Neil Burger first garnered attention on the indie film scene with 2002's Interview with the Assassin, a documentary-styled thriller about a man who may or may not have fired a bullet at Kennedy from the grassy knoll. Now Burger returns with The Illusionist, another mystery thriller scripted and directed by Burger. Burger stopped at San Francisco's Clift Hotel to chat up the film, which stars Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Rufus Sewell, and Jessica Biel.
Groucho: So I wanted to start by talking about your development of the script from the story. I think you've exploded it kind of ingeniously by adding these characters. Why did it seem sensible or even essential to you to add Sophie and Leopold?
Neil Burger: Well, the short story is "Eisenheim the Illusionist" by Steven Millhauser, and it's about twenty pages long. And it is a beautiful gem of a story, really transcendent, I think, and cinematic also in its imagery, but what it isn't—it's not really—it doesn't have sort of the elements of a full movie. What you expect of a full movie. And so what I did was to create a—you know, when he gets arrested at the end of the short story, which is similar to the scene when he gets arrested in the movie, he gets arrested for blurring the distinction between art and reality. You know, that's the actual—the official charge against him. Which is a great idea and I love that, but it's not—
G: Literal enough for a film.
NB: It's not sort of powerful enough, I think, to have—or it's an abstract, intellectual idea and not kind of emotional or impactful enough to hang the climax of a movie on, and so I came up with the idea that Eisenheim was a threat to the empire, not just for these abstract reasons, but for an emotional reason. That's why I created the character of Sophie and I created the character of the Crown Prince, and this, my love triangle between Eisenheim and the two of them. And then the other challenge was that because Eisenheim is, you know, he's a mystery, we don't know whether he has real power, supernatural power, whether it's all a trick. And I wanted to preserve that mystery, yet I also wanted to be with him. I wanted, you know, the audience to care for him, and you know he leads us through the story. We have to be with him.
G: You can't be too remote. Or on a pedestal.
NB: You can't be—exactly. Exactly, can't be too distant. And so I came up with the idea of expanding the role of Inspector Uhl, who's played by Giamatti, who has about three mentions or five mentions in the short story and using him as sort of the eyes and ears of the audience, and he tells the story. The movie's from his point of view.
NB: And he cares for Eisenheim, so he's telling the story of Eisenheim, yet he doesn't know the answer.
G: Yeah, he struggles—
G: Questions of what's real and not.
NB: That's right.
G: Can you talk a little bit about your own research for the film, and also the research you encouraged for the actors?
NB: Well, yeah, I mean I did a ton of research for the movie. It's set in 1900 Vienna, and, you know, I wanted to be true to that time. I didn't want to be trapped by it, but I wanted—in order to take these kind of flights of fancy or license with certain things, whether it be the illusions or the political situation or whatever or ideas of, you know what's true and what isn't, or you know, mystical things. I wanted it all to be grounded in reality, so yeah, I did a huge amount of research into the political situation of the time. The Hapsburgs were the royal family of Austria. As well as the magicians and showmen of that time and of women at that time. You know, read all sorts of journals of what was going through these people's minds. And then for the actors I actually then gave them—I put together like little notebooks for Rufus and Paul and Jessie and a little bit less with Edward because he had been attached to it the longest, and we had sort of discussed things over time. And there might have been pictures in there, or they were like excerpts of people's diaries or accounts of, you know, what certain people had done or all sorts of just different—sort of a collage of different accounts and images.
G: That's great. Shooting in Prague. You know, it's hugely effective on camera, and whenever I see a film that's shot there, I sort of wonder if it feels there like it's cinema's amusement park now.
NB: Well, you do see other movies being shot there, but most of the movies being shot there are usually...action movies or occasionally there's some movie that's set in, you know, Rome or something like that...They shoot there because it's a little bit less expensive, or something, but this was great because the movie's set in 1900 Vienna, and Prague was kind of a sister city of Vienna and in a way still maintains that 1900 patina in a way that Vienna doesn't anymore.
NB: You know, the cobblestone streets are there and just the feel of all the buildings and the gaslit streets...it's a great place to shoot a movie like this.
