Do you believe in magic?
That’s one of the primary questions that permeates Now You See Me, the new movie from director Louis Letterier and producers Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci, a trio who have been involved with many genre hits over the past few years, Letterier with The Incredible Hulk and Clash of the Titans, Kurtzman & Orci with J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek and the first couple of “Transformers” movies.
They’ve created a very different take on the action movie set within the world of magicians and magic, and it couldn’t be more timely considering how prominent magic has been at the cinema. Sure, we’ve mostly gotten fantastical takes on magic in Oz The Great and Powerful and Beautiful Creatures, but later this week, a great doc called Deceptive Practices , about sleight of hand magician Ricky Jay.
Before you say, “But ‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone’ sucked ” (assuming you actually saw it) we should also think back to the one-two punch of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige and Neil Burger’sThe Illusionist. Neither of those were straight action movies, but the presence of Letterier at the helm means that the action probably won’t be short-changed.
The premise involves a quartet of magicians called The Four Horsemen, who have decided to use their skills and abilities to create illusions that can help them pull off elaborate heists. The group consists of Jesse Eisenberg’s Michael Atlas, Woody Harrelson’s Merritt Osbourne, Isla Fisher’s Henley and David Franco as Jack.
Henley used to be Atlas’ assistant, but she has since become a master escape artist. Merritt’s specialty is mentalism while Franco’s character is a pickpocket, the new kid in the group who is trying to prove himself. They’re so serious about getting the magic right in this movie that they hired L.A.-based magician and puzzlist David Kwong as the film’s magic consultant. As it would happen, he ended up entertaining the journalists during the downtime while on set, but more on that later.
As the film begins, the Horsemen have performed a grand illusion that involves transporting an audience member from their show in New Orleans into a high security bank in France and they take the money from the vault and redistribute it to the audience. It’s an illusion that gets the attention of both the FBI and Interpol, who have sent agents to find out whether they really robbed the bank or not.
Leading the FBI investigation is actor/rapper Common, but his main agent on the case is Mark Ruffalo playing federal agent Dylan, who has become obsessed with stopping the Horsemen. It’s somewhat ironic casting since Ruffalo was so publically involved with the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, which would probably be all for a group of magicians stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Joining Dylan in the case against the Horsemen is an Interpol agent played by Melanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds).
One of the movie’s biggest “gets” in terms of casting has to be that of Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman playing the key roles of Arthur Tressler, who is the billionaire benefactor of the Horsemen, and Thaddeus Bradley, Tressler’s nemesis, who wants to stop the Horsemen for his own reasons, so he’s begrudgingly working with the FBI and Interpol to stop them.
If it didn’t immediately jump out at you, the movie also acts as a reunion of Eisenberg and Harrelson following their teaming in Zombieland, although this movie is more of an action-thriller than a comedy.
Location, Location, Location
In fact, we already knew they were making this movie in New York City because it just so happened they were doing a lot of filming in this writer’s Chinatown neighborhood. When I learned Louis–who I’ve known since he directed Jet Li’s Unleashed–was directing a movie in my ‘hood, I was hoping I’d have a chance to stop by while they were filming.
We got a chance to visit the set during their night shoots, heading to set well after midnight, and that’s how we ended up in Long Island City, Queens at the legendary 5 Points installation, a building dedicated to graffiti art with street artists coming from hundreds of miles away to be able to display their art on the classic building.
On arriving, we were given a brief introduction to the Five Points building by the curator before being introduced to producer Bobby Cohen, who gave us the rundown of the general plot and what they’d been up to while shooting.
The first night they were shooting indoors, essentially doing some green screen work with Eisenberg, Fisher and Harrelson, with each of them going in front of the camera to record their introductions to the big Five Points show.
Noticeably absent that night was David Franco, the fourth Horseman, a pickpocket who also specializes in throwing cards, which just happened to be the specialty of Ricky Jay. (Have we mentioned that he has a great new doc opening in New York later this week?)
The introduction, which they all read in full so that Letterier could use different parts, went something like “What is magic? It’s deception designed to delight, to entertain and inspire” and then it goes into a bit of exposition involving the Elkhorn Corporation, who was supposed to give 12 billion dollars to war-torn countries but somehow, only 8 billion made it, so they tell the audience that their act will involve recovering the 4 billion dollars.
We were told that these introductions would be combined with CG animation to have the Horsemen popping in and out of the graffiti that covers the walls of Five Points to make for an exciting visual opening for their grandest and final illusion.
One of the things about shooting on location in New York–and we’ve heard this from a lot of directors–is that it’s even harder to control the elements, and we’re not just talking about the weather here but things like the above-ground subway trains that go right by the Five Points building, as well as the locals who will come out in force to see what is being filmed. And they can’t be wrangled quite as easily as the hundreds of extras that we’d see the following night.
Another odd feature of the Five Points installation is that there’s another warehouse nearby where many of the New York foodcarts stock up their bagels and cream cheese for the breakfast rush. We were given a brief tour of the area, and let’s just say that seeing the warehouse would not make you feel confident about getting food from one of those food carts.
They were very proud of the fact that they had shot a lot of the cities for the movie as themselves, filming in New Orleans during Mardi Gras with plans to travel to Las Vegas and Paris after finishing in New York. They also had built the interiors of the MGM Grand inside the University of Louisiana for one of their magic shows.
