Although great magicians never reveal how to perform their tricks, Steve Carell makes it pretty clear to understand how a great actor goes about it: through a lot of hard work. Between takes, the titular star of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone rushes to the video monitor and watches over the scene he’s just played out, taking notes and trying to catch an objective look at what’s working and what isn’t.
“I’m trying to kind of modulate,” Carell laughs, dressed in his character’s extravagant velvet jumpsuit and weighty golden jewelry. “…I’m trying to figure out, for one thing, a sense of where the cameras are, where they’re looking, what’s reading and what isn’t reading. Just sort of to get my bearings.”
The scene, set up at Los Angeles’ Wadsworth Theatre, has Carell’s Wonderstone performing with his longtime partner, Steve Buscemi’s Anton Marvelton. Although the pair are set to dazzle the audience, backstage they’re approaching a breaking point in their partnership.
“The first couple of takes I felt like I was just a little bit hot,” Carell continues. “I needed to be a bit more nonchalant because they’ve done this [act] thousands of times. He’s probably had the same discussion with his partner as to some sort of in-fighting between them. After watching a couple of them, I got the sense that it needed to feel a bit more well-worn and routine… I wanted that to look like it had been done many, many times before and not that this was the first time for everybody. As a producer on the movie, too, I’m trying to watch all those things and other elements as well.”
Carell’s role behind the camera means that he was very involved in every aspect of the production, including casting and the choice of Don Scardino as director. Although Scardino is making his feature film directing debut, he’s a 20-year television veteran whose credits include more than three dozen episodes of “30 Rock.” After meeting with Scardino, Carell turned to his Date Night co-star Tina Fey for final approval.
“I e-mailed her,” explains Carell, “and said, What’s your take on Don? You know him.’ She said, Don is the best.’ And I think she was mad that we stole him. He is, though. He’s doing the best job… He sets the tone completely. Everybody loves him and everybody respects him. That comes from his sense of respect for everybody else. The cast and the crew. Everybody. He creates a really positive, fun environment. He knows what he wants. He has a great eye.”
“The biggest surprise is that it’s exactly the same,” says Scardino of the differences between directing for television and film. “The work is the work. I’ve been shooting comedy for five years with wacky actor personalities, and it’s the same zoo. It’s nuts, it’s fun. It’s fun to come to work and laugh every day.”
Producing and directing “30 Rock” had already given Scardino quite a bit of prior experience working with Buscemi. The actor was a recurring guest star and Scardino couldn’t wait to pair him opposite Carell.
“They have become a duo,” says Scardino. “I keep looking at them and saying, We’ve got the new Laurel and Hardy here.’ They start working together and their timing off each other, it’s almost like they’re doing a mirror exercise.”
“I remember seeing Steve [Buscemi] for the first time,” adds Carell. “He was so giddy about it. He couldn’t wait. They actually postponed Boardwalk Empire’ by a couple of weeks so that he could fit it all in his shooting schedule. He was really, really committed to doing it.”
Although the main focus of the film follows in the aftermath of the dissolution of the partnership between Marvelton and Wonderstone, audiences will also get to see glimpses of the pair’s imaginary 15-year history.
“He’s maybe more of a thoughtful guy,” Buscemi says of the Marvelton role. “I don’t know if he’s necessarily shy, but I think his feet are on the ground a little bit more. He’s in awe of Burt, and I think he really loves being in this partnership, even though at times it’s frustrating… [The end of their partnership] comes down to personality differences. He’s just always wanting to do things his way. Every time my character tries to introduce something new or tries something different, I just get shut down. Then it comes to a head with this stunt that goes horribly wrong in Las Vegas.”
Filming the stunt in question required that both Carell and Buscemi be suspended in a glass box 100 feet above Las Vegas.
“We did part of their scene,” says Scardino, “and then, with stunts, we did the resultant action, which is the box breaks open and the two of them fall out 100 feet with a lot of slapstick, very Harold Lloyd-ishly hanging from the box. That was our first day of shooting. At first I thought, Oh my god, do I really want to do this?’”
