Of the actors we spoke to on the set of Now You See Me, we’ve probably spoken to Jesse Eisenberg the most times, having visited the set of three of his movies as well as having spoken to him for a number of indie films in the years before and after his Oscar nomination for The Social Network.
Question: David Kwong (the magic consultant) told us about training you guys, so what kind of stuff have you been learning?
Jesse Eisenberg: Well, there are a few things I have to do in the movie, so those are the things I really practiced a lot, but there are things that are just interesting to know about as a character/magician, so I realized early on in the training that if you learn some of the basic principles you can apply those principles to many different tricks or illusions. And what my character does really well is take those principles and use them to create these totally innovative illusions. The first thing that you see in the movie In the first scene of the movie, he is with a group of people at a bar outside in Chicago at night, and he asks this girl to pick any card from the deck. She takes a card, and then he has the card appear on the face of the Sears Tower. And it’s kind of explained, I’m not sure how much will make it in the movie, but it’s kind of explained how he does it. And it’s just so brilliant and innovative. It’s for no gain other then the enjoyment of the 20 people outside the bar.
Q: How are you guys dealing with the magic and not giving away how tricks are done, since you’ve been talking to a lot of magicians to prepare for this?
Eisenberg: Yeah, I guess there were some debates over whether or not to reveal certain tricks in the movie, but the most important thing is what these magicians are doing is so singular and unique that it’s not revealing too much. Morgan Freeman plays a “Magic Debunker,” so he makes and sells DVDs of him revealing the great magic tricks. And he’s seen by the movie as not a noble character. So the magic debunking is not seen as noble in the movie’s eyes. The stuff that he reveals is really these tricks that no one else is doing. In the first magic show we do, we rob a bank in Paris and it rains money on the audience, and we’re not revealing any kind of long-standing thing because that never has happened. So we’re probably in the clear.
Q: Now that you know a few magic tricks, would you ever use that in a bar to pick up a woman?
Eisenberg: I feel very guilty doing magic because you’re deceiving somebody. When I am with David Kwong and he does magic, people love it and they don’t want to know. But I am, I guess, too early in the process to realize that they don’t want to know and just feel immediately guilty that I tricked them and tell them how it’s done and David gets upset and the night ends pretty early. But one of the things about being a magician is you have to overcome the feeling of discomfort that comes with lying, you have to get over that feeling, which is a strange quality. Especially if you’re like David, who’s a nice, regular guy; he’s not interested in being duplicitous or anything. You have to get over that, because the truth is people seem to like being lied to in that safe context.
Q: So what made you want to get involved in the project?
Eisenberg: I thought it was a great script. There are so many elements to the script. The main thing for me as an actor is that it’s an interesting role to play as the character is one of the world’s greatest magicians. So in his personal life, off stage, he struggles to maintain control over everything. Because as a magician you’re in control of everything, you’ve preplanned every aspect of your behavior. In his personal life, though, he struggles to maintain that same kind of control. It’s an interesting character. The cast that they assembled was just fantastic, getting to work with Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, Woody Harrelson again, and Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Mark Ruffalo, Mélanie Laurent; this is the most amazing cast they could have put together. And the story was so interesting. I’m not sure how much you know about it, but it’s also like a mystery movie, where you’re trying to figure out how these magicians are doing these elaborate and very complicated tricks, and over the course of the movie you start to piece things together. I don’t normally read movies like this, I had no idea. It was a convincing mystery.
Q: How would you describe Atlas beyond his magic? What kind of person is he?
Eisenberg: I think my character’s most in his element when he’s performing, and when he’s not performing I think he’s probably just waiting to perform. I read the script while I was doing a play in New York, and I was really able to relate it to my life. The ideal way to approach a character is to find something in yourself that relates in some way. And I really liked doing the play, but the off time was torturous because you’re just anticipating this significant thing that you have to do every night. So I assumed that’s probably what this character’s dealing with. He loves performing; he performs as much as he can. He doesn’t spend a night on a date, rather he goes out and performs for people, so that’s what you see in the first scene of the movie. That was the most exciting part of the character for me because I could immediately relate to that experience.
Q: You guys are filming this over 60 days; it seems like a very ambitious film for a 60-day shoot. Can you talk a little bit about what it’s been like trying to get it all done?
Eisenberg: It’s not been so taxing for me because the movie goes back and forth between the magicians and the FBI chasing them, so by design we have a lot of time off. But the crew has been working. The hours are incredible. Luckily the tone is set at the top by Louis (Leterrier) and Bobby Cohen, who is producing it and Louis is directing it, and they run a very nice set. Everybody feels included, everybody feels happy to be there. That’s not always the case, so the long hours are mitigated by that nice environment.
