THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE
"Magic is the most honest and unique profession in that it lies to you, but it promises that it will lie to you, and then delivers on that promise," says Scardino.
Though acknowledging that magicians generally like to engage audiences with equal parts laughter and spectacle, the director wanted to respect the fact that they take their craft very seriously. "It takes a great deal of work, skill, dedication and creativity, this whole art of deception," he says. Toward that end, it was important for him, the cast, and the filmmaking team to play the magic depicted on screen as authentically as possible.
Production designer Keith Cunningham, who worked closely on this with VFX supervisor Bruce Jones, specifies, "Don's approach was to do as much as possible, from the smaller tricks to the big set pieces, with the least amount of CG, so that the movie audience can enjoy it as they would if they were sitting in a theater watching a live show. Only when that was impossible, like when doves fly out of someone's mouth, did we rely on the magic of CG effects."
Among the technical advisors who contributed to the production, the filmmakers enlisted historical magic and theatrical effects expert Jim Steinmeyer to assist with the effects used in the various acts. Veteran illusionist Jonathan Levit also came aboard to coach the actors in basic sleight-of-hand, as well the subtle ways in which stage magicians move and manipulate objects, to enhance their confidence and dexterity.
"So much of it is about the staging and it was very helpful to understand that," says Buscemi, who now counts among his skills the mastery of the classic cup-and-ball trick. "It's not only about the mechanics of a trick but the gracefulness with which you do it. That also helps to define the character, because everything magicians do, they do with a certain flair."
Research for the project took the filmmakers and cast to shows in Las Vegas and to the famed Magic Castle in Los Angeles, which has long served not only as a showcase and private club, but a veritable repository of the history of the profession. They also spoke with some of its most revered representatives, including Penn Jillette, Criss Angel, and David Copperfield, and were treated to a private tour of Copperfield's own collection of memorabilia, The International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts.
Knowing that Scardino wanted to cover Burt and Anton's delivery of a large-scale illusion without cinematic trickery, the master magician generously offered to help.
Tyler Mitchell recounts, "Don wanted to capture a big trick in one shot, but we couldn't figure out how to do it. They're not exactly easy to design. We came back from a break during production and David said, "Oh yeah, by the way, that trick you guys are having trouble with?...We designed it for you and here's an instructional video.' It was so completely unexpected and cool. He really went above and beyond."
Team Copperfield created an original illusion they called The Hangman, which makes its debut in the film. They also delivered step-by-step instructions for its execution, so that Carell and Buscemi could present it on stage as one of Burt and Anton's signature showstoppers. "The scariest thing about it was the sound of the gallows and the rope coming down," Carell admits. "I was covered with a mask and a bag over my head and couldn't see. I felt someone positioning me and making sure I wasn't off-center or I could crack my head on the side. It was very precise. But afterwards we were so happy with how good it looked. It was worth all the apprehension."
Copperfield also worked with Cunningham on what the designer calls "the nuances of this kind of stage show, how to light it, where to disguise the gag and figure out where the audience should be looking while the real trick is happening over here."
"David read the script and saw the humor in it, and that was a real comfort to us," says Bender. "Whenever you're doing a comedy about a culture like this, you need to have reverence and love for it as much as you're making fun of it and it was essential for us to strike that balance. I think everyone involved had a genuine appreciation for magic."
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