THE PLEDGE, THE TURN, THE PRESTIGE: TURNING A MOVIE INTO A MAGIC TRICK AND VICE VERSA
According to Cutter, the magician's ingeneur (one who designs illusions behind-the-scenes) played by Michael Caine: "Every great magic trick consists of three acts. The first act is called The Pledge: the magician shows you something ordinary, but of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called The Turn. The magician makes his ordinary something do something extraordinary. Now, if you're looking for the secret . . . you won't find it. That's why there's a third act called, The Prestige. This is the part with the twists and turns, where lives hang in the balance, and you see something shocking you've never seen before."
Director Christopher Nolan uses these same principles of carefully constructed secrets and shocking moments of revelation to unfold the winding, surprise-filled story of dueling magicians Robert Angier and Alfred Borden in "The Prestige" - an intricate thriller in which mysteries abound, illusions permeate every action and nothing is quite what it seems, except the primal human emotions that drive an epic feud between two ambitious men.
Nolan has already, with just a handful of films, established himself as one of filmmaking's most creative minds, and one with a striking ability to evoke the mysterious and disorienting, whether in independent classics or major action blockbusters. He first came to prominence after his promising debut "Following," with "Memento," the ingenious, backwards-moving thriller about a desperate man trying to avenge his wife's murder while suffering from the loss of all short-term memory. Lauded as a cinematic masterpiece that played with notions of time, space and subjective reality, "Memento" continues to confound audiences and is now studied by film students. Nolan went on to cut his teeth on a bigger thriller, a remake of the Norwegian noir film "Insomnia," in a fresh version starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank, which once again took the audience on a dizzying journey into crime and fear. He then made another leap, this time into superhero territory, tackling "Batman Begins," which unveiled the untold origins of the Dark Knight's emergence as the savior of Gotham City. The film was hailed as one of the most original and engaging of all superhero movies and went on to worldwide acclaim, the rare summer box-office blockbuster that met with equal critical success.
Now, it seemed that Nolan was the perfect person to tackle material as intricate and unconventionally entertaining as "The Prestige."
Says producer Emma Thomas: "Traditionally, I think filmmakers have avoided the subject of magic because there is this feeling that if you're not seeing it live that it's too easy to get the wool pulled over your eyes. But Chris started with the idea that movies are already a kind of magic trick - and instead of concentrating on the magic shows themselves, the story is all about what happens behind the scenes in the lives of two driven magicians who are devoted to and obsessed with creating the most baffling illusions."
The film's genesis began just after Nolan directed "Memento." Around that same time, executive producer Valerie Dean read and fell madly in love with Christopher Priest's acclaimed novel, The Prestige -- and immediately knew that amidst its complex blend of history and science fiction, its tale of an out-of-control magical rivalry would make for an original film.
Dean gave the book to Nolan, who was equally intrigued. "The book created a terrific relationship between the narrative form of the novel and the techniques and ideas used by magicians to fool you and engage you in deception - and I felt the exciting thing about making a film of 'The Prestige' would be to find the cinematic equivalent," Nolan says. "There's quite a strong relationship between what magicians do and what filmmakers do. The filmmaker is very similar to a magician in the way we release information - what we tell the audience and when - and how we draw the audience in through certain points of view. We use our own techniques, blind alleys and red herrings, to fool the audience and, hopefully, to create a satisfying pay-off. With "The Prestige," there was an opportunity to really play with these concepts right before the audience's eyes."
Nolan in turn asked producer Aaron Ryder of Newmarket Films to obtain the rights. After his experience on "Memento," Ryder trusted that Nolan would create something distinctive with "The Prestige." "He's a truly gifted storyteller," says the producer. "Chris was born to direct movies. I feel his films are some of the best films being made today and I just loved the idea that he wanted to make this film to be a magic trick in and of itself."
Meanwhile, the director approached his brother Jonathan Nolan about joining him in tackling the massive task of adapting Priest's intricate novel, composed in part of confessional diaries, into a suspenseful screenplay. Having previously worked together on "Memento" - which Christopher Nolan adapted from Jonathan Nolan's time-shifting short story -- Jonathan Nolan was intrigued by the prospect of doing something equally challenging, yet entirely different.
This time around the fun would be in trying to write a movie as an illusion - one that would dazzle, deceive and ultimately surprise the audience. "The movie definitely had to function as a magic trick," Nolan says. But that concept left him in entirely unexplored territory. He continues: "When I started writing I had a bunch of different classic movies in mind that I thought I might pay homage to, but after I was done, I realized that I'd never seen anything quite like this one before."
He began by paring through the onion-like layers of Priest's novel. "The book is a very complicated, very ambitious, sweeping epic with tons of ideas -- and it took me about 18 months to figure out how to cut it down into something that resembles a film," comments Nolan. "I had to find the structure, which was tricky, because the story is so complexly interwoven. What we came up with is a three-part flashback structure based on this idea of the three-part structure of a magic trick."
Utilizing that three-part structure -comprised of The Pledge, The Turn and The Prestige - helped the Nolans cut to the core of why people have always been so fascinated by magic. "A lot of it turns on this idea that Chris and I were fascinated by: that the audience for a magic show knows that what they're about to see is a trick," Nolan explains. "If they actually thought a woman was going to be sawn in half, they would be very upset, and definitely not amused. So they know it's a trick but they also want to feel fooled, so that's why that third act, or The Prestige, is so important. The real world is rigid, there's not a lot of mystery to it, but people don't want that to be the case - and that's where magic comes in. If we've got all the rules figured out and this is the way the world works where you get a job, save your money and then die - well, who wants to live in that world? I think we all would prefer that the universe have some surprises, some tricks up its sleeve."
Along the way, Jonathan Nolan delved into researching the secretive world of gifted magicians. This became especially revealing when he met with some of the most shadowy figures in that already shadowy realm - the ingeneurs who come up with wild ideas for never-before-seen tricks behind the scenes. "They're fascinating figures who eschew the limelight, and for a screenwriter there's something very familiar about that," he laughs. "The attraction is that they get to pull all the strings."
In researching magic's illustrious past, Nolan also gained insight into why that grand legacy has faded into today's Vegas acts. "I think part of is that now there are hundreds of different versions of magic out there but we don't call them magic. We have television, video games, movies - they're all spectacles that you can disappear into just as one used to do at a Victorian magic show," he says.
"The Prestige" heads into many unexpected directions, including having its two main stars - Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale -- morph from heroes to anti-heroes and back again. Jonathan always intended for the audience to choose sides. "I think you can't really watch the movie without choosing an allegiance. But whoever you're rooting for, the idea is that you're likely to start questioning it by the film's end," explains the writer. Yet Nolan himself doesn't hold a special loyalty to one character or the other. "I like both Angier and Borden," he says. "To me, they're flip sides of the same coin, two complementary halves of one person."
As he wrote, Nolan never shied away from letting the audience draw their own conclusions about all that is going on in the raging battle between Angier and Borden. "I love contentious stuff," he admits. "Chris and I still argue about aspects of 'Memento' and we've had arguments about 'The Prestige' as well. I think if you get to the point where people are sitting around a table arguing about what your movie means, then you've done your job as a writer."
After Jonathan Nolan wrote an initial draft of the screenplay with his brother's creative involvement, the director then jumped in with his own draft. The unique working relationship between the brothers has always involved the one sparking the creativity of the other. Jonathan Nolan has his own theory for why they complement each other so well. "I've always suspected that it has something to do with the fact that he's left-handed and I'm right-handed," he remarks, "because he's somehow able to look at my ideas and flip them around in a way that's just a little bit more twisted and interesting. It's great to be able to work with him like that."
Emma Thomas was dazzled by the completed screenplay. "When I read the book, I knew it was going to make a great movie - I just didn't quite know how!" she laughs. "There were so many different elements to the story, but Jonathan and Chris were able to distill it all while keeping the fun of magic and the excitement of this unusual world alive and keeping the focus on all these fascinating characters. Every role had something juicy about it."
Aaron Ryder was equally impressed. "The story plays with deception, identity and obsession," he says. "In much the same way that 'Memento' pushed the envelope, I believe on a grander scale, the same could be said for "The Prestige." I truly think that it's innovative in that same way. Jonathan and Chris adapted a very complicated book into a tension-filled thriller. It's rare to see a film deviate so far from the source material yet still remain true to the story and the theme."
THE SHOWMAN:HUGH JACKMAN PLAYS ROBERT ANGIER
In this time when magicians were the great entertainers of their age, no one else can rivet an audience with the charm and pizzazz of the consummate showman Robert Angier. But when a stage tragedy strikes close to Angier's heart, it pushes him to invent his greatest trick ever, one that will take him into realms of scientific discovery and magical deception no one could have imagined. To play Angier, Christopher Nolan immediately thought of Hugh Jackman, the multi-talented Australian who has become a major star of both stage and screen. Jackman is known to millions of young fans for his screen portrayal of the hugely popular superhero Wolverine - an angst-filled mutant with animal-keen senses -- but he is also a Tony Award winner for his show-stopping performance as songwriter Peter Allen in "The Boy From Oz" and an Emmy Award winner for his hosting of the televised Tony Awards show.
It was Jackman's unique mix of innate cool along with his sophisticated showmanship that convinced Nolan he was the only person who could bring out both the theatrical brilliance and the thirst for vengeance at the heart of Angier. He also seemed like the perfect persona to create a chain reaction of fierce competition and rivalry with Christian Bale.
Says Nolan: "When Hugh gets on stage he truly comes to life. He's extraordinarily comfortable being up there and so knowledgeable about his relationship with the audience. That's exactly what this character needed - and Hugh presents Angier with a sincerity that's extremely winning."
Upon reading the script, Jackman was hooked. He was drawn to Angier's journey - which takes him from the bright lights of success to the darkest shadows of the human soul. "At the beginning of the story, Angier is very optimistic, hopeful and energetic," he observes. "His main strength as a magician is as a performer. He simply loves being in front of a crowd. He has an ease and a panache and a great sort of way with the audience. In fact, to be somewhat critical of him, you could say that his style is sometimes far greater than his content."
But then Angier meets Alfred Borden and everything in his life changes. "It irks me to even say this, but Borden is technically a much better magician," Jackman begrudgingly admits. "My character can sell a trick to an audience with far more skill, but Borden is an inventive genius. When things go wrong between them, Angier has two conflicting responses. On the one hand, he begins to loathe Borden, to hate him, to want vengeance for what he has done, but on the other, he is driven by a competitive obsession to be better than Borden. So all of Angier's anger and hate, all his darkness and sadness become focused on one thing -- finding out Borden's secrets."
To prepare to play Angier, Jackman conducted his own research into the colorful history of magic, from its creative heyday in the early 1900s till now. "I found it to be an incredibly mysterious and interesting world," he says. "There is something about magicians that makes them different from non-magicians. They do everything alone, because they don't want to share their secrets, and they are intensely competitive. They're fascinating people which makes them great characters."
The more he learned, the more Jackman began to see that magicians share elements in common with both conmen and scientists, two mainstays of contemporary society. "Great magic is all about misdirection and illusion, the same skills a conman needs," he says. "But just as scientists are obsessed with the things humans can't yet understand, magicians tap into that. What's great about 'The Prestige' is that it melds the mystical, the magical and the idea of the impossible with elements of science and reality,"
As for Angier, Jackman believes he is addicted to the audience's stunned reactions. "He loves seeing that look in their faces of being fooled. For him, it taps into that human quality of hope and faith, that feeling that the impossible can actually happen. He is driven by that power," the actor says.
Watching Jackman bring Angier, and his many different sides, to life was a revelation for Nolan, one that would be echoed again with Christian Bale's performance. "It's was really interesting to see how both Hugh and Christian took the ideas behind the way magicians really think and work and each made these their own, reconciling them with their own way of looking at the world," he summarizes.
THE RIVAL:: CHRISTIAN BALE IS ALFRED BORDEN
Christian Bale first heard about "The Prestige" while he was playing a very different character - the dark, crime-fighting superhero Batman in Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins." But it wasn't until much later, when he read an early version of Jonathan Nolan's screenplay, that he knew without a doubt that he wanted to be a part of the film.
Bale has already established a reputation as an iconoclast when it comes to the roles he has chosen on his way to becoming one of the most respected actors of his generation. The Welsh-born British actor got an auspicious start from Steven Spielberg at the age of 13, playing the lost boy who finds himself in a Japanese internment camp in "The Empire of the Sun." More recently his uncommon diversity and intensity has come to the fore. He chilled the blood embodying every frightening inch of a yuppie psychopath in "American Psycho," lost a startling 60 pounds to descend into the psychological anguish of the thriller "The Machinist" and voiced Howl in Hayao Miyazaki's acclaimed animated film "Howl's Moving Castle." Then, just before portraying Pocahantas's husband John Rolfe in Terence Malick's "The New World," he went into deep training and put on pounds of muscle to create the most nuanced portrait of the superhero Batman yet seen in the blockbuster "Batman Begins." Shortly after, Bale encountered "The Prestige."
"After 'Batman Begins,' I had really hoped to find some very high quality scripts, some really good movies, but I was not finding myself surrounded by them. Then, I read 'The Prestige,'" Bale recalls. "I thought it was a very original, unique piece about a rivalry that knows no limits - and because magicians are involved, you never know what's real and what isn't, which makes for a fantastic thriller. It's so layered, you have to peel it apart. I already knew that Chris is one of the smartest directors around, and that working with him is like having a very solid foundation on which to build a beautiful house -- and I really fancied doing a movie with him that would be so different from 'Batman.'"
He continues: "So I called Chris and said, 'Whatever you're thinking, and you can tell me where to go, but I'm just going to lay it on the line. This is the one of the best bloody scripts I've ever read and I want to do it.' I think my passion for it bowled him over."
When Bale entered into a deeper conversation with Christopher Nolan about his vision for "The Prestige," his passion only increased. "I've always admired actors who are like shape shifters and Chris is that way as a director," he observes. "I loved the idea that he wanted to radically change styles with this film. I liked the spirit behind it. Whereas 'Batman' was a juggernaut, this huge beast of a ship that was hard to maneuver, 'The Prestige' was like riding horseback - there was a feeling right from the start of being light on our feet and very free."
Once Nolan had cast him as Borden, Bale dove into the part. He began by reading not only Christopher Priest's novel but also numerous books about the lives of magicians. "You realize that their stature at the time was so different from what it is nowadays," he says. Then, he began studying with contemporary magicians and the film's consultants, Ricky Jay and Michael Weber, to hone his own fledgling skills of prestidigitation. "Actually, my grandfather was a magician but I never saw him perform," notes Bale. "So it was wonderful to work with Ricky and Michael, who are terrific magicians. Still, they really annoyed me because I can't stand when someone can do something I can't do!"
Spending time with authentic magicians was quite revealing to Bale. "It was really good to see up close the kind of competitiveness that happens between magicians because that's such a strong point in the story," he says. "It's really about how far these two men will go to be the winner and you can see that this really goes on in magic circles. It's a very closed profession and when someone does a trick that no one has else has thought of you watch as their eyes boil over. Of course because they're so mysterious, they don't give a lot. So we only learned what was necessary. If you asked too good of a question, they'd find some clever way to distract you away from it!"
With the tricks he did learn, Bale was constantly surprised. "Some of them just flabbergasted me," he says, "while others were almost disappointing because when you see how it's done, it's entirely too simple. But of course our movie really isn't about the tricks so much as it is about the psyches of the people who perform and create them."
Borden might be sought-after as an engineer but he hungers for much more than that. Though he comes from a tough, lonely background as an orphan, his ambition is nothing less than to be the greatest magical star of his time - in spite of his inability to connect with audiences. "The thing I love about Borden," comments Bale, "is that he's all about the purity of the magic, about the nature of an ingenious idea. He doesn't care about the showmanship; he doesn't care about selling the trick; he simply cares about creating the most perfect illusion. He's totally obsessed with that one thing. Like so many truly brilliant artists, Borden has no concept of how to market himself."
Yet his obsession soon also becomes about Angier, who possesses qualities Borden both covets and reviles. "Angier is merely a decent magician but he is a great showman, an entire marketing operation unto himself," Bale observes. "Borden sees Angier as a conman, whereas he's the real deal. He just doesn't understand why the public can't see that." As for creating such vengeful feelings towards Hugh Jackman, Bale states: "We both had completely different approaches to our characters and we both really believed in our characters so that made the rivalry truly come alive on screen."
Borden's life is complicated not only by Angier's success but by his relationships with two different women - his long-suffering wife, Sarah, and Angier's assistant, Olivia.
"Borden's first and greatest love will always be magic," says Bale. "Any relationship will always have to take second place for him and that's a hard thing for his wife to stomach. He adores his family but magic is the only thing he's always had that gives him value. He's an orphan and he's been on the streets his whole life. He really has nothing else, except this one extraordinary talent. I think he really believes that if you let people in on the secret of who you are, they'll think nothing of you. It's only by building a mystery around himself that he can gain any power."
Like Christopher Nolan, Bale was completely committed to avoiding period trappings in his portrayal of Borden. "I think it can be quite funny to watch actors in period movies because they act just like other actors in period movies! We just take it for granted that people had this very formal way of being in the past - but it isn't true. Both Chris and I felt that we really had to kick that and get away from it. So the idea was to focus on the characters - who have the same needs and wants and desires as anyone in today's world. Also, usually period movies are all about the privileged. 'The Prestige' is much more gritty and hands-on dirty and you get to see the darker side."
Ultimately, Bale hopes that audiences will be as surprised by "The Prestige" as he was upon first reading the script. "It really is a movie that I can't compare to anything else. It's a movie where you've really got to pay attention. And that's just what life is like, too - you've got to pay attention."
THE MAGICIAN'S SIDEKICKS: MICHAEL CAINE IS CUTTER AND SCARLETT JOHANSSON IS OLIVIA
THE SCIENTIST: DAVID BOWIE IS NIKOLA TESLA AND ANDY SERKIS IS TESLA'S ASSISTANT ALLEY
THE MAGICIAN'S WIVES: PIPER PERABO AND REBECCA HALL ARE JULIA MCCULLOUGH AND SARAH BORDEN
THE CONSULTANTS: RICKY JAY AND MICHAEL WEBER TEACH THE CAST MAGIC
BACK TO THE 20TH CENTURY'S FUTURE: NOLAN TAKES A FRESH LOOK AT THE GREAT VICTORIAN AGE OF MAGIC
READ MORE ABOUT CHRISTOPHER AND JONATHAN NOLAN
Q & A WITH CHRISTOPHER NOLAN
Q & A WITH JONATHAN NOLAN