Director, star wanted to achieve degree of realism
Paul Giamatti, left, and Edward Norton star in The Illusionist, which opens in theatres today.
Computer-generatedeffects have opened the door to unprecedented movie magic in the past decade, but director Neil Burger (Interview With The Assassin) was faced with a unique technical challenge on the set of his latest project-namely, forgetting many of today’s cutting-edge techniques and looking to the past for visual inspiration.
Shooting The Illusionist, a period piece set in late-19th century Vienna and based on the short story by Pulitzer Prize-winner Steven Millhauser, Burger needed to make turn-of-the-century stage illusions look real without the use of modern camera or computer technology.
This might sound like a simple task, but as Burger outlined in a recent interview in Los Angeles, staging illusions long-since forgotten was not done with the simple flick of a wrist.
“The audience is so sophisticated about digital effects and CGI. I wanted to do all of the illusions, as much as I could as they would have done them at the time,” Burger said.
“Ed Norton is doing his own sleight of hand, and on stage we did almost all the illusions as they would have been done, or we did them with mirrors or on camera to stay away from digital effects to have people think about how (the character) is doing this, not how the filmmakers are doing this.”
Norton plays Eisenheim in the film, an illusionist bitter over the loss of his childhood love Sophie (Stealth’s Jessica Biel) to the tyrannical Crown Prince Leopold (The Legend Of Zorro’s Rufus Sewell).
Eisenheim, determined to win his love back, is so skilled that he convinces audiences he actually possesses supernatural powers, thus raising the ire of the prince and the local chief inspector played by Paul Giamatti (Cinderella Man).
Burger, who also wrote the screenplay, enlisted top sleight-of-hand artist and magic historian Ricky Jay to teach Norton several tricks and coach the Fight Club star on proper stage form.
Late 19th century illusionists, Burger learned through his research, were akin to today’s A-list movie stars with legions of fans and household-name status in their countries, sometimes even internationally. Their flair and poise were often as legendary as their illusions.
Both director and star Norton agreed that the latter should learn to perform the various tricks in the film to achieve a certain degree of realism, but Burger wanted more. “When I was writing I knew I wanted the movie to have an almost hand-cranked quality to it,” Burger said. “If you look at old movies like Nosferatu or early silent movies, there’s something creepy about the film quality, just the flickering, the vignetting and the grain. There’s something just so unnerving about that.”