Q: How is Louis as a director? Do you feel he has strength as far as the action? What do you feel are some of his strengths?
Eisenberg: He’s like the tallest kid I ever met. He just has so much fun doing the scenes. You know just by watching him work that the scene is going to be fun to watch because he has such a great time with it, such a great time filming it. When I first met him I was the first actor that they approached, so when he told me who he wanted to put in the movie I realized right away he also really loves actors. I mean, to assemble a cast like this for a movie that has such a complicated plot, and has such amazing effects, and such a cool storyline, it doesn’t necessarily require the actors that they’ve assembled. So it’s a really amazing thing that he fought for actors who do independent movies and theater to be in a movie that probably could survive on its own based on the cool premise.
Q: This film is being described as an action thriller although it doesn’t have the typical type of action heroes cast in it.
Eisenberg: I don’t know about major trends in movies, but I know they wanted to cast actors who were not typically in movies that were paced at this speed. It’s been really fun for us, everybody really likes doing it. Woody Harrelson’s in it and he seems to do all kinds of movies so I don’t think he’s out of his element or anything. But it’s been fun. The job for me is the same anywhere. I mean, this movie probably edits more quickly than an independent movie or something, but my job doesn’t really change that much.
Q: Have you gotten to see anything edited together like one of the magic tricks?
Eisenberg: The way our characters are introduced is the four magicians are introduced doing their magic, so I’m doing that trick I said at the Sears Tower. And then Isla is doing a — she’s an escapologist, so she escapes from shackles underwater — and I saw her scene cut together, in which she’s thrown into a tank of piranhas handcuffed and she has to get out of the handcuffs before they attack her. And it was incredible. When you’re on set you don’t realize the way something is going to look since you’re on the other side of the camera, but I saw that scene edited together and it’s astounding.
Q: Often when you sign on a project the script looks a certain way and then you get on set and things change. How has it changed or not changed, since you signed onto it?
Eisenberg: It’s changed a lot since I initially signed on to it because I think I was the first actor to come on to it. And so once they started assembling this cast, they started to tailor the roles a little more specifically to the actors involved. That was the big first change. And then once we were no longer shooting in Atlantic City, they changed it to New Orleans, and we shot most of the movie in New Orleans, so that changed a lot, too. But the overall storyline is the same and the mystery of the movie remains the same, and that’s the most important element.
Q Can you talk a little bit about how this character is similar or different from the other characters you’re known for?
Eisenberg: Well, there are a few different aspects to him that are probably unique. He is, well, in terms of characters I’ve played, he is controlling and probably unsympathetic in the same what that the character I play in “The Social Network” is. And yet he is very charismatic and enjoys performing, so that is not similar to that character. So I’m finding different elements that maybe overlap with that character. But this character is like a performer, whereas the character in that was really a hermit, so that’s pretty different. But in terms of their need to control and to manipulate, their need to be in their element at all times, that’s probably similar.
Q: I’ll ask about you and the relationship with the other magicians, Isla and Woody, because it’s probably interesting. I’m curious about your take on that.
Eisenberg: Yeah, we are all experts in our specific field. Isla, as I said, she’s an escape artist, and Woody is a mentalist, and then the other magician is Dave Franco and he’s like a pickpocket. So we’re all kind of experts in our specific craft, but then when we’re brought together there is some internal tension because we feel like we have to suppress our own leading status in order to be part of this group. It comes out a little bit in the movie, but ultimately you see us working together as a team. But my feeling is if you were to see behind the scenes a little more then you already do you’d probably see that they all hate each other because it’s probably not dissimilar to actors coming together and working together. You know, you love each other on stage but then backstage
Q: Do you have magic fights with each other?
Eisenberg: Yes, exactly.
Q: Can you talk about the “Zombieland” reunion and working with Woody again?
Eisenberg: I love working with him, everybody does. He is one of these very unique actors that is as comfortable in a movie like this where there’s a lot of effects and where it’s fact-paced. As well as movies like an independent movie that is shot in 20 days or something. So that’s really helpful for me on set because this is one of my first bigger movies at this scale, and so to have him there and to see how he paces himself throughout a day, and see how he is aware of the camera angles, knowing to not necessarily expend all of your energy when the shot is nowhere near your body, that’s helpful to see. On a personal level, I like him so much, and we have similar tastes in drama and in comedy, so it’s very helpful to work with somebody where you have a similar aesthetic.
Q: Some of us were on the set of “Zombieland” and witnessed first hand your relationship as well as the improvising that Woody does on every take, where he mixes it up on every take. How is it on this movie? Have you done scenes with him where on every take he’s doing something different?
