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Do You Believe in Magic?
One of the problems inherent in putting magic on film is that audiences will instinctively doubt that what they see is actually happening, but the filmmakers behind Now You See Me were determined to eschew CGI and other special effects whenever possible. They consulted with some of the world's foremost magicians to guarantee the authenticity of the film's illusions and gave the actors the means to learn and perform their tricks themselves.

"So much of what is in the movie was filmed live," says Ruffalo. "The magic tricks are actually designed to happen in front of the audience in the film just as they do for the audiences in the theater. Anyway, aren't movies the ultimate magic trick?"

The core values of professional magic and illusionism have been woven into the script. "Often people try to write movies about magic without having any real knowledge," says Cohen. "It's not just the hand skills that we've taught to people, although all of the actors learned the basics of their specialties. We brought in a lot of terrific magicians to consult, like David Kwong, our chief magic consultant and Jonathan Levit, who performs across the country."

A professional magician with a Harvard degree in history, Kwong has been studying magic since he was a teen. "Most magicians started when they are very young," he says. "I was inspired by a magician at a pumpkin patch. The moment I knew I wanted to go into magic was when I turned to my father and said, 'How did he do that?' and my dad said, 'I don't know.' The magician had put one over on my all-knowing father."

Kwong calls his approach to magic more intellectual than most. In fact his signature trick involves a deck of cards and a crossword puzzle, which has led to him creating crosswords for the New York Times.

"I want to challenge the way magic is evolving into high-tech illusions," he says. I value the exercise of mental acuity and I love puzzles. Puzzles, like illusions, challenge what we know. "We operate within given constraints and see how we can be creative given the parameters we are given."

Kwong founded the movie consulting company, Misdirectors' Guild, which has advised the producers of several movies on magic, including the recent The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. "We are a group of elite specialists in magic from all sorts of fields," he says. "We consider ourselves a semi-secret organization that specializes in all things magical. It allows me to combine my two passions, movies and magic, into one career."

His work began with helping the writers inject authentic magic principles into the screenplay. "I'm very proud of the way we have woven the principles of magic into this film," he says. "We emphasized things like the idea that a magician is always one step ahead of the audience, which can be seen throughout the entire film, right down to the final twist."

Kwong also helped conceptualize the illusions, sometimes stretching the limits of what can currently be achieved. "We wanted to ground the film in real exhibitions of sleight of hand to remind the audience that all of these big illusions are based on years and years of practice," he says. "We have tons of real card manipulation and coin magic, and we're very proud of that authenticity.

"On the other hand, The Four Horsemen are coming up with incredibly new and innovative things," says Kwong. "We were challenged to think outside the box and come up with exciting routines that I might not be able to pull off today, but I hope to pull off tomorrow."

Kwong's mastery of magic turned grown men into six-year-olds, says Ruffalo. "Whenever he was on the set, we all went crazy," says the actor. "People want to believe in that kind of mystery. It makes the world a more interesting place. Whether you're talking about religion or the occult or David Copperfield, they all work in the mystical. People want to believe."

The filmmakers also brought in Irish mentalist Keith Barry, who may or may not have hypnotized Cohen into hiring him. "Some people say he hypnotized me into making his deal before I was ready," says the producer. "But I believe I was already prepared to say yes, so I don't think it really worked."

Barry spent most of his time coaching Harrelson. The sessions culminated in a performance for about 25 volunteers. "We got Woody in a small theater and he did his act for them," says Cohen. "He was tireless in terms of learning the proper methods of putting somebody under."

It was Leterrier's vision that drove the film's most spectacular sequences. "Louis always maintained that these are the magicians of tomorrow," says Kwong. "It was a difficult challenge and a fun exercise. We took things like flying around the stage, inspired by David Copperfield, and came up with the idea of putting Henley in a bubble."

Stephen Pope, the stunt coordinator who worked closely with Kwong to create the scene, says all magical elements had to be carefully incorporated into stunts, as well as production design, special effects and even the costumes. "If a character had to pull something out of thin air, where does that actually come from," says Pope. "Is it a practical thing or visual effects? There were a lot of meetings between all the departments to plot out each one of the stunt elements."

In this particular scene, Henley is encompassed in a giant bubble and floats from the stage to the balcony. "Obviously, it involved wire work and the set had to be designed around the wire work," says Pope. "Production designer Peter Wenham had designed a beautiful set, but then I came in and said, that can't be there because I've got to run wires. We had to redesign a few things here and there. I'd never really worked with magic elements before and figuring it all out was fascinating."

According to Kwong, Fisher was particularly dedicated to doing her own stunts. "She was a workhorse. She learned to hold her breath for the water escape. She really does go down in that water in those shackles. It was incredible to see her perseverance and her work ethic.

In Henley's first appearance in the film, she's being dropped into a tank of piranhas, chained hand and foot. "Louis told me how impressed he was that I did my own stunts, but I really didn't know I had an option," she says. "On the third day, in one of the last shots, there was a problem with the safety and my chain caught around the bottom grid. I thought, this is how I'm going go? In front of all these extras, in my swimming costume?"

