A Look Inside the World of Hollywood Magic

With the premiere of 'Now You See Me 2,' international magician Doug McKenzie dishes on methods, mind tricks and movie magic.

Now You See Me, 2013’s magic caper starring Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson and Isla Fisher, among a slew of other names, offered a flashy look into an amazing world of tricks and deception, and it left the door open to a followup. With the sequel hitting theaters Friday, Pret-a-Reporter connected with a real-life master of illusion to find out more about how Hollywood magic is really made. Magician Doug McKenzie has worked with David Copperfield and David Blaine, and travels the world performing tricks that he’s developed, producing magic for TV and movies and consulting with marketing agencies.

While McKenzie calls Now You See Me "extremely far-fetched," he also says it’s OK since it wasn’t supposed to be a documentary. "Suspension of disbelief is a key element shared by both good movies and good magic, something the producers understood very well when they made the movie," he says. "It would be easy to poke holes in the authenticity, but where’s the fun in that? On a practical level, magicians have to protect the real secrets of magic. I love the fact that the 'secrets' of the magic in the movie were both clever, imaginative, and not real."

Now You See Me 2 (which adds Lizzy Caplan and Daniel Radcliffe to the mix) may very well have much of the same impractical tricks. Regardless, McKenzie — who began learning the art early and developed it throughout boarding school and business school — gives us a peek into how modern magicians work, what inspires them and how their secrets stay intact.

What did you like about the Now You See Me movie?

It gave audiences across the globe a fantastical insight into my world, making the life of a magician seem even more interesting than it already is. There were some very clever ploys incorporated in both the narrative and the characters that really highlighted the deviousness of magicians while almost confirming that magicians really do have superhuman abilities. I’m sure David Copperfield’s heavy involvement in the movie had something to do with that.

What do you expect from the new film?

It is always difficult for a sequel to garner the same level of success as it’s predecessor, however I do know that some great magicians were involved in the development so my expectations are high.

Although you felt it was farfetched, did the first movie connect with the real world of magic?

Much of the talent in Now You See Me had very strong ties to the real world of magicians. Woody Harrelson is a very good friend of David Blaine and has had a strong insight into good magic for years; it was clear that he brought that real-world knowledge into the development of his character. One of the directors of photography, my good friend Larry Fong, is also a great magician who truly understands the visual side of magic and was able to translate that perfectly onto screen. David Copperfield, who has performed more magic shows than any magician on the planet, conceptualized and designed many of the illusions used in the movie. 

What is involved in designing a magic trick?

When developing a new idea, I always start with the ideal end result in mind and then work backwards to see if I can figure out a workable method. Sometimes I have a solution immediately and other times it takes years. There are two paths that I always have to consider: the physical and the psychological. The physical side encompasses the actual means to how the magic works. On the psychological side, I have to figure out how to get inside the spectator’s head so that I’m always one step ahead of them. Real magic exists and given enough thought you can create a real magical moment for somebody. It all boils down to a careful mix of illusion, psychology, showmanship and suggestion.

How do you come up with an idea?

Inspiration can come from anywhere. The recent news story involving Apple and the FBI trying to crack the password from a seized iPhone is an excellent example. I have since developed a lot of new ideas and techniques for figuring out a spectator’s PIN code and have been having a lot of fun performing them. I also love getting new ideas by listening to my audience who often suggest an effect in jest (i.e. Can you make my wife disappear? Or what am I thinking now? ) What could be more magical than answering a spectator’s challenge on the spot?

CARD GAMES: Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco star in Now You See Me 2. (Photo: Jay Maidment/Lionsgate)

Is magic expensive to produce?

Magic can be as cheap or expensive as you make it. I do a lot of mind reading where the only thing I need are a spectator’s thoughts, and that costs nothing. On the other hand, developing a large-scale illusion for a television show or movie can cost hundreds of thousands [of dollars]. In terms of time, all good magic is expensive. I am a true believer of the idea that to be good at something takes 10,000 hours of practice.

Technically, what is involved in developing a new trick and testing it?

Bringing an effect from concept to performance is a long process that is personal to each magician. In my case, when I have figured out a workable method, I start by showing my wife and ask her for input. She has seen so much magic at this point that if it fools her, I know I’m off to a good start. If it passes the “wife test” I then try it with friends and then eventually real spectators. It literally takes hundreds (or sometimes thousands) of performances until I am both comfortable and confident with a specific piece.

Is designing a trick a solo project, or does it take a team and are they sworn to secrecy?

A friend of mine, Bill Kalush in New York City, has curated a huge library as part of the Conjuring Arts Research Center with tens of thousands of magic-related books and articles dating back to the 1500s that he makes available to members. With such a wealth of information available, it’s rare to need help from anyone outside of the magic community. Failing that, there’s always the good old-fashioned NDA.

If someone figures out a trick is there protocol for dealing with them?

It is very rare that people figure out how the magic works. There are many layers of deception involved, and even if someone is able to figure out one small part of an effect, they are still fooled by all of the other aspects. Also, as the saying goes, “There is more than one way to skin a cat,” and magic is no different. When someone thinks they have something figured out, it’s easy to use a different method to accomplish the same effect; now they are even more fooled than ever before.

Does Hollywood have a tight-knit circle or society of magicians?

Hollywood is one of the world’s epicenters for magic because of the Magic Castle, located on Franklin Avenue. Great magicians from all over the world convene there nightly to perform and share secrets. As magicians, we are all part of an inner circle, but there are of course inner circles within the inner circle, entry to which is based on merit. There are lectures, meetings and conventions available to everyone in the magic world, but the good stuff is often invitation only. When you are recognized by your peers as a strong contributor to the art of magic, doors open and the real secrets are revealed.

In the fashion world, designers hit tiers of achievement, like having doing collaborations, getting licensing deals. What is the ultimate goal of magicians? 

Magic is an art and art is personal. Some people create it for themselves, other people are more commercial. Some people are great performers but are not good at creating, others are extremely creative but lack the showmanship to carry the magic. There is money to be made in all aspects of magic as long as it is good. TV shows are never direct money makers but they do increase the value of the magician’s personal brand and money can be made there. 

Are there rivalries in the magic worldDrama?

Every industry has its dramas, and magic is no different. The most contended issues usually revolve around magicians performing stolen material (i.e. magic that someone else created for their own shows). We are a self-governing group where reputation and morals are key, so keeping your nose clean is of utmost importance. Usually these issues are resolved behind closed doors and never make it to the public forum. Until now, it has been nearly impossible to legally protect ideas, but a resolution was recently passed before Congress to officially recognize magic as an art form. Hopefully this new development will help make intellectual property laws applicable to magic.