Eisenberg: I guess because that was more explicitly comedic, it lent itself to more improvisation. But this movie, we’re improvising, but there is less room in a movie like this where the plot is so specific. In “Zombieland” it was such a freewheeling plot it almost didn’t matter what the characters were doing scene to scene as long as there was a consistent banter. Where as in this we have to account for this plot, so there is a little less room for silly improvisations. That said, within the context of that more specific goal we are finding places. And Louis, who’s directing this movie, is French, but has an amazing sense of humor in English, which is not always the case, obviously, and so he loves when we make jokes and stuff. And so even though this movie is a really plot-driven movie, there’s been a lot of room for humor.
Isla Fisher Henley
It’s been some time since we’ve seen Isla Fisher in a major studio movie and she’s never done an action movie so playing the escape artist Henley is quite a departure for her, plus it will be the second of two movies we see her in since she’s also in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby earlier in the month.
Q: Can you tell us about your character Henley and who is she underneath the magic?
Isla Fisher: Well, it’s hard to (remove the) magic because she really is so defined by her work. She’s devoted her entire life to her job. She is an illusionist and an escapologist and she does all these extreme things, so I liken her to a lion tamer or an anarchist or somebody who is fearless, somebody who is in their element, taking really big risks. She’s fearless, but she’s also vulnerable, particularly around Atlas, Jesse Eisenberg’s character, because they had a romantic history and I guess he’s so much more focused on the work and she tries to get his attention and it doesn’t really work out for her. She’s a really great character to play. She’s just so confident and she’s such a firecracker and she’s really worn off on me. I find myself strutting around my everyday life and being a lot braver in situations where I wouldn’t necessarily be as brave before. I feel like all the characters I’ve inhabited, I’ve always taken away a few traits and kept them for myself and this character I feel like hopefully it’ll be her confidence.
Q: Can you talk about what got you involved in the project? Did they come after you? Did you read the script and say “I want to be involved”?
Fisher: You know what? They sent me the script and it was actually an offer and normally when you get offered a script, it’s not something that you want to pursue. (That doesn’t smell bad like something’s on fire, does it? Sorry, it’s 2AM). But this one I couldn’t believe. I read it and it was such a page-turner, and I always try to choose material that I would want to go and see. I don’t choose movies anymore to be in that other people wouldn’t want to see. I used to when I was younger think “Oh my god, I really like that, it’s set in Scotland.” Now I’m like I just want to do movies that I want to see and I want to see this film. Yes, that’s what happened. I read the script and I loved it. It just had elements of an interesting movie, a good story, interesting people were attached and so many weird contrasting elementsromance, action, heist . It just seemed like a mixture of a bunch of different movies, like a lovechild of “Clash of the Titans” meets “Ocean’s 12″ meets you know? It was just an awesome idea.
Q: Can you talk about the escapes you’ll be doing? I know that there’s one in a tank with piranhas. How hard is it to do that kind of stuff and be involved in those kinds of things?
Fisher: You know what? It’s surprisingly hard during rehearsal, but once they’re shooting, there’s something about the presence of the camera and the pressure or maybe it’s just you’re lost in your character, but it becomes startlingly easy and you just go into a zone where you’re able to I mean, I was able to hold my breath for a couple minutes. I practiced for a while to get up to that, but it was wild. I was chained, right at the bottom of a huge tank and it was great fun, I really loved it. That was my favorite day. They did heat the water, before you think I’m that crazy. It was like a Jacuzzi. I mean, please. It’s like Hollywood’s idea of rouging it for the day, being in a Jacuzzi water.
Q: We were talking earlier to the producer Bobby Cohen and he was telling us that the tone was “Ocean’s 11,” “Sneakers” and stuff like that. Can you talk about what you think the tone is of the movie and did you watch any films to get ready for this one?
Fisher: No, the only thing I watched to prepare for this was a documentary called “Make Believe” which is about teen magicians, and then I watched all of Houdini’s work and Dorothy Dietrich, who is a female escapologist, who is amazing to watch her. She can catch a bullet in her teeth. She can get out of a tank. I was more interested in coming out of it from a character point of view. I’m not a filmmaker, I’m not responsible for the tone of the movie, I’m just responsible for making sure that my character is well realized and documentaries help when you’re creating characters. You don’t to copy another actor’s performance but you can do mannerisms or a walk or just getting into the mind of a magician through watching a documentary on magicians.
Mark Ruffalo – Dylan
We didn’t sit down with Mark Ruffalo until the second night and this was just a month before he’d literally shake up the world playing Bruce Banner and The Hulk in Marvel’s The Avengers. Ruffalo is always fun to talk to and when we sat down with him, he had a cut on his face which we learned came from Dave Franco whipping a card at him.
