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When word of Eisenheim's astounding illusions reaches the powerful and pragmatic Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), the ruler attends one of the magician's shows in order to debunk Eisenheim during the performance. But when the Prince's intended, Sophie von Teschen, assists the magician onstage, Eisenheim and Sophie recognize each other from their childhoods—and a dormant love affair is rekindled. As the clandestine romance continues, Uhl is charged by Leopold to intensify his efforts to expose Eisenheim, even while the magician gains a devoted and vocal public following. With Uhl doggedly searching for the reasons and the man behind the trickery, Eisenheim prepares to execute his greatest illusion yet.
Based on a Pulitzer-prize winning shot story by Steven Millhauser called "Eisenheim the Illusionist", for Illusionist writer/director Neil Burger the challenge in translating it was to do so without losing what was beautiful about the story. He says, "It’s a beautiful gem of a story, lyrical and transcendent. The images and tone of it are quite cinematic, but the story itself is more of a fragment and somehow, not a film. I loved the story, but it wasn’t immediately clear how to solve the narrative puzzle and transform it into a full-blown movie."
At first glance Burger doesn't seem like the guy to make a magician battle movie powered by Hollywood heavyweights. The Illusionist is only Burger's second film. His first was the 2002 micro-indie Interview with the Assassin, a film few have heard of and even fewer have seen. Burger did however win a Independent Spirit Awards for Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay. Alright, those sound a little like booby prizes. They're what you give to the new guy when you don’t want to give him one of the real awards. Still, Burger may have something.
He's taken the challenge of getting The Illusionist right seriously, obsessing over not just how best to preserve the tone of his source material, but looking for a better understanding of the time period in which it's set. "I read everything I could about the Hapsburgs, about the Secessionist movement, and about the magic from that time—both the illusions themselves and the social world of the magicians," says Burger. Most of the magic tricks in the film are based on real illusions performed by the magicians of the time. Characters invented for the purposes of the film are also based on real people, to give the film as authentic a feel as possible.
Burger brought Edward Norton in as his lead looking for fresh perspective. Unlike a lot of actors Edward hasn't spent much time mucking around in period pieces, and if you look back on his resume, he hasn't often been a romantic lead either. He is however a big fan of magic, and threw himself wholeheartedly into learning the craft well enough to pull off Eisenheim's tricks. "Edward is actually ‘performing’ the tricks that you see him do. He’s so dedicated, he learned how to do them all," affirms Burger.
To re-create turn of the 19th century Vienna, Burger and his team went to the new Hollywood default, Prague, for filming. It's become the new shooting location de jour for anyone wondering where to point their camera in Europe. The city's cobblestone streets and gas lamp lit roads are easily swapped in for just about any 19th century Euro city.
The challenge for The Illusionist though will be coming out on top as the year's best magician battle movie. Batman Begins director Christopher Nolan has a similar themed film on the way as well, though his releases somewhat later in the year. With bigger named Nolan already on everyone's mind, The Illusionist may end up being confused for that "other" magician movie. But The Illusionist is not The Prestige, a film which focuses less on romantic elements and more on pure magician ego. Burger's movie has its own unique voice, and he'll prove it when the film opens this August in the last days of the summer movie season.