For Oscar voters, seeing 'Illusionist' could be believing


Movie magic: Films that open early in the year must work some magic to keep Oscar voters from forgetting them.

Every year brings Oscar worthy movies that arrived in theaters so many months before the awards season heated up that by now they're at risk to be overlooked in the weekly crush of new contenders. Although there have been exceptions to the rule -- for instance, "Crash" opened May 6, 2005 and still went on to become last year's best picture winner; "The Silence of the Lambs" opened February 14, 1991 and was 1992's best picture winner -- there have been many more films that just weren't able to overcome the problem of having finished their theatrical runs long before awards voters started marking their ballots.

A case in point that's well worth being remembered by Oscar voters is Neil Burger's romantic thriller "The Illusionist," for which Burger received a best screenplay Independent Spirit nomination in late November. Earlier this week Philip Glass received a Broadcast Film Critics' best composer nomination for his work on the film. "Illusionist" opened during the quiet late summer weeks of mid-August via the Yari Film Group to favorable reviews -- scoring a fresh 74% rating on Rotten Tomatoes' Tomatometer.

Written and directed by Burger, the film stars Academy Award nominees Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti as well as Jessica Biel and Rufus Sewell. The Yari Film Group presentation is a Koppelman Levien/Michael London Production in association with Contagious Entertainment. Produced by Michael London, Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Bob Yari & Cathy Schulman, it was executive produced by Jane Garnett, Tom Nunan, Ted Liebowitz and Joey Horvitz.

"Illusionist" is one of the films I enjoyed most this year and I was happy to have an opportunity recently to focus with Burger on how it reached the screen. It's a film I'd definitely encourage Academy members to catch up with if they missed seeing it earlier in the year.

"It always feels like a minor miracle that anything ever gets made," Burger told me. "This happened in a prolonged fashion. I read the short story ('Eisenheim The Illusionist' by Steven Millhauser) that it's based on in about 1990 when it came out. It was a beautiful and powerful story that I was in no position to make at the time. So I just put it in the back of my mind and hoped one day I'd get a chance to make it. Years later when I was finishing my first film, 'Interview With the Assassin' (his 2002 drama about a TV cameraman whose reclusive neighbor tells him he's the mysterious second gunman who shot President Kennedy), the subject of magic and doing magic on screen and how difficult it is came up.

"I mentioned to my producers (Brian Koppelman and David Levien) that there was this short story called 'Eisenheim The Illusionist' that I'd always loved and that it would make a great movie. And they went out and got the rights and then I started writing it. That was about 2002. I wrote a draft and people really responded to it. The studios responded to it. They really liked the writing. They liked the story. But it was a period piece and they couldn't quite figure out what to do with it and how to market it. And they were worried about it and all that. It wasn't a clear high concept movie and so it wasn't getting made. Then finally we decided to go to some equity people. There were financiers who were interested in it and Bob Yari won out on that one."

At that point, Burger knew he would be directing the script he'd written: "I always considered myself more of a director than a writer and at the time I had written and directed my first film and I had directed TV commercials and music videos and documentaries and other short films before that. So I was writing it for myself to direct."

Is there a difference when you're writing for yourself to direct as opposed to when you're going to just hand it over to someone else to bring to life? "I was going to say 'There should be' and then I was going to say, 'There shouldn't be,'" he replied. "On the one hand, when I write I'm writing to direct it. The writing itself reflects how I would direct it -- how a character would move across the screen or move through a particular space or something. I mean that's all in a way part of the writing even though I'm not writing camera directions or things like that. You know, where I'm cutting out is pretty much how I see the movie and with some variation is pretty much how the movies come out to be. Obviously, things always change in the editing room or due to production scheduling things or whatever.

"But I think when you're writing for somebody else, I can't help but write it as I would direct it. But in a way, there's a little bit more leeway and leniency that you can (have). It doesn't quite demand the same rigor. But on the other hand, it demands something else. I feel like when I'm writing it for me to direct I can kind of short cut things because I know how I would direct it whereas when you're writing it for somebody else, which I've done as well, it all needs to be in there. You've got to kind of leave room for that future director."