Q: What was it about this project that made you sign on and get involved?
Mark Ruffalo: Jesse Eisenberg. I read it and I thought it was a really fun thing. It’s something I’d never done. I got to do some action stuff in it and I thought it was really kind of a clever script. It had a clever twist in it, and I just thought it would be one of those movies that is just a fun ride.
Q: Do you have magician envy?
Ruffalo: I’m a little bummed out that I don’t get to do any tricks, but I got something up my sleeve. Magicians, just a general note, don’t get laid. (laughs) I hate to say that. (To one of the women journalists) Are you into magicians? You know, we were at a party once and there’s these street magicians that I’ve seen perform. David Blaine, I was at a party and he was doing some stuff and I thought my wife was gonna run off with him. And then Keith Barry, who’s actually Woody Harrelson’s consultant on this, who’s a great hypnotist and a great street magician, could be very, very seductive as well.
Q: You’ve played a police officer before, but what’s different about Dylan?
Ruffalo: He’s kind of a rogue, kind of mangy and a little sassy. Most of the cops I’ve played are pretty straightforward cops. He’s much more kind of an outsider, you know? They call it a street agent, you know. There’s desk agents and street agents basically in the FBI. He’s kind of unorthodox and he loves being on the street and he’s tough and he doesn’t shave, he doesn’t really follow the rules. He’s something of a lummox. He’s always screwing things up, but does it with a lot of authority.
Q: As far as the relationship with Melanie, is there a chemistry between the two of them or is this
Ruffalo: Strictly a professional thing? No, there’s definitely something happening there, but he would like to keep it professional, but it’s outside of his control in that way.
Q: What’s your relationship in the movie with Common’s character? We haven’t heard much about him tonight.
Ruffalo: He’s my boss. He’s sending me on to this job and I hem and haw about it. I’m like, “You want me to do what? I’m about to blow up this huge organized crime ring and you want me to go do what with magicians? What are you talking about?” I have a lot of attitude with him about it and he just says, “Hey, shut up and go do what I tell you to do.” (laughter)
Q: An actor usually wants to play somebody somewhat empathetic on screen, but in a movie like this, you want the criminals to get away with it.
Ruffalo: Well, when it’s sort of done in a way that you get to know the people This has a Robin Hood flare to it and right now there’s definitely a populist sort of view of the world that people are being taken advantage of and the big people are taking advantage of them, so the idea of taking from the rich and giving to the poor seems to resonate quite a bit right now, and that’s always been a great story. We like that story. There’s a great quote, Behind every great fortune, there’s a great crime,’ and so this kind of turns that on its head. I don’t know why, but, you know, filmmaking could direct you to have sympathy for people that you normally, as a society, wouldn’t have sympathy for.
Q: Does your character sympathize at all with the Horsemen?
Ruffalo: No. (laughs) No, he sees it as breaking the law. He’s kind of a black and white guy throughout most of the movie.
Q: We heard earlier that you might have been hypnotized and perhaps there’s a word that someone could say to you and you would either bark or you would do something. Is this actually true or is it a made-up rumor on the set?
Ruffalo: (Laughs) Woody got very proficient at hypnotizing people and we were out one night and I don’t know if something was dropped in my drink or Woody actually hypnotized me, but something did happen to me. I don’t want to talk about it much. (Laughter)
Q: Was Louis interested in what you’re doing in “The Avengers” as the Hulk since he directed the previous Hulk movie?
Ruffalo: Well, the funny thing is, is, yes I met with him on that Hulk, so he came to me and he said, Hey, we didn’t get a chance to do it then, let’s do it now.’
Q: Was there anything that you were inputting meeting with Louis early on?
Ruffalo: Well, yes. When we first met, I had a draft and he said, Hey, what do you think about this? Would you like to see any changes? We’re about to do a rewrite. What would you do with it?’ And that was our meeting and I kind of just told him some ideas and he really liked them, and then I met with Ed Solomon and we went through the whole script together and worked in some changes there. And then when we were rehearsing with the other actors, we were polishing stuff and doing rewrites during that time, too. So it’s been a very like I said, Louis likes to collaborate and it’s been a very collaborative process from the first meeting to what we’re shooting today. And even the stuff we’re shooting today is changing minutely to fit the location and fit the action. Sometimes dialogue doesn’t work or you don’t need it, and so we’ve been doing that as we go along.
Director Louis Letterier
Finally, we have a longer interview with the director of the film who has to pull all of these disparate elements and the impressive cast together into a cohesive film although Letterier’s experience doing big action films certainly came into play for him getting the gig.
