Burger waited for the right moment to create 'The Illusionist'

Jessica Biel and Edward Norton star in the supernatural mystery "The Illusionist," opening today at Butler Plaza.

Yari Film Group
Published: Friday, September 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, August 31, 2006 at 11:46 p.m.


'Illusionist' opens today

  • What: A mysterious stage magician and Viennna's top inspector are pitted against each other in a battle of wits. Starring Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti and Jessica Biel.
  • When: Opens today
  • Where: Butler Plaza

  • Director Neil Burger saw cinematic promise in a magical short story he read 16 years ago.
    Set in turn-of-the century Vienna, as the Hapsburg Empire was on the wane and uncertain modern times lay ahead, "Eisenheim the Illusionist" told of a mysterious stage magician who baffled and bemused his audiences.
    "It's a beautiful, transcendent gem of a story," says Burger, 44. "It's very cinematic but also not quite a movie. I thought I knew how to make it into a movie, but I was a lot younger then and in no position to make an elaborate period movie. I hoped one day to come back to it and get the chance to make it."
    He finally did. "The Illusionist," which opens today in many cities, stars Edward Norton as Eisenheim, Paul Giamatti as Vienna's Chief Inspector Uhl, Jessica Biel as the aristocrat Sophie von Teschen, and Rufus Sewell as her fiance, the Crown Prince.
    "The movie walks a fine line," says Burger. "Does Eisenheim have supernatural powers or is it all a trick?"
    Burger adapted Steven Millhauser's short story, invented Sophie and the Crown Prince, and greatly expanded the chief inspector's role.
    The result is a murder mystery that pits the corrupt police inspector, acting at the behest of the Crown Prince, against the enigmatic Eisenheim, who is the darling of Vienna's stages. Europe is awash in magicians, and Eisenheim is the most beguiling of them all.
    "The Illusionist" was one of the hits at this year's Sundance Film Festival where, Burger recalls, there was a "near riot" in the lobby because the theater had been oversold.
    "Edward and Paul are two of the great actors of their age group. They are incredible. I'm trying to think who else can stand up with them, and there are very few. They are amazing, and people want to see what those guys do," he says.
    Eisenheim is an intimidating, intense and mysterious character, and Burger found those characteristics occurring naturally in Norton, a two-time Oscar nominee (for "American History X" and "Primal Fear.")
    Norton performs his own sleight of hand in the movie. He studied under magician Ricky Jay, with whom he had a history.
    When Norton was just out of college and working as an usher at a New York theater, Jay often performed there. And the magician occasionally invited him onto the stage to help with tricks.
    As for Giamatti, whose character plays a cat-and-mouse game with the wily Eisenheim, Burger says, "The great thing about Paul is that his character has very little back story in the movie. You don't know that much about him. You know he's the son of a butcher but not much more. But Paul projects all of (Uhl's) ambition and his conflict and his humiliation and corruption. All of that comes through."
    "The Illusionist" is just Burger's second film. His first, "Interview With the Assassin" (2002), was based on his original screenplay about the purported second shooter in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
    Burger was six months old when Kennedy died.
    "But it's one of the most important historical events of the 20th century," he says. "It's a powerful event that keeps confounding people to this day."
    Burger grew up in Connecticut and moved to New York City after he finished college at Yale University, where he was a fine arts major.
    He noticed that the things he was interested in painting were all moving, so he got a film camera and began to capture the movement. He made experimental films, some of which he projected onto building exteriors.
    He made a series of one-minute movies for MTV and then TV commercials. All the time he was focused on becoming a director of feature films.
    Even as he was writing the screenplay for "The Illusionist," he imagined the way the movie would look.
    "I always had the sense that I wanted it to have a hand-cranked quality to it," he says, "the way an old silent movie has an uneven movement to it, a flicker, vignetting, and try to use that old cinematic vocabulary, not just to make it look old but to give it that disquieting undertone."
    The biggest challenge was how he would portray magic on the big screen.
    "To me, it's not so much about how the trick is done. It's more about the uncanny sense that nothing is what it seems. It's more of a spiritual thing, of coming into contact with something inexplicable or incomprehensible, and what that does to your perception of everything. It calls into question everything you take for granted."

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