“It was a little bit scary,” Carell continues. “It takes time to get used to being up that high. It wasn’t so much the height as the fact that the bottom is plexiglass and you could look down… There’s something disconcerting about that. I know at the Grand Caynon they have that plexiglass walkway that you can look down. I think some of the casinos there have the same type of thing. If you have a fear of heights, it’s a little disconcerting. After a while, though, you get used to it. Like anything, you start to trust it.”
As tricky as it was to master the film’s more elaborate stunts, even more time had to be spent teaching the actors how to do the basic sleight-of-hand that stage magicians spend their lives trying to master. Luckily for everyone involved, one of the film’s magic consultants happens to be David Copperfield (who also plays himself in a cameo).
“I’ve been taking some lessons,” says Carell. “It’s tricky, though, because what you can acquire in a few months’ time is not going to replicate somebody who has studied for 20 years. I’ve studied magicians in general, too. I went to the Magic Castle and I went to Vegas and saw a lot of shows. I’ve observed them and their acts. It’s not just the technique of the trick but the technique of the presentation itself which is, I think, an art form as well. Every magician has a different style and a different way of communicating with the audience. They’re fun. Again, it’s something where, when you go without any cynicism and just embrace it, it really sort of transports you.”
Following his split from Marvelton, Wonderstone gets the chance to interact with quite a few magicians, all of which have their own unique personalities. He finds his rival in Steve Gray, a street magician played by Jim Carrey.
“Trying to define what [Gray's] tricks were was fun,” laughs producer Chris Bender. “Just coming up with crazy things: pulling cards from his face, being a human piñata, ultimately drilling a hole in his head as a trick… They’re constantly being referenced like, What is this? It’s ridiculous! It’s not even magic!’”
“He’s a painter, you know?” adds Scardino of working with Carrey, “and he sort of interprets his own performance graphically, like, I need to do something better with my eyes. My hands should be here,’ and he thinks of it like a graphic image, in a way. Some actors work from the inside out, he works from the outside in, I think. It’s a fascinating process. He’s a perfectionist. He likes to do a lot of takes, but he really likes to get it right.”
“Talk about a fertile mind!” says Carell. “That guy could do 50 takes and they could all be completely different. The trick with him is really an abundance of riches. You don’t know which one to choose because one is just different and equally funny. Again, he supplies you with so many different variations. It’s sort of an editor’s dream. Whatever is called for in the movie you will find in his performance. He’s completely committed, too. He was doing things — physical things — that didn’t seem human to me and he was doing them in a practical manner with no special effects. It was all him. It was all just his own commitment to the part.”
Added to the fray is Olivia Wilde’s Jane who, growing up, has always wanted to become a magician. She begins as an assistant for Wonderstone and soon switches sides, working for Gray instead.
“She’s very smart and she’s confident,” says Wilde, “and yet she’s a secret magician… She’s quietly brilliant on her best days. She’s a little bit crippled by insecurity… I do think she is sort of an outsider. She doesn’t really fit in, but there is an inherent connection between my character and Steve Carell’s character that I think is apparent immediately. Maybe it’s not immediate. There is a kind of awkwardness to the beginning of her relationships with all these characters.”
“What we learn about her is, as a kid, she wanted to be a magician, too,” adds Bender, “and she was really good at it. So Burt, because he has no one else to go to, goes to her and so their relationship kicks off there. She’s always kind of believed.”
Jane’s origins in the film aren’t a far cry from Wilde’s own childhood love of magic.
“All my birthday parties had a magician,” she says. “I loved it. I had the magic set which I just got the latest version and it hasn’t changed since we all were kids. It’s the balls, the cup, the string, the knot trick it’s all the same, which leads me to believe that enthusiasm for the simplicity of magic and the wonderment still exists as much as it did even – with the internet and all these new distractions. I think magic still amazes people and they like to be delighted by it. I think the enthusiasm for it is something people of all different ages can appreciate, which is why I think this movie will work and because it’s hilarious.”
Also starring James Gandolfini and Alan Arkin, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone opens in theaters March 15.