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Some 15 years ago, Neil Burger discovered a story, Steven Millhauser’s “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” that remains one of his favorites. Years later, he was given a chance to adapt it as a movie. Naturally, he changed almost everything.
The original tale, explains the 42-year-old during a breakfast-time interview in an empty Georgetown hotel restaurant, “is mostly just about Eisenheim and his stage performances, told in kind of a fragmentary way. It’s a beautiful, transcendent story. But it didn’t really have the elements of a feature film. You could have made it into a movie, but it would have been the most expensive experimental movie of all time.”
In writing his adaptation, The Illusionist, Burger didn’t downplay Eisenheim, a role that went to Edward Norton. But he did substantially amplify the part of Chief Inspector Uhl, who’s played by Paul Giamatti. (Oddly, Norton, Giamatti, and Burger all went to Yale, which the director calls “just a complete coincidence.”) Burger also invented two new major characters, the aristocratic Sophie (Jessica Biel) and Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), and a love triangle that links them to Eisenheim.
Burger concedes that he risked losing the very quality he loved in Millhauser’s story. “That’s always a fight. What I did in constructing this narrative was to try to keep what was most beautiful about the short story and float it in a dramatic structure. But you create another dramatic story, and the needs of that story start fighting against the original.”
In moving from the page to the screen, Burger kept crucial developments but tied them more tightly to a realistic narrative. For example, both the story and the film have a climactic scene in which Uhl arrests Eisenheim. But in Millhauser’s version, “the charge is blurring the line between reality and art. Which is a cool idea but not really enough to hang the climax of a movie on.”
To complicate matters, Burger had to script the The Illusionist in a matter of months. While editing his faux-documentary first feature, 2002’s Interview With the Assassin, he happened to mention Millhauser’s story to his producers, who knew it and asked if he wanted them to buy the rights.
“They called me two weeks later and said, ‘We’ve got good news and bad news,’” Burger remembers. “‘The good news is we got the rights; the bad news is now you have to write it, because we have a free option for six months.’ Suddenly coming off this raw documentary-style film, I’m writing this really elaborate period piece.”
A riff on JFK murder-conspiracy theories, Interview With the Assassin has a very different feel than The Illusionist, yet Burger thinks the two are thematically kindred. “They’re both about truth and how do you know what’s true? How do you live your life, or navigate through the world, when truth becomes this subjective concept?”
The Illusionist didn’t really have a shot at being the most expensive experimental movie of all time, but it did cost $16 million, which is $15 million more than Burger’s previous film. “It’s a lot of money,” he notes. “But it’s not a lot of money in terms of Hollywood filmmaking. And not for an elaborate period piece, with hundreds of extras on the street and in the theaters, and dozens of horses and carriages.”
The film is set in circa-1900 Vienna but was filmed in Prague, both for its extraordinary range of well-preserved locations and because low currency exchange rates make it a cheap place to shoot. Still, making such an elaborate film for $16 million required careful planning. “I had a specific vision about how I wanted to do the magic tricks and how I wanted to do the whole mystery,” Burger says. “How I wanted to walk this fine line between whether he has supernatural powers or whether it’s all a trick.”
In addition, he notes, “There’s a real economy of storytelling. The organizing principle was that everything that we see in the movie is something Uhl has witnessed himself, that has been reported to him, or is something that he is conjecturing, where he’s sort of filling in the holes. It means you’re not trying to show the whole world. That helped organize the shooting and perhaps made it a bit more economical.”
Although the The Illusionist contains no flagrant anachronisms, Burger wasn’t concerned foremost with historical accuracy. The film, he says, “is about perception, how you see the world, how you see in general. It becomes kind of a visual puzzle. My goal for the movie was to have it true to the time but not trapped by it. I wanted more to inhabit a realm of dream and mystery.”
That’s one of the reasons that Burger downplayed the anti-Semitism that Eisenheim (real name: Abramowitz) faces in Millhauser’s original. “It’s significant in the short story. The story is very rooted in that time,” the director says. “But I focused more on the class issues, which is perhaps a more universal concern. There are a lot of layers to the movie, and a lot of things that are hinted at that are not explored but hopefully enrich it in a certain way.”
In staging Eisenheim’s conjuring performances, Burger tried to avoid cinematic fakery whenever possible. “The audience today is so sophisticated about CGI and any kind of film effects,” he notes. “Basically, cinema is magic, and the audience already knows how the trick is done. I wanted them not thinking about how we the filmmakers did it; I wanted them thinking about how Eisenheim was doing it. So I tried to shoot the illusions as much as possible as they would have done them.”
He admits that “we took some license with that. Sometimes we’d do them more in camera, or with mirrors, or with projectors to enhance it. Some of them because of budgets or scheduling issues—when you’re shooting, you have to keep moving—we enhanced digitally at the end.”
Burger enlisted Ricky Jay, a prominent magician and historian of magic, “to fill in holes about how certain illusions were done, and maybe to add another twist on things that I hadn’t thought about. I had hundreds of questions about what performers were like and how they conducted themselves. He also helped Edward Norton, as Edward learned the sleight of hand.”
Norton learned the basics in a week, the director recalls, “and then spent the rest of the production constantly manipulating balls and coins, making them appear and disappear. You’d be on set with him, in some dramatic scene, and between takes he’d be like, practicing this stuff. He’s a real chameleon and throws himself into those roles.”
Interview With the Assassin took much of its immediacy from its use of hand-held video, and Burger had a related idea of how to give his new film a quality of distance and uncanniness: shooting with the sort of hand-cranked camera used in silent cinema a century ago.
“To me, when you look at those old silent films, there’s something creepy and disturbing just about the very film quality,” Burger explains. “Forgetting that a movie like Nosferatu is about a vampire, just the flickering, and the vignetting, and the grain and all that—it’s eerie. So I wanted to reinforce the disturbing, unnerving quality of my story with that kind of film.”
What he discovered, however, is that with hand-cranked cameras “it’s actually very easy, if you get good at it, to get it into sync. To get the effect of a hand-cranked camera, you have to be cranking at such an inconsistent rate that it was just too much work. It wasn’t going to look hand-cranked, basically.”
Ultimately, Burger and cinematographer Dick Pope relied on filters and post-production treatments to get the appearance they wanted. That look was in part inspired by autochrome, the first color photographic process and an invention of the Lumière brothers, who are credited as the fathers of cinema.
“What I like about autochrome is that it has a limited color palette,” Burger says. “So it has the power of black and white—because black and white’s abstracted, it has kind of an emotional power, I think—but with color.”
And so The Illusionist does have something of the silent-film quality Burger wanted, even if that quality was created with modern technology. “The movie has this sort of uncertainty,” Burger says. “Does he have some sort of magical powers, or is it all a trick? I wanted to reinforce that uncertainty. Just that sense of when you come face to face with something unexplainable and incomprehensible, and how disturbing that is.”—Mark Jenkins