I mentioned that I've been told my other writer-directors that after having to direct something they'd written they had decided they would never again write a scene set in the rain or a scene involving a moving car or a scene involving children or animals or water or whatever. "There is that (feeling) that you kind of write with the economics in mind whereas if you're writing for somebody else you just kind of write the most powerful scene you can without regard necessarily for those kind of things," he explained. "I don't think I would ever not write something in the rain or with animals or children because of that, but I think that does play into it. There's kind of an economy -- not just a money economy, but like how you would shoot something -- that plays into it."

Asked how he works when he's writing, Burger told me, "I'm kind of a nine- to-fiver. I come into my office and I sit down and I really just begin writing. I do extensive note taking and almost just spinning of possible situations and possible scenes and am constantly generating words about what happens then, who is that guy and what did he say in this particular situation? I'm constantly trying to sketch out a story, but then going off on tangents of research or individual details and really just keep writing. If I get stumped on a plot thing I move over to the character and start spinning that way. What I'm really trying to do is create a story structure the whole time, figuring out what somebody would do in a certain situation. And when I've done that, I kind of break it all down and structure it into an outline and put every bit of note making and research I've done into that outline and into its appropriate position in the outline.

"That outline will include bits of dialogue and all sorts of different things so when I actually go to write the script, the script writing goes really quickly. It can happen in two weeks or something like that because I've done four months of outlining and researching so I know exactly where I'm going. And actually it's not so much that I stick to that outline, but having done all the work gives me the freedom to just write and let it flow. And then if I get stuck, I can fall back on the outline to remember that, oh, I need to set up this particular plot point or something like that."

Burger doesn't, however, use note cards the way many screenwriters do: "I do it all on the computer. I guess I'm effectively doing note cards (by working that way). But then I do sort of pin up a graphic visualization of the outline so I can kind of see it all at once."

When he was writing "Illusionist," he noted, he didn't have specific actors in mind. "I didn't really," he said. "Because I had read the short story so much earlier and I had such a clear image from the short story of those characters, they were with me when I was writing rather than some actors. But obviously the second you're done writing and you've got to start casting the thing, you start thinking that way.

"When I'm writing the director side of me is very much there, as well. For example, the whole time I was writing it I knew I wanted to (use) visually the old cinematic techniques of flickering and irises. I wanted that not so much to make it look old, but to have it fully inhabit that realm of dream and mystery. So all that directing stuff was very much there as I was writing it. But, yes, the minute you're done writing, it's like you've got to go into that casting phase and figure out who really works for the roles."

In the case of "Illusionist," Norton was the first actor cast. "I did actually think of him first the second I was done writing," Burger said. "He's such a great actor and such a great chameleon in a way. He just sort of disappears into all of his roles and takes on the skills of his particular role so thoroughly. And Edward also has a sense of mystery or you feel like he has a secret. In any of his roles there's something going on behind those eyes and he's not telling you everything.

"He read the screenplay and liked it and then came on board. We shot in April of 2005 and he came on in about August or September of 2004. The next was Paul. I had lunch and met Paul for the first time on the day that 'Sideways' was released. Fortunately, he told me that this was the movie that he wanted to make next, which was incredibly flattering and lucky for us. We haven't seen Paul doing this kind of role before. You always see him doing these eccentric neurotic characters whereas here he's the figure of authority (as the Crown Prince's chief investigator). But he's such a great actor. He may not have been given the chance to do it before, but you can definitely see that he can do it. There's a real quiet power to him and a real gravity."

Jessica Biel plays the girl that Norton, the film's illusionist, has been in love with since childhood and who's now close to marrying the Crown Prince, played by Sewell. "Jessica is another one who's sort of unlikely for this role based on what she's done before," Burger observed, "which is much more contemporary kind of pop Hollywood movies. In a way, there was no reason for me to be thinking about Jessica and in a way we weren't. But she had gotten hold of the script and she loved (it). She's a very smart person and knows that she wanted to do something different with her career. Her representatives really lobbied to just get an audition. I was like, 'Why should we see Jessica?' And finally they were fighting so hard for it that we said, 'All right, we'll see Jessica.'