Q: Did you have the graffiti done specifically done for the movie or you’re just working with what was here already?
Louis Letterier: Well, no, we enhanced some of the stuff, but this graffiti was already done. This big oneit’s funny–they changed it. You see that clown face? It used to be Jim Carrey, but we changed it to that. They changed it and enhanced it, but it was there. I mean, people from everywhere come here and graffiti. We wanted something that hasn’t been seen before. Literally, this has never been seen and it will not be seen ever again because they’re destroying it. They’re trying to destroy it but maybe we’re saving it with our movie and the exposure, it might save it. Right next to it, there is PS1, a school that’s connected to MOMA, so they’re very artistic. Also, the idea is that all these graffitis will eventually animate and become the show that we’ll also have a big projection on top so this was a great basis for what we’re doing graphically.
Q: What did you need for this scene? Why was this location so perfect?
Letterier: Because visually, we wanted a place where thousands of people could converge, New York in the background, several floors, a maze. That’s what I was looking for. It’s a cat and mouse game that ends up in this location and really, this place becomes this. You’ll see afterwards in the 4D projection, there’ll be helicopters flying around with spotlights and the spotlights will shine on the building, almost doing an X-ray transparency thing where you’ll see the magicians running around and the cops chasing them. All that stuff will be projected onto the building. This is a great building, this is unbelievable, and also it’s very practical to shoot, it’s great, it’s almost empty, and it’s nice.
Q: So is this the climax of the movie?
Letterier: Yes, this movie really starts like minute 7 of the movie they rob the first bank, so it’s like the whole thing ramps up to this. The movie is conceived like a magic show. A magic show they set up things early on, they force a card on you like six months ago and “Holy crap, that’s the card I picked!”
Q: Did you recreate some of this on a soundstage or did you recreate some of this elsewhere?
Letterier: No, actually, it’s all here. We didn’t do a lot of soundstage. We built an apartment just because it’s easier to film fly-away walls and everything, but our thing was, let’s shoot on location as much as possible. So we went to New Orleans for the tax incentives, yes, but I said, “Well, it’s New Orleans so it’s magic and voodoo and all that stuff. Let’s really embrace New Orleans for what it is.” So we shot New Orleans for New Orleans, we’re shooting New York for New York, Vegas we’re going next week, and then Paris at the end. So yeah, we’re going to the real places. We’re shooting in real places.
Q: Can you talk about why you wanted to do this project?
Letterier: I was looking for a great script. And then the vision comes afterwards. But I don’t want to have just the title or universe, I wanted a great script with a great story, some great twist, some great characters. I was looking for it, looking for it, looking for it, and then I found this amazing script that had been written and enhanced, but it was already amazing in the beginning. So I was like this is it, this is for me. And really, I’ve always loved magic and been a great admirer of magic, but respectful and fearing magic, because I was like, oh, I don’t just understand how you guys do it. And what I love about this script is that it’s very respectful of the art of magic, but also gives you a little bit of a peek behind the curtain, the Wizard of Oz curtain, a little bit. Not too much, but that’s what I want. So it really is a love letter to magic, and that’s what I loved about the script.
Q: Was this one of these projects that came together? Because sometimes it takes a long time to get a project off the ground, and sometimes they happen so suddenly. What was it for this one?
Letterier: It’s funny. After I shot “Titans,” I had two projects going. I had “Fantastic Voyage” with James Cameron and then this one. Both were in the casting stages and eventually, this one was resolved first. Literally the order was like, Jesse, Mark, Morgan Freeman, and then eventually it became a real movie. It’s about casting. We have casting and they don’t finance anymore, and then once we get the casting it’s on and it goes fast. We took seven months to cast, so a long time. Again, it’s a movie about magic, so you know… everybody, anyone, actors, anyone, is terrified it’s going to be corny and full of visual effects and everything. But when they understood what we were doing, that’s how I was able to get these guys, because they understood they would do the real stuff. It would be a funny movie, it would be a movie about humans, it would not just be tricks, and they understood.
Q: How would you say the project has changed or developed since you first signed on?
Letterier: It’s become a little bit bigger, but not so much. I started like, “Oh, this is my small one,” and then it became a little bit bigger just because the magic became bigger. Someone was asking me about the actors – this idea, starting with Jesse Eisenberg as the leader of a magic group, that changed the whole dynamic as the script was written. The script was written for a David Blaine character, a guy wearing a t-shirt, in the original script, hitting on women and doing all this stuff. Jesse coming in was very different. So that’s one change, I guess, but it’s by meeting people and seeing that that would be the dynamic I wanted. Again, it was very healthy, the development process was very healthy on this one. It was a great script, then we get a great cast, then we rewrite the script for that cast, and then we build it up from there, starting with visual effects and stunts, finding locations, finding this kind of location, costumes, everything.