That scene tested Pope's patience many times over. "We had to make it failsafe, but every adjustment meant there were more adjustments to be made to accommodate it," he says. "Even a small set change had a trickle down effect on everything we did. We had to design a tank and safety protocols for it. If, God forbid, she had an issue in there, we had to be able to clear the tank in ten seconds. Once we had that figured out, we realized that the weight of the water was too much for the location so we had to rethink that. It worked great in the end, but it took a lot of thought."

Almost all of the actors had to perform a number of stunts themselves, Pope notes. "As a group, they were really agile and athletic. A lot of times we were pulling the actors back, because they were so gung-ho to do everything themselves."

Dave Franco had to combine both stunt training and magic skills in one extraordinary scene. His character is a pickpocket, with extraordinarily quick hands, says Pope. "One of the tricks he does is to throw cards, which Dave became very good at. He choreographed an entire fight scene based on that. He can whip a card about 40 feet and hit you -- I have a mark on my face to prove it."

Kwong and Pope worked together on the sequence. "I call it sleight of hand-to-hand combat," says Kwong. "We came up with a new style of fighting that actually takes advantage of misdirection and surprise. Dave is an absolute natural at card manipulation and throwing, so we wanted him to use those skills in a new way. He worked on throwing cards for weeks and now he looks like he's been doing it for years."

"David showed me enough tricks to make me look like a legit magician," says Franco. "I got weirdly good at throwing cards. One day, I spent three hours trying to cut a banana in half that way. I kept thinking, I'm getting paid to do this?"

Along with fight coordinator Chuck Jeffreys, Kwong and Pope created a battle royale that took about two weeks to film. "He's a jujitsu pickpocket," says Pope. "We didn't want it to be martial arty, but at the same time we wanted to incorporate the kinds of evasive moves he developed to elude a street cop or just an angry guy who has been pickpocketed. David explained how pickpockets actually do things. If they're going to take your watch, they don't just grab it. They unhook it first with one move and they'll distract you with something else before they come back and take it. Information like that really helped Chuck when he was developing the fight."

Franco wasn't new to stunts, but this was challenging, even for him. "It was a huge choreographed piece and we were literally kicking the stuffing out of each other," he says. "I got destroyed. There were points when I thought I couldn't go on, but then I'd check out the playback on the monitor and it would look so amazing, I'd want to do one more take."

Cohen compares the dazzling illusions performed by The Four Horsemen to action set pieces. "Traditionally in an action movie you get three giant action set pieces," he explains. "We designed three spectacular shows for The Four Horsemen and we wanted each one of them to feel different. We decided to set them in three different cities that give each show the unique attitude and energy of that city. It starts in Las Vegas with 5,000 people at the MGM Grand. Bigger is better, so there are bright lights and huge diamond television screens. It's big and glitzy in every way that Vegas is."

For their next trick, the Horsemen move on to New Orleans, a city steeped in mysticism and tradition. "New Orleans has voodoo and the legend of Marie Laveau, the famous Creole practitioner of the dark arts," says Cohen. "That show is set in a movie palace of yesteryear, with red velvet and gold trim and beautiful candlelight. It has a certain delicacy."

There couldn't be a better place to shoot a movie about magic than New Orleans, says Kwong. "It is a city built on magic. It's the home and heart of voodoo, and the culture on the streets is one of performing. You walk out on Royal Street any day and you will see countless street performers, magicians, jugglers and musicians. It's the perfect city for illusions."

The production found the authentic heart of New Orleans, even filming on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. "That's probably the toughest place I've ever filmed," says Franco. "We had about half extras and half real drunk people stumbling through the street, as Mark Ruffalo chases me through all this crowd. He got pelted with beads by people who weren't even working on the movie. It was madness."

The cat-and-mouse game between the Horsemen and the authorities climaxes in New York City where the landmark 5 Pointz outdoor art exhibit in Brooklyn serves as a graffiti-spattered backdrop. The Horsemen perform their final illusion atop an old industrial building, surrounded by helicopters, floodlights and thousands of spectators.

"By the time they get to New York, everything has an underground feel to it," says Cohen. "The Four Horsemen are taking magic back to the streets in free performance for the people. It is designed to be covered by news choppers, like New Year's Eve in Times Square and the Yankees winning the World Series, all at the same time."

Cohen says that what he is most proud of is that the movie itself is the biggest magic trick of them all, and to understand that, audiences will have to see it. "That's the thing that really sets this movie apart," he notes. "It's a smart movie that should appeal to a broad spectrum of viewers. As a filmmaker, what I want most is for many different people to come and love the movie. Kids love magic; adults love magic. We have humor, we have car chases and hand-to-hand fighting that uses magic. We've got great tricks that are puzzles for the audience to figure out. It's all there."


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