Sleight of hand

THE romantic period drama “The Illusionist,” opening Friday, is a welcome change of pace in a summer movie season filled with pirates, superheroes, 3-D animated cars and cows, and NASCAR drivers.

Written and directed by Neil Burger based on Steven Millhauser’s short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” the drama stars Edward Norton as a master magician named Eisenheim who is mesmerizing crowds in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. But he soon finds himself in a battle of wits with a shrewd police inspector named Uhl (Paul Giamatti). Rufus Sewell plays the violent, powerful Crown Prince Leopold, and Jessica Biel is his fiancee, Sophie, a childhood friend and former lover of Eisenheim.

The $16-million production, filmed in Prague, is the Yale-educated filmmaker’s second feature. Burger, 43, released his first film, “Interview With the Assassin,” a gritty documentary-style thriller about a man who claimed to have assassinated President John F. Kennedy, in 2002.

Before turning to features, the New York-based Burger directed commercials for MasterCard and ESPN.


“The Illusionist” is totally different in style and tone than “Interview With the Assassin,” but thematically they have a lot in common.

Obviously, the movies are extremely different, but what thematically links them is this idea of truth and illusion. How do you know what’s true? How do you see? What do you believe? What do you take on faith? That is how I think they are related.... Both movies are about perception and power.

Besides your film, Woody Allen’s “Scoop” and the upcoming “The Prestige” all deal with magic and magicians. If it’s true that films reflect the time we live in, what does that tell us about our society?

One, I think it’s a coincidence. And two, if it is the sign of the times.... “The Illusionist” takes place in a time of political upheaval. It seems like in times of transition like that, people yearn for some sort of larger power and certainly something more spiritual. I think we see that happening now in general.


Several of the illusions that are shown in the film are based on real illusions from that time.

That’s what I tried to do with the illusions. It is based on a short story, and it has some of the illusions in it. I used that as my point of departure.

Magicians at that time -- in a way it was kind of the highest performing art at the time because it was certainly the most popular -- were taking whatever was on the cutting edge of technology and adapting it to their performance. The sword illusion was based on electromagnetism; a general audience wouldn’t have been familiar with the application of it.

When did you read the short story?


I read the short story when it came out in 1991. I always thought it would make a beautiful movie.

The short story is 20 pages long. It doesn’t have the character of Sophie or the crown prince. I invented them. It has four mentions of Inspector Uhl, so I expanded his character so he became the eyes and ears [of the film].

But what it does have is this very kind of lyrical gem of a story with this kind of transcendence. There are very cinematic aspects of it with the apparitions, and it’s told in a very expressionistic, fragmented, episodic way. But there was something very beautiful about it that stuck with me. I think it has this overall uncanny sense of nothing is what it seems.

Had other filmmakers tried to adapt the story into a feature?


Nobody could figure out how to make it into a movie. That’s one of the funny stories -- when we were editing “Interview With the Assassin,” Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who produced that movie, and I got to talking about magic for some reason and how it is difficult to do magic on screen. I said there is this beautiful story I always wanted to make. They knew of it and they were like, “How would you like to make it into a movie? Do you want us to get the rights?”

Two weeks later they called back and said, “We have good news and bad news. The good news is that we have the rights, but the bad news is that you have to write it now.” They got like a six months’ free option.

The location used for the Crown Prince’s eerie hunting lodge where the walls are adorned with the heads of animals he killed is really the Archduke Ferdinand’s home?

Those animals have been up there for 100 years. Ferdinand shot, I think, 50,000 animals in his lifetime. The spooky thing is that he was shot in Sarajevo and there is a death mask of him and his wife in the hallway. So it’s like he’s become a trophy head in his own home.


You studied fine art at Yale. How did you make the transition from still life to moving pictures?

The things I was interested in painting were always moving. I figured I should have a film camera rather than a paintbrush. I started making experimental films and projecting films on buildings.

I was bored with the experimental films I was seeing. I think they were neglecting an important part of the medium, which was the temporal side of it. I decided I was going to teach myself narrative technique.

How did you do that?


Just by starting to write. So I started to write small screenplays and I never came back.

I came up with this idea to make public service announcements promoting reading for MTV. They were like one-minute movies. They would take a book like Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”; it would be more like a music video with language and literature. It was called “Books: Feed Your Head.” They were well received, and I got a commercial directing contract dropped in my lap.

What’s next for you?

I have written something else. It’s original. I can’t really talk about it too much. It’s a road movie in the United States.


-- Susan King