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By KJ Doughton | August 16, 2006

“Stories, like conjuring tricks, are invented because history is inadequate to our dreams.”

Steven Millhauser’s “Eisenheim the Illusionist”

Director Neil Burger can see the Space Needle through a nearby window. It’s 11:00 in the morning, and the busy filmmaker has taken up temporary residence at downtown Seattle’s W Hotel. Five minutes ago, Burger appeared out of nowhere to brave the Seattle International Film Festival Press Office, where he’s committed to a day’s worth of interviews. Burger’s contribution to this year’s SIFF is “The Illusionist,” a filmic depiction of magic versus pragmatism. The nearby Space Needle also defines this clash of ideas, appearing sleek and contemporary – yet otherworldly and mythical. It’s the perfect symbol of illusion colliding with reality.

Seattle’s favorite landmark is relevant in other ways. “I really liked “The Parallax View,” Burger reveals of the 1974 political thriller, in which the Space Needle makes a prominent appearance. “It very much had a sense of, ‘What exactly is happening here?’”

Viewers of “The Illusionist” might ask the same question. Burger’s atmospheric tale follows Eisenheim (Edward Norton), a mysterious, turn-of-the-century stage magician. Based on Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steven Millhauser’s short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” the film was conjured up faster than Houdini escaping from a shackled chest. After securing story rights, Burger’s producers informed the filmmaker that he had six months to write a screenplay. While the short story was certainly cinematic, Burger felt that “it wasn’t quite a film.”

Major overhauls were made, including the invention of Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) and his fiancé, Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel). A love triangle between Leopold, Sophie, and Eisenheim becomes an added framing device. Paul Giamatti casts the film’s most enchanting spell, however, as Inspector Uhl, a barely-acknowledged character from Millhauser’s story. Expanded significantly by Burger for his filmic adaptation, Giamatti becomes the audience’s point-of-view. Meanwhile, “The Illusionist” turns into a battle between Leopold and Eisenheim for Uhl’s deeply conflicted soul.

“The Illusionist” looks great. Shot in Prague in the fall of 2005, Burger’s film benefits tremendously from its sumptuous, old-world visuals. A standout set involves the Crown Prince’s hunting lodge, a masculine lion’s den of bearskin rugs and mounted animal heads. Burger reveals that the crew used Archduke Ferdinand’s home for the lodge scenes. (An obsessive hunter, Ferdinand allegedly killed over 15,000 animals, making him a fitting spiritual soul mate for Sewell’s violent Leopold.)

Burger worked in collaboration with cinematographer Dick Pope on the magical look of “The Illusionist.” The duo strove for a rich visual texture inspired by autochrome, an early color photography process invented by the Lumiere brothers. A strict color scheme was created from dominant golds and greens. Burger even considered using a hand-cranked camera to achieve the mysterious, macabre qualities he was after, but ultimately scratched the idea.

Alchemy, a medieval philosophy preceding chemistry, suggested the transformation of one element into another. Alchemy might also describe the transformation of Burger’s actors into living, breathing entities from 1900 Vienna. Shedding his sad-sack skin from “Sideways,” “Private Parts,” and “American Splendor,” Giamatti suddenly commands some authority and confidence as Uhl. Similarly, Norton abandons his urban angst from “American History X” to embody a romantic period lead. Biehl conveys a porcelain-doll beauty, and Sewell creates an arrogant, macho realist who perceives Eisenheim’s magic as an assault on rationalism.

But there’s something else at work to flesh out these startling, against-type impressions. Perhaps it’s facial hair. Norton wears the dark goatee and mesmerizing stare of an Anton Levay disciple – you expect the vibrating, high-pitched tone of a theremin to surge forth whenever he’s onscreen. Giamatti and Sewell sport equally prominent whiskers – and an accompanying air of machismo beyond what either has done before. Head makeup artist Julie Pearce reportedly entered the set armed with 300 pieces of moustaches and beards, having noted the prominence of fuzzy mugs existing in 1900 Vienna. (Biel, of course, was not a recipient of Pearce’s shaggy facial fixtures.)

With “The Illusionist” enchanting audiences at film festivals, Burger has learned another magician’s trick – promotion. Like Eisenstein, the director has taken his show on the road. Rather than conjure forth orange trees, butterflies, and scarves from the stage, Burger spends weeks conversing with publicists, journalists, and festival audiences. Below, the director speaks about transforming Millhauser’s story into a major motion picture – while keeping its magic intact.

During the time and setting of “The Illusionist” – turn-of-the-century Vienna – people somehow survived without Game Boy and CGI movie effects. Magicians were the cutting edge of entertainment, right?

That’s right. In 1900 Vienna, magicians were the height of entertainment. They were right on the cusp of the old, mystical world, and the modern world. Magicians had all those new tools available to them, such as electricity or early cinema effects. Often, the audiences weren’t aware that those things were being used, or could be used to create these effects. The magicians had the tools to do these incredible things, and the audience still had the faith to believe that they were seeing supernatural effects. It was a special time, right on the edge of a vanishing world and the birth of modernity.

We think of magicians as pulling rabbits out of hats or sawing a woman in two. What were some less common illusions performed during the era of “The Illusionist?”

The magic in the movie is very different from that which is associated with a normal magician. Edward Norton plays the character of Eisenheim, who does very little onstage. He puts something in motion, and then it carries out on its own. These inexplicable things develop, like a tree growing onstage. They are very different from the normal magic tricks. To me, it’s less about how he does the tricks, than the idea that nothing is what it seems. All the illusions are based on real illusions from that time. Then I kind of pushed them twenty percent towards a more fantastic place.