"She came in (wearing) period costume, very subtle and elegant and low key, but just something that kind of took her out of time in a way -- with her hair done in a very simple period (style), kind of pulled back but, again, not looking like how we knew Jessica. And she did an incredibly refined and restrained and subtle reading with a slight accent, actually, which hadn't even been requested of her. She impressed us and she looked so fantastic, obviously. She looks like a Hungarian princess. And then we had her come in again and we looked at her again and she seemed great again and we had her read with Edward. And we all looked at each other and we were like, 'Why are we saying no? She's great.' So that's how that happened."

In production, Burger's director self had a lot going on to deal with: "It's a period piece and that's always a challenge because everything you point the camera at has to be changed and made appropriate for the time period, which in this case is 1900 Vienna. And then you've got horses and you've got carriages and you've got hundreds of extras in this audience and you've got stage magic, practical magic, mechanical magic going on. And you have Edward doing slight of hand. And you have digital effects that are going to have to be worked into things. And then everybody's also speaking in a very slight Viennese dialect. There was a lot to balance.

"We shot for about 46 days. It was a tight schedule and we didn't have a ton of money. We shot in the Czech Republic, which is a little less expensive, but we were looking for something pretty grand. So we were working hard and long and fast, but we had a great crew and everybody signed on to the vision of the script and was passionate about it and went the extra mile. As well as having a great cast, we had an amazing crew. Ngila Dickson did the costumes and she won the Academy Award for 'Lord of the Rings' (in 2004 for 'The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King' and was Oscar nominated in 2004 for her work on 'The Last Samurai' and in 2002 for her work on 'The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring'). And Philip Glass did the score and he is one of the greatest living composers (and an Oscar nominee in 2003 for 'The Hours' and in 1998 for 'Khundun'). So it was a great group and everybody was with the spirit of the movie."

What were the biggest challenges of all those challenges? "I think there are two things," Burger replied. "One challenge was a narrative challenge in the sense that we're not clear whether Edward Norton's character has special powers or if it's all a trick. And so to sort of navigate that path and walk that fine line, I wanted the story to play out so that you could believe it either way and that it actually would logically work either way all the way down the line to the end. So you could read it completely as it's all a trick. Or, you could read it completely as it's all some sort of supernatural phenomenon. So that was an interesting balancing act.

"Another challenge was just how do you do magic on screen? Because cinema is magic already. And, in fact, the audience is so savvy about digital effects and editing techniques that in a way they already know how the trick is done. If you do magic on screen and you put the person in the box and then they disappear it's like, 'Who cares?' You know that we either cut away or the filmmakers have done something to manipulate it and it doesn't mean anything. So for me the magic in the movie is less about how he does the tricks and more about this uncanny sense that nothing is what it seems. It's like, how does it feel to come face to face with something unexplainable or incomprehensible? And what does that do the people in the movie? And how does that challenge your perceptions about everything?"

In one particularly powerful scene Norton's illusionist character must calm down a mob before it riots in the street outside his theater. He resorts to telling them that everything they've seen him do onstage is really just an illusion and not the result of supernatural powers as they believe. "Is that misdirection or is that the truth?" Burger asked. "You know, the whole movie is like that. Everything is kind of blurring the distinction between truth and illusion and art and reality. It's like how do you move through a world where you can never quite nail down what the truth is? That's kind of to me what the movie is about."

One of the most impressive magic tricks in the performance that Norton's character delivers onstage is one in which an orange tree grows out of thin air. "All the illusions in the movie are based on real illusions from that time that I took and pushed 20% or more to make fantastic and more dramatic," Burger explained. "The orange tree is based on an illusion by a magician named Robert-Houdin (Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, a French pioneer in performing illusions on stage, lived from 1805-71). Actually, Houdini stole his name from Robert-Houdin. He's kind of the father of modern stage magic. Working around 1870 or so he had this mechanical orange tree (trick) that wasn't exactly like how we do it in the movie, but it's certainly based on it. He had mechanical butterflies that flew out from it at the end whereas we used real butterflies. So it's all based on real illusions. We tried to actually shoot as much as we could as they would have been performed at the time and not really to rely on CGI and things like that.

