Moviemaker Neil Burger
The Illusionist/Yari Film Group
Back in 1990 when he was a talented nobody, the filmmaker Neil Burger read a short story called “Eisenheim the Illusionist” by Steven Millhauser. It wasn’t a famous story then; it is now.
In Burger’s view, this tale of a Vienna magician in 1900 had a gemlike perfection, offering both the pleasures of storytelling and the sustenance of art. He loved its air of dream and mystery, “the uncanny sense that nothing is what it seems”; and he loved its atmosphere of childlike enchantment bordered by darkness and terror. In this respect, “Eisenheim” echoed the great fairy tales of past ages, tales that strike deep into the shadow world of our strangest dreams — a place dear to Burger’s own artistic spirit. “As a filmmaker,” he says, “I’m interested in that moment where you come face to face with something unexplainable, or incomprehensible, and how that challenges your perceptions about everything.”
Though in no position to make a film at age twenty-seven, he did weigh the story’s filmic possibilities, as was his habit. And he had to conclude that “Eisenheim the Illusionist” would not work — not unless one wanted to rearrange perfection.
“Which is exactly what I did,” Burger says, with a short laugh, sixteen years later over cheeseburgers and lemonade at the Odeon restaurant in Tribeca. “I changed almost everything.”
The Illusionist, starring Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti and Jessica Biel and featuring a hypnotic score by Philip Glass, opened last August to mostly excellent reviews. The New York Post hailed the film as “a true work of art in a marketplace filled with velvet paintings.” Slate called it “an exquisitely crafted period piece” that’s “almost too good to be true.” The Times thought The Illusionist “an entrancing yarn” while the Philadelphia Inquirer judged it “a wonderful anachronism of a movie.” Time magazine noted that “Burger has tricks up his sleeve, but he’s not a cheat,” a reference to the ingenious plot that Burger built around Millhauser’s twenty-two-page story.
By late November, as new projects and new offers swirled about the forty-three-year-old writer-director, movie people began whispering in his ear of Academy Awards. (Nominations were announced too late to report here.) It was during this period of heightened anticipation that he made time to sit for an interview. Burger is a tall, trim man wearing a faded green T-shirt and a black windbreaker; his square jaw, sky-blue eyes and graying blond hair make for a striking presence, one that would seem more likely to find a home in front of the camera than behind it.
“I think we’ll be lucky if we get nominated for anything,” Burger says when he settles in. “The critics liked the film by about four to one, but they are much more interested in something like Babel,” whose contemporary subject and multiple shifting story lines make it a cousin to last year’s best picture, Crash. “There are websites that handicap these things, and we’re maybe fifteenth.”
Alas, Burger’s modesty isn’t false. The Illusionist’s strengths might actually work against it as far as the Oscars go. It’s an old-fashioned entertainment and a small-budget one (about $15 million) at that. And it’s a love story. Oscar’s affection tends toward the epic, the edgy and the somewhat but not overly tragic. Ah, well. Even if The Illusionist better fit the Oscar template, there’s the matter of its being an indie film without an ample studio war chest. “It’s like a political campaign,” Burger says, “and political campaigns are largely based on money.”
His financier, Bob Yari Film Group, has earned a reputation for cinematic excellence but not for deep pockets. Studios that do shell out wads of Oscar cash, like Miramax Films, “kind of ingrain the idea into the consciousness of Academy voters that certain movies should be part of the conversation.”
But The Illusionist, Burger’s second feature film, appeared to be gaining as an Oscar dark horse. In December the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures named it among the ten best independent films of the year; also, Burger himself drew an Independent Spirit nomination for best screenplay. While critics liked The Illusionist a lot, Burger’s filmmaking colleagues may have liked it even more. One of them, Rod Lurie, who wrote and directed The Contender (2000) and the forthcoming Resurrecting the Champ, happens to be our other homegrown feature-film success story. By odd coincidence, Lurie and Burger attended Brunswick School at the same time.
“I didn’t even know about my connection to Neil when I saw The Illusionist,” Lurie said by e-mail. “I just thought it was a masterful film. When I found out Neil was the same Neil from Brunswick, I called him.
I was stunned by how much I liked the film — especially since its primary elements (magic, that era, royalty) are things I normally find repellent in cinema. What I had not taken into account was how engrossing the story would be, how perfect the acting would be (Giamatti — wow) and how much I would buy into the love story. I think Neil may well get an Oscar nomination.”
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The warm response to The Illusionist makes it easy to forget how chancy the endeavor once seemed.
