Making Magic On The Set Of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

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.”

Between interviews we had the pleasure of watching the cast and crew film two scenes, and while one of those scenes can actually be seen in full in the trailer above – the shot where Burt and Anton arrive on-stage via wires and introduce themselves to the crowd – the other has yet to be revealed.

A big moment in the story for Olivia Wilde’s character, Jane, the scene begins with Burt and Anton getting off stage for a quick costume change, making snippy comments at one another and being generally unpleasant. When their female assistant complains, asking if they can do one show without a “bitch fest,” Burt responds, “Not unless you leave,” which, naturally, prompts the assistant to quit. When Anton protests, saying that it’s the second assistant they’ve lost in a month, his partner responds by grabbing a random stagehand – who happens to be Jane – and after asking her if she knows all of the tricks makes her the new “Nicole.” And thus her career as a magician’s assistant begins.

But talking to the actress before the set-up, Wilde explained that there is a lot more to Jane than just being the eye candy during performances. “It’s great to play a character that has this kind of defined arc,” she told us. “She really goes on a journey and comes into her own, and she ends up not only transforming herself, but also Steve [Carell]’s character. It’s just fun.”

It was fascinating to watch Carell shooting the scene, as after each take he would leave the stage to watch what they had shot on the monitors and talk with Scardino. He would then use what he had gleaned from the video and chat, fixing his blocking, his timing and wording.

“I'm trying to kind of modulate,” Carell explained when asked about the habit. “I'm trying to figure out, for one thing, a sense of where the cameras are and where they're looking and what's reading and what isn't reading.” After the first few takes he realized that he was bringing too much energy and pressure to the scene, which was unnecessary for a couple of old pros. “After watching a couple of them, I got the sense that it needed to feel a bit more well-worn and routine. I wanted that to look like it had been done many, many times before and not that this was the first time for everybody.”

Keeping on top of each shot is also important for his role as a producer, learning what kind of coverage is needed so that they can plan for the future. But those same duties also had an important influence on the pre-production stages of the film, including casting.

“I had some very specific casting ideas,” Carell said. “There were a lot of people interested in doing the movie, but we had a very specific idea as to the types of actors that we felt would be right.

One of those stars, of course, being the great Steve Buscemi, who also had previous experience working with the director on the NBC series 30 Rock. Most recently, the veteran character actor has been more closely associated with the world of drama, starring on HBO’s gangster series Boardwalk Empire, but The Incredible Burt Wonderstone not only brings him back to lighter fare, it also has allowed him to exercise his improvisation muscle.

“I never did improv professionally, but that was certainly in my training as an actor,” Buscemi said. “I like it. Actually, when I did theater, I used to have a partner, and that was the way we used to write a lot of our sketches, through improvisation. So it’s something I feel comfortable with, and when you have somebody like Steve [Carell], he really listens. He really plays off of the person he’s improving with. It’s a nice give and take.”

Even though he wasn’t on set the day we visited, Jim Carrey was also the recipient of much praise. Playing the central antagonist role, the star’s performance has already earned rave reviews from his co-workers, who were all not only impressed with his incredible skill as a comedian, but also his tireless work ethic.

“Whatever is called for in the movie you will find in his performance,” Carell said of Carrey, who he worked with previously on both Horton Hears a Who and Bruce Almighty. “He was doing things -- physical things -- that didn't seem human to me and he was doing them in a practical manner with no special effects. It was all him. It was all just his own commitment to the part.”

“To be with him and witness the process is such an extraordinary thing,” Wilde added when we spoke with her. “He is a perfectionist. He is so incredibly physical, and in control of his physical comedy. It’s like watching a dancer. It’s amazing. He’s always at 100%. He has incredibly high standards for himself and it’s wonderful to watch him reach them.”

Ultimately, bringing together some of the biggest comedy stars on the planet, building a brilliant supporting cast, and working from a clever script set in the bizarre world of magic, what does the director want The Incredible Burt Wonderstone to be? Said Scardino, “It's a redemption story, it's got a lot of heart, it's about a guy who's lost his way and finds his way back. But at the same time, it's a broad comedy, and I think we get away with it because it's set in a broad world. It's a world that's painted with a fairly broad brush. It's magic.”

Stay tuned for our full interviews with the cast and crew coming up, scope out the three brand new images below, and find out more about the film in our Blend Film Database.

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

NJ native who calls LA home and lives in a Dreamatorium. A decade-plus CinemaBlend veteran who is endlessly enthusiastic about the career he’s dreamt of since seventh grade.