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INT: Neil Burger


In the next few months there are a few early 20th Century magician movies coming out including THE PRESTIGE, CARTER BEATS THE DEVIL and Neil Burger's THE ILLUSIONIST with Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti and Jessica Biel. I had a chance to see the latter film and enjoyed the old-fashioned feel of this love story that turns into a mystery. Burger first gained attention for his 2002 debut feature INTERVIEW WITH THE ASSASSIN. But Burger trades in this documentary style for an old-fashioned, mystical look at magic.

I had a chance to talk with him when he dropped by the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills . To be honest I had not seen his first feature and knew little about him aside from what you read online. But after seeing THE ILLUSIONIST, I thought he would be a pretty interesting guy. And truth be told, he is. He has a terrific knowledge of history and he has a very good eye as a director. He was very personable and seems to enjoy talking shop and of course, the art of the illusion.

Neil Burger

Are you a fan of magic?

You know, I’m a fan of magic as much as the next person.  I wouldn’t say I’m an aficionado or something like that but when you’re with these guys, and we had these great magic consultants.  In particular Ricky Jay is an incredible magician, an actor as well and most importantly for me he’s a historian of magic but when you sit with these guys and they just do the smallest little trick it just blows your mind.  So, like anybody else I can certainly enjoy that.  But to me, the movie is less about that magic and how do you do it and more about coming face to face with something unexplainable or incomprehensible and how that changes your perception on things.

The movie’s sort of set up to make us question, is it real magic or is it illusion magic.


If we go along for the ride and say its real magic isn’t it kind of just movie magic?

Well, I think again it’s… all the illusions that we did are based on real illusions, we tried to do them as much as they could have been done as they would have been done at the time.  And to make us, the audience that is so sophisticated as you say about CGI and digital effects and things like that, like, how do we trick them into thinking its really how Eisenheim is doing it.  And the way we did that is by really having… you know, Edward (Norton) did all his own slight of hand and we did the illusions as much as we could as they would have done them then.

And when we couldn’t do it, we still did, in camera or practically or however.  But to me, whether it’s real or not, is not the question, but even if it’s not real, it still puts you in mind of, I don’t know...  To me the role of the magician is to remind us of the mystery of existence basically and to inspire awe and mystery at that existence.  Whether the magician has real power or not, for a moment he puts you in mind of something incomprehensible and remind you that there’s just greater powers in the world, you know.  And the works of man are very small.  And so I think even when it’s just a trick, just for a moment you feel that, and that’s a really important function.

Is there something very early 21st century about that idea that we have this, there’s The Prestige coming out in two months, there’s Carter Beats the Devil, there’s a whole rise of magic (in theatres)?

You know, I don’t know what the reason that is, in a certain way it’s coincidence and the other reason I think perhaps is, the same way in the movie.  The movie takes place in a time of political upheaval and turmoil and I think in times of that sort of disruption, people reach out for something more spiritual as they do in the movie.  They crave something that reminds them of some sort of higher power that makes more sense to them.  And I think that perhaps something like that is happening today and maybe the movies are a result of that.  Some sort of relationship there.

What specifically struck you in the story?

The short story is by Stephen Millhauser who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997.  It’s a twenty page short story.  It’s a beautiful gem of a story, it’s not a movie, you know, it’s not a full length movie.  It doesn’t have Sophie and it doesn’t have the Crown Prince in it, I invented those characters.  What it does have is this kind of transcendent idea that I was talking about, that sort of uncanny sense that nothing is what it seems.  You know, that you really have come face to face with something incomprehensible and kind of mind-blowing and how that changes your perceptions of everything.

Is it based on a true story?

It’s not really inspired by a true story.  Millhauser I’m sure did a massive amount of research and Eisenheim is sort of based on Robert-Houdin, the father of modern stage magic.  I did a massive amount of research and have it be as true as possible but to me, that’s not so much the important thing.  I mean, I wanted it to be true to the time but not trapped by it.  It’s a period movie but it’s not like a typical costume drama.  For me it’s about other things, about the ideas of perception that we were talking about and this power game between Inspector Uhl and Eisenheim.

Can you talk about how the casting all came together?

Yeah, well.  Edward had read an early draft of the movie.  My producers are Brian Koppelman and David Levien who wrote Rounders and Edward was in (Rounders) and they had kept up with him.  When I wrote the draft, they showed it to him and he liked it but I don’t think he was available at the time or something like that.  And then, you know as these things do, another year goes by and then suddenly everything’s different, he read it and he liked it and came aboard.  And then after he came on board, then I actually had lunch with Paul (Giamatti) on the day that Sideways opened actually and he wanted to do this movie, which was incredibly flattering and gratifying.

He did this great big movie and it was The Illusionist that he wanted to do next.  But he’s kind of an unlikely bit of casting for this having done most of these neurotic losers before [Laughs].  But in a way, I knew he was such a good actor and I wanted sort of a fresh take.  I mean the investigating inspector is kind of a conventional role and I wanted to do something different, put a sort of a different spin on it.  And I knew that he had a very quiet power to him and you know… he’s just amazing.  And then with Jessie, Jessica (Biel), she read for it and knocked us out actually with her reading.  I wanted somebody who was a relative newcomer and certainly she was a movie star in her own right for the younger group but I wasn’t that familiar with her.

What I liked about her is she kind of has a fearless spirit, she herself has a fearless spirit and the character of Sophie was again supposed to be fearless and adventurous and willing to take these kind of bold risks and Jessie is very much that kind of person.  She walked on the set with these three guys, Edward and Paul Giamatti and Rufus Sewell, who’s also an incredibly intense guy and completely held her own.  She gave as good as she got.

