Writer-director Neil Burger’s first feature, “Interview with the Assassin” (2002), dealt with the difficulties of truth and perception in terms of the murder of President John Kennedy. “That movie was very much about how do you know what’s true, and how do you navigate through a world where the truth becomes subjective,” he said in a recent Dallas interview. “You go down these paths thinking that you’re on to some solutions to that crime, and then it just all evaporates.”
Burger’s second picture, “The Illusionist,” from the Yari Film Group, raises similar issues about reality and deception in the Vienna of 1900, with suggestions of conspiracy at work there as well. In it, the magician Eisenheim is part of a romantic triangle that includes the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his fiancee, the duchess Sophie (Jessica Biel); the fourth major character is the Police Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), whom Leopold orders to find grounds on which to arrest Eisenheim. “This movie, in the same way, [is] blurring that distinction between truth and illusion,” he said.
Burger based his script on a short story, “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steven Millhauser. “I read the short story when it came out in 1990, and I just fell in love with it,” he said, calling it “kind of a surreal gem, a lyrical gem of a story.” He explained, “I liked the concern with perception, of coming face-to-face with something incomprehensible and how that rattles your world. [It was] very true and specific to the time, and to the political undercurrents of the time. But yet at the same time it inhabits this realm of mystery and dream, and I liked that. It was one of my favorite short stories, and I always thought about it and hoped that I’d get the chance to make it. And somehow I’m sitting here.”
But the journey has been a long one. Burger didn’t acquire the rights to the story until early 2002, and then spent some eight months fashioning a script from it. It was “pretty difficult,” he said, “in that it’s a beautiful story, but it’s also a fragment of a story as well, told from the point of view of the writer who’s writing it, who doesn’t really know all the answers and knows bits and pieces. It’s mostly just [Eisenheim’s] stage performances and descriptions of them. And so I wanted to keep all that I thought was beautiful about the story, but I needed to create a dramatic structure to float it in, basically. So I created the role of Sophie and the role of the Crown Prince, and that love story with Eisenheim, and I also expanded the role of Inspector Uhl, so he’s become the one who tells the story. It was a challenge to take that beautiful story and make it into a full movie.”
Burger fashioned the character of Leopold on that of the historical Crown Prince Rudolf, who committed suicide in 1889. “My character is inspired by Rudolf, and Rudolf committed suicide under mysterious circumstances eleven years before the movie starts,” he said. “But that was a suicide pact with his mistress, though at the time and since there have been a lot of conspiracy theories about the fact that he was maybe going to try to overthrow his father. That’s what inspired some of the political plot ideas in the movie.”
The first actor to sign on was Norton. “He read it and liked the take on it,” Burger said. The next was Giamatti, with whom he met the very day that “Sideways” opened to plaudits, and whose desire to make “The Illusionist” his next project he called “gratifying.” Sewell, Burger added, “read for me in London…and blew me away with the ferocity of his rage.” And Biel “loved the script and really fought for the part.” Though known for her contemporary roles, “she came in in period costume, very elegant…and she knocked us out with a very refined and restrained reading. We were all kind of amazed.”
The film was shot in Prague in the spring of 2005, with 95% filmed on location. “What’s great about Prague,” Burger said, “is that it’s all there–the cobblestone streets, the gas lamps, the old peeling castles. Eisenheim’s workshop was actually shot in a house outside of Prague that was a seventeenth-century house that had not been touched–somebody was using it as a weekend summer house. The kitchen in it had an eighteenth-century stove in it! The texture is right there.”
A major challenge in shooting involved the treatment of Eisenheim’s acts of on-stage legerdemain. “I did a lot of research on the magic in the movie,” Burger said. “The trick about doing a movie about magic is that cinema is magic already, it’s already a trick, and the audience know how the trick is done these days. The audience are so smart about film editing techniques and CGI and visual effects. I was trying to avoid all that. To me the magic in this movie is less about how he does the tricks and more about this uncanny sense that nothing is what it seems–that moment when you come face-to-face with something incomprehensible or unexplainable, and how that changes your perception. So the magic is all based on real illusions of the time. Edward Norton learned to do all of his sleight-of-hand; he really mastered [it]. The big stage illusions are all based on real illusions, and I tried to shoot them as much as possible as they would have performed those illusions at the time. And I did that because the audience is so sophisticated about visual effects, that I didn’t want them thinking about how I did this, I wanted them to be thinking about how Eisenheim did them. So the vast majority of the tricks are done as they did them.”
And it was equally important to develop a rapport between Norton’s Eisenheim as he performed and the audiences reacting to him in the film. “The audience was as important a collective character in the movie as anybody else,” Burger said, “because their reactions to things tell us what to think, but also they have a dialogue with Eisenheim on the stage.”
But while it was important to get the period detail right, Burger said, his goal in making the film was much more than that. He summed up the aspirations of “The Illusionist” this way: “It wants to be true to the time. But it wants to be more than that. It wants to be about the idea of power, this real battle of wits between Paul Giamatti’s character and Edward Norton’s character, each kind of trying to outmaneuver the other. And then it’s about perception, how we see the world, how we see in general. [It’s] kind of a visual game–what we believe, what we take on faith.”
That’s an ambitious aim, and if the reception at the Sundance Festival earlier this year, and the reviews that have already begun to come out, are any indication, it’s one Burger has been successful in reaching.