Magic, Magic, Magic
As mentioned earlier, it was very important for everyone involved in making the movie that the magic felt real and a lot of that came down to magician David Kwong, who was on set in case there were any questions. On our first night, he seemed to be there more to keep the journalists entertained while we were waiting to talk to the cast, and he did a really good job doing so. He showed us a number of sleight-of-hand illusions changing dollar bills into hundreds and back, and he also showed off his card-throwing skills which he had been training David Franco to do. Kwong could throw a card over 30 feet.
We’re now going to try to describe one of the most impressive tricks Kwong performed for us that night, one he told us he had only done nine or ten times before, and we hope that it sounds as impressive the way we describe it as the way he performed it. (And remember that all of this was going on after midnight so we probably would have been impressed by anything Kwong did.)
It started like many of his tricks by him asking for a dollar bill to warm-up, so I provided one and he had me draw a doodle on it to mark it and then he did a bit of folding so we assumed it was going to be a sleight of hand trick. Then he gave it back. He then started telling us about the game of Scrabble and making “Bingos” which involves using up all eight letters in your rack, and how that Scrabble was another one of his hobbies. He pulled out a bag filled with Scrabble letters and he passed it around and asked each of the journalists to pick out 5 or 6 tiles, so he ended up with roughly 45 to 50 tiles in front of him. He proceeded to pick out sets of tiles to form 8-letter bingos: “LOLLYGAG” ”TURNPIKE” and then finally, “LAYAWAYS,” all which would give him a clear advantage if this were a real game of Scrabble. He then used the remaining tiles to join his three 8-letter words together, ending up with two tiles remaining, “F” and “D.”
Now that would probably be quite impressive if we were playing Scrabble, but it just seemed like Kwong was showing off his word skills and it was only when he wrote the three bingos down on paper with their tile values (as you can see at right) that things started to take shape. He added the numbers downwards and ended up with an eight-digit numeral “33641504.” He then asked me to take out the marked dollar bill from earlier and sure enough, that was the exact serial number with the first and last letters being, you guessed it, “F” and “D.”
What makes this such a great illusion is that it’s not just about tricking the audience into picking certain tiles. It actually took huge skill to use the tiles picked to form these 8-letter words, but also doing so in a way that their values would add up to exactly the serial number of the dollar bill from earlier, a number that had to be memorized.
Needless to say, we were suitably impressed.
There are basically four or five magic shows over the course of the movie where the Horsemen use their illusions to rob banks and the Five Points show is the culmination of their previous shows.
Money, Money, Money
The next night we were back on set, again late at night, and besides watching them shooting a big crowd scene where Ruffalo and the FBI show up at the Five Points to try to arrest the Horsemen, we would get a chance to talk to Ruffalo and director Louis Letterier.
Before that, Cohen explained to us why they wanted Letterier to direct the movie. “We had been big fans of his movies, and we knew we wanted the film to sort of work a couple of different ways. It is a heist movie, and that’s a genre in and of itself. There are certain ways that you want to be able to really have incredible energy, and the pleasure of a heist movie I think is how well-constructed the jigsaw puzzle is. It’s harder than it looks. You need someone who is really a shot-maker, and someone who understands how to do something big and small at the same time. And then, I think for all of us it was ‘What is the movie about?’ and we all, admittedly, are all magic fans. ‘What is it about magic/ Why do people like magic?’ It’s a combination of both that you want to be fooled and then you want to know how they did it. You want to be fooled and then you immediately want it explained. We met a lot of people, but Louis was the one who really understood that from the get-go, so for us it was a very easy choice, and he’s done a fantastic job.”
We walked up to the roof of the building where we could see where they had built a circular stage for the magicians’ performance and peering over the side, we could see the gathering crowd in the courtyard while Ruffalo and his men tried to break through them to get to the Horsemen. There were a couple hundred extras there that night but they’d be enhanced with CG.
Later on, they would sprinkle money down on the fervent crowd below who would cheer silently, and if you’ve seen the latest trailer, you can spot how CG was used in the sequence. All of it was fake money of course but they had bags and bags of the realistic-looking bills, some of which we saved to share with you readers, of course. We don’t endorse trying to pass off fake movie money as real money even if it’s easy to do when you live in Chinatown or so we’ve heard.
Ruffalo would often go over to the monitor to check out the take of him going through the audience but an even odder spotting on set was Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis who apparently came by to hang out with Laurent and really, who could blame him?
In between takes, we finally got to chat with Letterier and he showed us some of the more interesting shots he had done at the Five Points involving the camera going through the stairwell and elevator shaft.
You can read what Letterier had to say about the production here.
Ruffalo had actually met Letterier back when the latter was directing The Incredible Hulk as a possible option to play Bruce Banner before Edward Norton got the role, and he definitely was a fan. “He’s a very visual director. He sets up really beautiful, compelling shots,” he told us during a break in shooting the crowd scene. “He tells the story visually. It’s a second language and so – there’s been a lot of collaboration on the script and he’s been very open to that. He’s just a very gentle, sweet guy so he creates an environment that’s a lot of fun, people are very nice, and I’ve had a very good time collaborating with him on it. He’s very open to ideas, you know?”
You can read some of what else Ruffalo spoke to us about here.
Now You See Me opens nationwide on Friday, May 31.
At the end of the second night, we sat down with Steven Weintraub from Collider.com and Alex Billington from FirstShowing.net to talk about what we saw on set. You can watch our unscripted and impromptu discussion about the set visit in the video player below.