Your film includes some unique casting choices. We don’t associate Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti with period piece romance. Did you feel that you were taking a chance with these actors?

Well, certainly, one is never taking a chance by having Edward Norton, because he’s such an incredible actor. I think what makes it interesting and fresh is that we haven’t seen Edward in this kind of period romantic lead before. This is a different role for him. Edward does have a kind of mystery to him. He’s a highly intelligent person who is compassionate about his life and his own work – just like the character of Eisenheim. But, also like Eisenheim, he’s this enigma. In all of Edward’s roles, you feel like he has some secret – that there’s something unknowable about him. Eisenheim has that too, so he’s perfect. Yet, it’s a different role for him.

The same is true of Paul Giamatti – even more so. We haven’t seen him in a real role of authority. He plays a very strong character with a quiet power. And Paul has that kind of quiet power. Again, it’s a different role for him. The investigating detective is kind of a common role in movies, so I wanted to put a different spin on it.

“Interview with the Assassin” was your first film. How much impact did this experience have in getting a second film made? Did you wield more influence, having had that first piece of film in the time capsule?

It helps, in the sense that you’ve made a movie before that people seemed to like. They liked the performances in it, and how it was done. Obviously, it’s a very different movie than “The Illusionist,” done in a raw, documentary style that takes place in the United States. That didn’t make it easier getting this stylized period piece made. It was an obstacle, in a way. ‘You’ve done this, but you want to do this? Why don’t you have the two go together?’ To me the films are related, because they have this thematic link of ‘How do you know what’s true and what’s an illusion – or fiction?’

You appear to enjoy themes concerning the fine line between illusion and reality. Have you been influenced by any films that have explored this territory?

For “The Illusionist,” as sort of a period thing, I was looking at films like “Nosferatu.” These older films always had a strange, disturbing quality to them that made one ask, ‘Were people like that?’ There was something strange even about the film quality, between the flickering and the gray tints. It was so strange.

“The Illusionist” was based on a short story that you’ve expanded on significantly. For example, several of the characters in your film were not in the original story. How did you decide which characters to add to the recipe?

That was a huge undertaking. The short story is not a full movie. I had to invent a dramatic context to surround what was most beautiful in the short story. I had to create this narrative through-line. I created a love triangle, with the characters of Sophie and the Crown Prince, as a way to ground the story and motivations. In the short story, Eisenheim gets arrested at the end, for blurring the distinction between art and reality. It’s an abstract, existential concept that’s fantastic, and I wanted to keep the idea. But it needed to be more concrete, tangible, and emotional than that.

That’s when I created the character of Sophie, and this rivalry with the Crown Prince. As I invented the characters, I would ask myself, ‘Will Sophie be his assistant, who gets stolen away from him? Was she going to be somebody of a higher class who gets infatuated with Einsenheim, whom he steals from the Crown Prince? Or is it going to be somebody that he knew from childhood? It became a matter of trying these different things out, and following them down the line of the story to figure out what works.

It seems like you ended up using the final example, which concerned a childhood connection between Einsenheim and Sophie…

Absolutely. She became this Noblewoman that he knew as a child. They had a real connection, but they weren’t allowed to be together. Then he left, and they didn’t see each other for fifteen years. Eventually, they rekindled this love that they had.

During a performance, Sophie emerges from the audience to assist in one of Eisenheim’s illusions…

He recognizes her as she comes onstage. That’s right. He’s kind of rattled by it, because it’s in the middle of his performance. He doesn’t quite know what to do with it. In a way, he’s washed his hands of that part of his life. There’s a big issue of class distinction in the movie. Upper class and lower class. Einsenheim has been mistreated in that way his whole life, and he really wants nothing to do with them – or with her. She represents that group to him. But then they can’t stay away from each other.

Paul Giamatti serves as the audience’s tour guide of sorts. How do you create a character that represents the audience’s point of view?

In the most basic sense, he really is the narrator of the story. The way I organized it, was that everything we see in the movie is something he has witnessed, or something that one of his agents has reported to him, or something that he has been told. He is retelling it, and we’re seeing it from his eyes. Hearing it from his ears. Eisenheim, meanwhile, is the lead character, while remaining a mystery to us. I distance Eisenheim by having Inspector Uhl tell the story. Uhl really feels for Eisenheim, but he doesn’t know all the answers. There are holes in his knowledge. Some of his retelling is conjecture. Some of it he doesn’t know.

I wanted to deliberately play with that idea. That the story you’re seeing may be true, within the realm of the movie. But some of it is not necessarily true. It’s legend, or hearsay, or pure fiction on the part of the storyteller. Maybe it happened, or maybe it didn’t. The movie to me is very much about power and perception. Is Uhl really seeing everything?

How are today’s magicians – like Davids Copperfield and Blaine – different than Eisenheim? Is there any connection between your lead character and contemporary illusionists?

What’s different is that those guys are showmen. There’s a connection with Blaine, because when Blaine performs his street magic, there’s something very unnerving about it. You wonder, ‘How is it possible?’ Someone like Copperfield is a big showman and entertainer. But Eisenheim isn’t trying to entertain you. In fact, he doesn’t care whether you like it or not. He kind of puts his illusion in motion and lets it happen. You either get it or not, and take from it what you will. He’s not trying to make you happy. He’s just doing his thing.

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