There is great comedy potential in the world of magic and magicians. Not only is it part of the entertainment industry, meaning that it’s filled to the brim with fascinating personalities and weird characters, it’s also a business with deep ties in the glitzy world of Las Vegas that fully embraces crazy costumes, lavish showmanship and bizarre stunts. It’s a natural fit that we rarely get to see explored, but next month the two will come together with the release of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.
Just a little over a year ago I drove out to the Wadsworth Theater in Los Angeles, CA where I joined a small group of other film journalists to visit the set of then in-production comedy, where we had the pleasure of not only watching the production in action, but also talking to stars Steve Carell, Olivia Wilde and Steve Buscemi, as well as director Don Scardino and producer Chris Bender.
Based on a script written by Horrible Bosses duo John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein, the new film centers on an aging Vegas magician named Burt Wonderstone (Carell), who has found the spark has left his career. Constantly fighting with his longtime partner Anton Marvelton (Buscemi) and no longer finding real joy in mystery and illusion, Burt’s act suffers as a result, and the Las Vegas crowds begin to flock towards Steve Gray (Carrey), a grungy street magician who performs feats of endurance rather than sleight of hand. With the help of his new assistant Jane (Wilde) and the legend that inspired him (Alan Arkin), Burt begins a path of redemption, not only to save his career but reclaim his love of magic.
Unlike Grey, whose character was compared on set to real magicians like David Blaine and Criss Angel, Burt and Anton’s act is more reminiscent of 70s and 80s magicians like David Copperfield and Doug Henning, who used levitation illusions and more classic acts to dazzle audiences. Naturally, the filmmakers did their research for the film, taking trips to Vegas and speaking with the professionals, but at the same time they also worked to separate the world of the film from the real history of magic.
Asked if audiences could expect any known names from the world of magic popping in, Bender told us, “Yes and no. The reason that we stayed away from that is because we’re creating a fictional history or version of the world of magic, even though it’s inspired by the reality of that world, if you put too many cameos in then it starts to get confusing…We didn’t want to do that. At the same time, since Copperfield is his own thing and he’s not a partnership, there is a cameo with him in the movie.”
The production also did a good amount of time on-location in Vegas, notably shooting one of the film’s biggest stunts. At one point in the film Burt and Anton try to update their act and beat Steve Grey at his own game by suspending themselves in a Plexiglas box for an extended length of time – but of course everything goes horribly wrong.
“Day one we were 100 feet in the air in a glass box with Carell and Buscemi in the glass box, lifted by a crane,” Scardino recounted. “We did part of their scene and then, with stunts, we did the resultant action, which is the box breaks open and the two of them fall out 100 feet with a lot of slapstick and very Harold Lloyd-ish hanging from the box. So that was our first day of shooting. And at first I thought, "Oh my god, do I really want to do this?’ It proved to be schedule-wise the only way we could handle it and I thought, ‘Well, this will be great because I'm a new studio comedy guy and if I can pull that off, why then I'll be on sort of secure ground.’ And it did, it worked. It was great.”