The movie has such a beautiful look to it, you shot in Czechoslovakia?


But for an independently financed movie it looks like it cost a lot more than it did.  Can you tell how much it cost?

It cost $16 million dollars.  Which is $16 million dollars, it’s a lot of money but it’s not…

It looks like it cost $40 or $50 million…

Right, right, well you know we just worked really hard on it and I had a very specific look in mind.  When I was writing it, I always knew I wanted to have kind of a “hand-cranked” quality to it cause I liked (that) sort of quality those older movies have.  There’s something sort of unnerving and disquieting about it, I wanted that to go with what I was saying about this sense of coming into contact with something unexplainable, sort of the uncertainty of that.  And I wanted the film to kind of back that feeling up.  So I wanted to use sort of old cinematic techniques of… not so much techniques but the vocabulary of old cinema, the flickering and the vignette (ing) and the grain and then use a very specific kind of color.

Speaking of that, with the CGI and the “real” illusion, was there anything that was more difficult and took a little bit more because it had to look right on camera?

Yeah… in terms of everything or photography?


Well the photography, it’s based on this early color telephotographic process called autochrome which was invented around 1903.  There’s autochromes and there’s autochromes; there’s some that people think are hand tinted, which they’re not, and there’s some, like in impressionist paintings and there’s other ones that, in particular, that I liked which I used as a model.  We did a lot of testing with filters and things like that and as you say there is a certain amount that we can do in camera but in terms of schedule and not having a ton of money or a ton of time or not quite enough time we had to leave some of it for post production.  But it was all shot knowing how we were going to treat it in post (production), setting it up with those ends in mind.

After all the research you did, are there still magic tricks that amaze you?

Oh, they all do actually.  As I said, Ricky J. will do a card trick and it’s just so alarming.  It’s so unnervingly strange.  He did, years ago before I wrote the screenplay, I happened to meet him for something else, he did one card trick for me where he [gesturing the trick] held the card just this close to me put his hand over it, didn’t block the hand from mine, just went like this and then one card in his hand changed to a different card right before my eyes.  I’m sure… it was so weird and I don’t know how he did it, if he waited for me to blink or what he did.  I’m sure it was incredibly simple for him but it was mind-blowing.  It sort of still rattles me to think about it and that’s actually the feeling that I wanted to get from the movie.

Do people want to be tricked, do you think?

I think that they’re some people that want to be astonished and they’re some people who are these fierce rationalists who want to know exactly how things are done.  I think in a way, the movie is a struggle between those two people.  You know, the Crown Prince being sort of the fierce rationalist and perhaps some of the members of the public or even Sophie, willing to be… or Inspector Uhl, you know, torn between being astounded and wanting to know how it’s done.  That’s the sort of struggle.

Where are you on the scale?

Where am I on the scale?  Sort of right in the middle, I like knowing… let’s put it this way, I like being lost in the maze but still knowing how it’s put together, you know?

Your star (Edward Norton) has a reputation sometimes of getting involved in the editing room.

Right, he didn’t actually.

Were you weary of that before?

Yeah, a little bit, yeah because I have my own… I’m a very hands-on director and I feel like it’s a very hand made movie.  With the editing, you know I was in there for every single cut, every single edit in the movie.  My editor’s a great editor but we worked hand in hand.  And so… the movie is the movie that I cut, nobody fooled with it and I didn’t want anybody to fool with it.  [Laughs]  You know, and he didn’t get involved with it.

Did you work that out ahead of time?

No, it just didn’t happen.  It’s a pretty hard thing to work out ahead of time.  But no, he just didn’t get involved.  Plus he knew it wasn’t his, he had other movies; he produced Down in the Valley and he’s producing Painted Veil which is coming out later so I think he had his kind of pet project, he was going to be deeply involved with.  And this is something he feels very strongly about, but I think he understood the vision of it and that it was a particular vision and you know, let it go.

Ricky Jay is sort of an old school magician, still does the basic illusions.  Do you think we have lost something in the sense of wonderment when our idea of magic becomes David Blaine in a kiddy pool?

David Blaine in a kiddy pool?  [Laughs]  Well it’s interesting, cause the origin of this whole movie is because David Blaine came to an early screening of my first movie, which is called Interview with the Assassin.  And he came to a rough cut screening where we were showing it and he was sort of a friend of a friend who came and he sat right in front of me and watched the movie with his mom or girlfriend who like fell asleep on his shoulder, right in front of me, the first screening of my movie, I was like, “It’s a disaster.”  Anyway he liked the movie, that’s why my producers and I got to talk about magic and I told them about this book.

You know, David Blaine has the skills to do that stuff and I think he’s just chosen these kind of… what’s the right word, I can’t remember…  you know, these crazy things, things that just stress his endurance and I don’t know why but certainly he’s not the only guy… I mean, I don’t know why that interests him.  He’s not the only guy doing magic, there’s a lot of interesting people out there, there’s this guy who is not that well known, his names Derren Brown in London, and he does these things where he can get you, he’ll like write something down on a paper himself and put it in an envelope and put it aside.

Somebody else will hold it and then he’ll just start talking to you and he’ll ask you to draw a picture, draw any picture you want and draw a picture and he’s already drawn it and the way he does it, it’s not a trick, I mean it is a trick; it’s all power of suggestion.  And he manipulates you to drawing what he wants.  So there are really interesting guys out there doing (this).  Blaine gets, you know… they’re huge publicity stunts so… ABC specials or however it works.  But, you talk to Ricky, Blaine has the skills.

Let me know what you think. Send comments and questions to





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