Keith Barry had never chopped off anyone's head before, but he was up for giving it a try.
Over the course of his career, the Irish mentalist, hypnotist and magician has performed all kinds of mind-bending tricks and stunts, from apparent feats of clairvoyance to driving a car at high speeds while blindfolded. But until signing on as the chief magic and mentalism consultant on the caper sequel "Now You See Me 2," Barry had never tried to pull off the classic decapitation illusion on anyone — let alone a high-profile actress.
The team behind "Now You See Me 2," in theaters June 10, is aiming to recapture the magic of the original 2013 film — the story of a group of illusionists called the Four Horsemen who use their presto chango skills to pull off a series of Robin Hood-style heists — which grossed $352 million worldwide. To that end, early in the sequel screenwriter Ed Solomon and director Jon M. Chu wanted to introduce the new member of the Horsemen — a magician named Lula (Lizzy Caplan), who has a twisted sense of humor — with a scene that would surprise the audience while conveying the character's morbid flair. Lopping off her head seemed as if it would do the trick.
As the person tasked with overseeing all of the film's illusions, it fell to Barry to figure out how to orchestrate the scene. "It took me a long time, and I mean a long time, to devise," said Barry, 39, who also worked on the first "Now You See Me," advising actor Woody Harrelson on the ins and outs of hypnotism. "We as magicians rehearse these things for months and years to make them look seamless. To design an illusion that Lizzy could just get into and perform — and make sure I didn't break her in half — took forever."
In the scene, which comes early in the film, magician J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) walks into his apartment and sees Lula, whom he has never met, lying on his couch, casually reading a magazine. As he swings the door open, Atlas inadvertently sets off a complicated Rube Goldberg-style contraption Lula has devised, and a large blade drops from the ceiling and appears to decapitate her.
As on the first film, directed by Louis Leterrier, the aim on the sequel was to keep all of the magic grounded in some degree of plausibility. Though several of the illusions were ultimately goosed in postproduction with digital effects to amplify the wow factor, Chu asked Barry to figure out a way to stage the decapitation of Caplan (who takes the spot in the Horsemen occupied in the first film by actress Isla Fisher, who didn't return because of her pregnancy) without recourse to any CGI whatsoever.
"We were like, 'We could totally do this with CG and get away with it,'" Chu said. "But the philosophy with this movie was: We're not doing hocus-pocus magic. Everything is doable."
The philosophy with this movie was: We're not doing hocus-pocus magic. Everything is doable.
Jon M. Chu, director
For Barry, designing a functioning Rube Goldberg machine that could incorporate classic magic props like a cup and balls and a disappearing flower vase was complicated enough. But even though magicians have been chopping off heads with guillotines since at least the 16th century, figuring out how to decapitate Caplan while she was sprawled on a couch and carrying on a conversation was a particularly daunting challenge.
To pull off the trick, Barry, with the help of the film's props department, developed a special couch with a concealed space into which Caplan could contort her body from the head down. What appears to be the actress' body reclining on the couch is actually a shell with prosthetic arms and legs controlled by wires. A carefully concealed slit at the end of the couch was created to allow Caplan's head and upper torso to drop through the moment the blade falls.
"As the blade hits where Lizzy's neck should be, we pulled a wire that dropped her whole body down inside the couch," Barry explained. "That created the illusion of her head chopping off. If you slowed it down, you'd definitely see that it's really her head."
The trick was safety-tested numerous times with a stunt person before Caplan got inside. Though the blade was actually wood painted to look metallic, Barry said, "It was definitely heavy if it hit you on the back of the neck, you wouldn't be happy."
For Caplan, pulling off the trick, which took a day to shoot, wasn't exactly a comfortable experience. "It wasn't pleasant to drop down multiple times at that speed, even though it was only about a foot," the actress said. "You have the floor coming up at you fast and you can't put your arms up in front of your face to shield it. But from certain angles, it really does look real. It's creepy."
After weeks of preparation, Barry was relieved to see the trick go off without a hitch. "At the end of the day, my job was to keep the actress safe but also get the illusion done all the pressure was on me," he said. "At that moment, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders."
That's one way to put it.
Check out the storyboards used to lay out the scene below.