G: The visual quality of the film is very important, I think, to its impact. Can you explain your traditional inspirations there? You were going for an evocation, right? Of old film, old film techniques.
NB: Yeah. That's right. I mean, when I was writing the script, I knew I wanted the movie to have a—almost a hand-cranked quality to it. Kind of reminiscent of silent films. You know, have a flicker, and vignette-ing, and kind of inconsistency to the, you know, focus. And I wanted that not just to make it look old—I mean I didn't mind if it looked old, but I—it was more to kind of take it out of time. And also to give it sort of a disquieting undertone to reinforce the uncertainty...of whether he has some sort of powers or whether he doesn't. And how everybody is kind of in a—unnerved by what he's doing. So I wanted the film and sort of the flicker and strangeness of the film to back that up. And then color-wise I was looking for something that would sort of do the same thing, kind of take it out of time. And then also give it the—really was looking for something that black and white has, kind of...an emotional power, because it is sort of that abstraction, in a way. And I was looking for something that could have that sort of power, but still be color, and so I discovered this early color photographic process called autochrome and then used that idea, or used that as a reference to model the color after.
G: When you talk about that, it occurs to me for the first time that those early photographic processes—they have a magical quality to them. Or they did at that time certainly.
NB: They do, yeah. They do. And because the emulsions are very primitive...they kind of grab color in a slightly different way...life in a different way.
NB: So it almost looks real and right, but there's just something—
G: There's a perception difference.
NB: That's different about it, yeah.
G: The film obviously deals a lot with spiritualism, and I think it's interesting that, though so much time has passed historically, we can't quite shake that interest and that question. It's still a question to us.
NB: Well, right. I think that—in periods of, you know, political or cultural upheaval or turmoil—people sort of retreat to—
G: Wanting to believe.
NB: Yeah. piritualism or, you know, grasping for some spiritual leader, or something, and so the movie is certainly set in a time like that, and when Eisenheim presents his illusions they, you know, immediately gravitate to him, and he's able to manipulate that for his own (chuckles), for his own ends and cause kind of a spiritual uprising.
G: It occurs to me, too, in watching the film that magic has a similar history to acting, in the government being suspicious of it, or of its power.
G: To sway the people or the idea of community gathered at a show.
NB: Well, magic is related to witchcraft and to satanism and things like that. These guys are sort of trafficking in some sort of dark art. Or certainly trafficking in deception. And when these characters become powerful and using these skills that were clearly manipulative and tricking people into believing certain things, or whatever, you know the government took notice.
NB: And, you know, was on alert. And you know, was threatened by these guys.
G: Right, then there's that backlash, that campaign to paint it as a low-class profession.
NB: Right. (Chuckles.)
G: Even though both public and the aristocracy are so drawn to it.
NB: Right. That's right.
G: How did you determine how much license to allow yourself in depicting the magic? Obviously there are certain tricks that you would look at at that time, in 1900 or around that time and say, at the time they were amazing, but now they might not phase us.
G: So did you allow yourself license to exaggerate there?
NB: Yeah, I mean, look. The main thing is that, to me, the magic in the movie is less about, you know, how does he do it and how the trick is done, and it's more about this uncanny sense that nothing is what it seems. You know, it's like when you come face-to-face with something unexplainable or incomprehensible and how that changes your perception of things. How it kind of rattles everything you take for granted. And so to that end, I kind of—all the illusions are based on real illusions, but then I would push them a certain percentage and sort of adapt them to my own ends because—for the reason of—. Yes, the film audience today is going to react differently. But, you know, to take them to a place where—we were never trying to say that they were somehow magical; we were always trying to present that they all have a method to them. And everybody in the film says that this is how they were done and it all makes sense, but there's always just one little element of it that nobody can quite put their finger on.
NB: How it's done and depending on who they are in the movie, it drives them insane or delights them.
G: Right. Yeah, I was amazed to read in the production notes that the orange-tree trick, essentially, was really performed by—
NB: Yeah, it was based on a trick by Robert Houdin.