Q: We’ve seen other movies like “The Prestige” that deal with magic but audiences normally think it’s done with visual tricks, so how do you deal with that in this film?
Letterier: By having the actors doing it for real. You met [magic consultant] David Kwong yesterday, he’s a magician, and the actors have been doing the real deal, training and the real stuff. Obviously they cannot do everything, but the magic they’re doing is very real. And often the smallest stuff is the most difficult stuff to do, like training the dexterity. It’s really about training and all that stuff. They’ve been training forever. Dave Franco has become amazing at throwing cards. He can take a card and throw it across the room. You met Steve Pope, the stunt guy, he slit his eye, above his eye, with a card across an entire theater. I was like, hit Steve Pope, and he was like [motions and makes sound effect]. They really got amazing at it. Jesse, card dexterity, Isla, amazing, she did some amazing stunts, Isla. And Woody has been training with this mentalist called Keith Barry. I don’t know if you know him, he has a TV show on Discovery. And really has been that close to hypnotizing people. But you know, hypnosis is very tough, mentalism is very tough, because you can actually make somebody go down, and if you don’t know how to bring them out, you can actually really be in trouble.
Q: What’s it like working with the new Hulk, Mark Ruffalo?
Letterier: (laughs) I don’t know. We have the most amazing cast. When we put this together, I wanted a great group that was happy being on set, was happy being off set, was hanging out, was coming up with great ideas, and I think we really found it. Obviously we have people who know each other, like Jesse and Woody, but the four magicians, they work really well together. Mark and Melanie, the chemistry is unbelievable. Michael Kelly, who plays Mark’s boss Agent Fuller, I love him, and Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine. Initially, sometimes I was like, oh my God, this is so amazing. Michael Caine, it’s amazing. I’m having the time of my life. It’s great.
Q: A lot of them are character actors who have done indie movies, so does that change how you deal with the action?
Letterier: Well no, I mean I love action stars. But I think that this was such a different and specific, nuanced script that I really wanted people that really can give me acting. You know, like act their way through a very complex scene, and pretend they’re magicians. It’s very tough, because it’s make-believe onscreen, so it’s an act of playing a part, playing an actor, playing this.
Q: What was the one magic trick that was most difficult to film?
Letterier: The card tricks are tough. We had some very complex stuff. We really had some very complex technical stuff, like mirrors. Sometimes, literally, the crew didn’t know what they were shooting. I knew ’cause I was like, this will be used to do this. But sometimes we’re inside a mirror, upside-down, reversed, and the guy on the crane was like, I don’t know where I’m at. Just take the wheels.
Q: Were you shooting them with multiple cameras?
Letterier: Actually, for this kind of stuff it’s very specific so there can only be one camera. But we’re shooting multiple cameras because it’s very action-y. Today is very big, we have, let’s see six hundred extras. If you have one camera, it’s a waste.
Q: It’s good timing for French filmmakers. Do you think Hollywood is more accessible now to European filmgoers?
Letterier: Yeah, absolutely. But you know, in France, they don’t consider me – I’m really in between. I’m stuck somewhere a small island in the middle of the Atlantic where I’m alone. Because in France, they’re like, “No, you’re not like us, you’re not a French guy,” and in America, they’re like, “You’re not like us. I’m really alone in my little thing.” But yeah, French cinema has always been very interesting and it’s still very powerful. I think it goes to show that it’s great to still have a cinema that doesn’t try to emulate, for example, American cinema. It’s funny, I started by making fake American movies, The Transporter and stuff like that. I was shooting in France, but everything was in English. But then afterwards, I was looking at real French movies like the Jacques Audiard movies. Melanie Laurent, she just directed a movie. Her movie is like, “Wow, it’s like a real French movie. It’s fantastic.” And I was like, “I’d love to do that,” or a real American movie, and not this in-between stuff that I was doing. But now, I’m really in between. But everybody was like, “Oh, congratulations,” the day after the Oscars. I was like, thank you very much. Thank you.
Q: Did having Melanie on set help you rekindle your French roots?
Letterier: Yeah, but my English is terrible, and my French is worse. I’ve lost everything. Again, I need to create my own nation of people that just don’t speak anything. No, absolutely. I love her, I’ve always admired her. It’s funny, because I knew her as an actress, but when I saw her movie right before starting our movie, I was completely terrified. I was like, “Holy crap, she’s so talented.” Which is good, because then if I break a leg, then I know who’s replacing me. But her movie’s unbelievable. You guys have to see it. It’s fantastic.