One day while editing his first movie, Interview With the Assassin (2002), alongside producers David Levien and Brian Koppelman, Burger brought up the Eisenheim story. The subject under discussion had been magic in the movies — how it never works very well. “It’s hard to make a convincing illusion when everyone knows you can do it in the filmmaking,” explains Levien, who lives in Greenwich. Levien and Koppelman, who are best known as screenwriters, knew the short story but said they didn’t know how to make it into a movie.
“I do,” said Burger, upon which Koppelman and Levien offered to secure an option. The trick (as it were) lay in a certain kind of restraint: computer-generated images are kept to a minimum — overuse of them adds a phony gloss — and the illusions themselves are mostly faithful to history.
To achieve verisimilitude, Burger hired Ricky Jay, the renowned sleight-of-hand artist and magic historian, and his partner Michael Weber. So when Edward Norton causes an orange tree to sprout up and grow fruit, and butterflies to emerge from one orange and bear a handkerchief into the air, we are seeing a reproduction of Robert Houdin’s nineteenth-century illusion. And when a locket critical to the story is required to change shape from oval to heart, it does so because Jay and Weber concocted a locket that does exactly that.
The film might not have worked without convincing magic. It definitely would not have worked without a great story. Here was a problem. “The short story doesn’t have the elements, necessarily, to create what we think of as a normal film structure,” Burger says. So he made them up from scratch. The nagging question was: What would Steven Millhauser think of all Burger’s tampering? Millhauser is a rather inscrutable character, rarely remarking on his own work and never on other people’s. (He apologetically declined to comment for this article.)
“I just didn’t want to have to show him the screenplay, show him how much I’d changed his story. It’s terrible! Completely cowardly!” Burger says with a mischievous grin. “But I had no idea what he was going to be like. Maybe he was going to be really difficult and say, ‘What have you done to my story? I’m not giving anybody the rights to this, I don’t care how much you pay me.’ ” Burger finally wrote to Millhauser shortly before shooting was to begin in Prague.
“I knew I couldn’t put it off anymore,” he says. Meanwhile, at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs where he teaches, Millhauser had kept abreast of the production news. “People would come up to him on campus and say, ‘Aren’t you disgusted that Hollywood’s making a movie of your story?’ ” If anything disgusted him, the author told Burger, it was people’s assumption that he’d be appalled by a Hollywood overture. “So he put himself on my side almost immediately,” Burger says, still sounding relieved. “And he’s been incredibly generous all the way along.”
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The Illusionist offers the traditional satisfactions of an elegant plot and a full-circle ending (or so it seems), but it somehow manages to appear unconventional and unique at the same time. Certainly no reviewer has pointed to an obvious precursor. It’s as though the film tumbled out of a lost book of folklore for grownups.
It begins in Eisenheim’s childhood. One day the young son of a gifted Jewish cabinetmaker in Bratislava encounters an elderly magician who perhaps endows the boy with his gift. Eisenheim’s passion for magic is matched only by that for his sweetheart Sophie von Teschen, whose aristocratic parents frown upon the bond and order her to keep away. She doesn’t, of course. They secretly carry on their dreamy friendship in a woodland root cellar until, amid the beat of hooves and the cry of angry voices, they’re found out. “Make us disappear!” Sophie begs, but the boy finds himself powerless.
We next see the adult Eisenheim (Edward Norton) onstage in Vienna, having, after distant travels, evolved into a master illusionist. He’s such a sensation that Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) and his betrothed, the ravishing Countess Sophie (Jessica Biel), decide to attend a performance. When Eisenheim requests a volunteer from the audience — “someone not afraid of death” — Sophie makes her way to the stage. His eyes drop to the locket he’d given her in childhood round her neck, and they are silently swept up in the past. Does their rekindled love seal their doom? Chief Inspector Uhl (Giamatti), whom Leopold orders to expose the popular Eisenheim, warns, “There’s no trick that they haven’t seen.” But perhaps there is; Eisenheim may have learned to make people disappear at last.
None of this exists in the Millhauser story. One could say that Burger is guilty of committing the oldest of Hollywood sins — imposing a love interest on his source material — except that it doesn’t feel the least bit imposed. Rather, the dangerous love triangle is the film’s swiftly driving engine.
The sense of mystery, however, is left intact. In the end, we still don’t know whether Eisenheim’s illusions were “all done with lenses and mirrors [as Millhauser puts it] or whether the Jew from Bratislava had sold his soul to the devil for the dark gift of magic.” And though the film expertly ties off its plot threads, we are brought up short by the realization that we can’t be too sure what really happened: We’re only seeing what Chief Inspector Uhl thinks he has figured out. The ambiguity is among the film’s many charms.