NB: You know, Houdini stole his name from the "Houdin" part of it. And he—you know, he did it in a much simpler way. It was a mechanical tree. He would cover it and then he would take his, you know, covering away and the tree would be bigger. And he'd cover it again, and he'd take it away again. And you know, obviously I did it in a different way, where you see it all expanding. But again—
G: You took pains to show us, also—there's that moment where we see the plans for it—
NB: Yeah! That it all has a mechanism. And that tree was, you know, had a whole mechanical element to it that we shot on stage. And yeah, you know these are rods being forced up from below; you know that kind of thing.
G: I guess for me, one of the central questions of the film is "from whence does power flow?"
G: And what do you think? What do you think is the answer to that question?
NB: Well, you know it depends. Each character in the movie has [his or her] own form of power. Eisenheim has his "stage power," but he also may have some other kind of supernatural powers. And, you know, Uhl has the power of the police, and the power to twist your arm or break it or throw you in jail and leave you there to die. And the Crown Prince has the power of the state, and what he can't stand is that anybody would think that Eisenheim would have power equal to his own or, you know, superior. He can't bear that Eisenheim is getting the love of the people and not him. So that's sort of the dynamic, and you know the movie is the battle of wits between these three men. Each trying to outmaneuver each other. Each trying to use [his] own power to kind of leverage the other or get the upper hand on the other.
G: Yeah. To me it seems like intellect might be the ultimate power to wield.
G: In that world.
NB: It is, but all those guys are sort of fiercely intelligent...it's just how they use that intellect. I mean, the Crown Prince—he's really intelligent, and he's writing what he says, but he also has this, you know, his intelligence is—
G: In a box, though, a bit.
NB: It's in a box, and it's also—it's also tainted by his pride. You know, his pride about his own intelligence, and his sort of arrogance about his own intelligence. And that in a way leads to his downfall.
G: Mm-hm. Let's talk a little bit more about Edward Norton. Obviously he's the epitome of the serious actor, it seems to me.
G: He's hugely committed and really digs in more than most is my perception.
G: That hands-on approach, can it be a blessing and a curse for a director since you're the one on the reins of the film and he's so involved?
NB: Ah well, but he's just involved in his own character. I mean, obviously he's involved in the whole movie in the sense that he wants the movie to be great, but I think in a film like this where—you know, I had written the script, and he's signed on to my vision of the script and he saw the commitment of the other people involved. And I think it gave him—he could relax and focus on his own character. I mean obviously he's trying to make—he's an enthusiastic, passionate guy. He wants the movie to be as great as it can and have great ideas about all sorts of things but, you know, not really too much outside of the realm of his own character or his own scene.
G: Did you ever find—well, I'm sure you must have in the process, the artistic process—a disagreement over character, then how does that get settled?
NB: Well, um, yeah, there were disagreements.
G: What was the best argument?
NB: How do they get settled? I'm trying to think of a disagreement that we had. Um. I mean the difficulty of certain things is that the—you know, when you're shooting a movie—is that the movie is kind of going on with or without you.
NB: You know? So it's—
G: A runaway train.
NB: It's a runaway train. And so that, that often solves the problem—
G: Yeah. (Chuckles.)
NB: Is that one needs to keep moving and get the thing done or, you know, jeopardize the entire project cause it's not like you have a movie like—it's one thing I guess if you're making a hundred million dollar movie, but we weren't. And, you know, we were shooting on a budget and with a tight schedule and, you know, if you screwed around too much, you were going to lose the day, and you were never going to get the location again.
G: Right. Huh. The tricks. Edward Norton's tricks. He worked with a couple of different magic experts, right? And then did almost, I guess, the majority of what we see on set?
NB: Everything that you see Edward doing, all his slight-of-hand, things like that, he learned how to do and he's actually doing it. And, you know, he's just incredible, in that sense, in that he—you know he worked with Ricky Jay. I don't know if you know who Ricky Jay is.
G: Oh yeah—he's the best.
NB: And learned the slight-of-hand. And then, you know, on the set you would just always see Edward between takes just manipulating, you know, balls or coins or something like that. Just trying to master what he had learned, and you know he really did.
G: Paul Giamatti strikes me as a star who just has killer instincts.
