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Entertainment > Movies > Story
Filmmakers conjure up movie magic
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
08/27/2006

Edward Norton, left, and Jessica Biel in The Illusionist

It's a hot new trend: flicks about tricks.

A surprising number of films set in the realm of magicians are scheduled for release in the coming months, including "The Illusionist," which opens Friday.

Perhaps the popularity of the Harry Potter franchise has inspired filmmakers to explore magical themes. On the other hand, the new films - which also include "The Prestige," "Death Defying Acts" and "Magicians" - may simply reflect nostalgia for simpler times and entertainments.

"In times of transition and upheaval, people look for some sort of larger truth," says Neil Burger, director of "The Illusionist."


"To me, what's interesting about magic and magicians is that they remind you of the mystery of existence," he said. "If only for a moment, they put you in mind of the possibility of something greater than the powers of man. And that appeals to me."

"The Illusionist" stars Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel and Rufus Sewell. Set in Vienna circa 1900, the romantic drama focuses on the conflict between magician Eisenheim (Norton) and Crown Prince Leopold (Sewell), who vie for the affections of a young woman (Biel). Giamatti portrays a police inspector, who gets caught up in the situation.

The film is based on Steven Millhauser's short story, "Eisenheim the Illusionist."

"It's just this beautiful, lyrical gem of a story," says Burger, who adapted the story for the screen. Throughout much of the movie, it's ambiguous whether the magician is merely an entertainer or something more.

"As a filmmaker, I like this idea of coming face to face with something incomprehensible or unexplainable, and how that changes your perceptions about everything. And the story very much has that - this uncanny sense that nothing is what it seems."

Very little computer-generated imagery (CGI) was used in making the film, Burger says.

"Basically, my goal was to do the illusions as they would have been done at that time," he says. "And I would say that we were pretty successful with that. The audience today is so sophisticated about digital effects and CGI that I didn't want them thinking about how I did it. I wanted them thinking about how Eisenheim did it."

The orange-tree trick "is mostly mechanical," he says, and ghostly apparitions were achieved using "glass and projections and things like that." But he allowed that some effects were "enhanced."

"Working on a tight schedule, we couldn't always indulge ourselves completely. But for the most part, that's what we were after."

Terry Richison, a St. Charles-based magician, gives "The Illusionist" an upturned thumb.

"I loved it," he says. "It used magic as part of its theme, instead of being a movie about magic. And that made it a very strong movie."

The biggest challenge in making "The Illusionist," Burger says, was keeping moviegoers guessing about Eisenheim's capabilities. "Does he have powers, or is it all somehow a trick? I tried to tread very evenly on that line - all the way to the end."


Onscreen conjurings

"The Illusionist" is one of several upcoming films about magicians.

"The Prestige" (October) Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson and Michael Caine star in this thriller from director Christopher Nolan ("Memento"). Based on a novel by Christopher Priest, it's a tale of rival magicians in 19th century London. Bale and Caine also co-starred in Nolan's last film, "Batman Begins."

"Death Defying Acts" (2007) Guy Pearce ("L.A. Confidential") and Catherine Zeta-Jones star in this romantic drama focusing on an episode in the life of Harry Houdini. Directed by Gillian Armstrong ("My Brilliant Career"), the film is set during the height of Houdini's popularity and is being touted as a lavish adventure romp.

"Magicians" (2007) David Mitchell and Robert Webb (of the British sitcom, "Peep Show") star in this comedy about illusionists who have feuded since the demise of their double act. The comic duo is also known for the radio show, "That Mitchell and Webb Sound." The film co-stars Juliet Stevenson ("Truly, Madly, Deeply").

Note: Movie releases are subject to change.
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