Harry, but in the end this is a fiction.

The most celebrated performer in the world during his lifetime, the lure of Houdini continues to this day. Executive Producer Marcia Nasatir suggests he may be bigger now than ever: Yet another biography of Houdini was released last year that postulated he was a spy during World War One. And this year, his great-nephew announced plans to exhume his body, suggesting his death was due to foul play, which would be proven by modern science. Eighty years after his death, the great escape artist remains a subject of conversation and controversy on millions of sites on the Internet. And the name Houdini continues to be synonymous with magic.