NB: He's incredible, you know? He is—I mean the amazing thing about Paul in this movie is that you—you know, there's very little about his back story, about his character, but you get it all through his eyes...starting with the twinkle in his eyes. About a guy who loves life and who has a big appetite and, you know, big ambitions also about what he wants and a sense of humor about life. And then also through those eyes, you know, the humiliation of what he has to do to kind of get what he wants. He does the dirty work for the Crown Prince and he's—and there's just a shred of his soul left and he's completely corrupt, but—or almost completely corrupt—and whenever you get all of that without being said, you just know it through his face and his eyes, and that's like testament to his ability. I mean, he's incredible.
G: He just seems like he always brings the character with him. He's got that idiosyncrasy. And even if he had to be left to his own devices to completely create a character from the ground up, it seems like he'd be the guy to count on to do that.
NB: Yeah. Yeah.
G: About Jessica Biel. I read in the notes that she showed up to a reading of the script in a period gown.
NB: Well, she came to her first audition in a period gown.
G: Oh yeah, huh?
NB: First two auditions, I think. And again it wasn't like a—you know, it wasn't like she was dolled up in some huge Victorian gown or something like that, but she was just in a very simple dress that was almost more evocative of the period then anything else. And her hair was pulled back and just done very simply so you could sort of just focus on her performance and her face, which is, you know—she's an exquisite beauty. And having done a huge amount of research into the time period, which involved looking at hundreds and hundreds of images of different people and of the women of the time of her and her age group, you know you could see that she could fit right in and she just knocked us out with her very sort of refined and restrained reading. And obviously we're not used to seeing her in this kind of role.
G: Right, yeah. She is convincing.
NB: But she can do it. Yeah.
G: What does it take to get Philip Glass to sign on to a movie? Is it—how does he decide?
NB: Just luck. You know, he does like a soundtrack maybe every two years or something like that. And he happened to read the script...I mean, we sent it to him and he read it—and he had an opening in his schedule and he liked the script, fortunately for us, I mean miraculously. We were really lucky...
G: Does he like to discuss what shape the score will take?
NB: Yeah, I mean I always wanted, and you know he saw it the same way, as a large classical score, so we agreed on that immediately and I knew that the movie would be—I mean the movie has, you know, numerous scenes where there's no dialogue and the music is really going to be used to move things and to tell the story. And what I love about his music is that it always has kind of a haunting, mystical quality to it, which again was perfect to kind of reinforce sort of that disquieting, unnerving tone that I wanted to—that tone of uncertainty.
G: Yeah. It fits that misty opening to the film.
NB: Yeah. So we worked together on what sections would have music and what wouldn't and what things needed to be sort of heightened or featured. And then he went away and he started composing and then, you know, I would go there to the studio and listen to it back, and it was just incredible. And he was an incredible collaborator, too, who would—and I talk about—I actually wrote the liner notes for the soundtrack, which is fantastic, and I mentioned this in there—but he would, you know he would listen back and then he would—we would give him notes actually. And he was just like: no ego at all. He would just like take it and start recomposing. He'd be composing right in front of you, actually.
NB: Sounding out the notes and things like that. And it was amazing. It felt like he was writing a symphony for me, you know.
G: Yeah, that's cool.
NB: Just cool.
G: (Laughs.) We're almost out of time here, but I want to ask you about what you have cooking. I know you have a dark comedy about American soldiers in the works, and I keep reading about this Dashiell Hammett project and I'm curious if that's—
NB: Actually the Dashiell Hammett thing is dead, unfortunately.
G: No hope for that one, huh?
NB: Well, it could come back. But not—it died a bad way.
G: Flaming crash? (Laughs.)
NB: People owing me money.
G: Oh no!
G: Well, tell me about what you're working on then.
NB: Well, I can't talk too much about it because I just finished the script, but it's kind of a road movie that takes place in the United States and about these three people that have been overseas and come back...seeing the country with fresh eyes.
G: Uh-huh. And is it a project that you would hope to direct?
NB: Oh yeah. I'm going to direct it.
NB: I'm going to shoot it in January.
G: Alright. Well, it sounds like fun. Good luck with that and everything else.
NB: Thank you. Well, thanks so much for your questions. I appreciate it. Nice meeting you.
[For Groucho's review of The Illusionist, click here.]