"Those illusions were in the short story (the film's based on). What isn't in the short story is Sophie or the Crown Prince. Those I invented because the short story is very short. It's about 18 or 20 pages long and it is very cinematic and kind of amazing, but it's not really a full film. It doesn't have the structure that you think of when you think of a film. So I wanted to keep what I thought was most wonderful about the short story, but I needed to create a narrative context and structure for it. So I created this love triangle by creating Sophie and the Crown Prince and I also expanded the role of Inspector Uhl (Giamatti's character) so that the movie is told from his point of view. In the short story he's only about four or five mentions, but I expanded him."

Of course, so many times when writers adapt books to the screen they have the reverse problem in that they have a 700 or 800 page novel whose story they must cut down to fit into a 120 page screenplay. Was Burger happier having to expand his story or would be have preferred having to cut one down to size? "I think it would have been easier to work in reverse (and do) cutting," he answered. "That's hard also because you're cutting out all these wonderful things. But this short story didn't have any dialogue and it didn't really have a narrative that worked for a movie. If it did it would have been the most expensive experimental film ever if we'd shot it as the short story is. So that was difficult and required a lot of research as far as how did people talk at that time? How would they address each other? How would a Crown Prince address his fiancee? Would he ever call her by her first name? He wouldn't in public. You know, things like that. And then just trying to create a world (because) the short story's very much a fragment and trying to fill it all out and create the characters. (It was difficult) creating these scenes to fulfill the promise of the short story and without violating the short story."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Aug. 3, 1988's column: "Movies that are successful enough to spawn a series of sequels become, in effect, brand names worth their weight in boxoffice gold. Just as Paramount has on its shelf such brands as 'Star Trek,' 'Indiana Jones,' 'Crocodile Dundee' and 'Friday the 13th,' New Line Cinema has a well-known brand in 'A Nightmare on Elm Street.'

"New Line's next 'Nightmare' -- 'A Nightmare on Elm Street, Part IV: The Dream Master' -- opens Aug. 19. 'We're targeting right now about 1,800 theaters, which may get a little larger,' explains Ron Wanless, who with Michael Harpster is president of New Line Marketing. 'This is the largest national release that New Line has ever had.'

"It is also the first time the New York-based independent distributor has gone head to head with Hollywood's major studios during prime summer playing time. 'Our core demographic on this will be 12 to 24 with a primary core audience within that of teenagers,' Wanless told me, 'but we're trying to expand the marketplace to a little wider audience. We are going to do traditional things in terms of advertising and we're going to have some heavy promotional activity, also...

"Although other horror genre films like 'Phantasm II' and 'Monkey Shines' have failed to cut the mustard at the boxoffice this summer, Wanless expects 'Nightmare' to work: 'The thing that we're counting on is that we have one of the most popular characters in the Freddy Kreuger character in the 'Nightmare' series (and early tracking numbers show it with 60% awareness and 87% positive interest among teens). That gives us a lot of confidence to see we're in the high 80s%ile with teens right now. They seem to really have a special affinity for the Freddy character. It's something a lot of the other films in the horror genre don't have. They don't have an identifiable character that's also established a franchise in sequels.'

"As to other horror genre pictures not working, Harpster adds: 'We do think it's difficult to establish a franchise for horror films. There have been a lot of horror films that haven't really gotten open. I don't know why that is except to say that this audience, the teen audience, is increasingly discerning. They'll wait and see it on video or cable. If it doesn't just hit 'em right, they're not going to show up.'"

Update: "Nightmare IV" was, indeed, a major hit for the then young New Line Cinema, opening Aug. 19, 1988 to $12.8 million at 1,765 theaters ($7,271 per theater). It went on to gross $49.4 million domestically, making it the year's 19th top grossing film. "Nightmare IV" ranks as the franchise's second biggest title. It's been eclipsed only by 2003's "Freddy vs. Jason," which grossed $82.6 million domestically and revolved around both Freddy Kreuger and the "Friday the 13th" franchise's villain Jason Voorhees.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel