Though movie productions have been faking New York City locations for decades, there are a few things you simply can't fake. Like an abandoned building that's become a legendary graffiti hub, painted over by countless artists and preserved by devoted caretakers. Or views of Manhattan from the top of the building where your characters will pull off their climactic stunt. Or the 7 train rumbling by in the background, loud and chaotic but all part of the charm you get when you sign up for New York City.
On a chilly night in Long Island CIty, Queens last spring, the production of Now You See Me had set up at the iconic 5 Pointz, where the magicians at the center of the story were ready to pull off their big climactic illusion. With a crowd gathered below them, and both an FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo) and an Interpol agent (Melanie Laurent) hot on their tail, the Four Horsemen-- played by Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco and Woody Harrelson-- were standing on the roof of 5 Pointz and commanding the crowd. Or were they? As the crowd looked up in awe, Ruffalo's character was led in the opposite direction by Laurent's, each of them trying to stay ahead of the magicians who had eluded them all this time. Were they on the roof, or was that another illusion? Would the magicians and Robin Hood-like thieves be caught in the end?
Nobody on the set was telling-- that's the nature of a set visit, where you see one piece of a very large puzzle that will only make sense in context. But in the night spent at 5 Pointz, watching director Louis Leterrier manage 650 extras and tossing his actors right into the middle of them, we saw a film about something that might sound ridiculous-- a bunch of magicians who rob banks and share their profits with the audience-- turning into something thrilling. Leterrier, who has made The Incredible Hulk and Clash of the Titans, says that Now You See Me is his small movie, and operating on an estimated $70 million budget with limited CGI, it's a good bit smaller than his last two films. But as he stood on set, describing shoots in Las Vegas and New Orleans, using the crowd on Bourbon Street as free extras and inventing new shots inside an elevator shaft, it's clear that "small" for Louis Leterrier is still a pretty damn big spectacle.
Truthfully, it was hard to tell just how much spectacle that would be on the ground at 5 Pointz, especially with Leterrier and producer Bobby Cohen both being deliberately cagey about what they would reveal (asked why the Four Horsemen were robbing banks to begin with, Cohen said "I'd rather not tell you.") Leterrier revealed that some of the graffiti at 5 Pointz had been altered-- with permission of course-- so that it would be able to change as part of the magic trick, but of course we couldn't see that happen. As the extras looked up at the roof over and over again, they were supposed to be seeing the 4 Horsemen… who weren't there (their scenes had been shot earlier). And though the set was littered with fake money as part of the trick, nobody would reveal if the Horsemen were successful or not, or if Ruffalo finally succeeded in catching the magicians who had been eluding him across several cities.
At the same time, there were bits of verisimilitude all over the place, like the 7 train that rumbled overhead (Leterrier seemed practically giddy that he had gotten the subway "for free" instead of having to create it in CGI), or the warehouse next door that was crammed full of the iconic quilted food carts that rattle into Manhattan every morning. Before the production set up shop in 5 Pointz they had no idea the warehouse was there, but quickly incorporated the setting into a foot chase scene. As Cohen told us, "That's the kind of thing that you say, if you had written it that way, and said "Yeah, we should go and order 25 of those carts," somehow it would never quite look right."
Talking to the cast and crew on Now You See Me was a bit like spending time with a magician, watching them seem to reveal their entire hand-- Leterrier happily showed us footage on his monitor, and Ruffalo talked about the seductive power of magicians-- only to come back with 10 times as many secrets. Of course, that misdirection is all part of the plan, even for the audiences who wind up buying tickets.. "If we've done it right, I think that the whole movie should work as a trick," Cohen told us. So while we didn't come away with the method behind the magic, or even how Dave Franco got so good at tossing cards he was able to slice a banana in half with one from across the room, we were able to talk to the cast and crew about the practicalities of shooting a film in four different cities, about pulling one over on the audience, about honoring the spirit of magic and about the unexpected Zombieland reunion that happens when you cast Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson together.
You can read excerpts from our on-set conversation with Leterrier below, and come back later today for what we learned from Eisenberg, Fisher and Ruffalo. Check out the film's trailer first (you can see a lot of 5 Pointz graffiti in there), and look for Now You See Me in theaters on May 31.