Exclusive: The Magic of Neil Burger

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Filmmaker Neil Burger’s first film Interview with the Assassin wasn’t seen by a lot of people when released in 2002, but it used an innovative mock documentary format to reveal the truth about the theorized second gunman in the Kennedy assassination. Burger’s second film The Illusionist opened in early August with very little fanfare, but it went on to become one of the surprise hits of the late summer, early Fall, grossing nearly $40 million.

Based on a short story by Steven Millhauser, it stars Edward Norton as a stage magician in turn of the century Vienna, who may have figured out a way to talk to the dead. It’s a beautiful film in every respect that was recently nominated for an Indie Spirit award for Burger’s screenplay.

CS Indie talked with the director as he put the finishing touches on the DVD of The Illusionist, which will be available for further perusal on January 9.

CS Indie: “The Illusionist” seems like a very strange choice to make as your follow-up to the pseudo-documentary “Interview with the Assassin.”
Neil Burger: Well, it is a different movie, and it certainly wasn’t the logical next choice for me to make after “Interview with the Assassin” which didn’t make it easier either, but it was just one of those things that just came along. It was a story that I read a long time ago and when I was editing “Interview with the Assassin,” the producers Brian Koppelman and David Levien, we were talking about magic on film for some reason and how difficult it is to do. I said that there’s always been this story I’ve wanted to do and they knew about it. It’s called “Eisenheim the Illusionist” written by Steven Millhauser, a short story, so they asked if I wanted them to get the rights to it and if I knew how to expand that into a movie. I said I did, so they came back to me a week or two later and they said, “Look, we’ve got good news and we’ve got bad news, the good news is that we’ve got the rights to the story, the bad news is you’ve got to write it in six months because we have a free option.” So I did.

CS: Why did you have to write it in six months?
Burger: We had a six-month free option and we were somehow worried that it was going to get snapped up by somebody else sniffing around it. You never know if that’s true or just being “agented” by the agents. So I wrote it. The thing that does connect it with “Interview with the Assassin” is that it very much has this thematic line of how do you know what’s true, blurring this distinction between truth and fiction. It’s a fake documentary, so it’s using that non-fiction form but it’s dealing with these conspiracy theories, and it’s not clear if the guy is telling the truth or whether he’s delusional or deliberately leading us on. It’s very much about this idea of how do you live in a world where truth becomes something that you can just never nail down. In a way, “The Illusionist” is simpler in the sense that it too is blurring this distinction between truth and illusion, or art and reality. It’s also about this sense of when you can’t quite put your finger on how those illusions are done or what’s really happening, how does that affect you? It’s like the difference between faith and reason.

CS: You probably had to flesh out the short story to add some more dialogue. Is the general framework and story still the same?
Burger: The general story is really just about Eisenheim and his illusions. He’s this enigmatic character and we don’t quite know whether he has some kind of powers or not. The character of Sophie isn’t in the story. The character of the Crown Prince isn’t in the short story. I added those, and created the love triangle. I also really expanded the role of Inspector Uhl, who’s maybe four or five mentions in the short story. To tell the movie from Uhl’s point of view enabled me to keep Eisenheim a mystery, enabled us to be with him and to care for him, but not know his secret.

CS: It sounds like most of the stuff I really liked about the movie was not in the short story at all.
Burger: What’s beautiful about the short story is the apparitions, the things that he raises, and the orange tree is in the book, but the core of the movie is the apparitions and that’s really the essence of the short story.

CS: You mentioned that this came about from wanting to figure out how to show magic in movies, so was that something you figured out even before writing the script?
Burger: I think it went hand-in-hand with writing the script. That was a big challenge. The difficulty of doing magic on screen is that film is magic, it’s a trick already. It’s artificial, plus the audience already knows how the trick is done with all the editing techniques and special effects and digital CGI. The trick was how do you do the magic and make it of any significance when we all know, “Well, the camera just cut away and that’s when the lady got out of the box.” To me, in the movie and when I was writing it, it’s not so much about how the trick is done. It’s much more about this kind of uncanny sense that nothing is what it seems, and to me it’s about that moment when you come face to face with something incomprehensible, something unexplainable and how it changes your perceptions about everything.

CS: I remember an early silent film that had a magician and it used some of those same camera tricks and your movie has the same look as some of those old silent films. Was that intentional?
Burger: Yeah, I mean to me, the dramatic question in the movie is “Does Eisenheim have powers or is it all some kind of trick?” I wanted to create this tone of uncertainty and something disquieting about that kind of uncertainty and I wanted the visuals to reinforce that. I’ve always felt when you see those old silent films, there’s something eerie just about the film quality of those movies, the flickering, the gray, the irising, there’s something so strange and other-worldly about it, and I wanted the movie to inhabit a realm of dream and mystery. I didn’t mind if it looked old, but to me, using those techniques was less about making the movie look old than it was to put it into this realm.

CS: Was a lot of that done on set in terms of the colors of the costumes and sets and with the lighting, or did you put it through some sort of process afterwards to give it that look?
Burger: I’d say it’s about half and half. Everything that comes afterwards had to be set-up. It’s not like we could’ve decided afterwards, “Oh, let’s make it all this. ” I suppose we could have, but it wouldn’t have been as strong. We had a pretty clear sense of what we were doing going in, and the photography is often only as interesting as what you’re pointing the camera at. With the production design and the costume design, there’s very rigorous color schemes that works with how we were going to treat it with the camera filters and with the film stock we were using, and then also how we were going to affect it in post-production.