Q: Since Melanie and Mark both directed movies, were they easier to work with as a director?
Letterier: Yeah, absolutely. They take direction easy. And when they see me, they’re like, oh, I know what he’s feeling. Like the first shot of the day when the sun is rising. Or oh, I still have sixteen shots in a day. No, everybody has. Morgan Freeman has directed a lot of movies, so he knows exactly. Great actors are so easy to direct. It’s like they’re big 747s that you just have to move left and right, and I don’t really need to direct. I need to put them in the right costume, with the right haircut, in the right location, and with the right actor to act with. And then my job is almost done, with a great script, obviously. But my job is almost done with this one, because I’ve found the perfect – it’s like cooking, it’s like cuisine. You cannot make a great dish with bad ingredients. I have great ingredients, and I’m putting them together. That’s all I’m doing.
Q: Can you talk about the tone of the movie and were there any films you watched before you started?
Letterier: Yeah, obviously I watched “Sneakers,” “Ocean’s 11,” “Usual Suspects,” and all these heist movies, but for me, the movies I was giving my actors were more like French movies, just for the filmic stuff. There’s a movie actually Melanie is in called “The Beat My Heart Skipped” – it’s an unbelievable movie. It’s a remake, actually, of an American movie, James Toback’s “Fingers,” but there’s a levity about the camerawork that is really inspiring. I was talking to actors, I was not talking to crew. I was talking to actors, I was like, here is how my camera is going to interact with you. It will be free, and I will capture moments, but it’s not going to be about the camera. Because I was afraid they’d be like, ugh, the guy from “Clash of the Titans” is trying to direct me to say these big lines, and it’s going to be terrible. But I was like, no no no, I’ve done these big movies, but really what I’m trying to do with this one is really to put you in the right mind or space, and then capture these great moments. Get a great group together and capture these little moments. I’m not trying to impose my style on a new film, like it’s just my toy. I’m not interested in this. So that’s what I show them. It didn’t really have anything to do with the movie or the tone. Yeah, this movie, the tone is funny. All these people, they’re fast. Everybody’s having a great time, off-camera but on-camera too. It’s really fun, fast. It feels stupid to say that, but it really is like a thrill ride. It’s really fun and fast. First heist seven minutes into the movie, and then you go in and never stop.
Q: What are we going to see specifically tonight? What are you filming tonight?
Letterier: We are doing the moment when all the cops have converged on the last show. They know where the magicians are, they’re a little ahead of them, they’ve always been behind them but now they’re ahead, and they will arrest them. There’s a moment when one group of cops is going where the show is, and Melanie Laurent stops Mark Ruffalo and says, “Come the other way, trust me. Come this way, I’ll show you,” towards this crappy food cart thing, “That’s where they are, that’s where we can stop them. That’s where we can come ahead.” And he has that moment where he hesitates, and he’s like, should I trust her? Because they’ve been trying to work together, but it’s two people working together for the first time, being attracted or being mistrusting and everything. So that’s the moment where really, it’s the crossroads between, do I go with these guys and keep my job, or do I risk losing it all and go with her.
Q: How many extras do you have for this scene?
Letterier: 650 tonight. 657.
Q: Did you already shoot the actors performing the magic part of it? I know you were shooting some speeches yesterday.
Letterier: We’re shooting some speeches and the speeches will be projected onto these things. And we’ll change them, we’ll change their faces to make them look like they’re coming out of the graffitis and evolving into real faces and coming out projection style. It’s cool. It’s what we’re doing. Kind of magic. All right, let’s shoot. See the thing, because there are 650 extras, we have to plan the moves before. I blocked with the actors before, obviously, and then we move the crane around because we don’t want to swing and hit an extra.
Q: How do you deal with the subway trains when they’re going overhead?
Letterier: Oh it’s fine, the trains have been great. It’s free. We shot on Bourbon Street. We were on Bourbon Street, we have a scene on Bourbon Street where Mark Ruffalo chases them, and we’re like, “Okay we need extras.” We can only afford like two hundred and I went to the AD, “Let’s go on Friday night and shoot on Bourbon Street.” So we had twenty thousand free extras. And we have, you know, free trains. We did some amazing shots the other day with the helicopter with the trains. It’s amazing. You saw it from up there, it’s like an S around the building. We did some great rotating shots with the trains underneath. People will see that, and that’s the thing, people will be like, “Visual effects.” I’m like, “No, that’s real, that’s real, let’s find a real location, that’s real.”
Q: How does this movie compare FX-wise to the last two movies you’ve directed?
