'Illusionist' Director Shows Real Magic Neil Burger, writer and director of the movie The Illusionist, says he tried not to use film effects to create the magic captured on screen. He also talks about how he became interested in magic. Based on a short story, the film stars Paul Giamatti, Edward Norton and Jessica Biel.
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'Illusionist' Director Shows Real Magic

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'Illusionist' Director Shows Real Magic

'Illusionist' Director Shows Real Magic

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Neil Burger is the director of The Illusionist and joins us from Providence, Rhode Island. Welcome to the program.

Mr. NEIL BURGER (Director, The Illusionist): It's good to be here.

SIEGEL: You made a movie about illusions and illusionists. This is a medium which can make animals and robots talk. It can make earthlings into aliens. It's all illusions. How do you convey the notion of magic in a medium that is so illusory?

Mr. BURGER: Right. Well, that's the trick. The film is already magic, cinema is magic. You know, the audience already knows how that trick is done. Editing techniques and CGI and digital effects and all that. So what I did really was try to do the illusions, the magic that's onscreen, as much as possible as they would've done it then and not use film effects.

SIEGEL: So you have to be self consciously literal in the way you're using the camera doing these things, so that we will feel that much more present in the theatre as the magic trick is being done.

Mr. BURGER: Yeah, that's right. I mean we did all the magic effects in camera or practically on stage or mechanically or close to as they would've done them. And, you know, because of scheduling and budget, we were mostly successful, but you know, sometimes we had to use a few cinematic effects.

SIEGEL: This is a movie, I gather, inspired by a short story that you and others read and said this has got to be a movie.

Mr. BURGER: Yeah. I read it about 15 years ago when it came out. And it's called Eisenheim the Illusionist, and it's written by Steven Millhauser. And, you know, it's about 20 pages long and it's just this beautiful gem of a story.

SIEGEL: Were you a fan of magicians? Or an amateur magician yourself?

Mr. BURGER: I think I'm as interested in magic and magicians as the next person. I wasn't an aficionado or somebody who was obsessed with it. But I did meet this magician named Ricky Jay a number of years ago. Ricky actually worked on the film and is an incredible, sort of the slight of hand guy living today.

But I met him a few years ago and he did a magic trick for me. He just held his hand out right in front of my face with one playing card in it. And right before my eyes - he didn't pass his hand over it, didn't do anything - it changed to a different card. I have no idea how he did it. I'm sure it was incredibly simple for him.

But it, you know, it just gave me that chill. It sort of rattled me completely and the feeling still sticks with me today. And in a way, that's the feeling that I wanted to give the audience with this movie. That sort of everything that you took for granted is somehow different.

SIEGEL: The first feature length film you made falls into the genre of mockumentary. I want you to talk to us a little bit about that one.

Mr. BURGER: Yeah. I never liked that term, mockumentary, because it seems like it's a joke. But it's a fake documentary. And it's about a man that claims to be the Grassy Knoll gunman, the purported second assassin of Kennedy. And it takes place now. He's in his 60s. He says he's kept his mouth shut for 40 years and is only coming forward because he's terminally ill.

But it's not clear whether he's telling the truth or not or whether he's deluded or he has some other agenda.

SIEGEL: Interview With the Assassin and The Illusionist are you two completed feature films. How many other projects, as I gather one says, have there been that have gone this far but not that far, that have almost been made or not been made, or you were thinking about making and didn't get made?

Mr. BURGER: Well, there's been a couple actually. Right before I did Interview With the Assassin, I had something else I had been working on for two years that we came within about four months of shooting. And it was one of those things that you never think it's going to happen to you and it all just collapsed. You know, you need millions and millions of dollars and so you're really at the mercy of somebody who's going to give you that money.

SIEGEL: Somebody who this summer might say to a filmmaker, if there were snakes in it, maybe. Maybe.

Mr. BURGER: That's right. That's our big competition today. It is. That's who we come out against, Snakes on a Plane. So hopefully it's a different audience.

SIEGEL: Well, Neil Burger, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. BURGER: Thank you.

SIEGEL: It's Neil Burger, who's the director and the writer of the new film The Illusionist.

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