CS: Can you talk a bit about the casting of Ed Norton and Paul Giamatti? Norton had been on a break, but Giamatti was probably at his hottest with all the awards buzz for “Sideways” and then “Cinderella Man.” Was it just the script that sold them on doing this?
Burger: Yeah, well, Edward read the script and he was intrigued by that time period and by portraying a magician. He’s such a great actor, so we were really luck to have him, and with Paul, I met Paul on the day that “Sideways” came out. It was incredibly flattering, because he had read “The Illusionist,” he’d gotten it because he and Edward have the same agent, so somehow somebody had just said, “Hey, you should take a look at this.” He’d read it and this was the movie that he wanted to do next, which was a real complement coming from him. It’s an interesting role for him, a very different role for him. We’re used to seeing him as a much more eccentric neurotic character, whereas here he’s playing a figure of authority, and we haven’t seen him playing that kind of character before. But Paul has this real quiet power and I think that really comes across in this movie, and I know he’s happy with the part because it shows him in such a different way.

CS: Knowing that you’d be doing a lot of the magic using CGI, did Ed Norton actually have to learn some magic tricks or sleight of hand?
Burger: I think he had a real eagerness to learn it and was fascinated with it already, so he did learn all of his sleight of hand and do it himself. Everything you see him doing on camera, he does, and actually, quite a bit of the magic that you see in the movie we are not doing it with CGI, we’re trying to do it as much as they would have done it then as possible. Now with budget and scheduling constraints, that wasn’t always possible, but like the orange tree, it is actually half mechanical that tree and we had to augment it. And the mirror illusion with Sophie, we did it as they would have done it with half-mirrors, where we altered the lighting and had somebody behind the mirror, that was one way they did it and sort of push the smoke out through a small hole in the mirror, that’s they would have done it. Then we had to clean things up a little bit at the end, but mostly, it actually isn’t CGI. We tried to stay away from that stuff as much as possible.

CS: So the orange tree was a magic trick that was actually done back then and could potentially be done on stage?
Burger: Yeah, all the illusions are based on illusions from the time that I’d really researched. Then for film and for dramatic purposes, I kind of pushed them 20% or so, but that orange tree was a very famous illusion by a guy named Robert Houdin, who was sort of the father of modern stage magic, a French magician. Houdini stole his name from Robert Houdin.

CS: I also loved the Phillip Glass score, because it was clearly his work, but he modeled it more after music of that period. Were you working with him very closely from the beginning?
Burger: He came on after we finished shooting, like a week after I finished shooting I met him and let him read the script towards the end of our production. Lucky for us, he liked it and wanted to be a part of it. What I liked about all Phillip Glass’ music is he always has a haunting, mystical quality to it, and I knew I wanted the movie to be a classical grand score right for the time, but I also knew I wanted that haunting mystical quality to it. Be true to the time, but also be out of time, and as I said about the visuals of the movie, I wanted the music to reinforce this disquieting, uncanny quality of the story. He’s the perfect guy for something like that and the score is beautiful.

CS: There’s a bit of controversy about the movie’s ending. Was that something taken from the short story or an original creation for the movie? (Possible Spoilers Ahead!)
Burger: That’s something I created for the movie. The whole sense of mystery is what I created in the script, but it’s in the spirit of what’s in the book, even though that’s not a mystery like that, but the book really has this sense of playing with your perceptions and challenging your sense of what’s possible in the material world. So the ending to me goes along with that. (Spoilers) The ending to me is also very much in Uhl’s mind; it isn’t necessarily true. We enjoy that it’s true and that’s kind of a victory. (Spoilers end.) The whole movie is told from Inspector Uhl’s point of view and Giamatti is so great. He’s able to show it all just with his eyes, especially in that ending scene. It’s all told from his point of view, it’s all told from things that he’s seen himself, things that have been reported to him, or things that he is supposing. It’s conjecture, and I think the ending is the same. It’s how he thinks it must have happened.

CS: As you were finishing this up, Christopher Nolan was also making a movie about turn of the century magicians. Your movie was obviously already done by then and they’re very different movies, but what were your thoughts about there being another magician movie set during this period?
Burger: It’s just a bizarre coincidence. It’s frustrating to have to share the stage, but we were a small movie, and we were able to get out there and it became a real word-of-mouth movie that people enjoyed and told their friends to go to, and it’s become a small hit. Compared to what we spent, we’ve done rather well. “The Prestige” is a much bigger movie, not to quote me on this, but that movie cost probably $40 million, our movie cost $16 million, and they spent $25 million to market it and we spent I don’t know what, $6 or 7 million. We’ve done really well.

CS: And your movie had the advantage of coming out first. When you had the movie at Sundance, were you trying to shop it to the bigger studios before distributing it independently through the Yari Group?
Burger: Yeah, Universal wanted to buy it actually and had an offer on the table and was going to release it big, and I think Bob Yari saw he had something there. He always wanted to start his own distribution company and had that in the works anyway, and he thought this movie would be successful for him. And he was right, it turned out really well.

CS: I remember hearing that this new distribution company was giving the movie a wide release, but I was a bit skeptical that they could get the screens, even after seeing it and loving it. And they did it.
Burger: Yeah, they sure did. They did a good job. Always the trick is to get people into the seats, and then if you can do that, then the movie will do its job. They were able to get people into the movie theatres, and people really liked the movie and came back with their friends.

CS: Any idea what you’ll be doing next?
Burger: I’ve written something and I’m reading a bunch of stuff, so it’s all coming to the head right now. I’m a little superstitious, so I’m not going to really talk about it.

CS: Would you want to direct someone else’s script just to keep working after doing this?
Burger: I’ve written something that I’m going to direct, but I’d be happy to direct somebody else’s screenplay. In a way, it’s very liberating to direct something you haven’t written because then you’re working in a purely interpretive way, which is really what the role of the director is.

The Illusionist may still be playing in a few scattered theatres, but if not, you can catch it on DVD on January 9.