THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE
The Vegas of It All
Production began on location in Las Vegas, capturing images of its celebrated main boulevard and downtown that are instantly identifiable to audiences around the world. Scardino, who calls it one of his favorite cities in which to film, likens it to other famous movie locales, such as Manhattan, in that, "anywhere you point the camera is a beautiful shot. Everything has color and character. You can't lose."
Staging Burt and Anton's dramatic public meltdown 40 feet above the street affords audiences a spectacular 360-degree aerial sweep of the Strip, while symbolically acknowledging the reach of the pair's former popularity. The Hot Box sequence was one reason the filmmakers chose Bally's Las Vegas Hotel and Casino as Burt and Anton's home base. Apart from the property's rich history, the hotel grounds and its strategic mid-point position on the boulevard offered the perfect space for the stunt and its commanding view.
Though some of the logistics and effects were finalized later in a more controlled environment on a Los Angeles outdoor backlot, much of the scene was filmed on site and, Carell confirms, "It was me and Steve dangling there by a wire, in a glass box with breathing holes. It wasn't so much the height that freaked me out but being able to look straight down through the bottom of the box and see ground. I prefer to see something solid underneath me."
Other practical Las Vegas locations included the area surrounding the city's famous Fremont Street, as the busy venue where Steve Gray earns his notoriety. Additionally, production designer Keith Cunningham chose the local Prince Restaurant to serve as the fictional Peppermill Lounge where local magicians go to relax and hang out. "We were inspired by the decor of the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, with its red damask wallpaper and dark woods. The Castle graciously lent us original artwork, magic show bills and memorabilia, some of them priceless pieces, to enhance the set with some history and authenticity," he says.
Tracing the trajectory of Burt and Anton's career from the smallest venues to the largest theaters, Cunningham scouted performance spaces throughout Las Vegas' downtown environs before moving to Los Angeles. There, he chose the spacious Wadsworth in Westwood, and finally L.A.'s opulent Orpheum Theater to represent the more grand stages on which they present their most spectacular illusions.
Among the most lavish sets he created was Burt's penthouse hotel suite, an amalgam of upscale rooms he and his art team examined, with a slant toward traditional over more modern details. The idea was to indicate how things haven't changed much for Burt since the day he moved in, except for the wall art collection dedicated to his own image and successes.
The suite's crown jewel is a ridiculously mammoth custom-made bed, of which Burt is inordinately proud. Says Cunningham, "Don and I discussed designing a circular or a heart-shaped bed, but felt that it wasn't exactly the right image we wanted to convey. Instead, we decided to go with a bed so big that it barely fits in the room. It's 12 feet wide by 9 feet deep. Believe it or not, we actually saw a bed in a Vegas high-rollers suite that was not much smaller than that."
Excess was also the standard to which costume designer Dayna Pink cut the company's wardrobe. Marking her third time outfitting Carell after "Crazy, Stupid Love." and "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World," she notes, "Working with Steve is always an amazing collaboration. This time it was all about the flash and sparkle. I loved showing him the reference pictures and seeing if I could make him laugh, and ultimately we decided that there was almost no limit to how far we could take Burt's look. We built all his stage costumes to show his chest."
Burt and Anton shamelessly take the stage in twin bedazzled burgundy velvet suits, and matching boots with crystal accents, about which Carell says, "When you're wearing a sparkly velvet jumpsuit cut down to there, it informs how you move. You feel different. Your posture, the way you conduct and present yourself, is different. It's as if the costume is saying, 'Wow, I'm hot. Revel in my beauty.' And there are lots of sequins involved -- some of which you can't see. For example, I'm wearing sequined underwear and socks right now. It's a Method thing, just part of my commitment to the role."
For Burt, though, the show's not over when he steps off the stage, an attitude that is reflected in his so-called regular clothes, Carell explains. "He has a costume for the show. He has a costume for going out. They're varying degrees of flamboyance but he's always in character."
By comparison, Anton's street duds are more conservative and relaxed, befitting his personality. Similarly, Jane exudes a down-to-earth ease, almost tomboyish, in her private moments, in contrast to her palpable discomfort in the sexy costumes she's required to wear on stage.
Steve Gray's look was its own unique conception. Though Pink first imagined it as loud and heavily accessorized, she subsequently dialed it down to a more subdued, jeans-and-vintage tee style. This allowed Jim Carrey to express the character's increasingly unbalanced attitudes in his own way -- albeit with a few irresistible accoutrements like studded and buckled leather cuffs and the inexplicable doll's arm hanging from his belt.
Additionally, Carrey's process of experimenting with the wardrobe and his ultimate adoption of a long, stringy, two-toned hairdo, helped steer Gray in a slightly different direction. He explains, "I was originally going to make him grittier, more street, until we tried on the long wig during a makeup test and it got a great reaction. Then it wasn't the same guy because hair can change a character completely. I said, 'Now this is a guy with a Messiah complex. He thinks he's conquered ego and that's what makes him so much better than everyone else.'"
Overall, the story and its setting offered a range of elements to play with and have fun with, but the underlying sentiment was always to honor the traditions of Las Vegas performers and the world of magic, its practitioners and fans.
But, "In the process of taking a comical look at magic and magicians, all the craziness and excess of staging these kinds of shows, we also have a very human story about a guy who comes to his senses amidst all this and realizes what's valuable," says Scardino. "I hope audiences will take that away with them as well."
Additionally, Carell feels the story, however stylized, "is grounded in reality to some extent. There's a fine line between the comedy and the emotional elements that bring you into it. This world appealed to me, as did the characters. Burt may be a jerk, but he's a redeemable jerk, a monster created by his own success, and I think it's an interesting look at that. It deals with redemption without being too heavy-handed about it because it's silly and funny and fun at the same time."
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