Letterier: I mean, there’s no creatures, so that helps. But yeah, there’s a lot of effects. Nowadays, effects are just about skill, about tools. You save money by making effects, you get a bigger scope, it helps transition, you just do stuff like that. That’s what it is.
Q: There are a lot of magic performances so how much of that are you doing live?
Letterier: I’m trying to get as much as possible real stuff. Then afterwards we’ll do crowd replications. It’s not crazy visual effects, it’s crowd replications and stuff like that. There’s no full CG shot. Again, it’s putting stuff together, putting elements together. But I still try to get the stuff. Like the rig we have upside down. Yesterday we did a shot – I’ll try to find it, but we did the most amazing shot ever. It’s called a basket cam, we invented this. Literally, it’s a camera, a seamless 235 camera, going up a shaft with people, with a SWAT team running up. It’s as low-tech as possible, but it looks like a visual effects shot. I’ve done it before in Hulk, but it was a full visual effect. This time, I was like, no no, let’s do it for real, I know how we do it, we do it for real. Same thing, we did another shot at the end of the night which was the elevator again, but I’ve done it in this movie “Unleashed,” which was a shot down an elevator shaft with them going up, and then you pass by the elevator going up. I’ve done it but it was CG, and now I was like, no, let’s do it for real. So we did it for real. We come super close, really close to the actors and they keep on going, and the actors were operating the elevator. It was great. I love that shot. It was amazing.
Q: And that’s the same with the magic?
Letterier: A lot of stuff is real. They know the technique and everything. We’ll smooth it out a little bit, we’ll enhance it, take out the seams, do that stuff and everything, but the tricks are real. And actually we’re doing tricks — I don’t know if it’s gonna work, but I think it will – but we’re doing tricks on the audience. I don’t want to give it away. But I could say, you guys, look at the deck of cards, [shuffling sound effect] I’m flipping the deck of cards, it’s too fast, let’s do it again, [shuffling sound effect] concentrate, try to see one card. You’ll concentrate on one card, and I could guess the card that you guys picked. What I’m trying to do, and I think we’ll be able to do it, is that the viewing audience will have picked the same card. We’ll have forced a card on the people sitting in the theater. It’s really cool, it’s a cool magic technique. For me, it’s about falling in love with magic again. When I tell people I’m doing a movie about magicians, they go, ugh yeah, okay, it’s just a guy disappearing wearing a cape and everything, it’s boring. And then when I start explaining, they’re like, oh, this is really cool.
Q: Were the magic tricks the actors had to do already laid out in the script or did they develop those in boot camp as they got into their characters?
Letterier: It was written in the script. And meeting people, I said, “Alright, so you will be a mentalist, you will be a pickpocket, you will be an escapist,” and everything. So we tailored it, but it was like it was written.
(At this point, Letterier took us over to check out a shot they had done with the camera moving through a staircase and the elevator inside the Five Points building. Normally, it would be a shot he might do using CG, but this time he decided it for real by using a crane inside an elevator shaft.)
Q: We noticed you’re shooting with anamorphic film even though a lot of people are filming digitally now. What was your motivation for actually shooting on film?
Letterier: I’ve always shot on film, or we shot on anamorphic lenses. Actually, these lenses that you see are very old lenses, they’re like 40 years old. As they say in France, we say, if you drown the fish, like you take something that people know, and are used to seeing – shooting on beautiful vistas or like in French Connection, per se, and then you add the visual effects to it so the magic tricks are the thing. And then it becomes much more surprising. I feel like digital right now is getting better, because of the new camera that came out, it’s called the Alexa Studio, so now it’s really good. But three months ago when we started this movie, this camera didn’t exist. And I thought that without this camera, the image I would get would be too digital, too crisp. I mean, we’re shooting every format on this movie. We’re shooting digital. You weren’t here the other day, but the helicopter was shooting Alexa, we’re shooting with 5Ds, we’re shooting with GoPros, I’m shooting tons of formats. But the main format is film, 35 and anamorphic, just because of these reasons. Because it’s a film for me, it’s a picture film, you know.
Q: Who was your DP this time?
Letterier: We had two DPs. We had Larry Fong, who shot “Super 8,” who’s a magician himself, and then Mitch Amundsen on these sequences. I shot “Transporter 2″ with him, and he did “Transformers.” He did all second unit for “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “Supremacy” and all that stuff. He’s a very good DP. I know him very well. He’s loud and annoying, but I love him.
Q: Why the two DPs?
Letterier: Larry’s for the magic stuff, and this is more the action stuff. It’s cool. I mean, Larry’s an amazing magician. Fong is better than the best.
Q: A real magician, like a real guy who does magic?
Letterier: He will do stuff that will really wow you. Unbelievable.