THE MAGICIAN'S SIDEKICKS: MICHAEL CAINE IS CUTTER AND SCARLETT JOHANSSON IS OLIVIA
Magicians have long had need for close assistance. Whether behind the scenes - where brilliant imaginations think up the tricks in the first place -- or on the stage -- where sexy, charming women have always served as a delightful means to distract the audience - magicians must rely, however begrudgingly, on the talents of others. In "The Prestige," the assistants of Angier and Borden only serve to further thicken the plot with their own agendas and deceptions.
Some of the most vital behind-the-scenes players in the magic world are the people known as ingeneurs - the dark, secretive figures of technical prowess who actually create the tricks. Angier's ingeneur is the retired conjurer Cutter, portrayed with wit and verve by one of cinema's most lauded stars, Sir Michael Caine. Though Caine has played an extraordinary range of characters in a vast array of film stories, he had yet to encounter a world quite like that of "The Prestige." Add to that the chance to reunite with Christopher Nolan, with whom he had worked so successfully on "Batman Begins," and Caine was immediately interested. He says that Nolan brings to mind another director from the past. "He reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock, the way that everything is about creating the best moments of suspense," says Caine. "He is tremendous with suspense."
As for his character, Caine describes him as "a teacher, a father and a guide to Angier." He continues: "He finds Angier, helps him to create his best tricks, and then watches as it all goes terribly wrong." In creating his nuanced portrait, Caine even altered his highly recognizable voice. "Cutter is an older man and in those days they smoked like chimneys and drank like fish, so I brought his voice down into the throat with a kind of cough in it," he explains. "And his accent is very thick and rather menacing." Body posture was also key to Caine's reading of Cutter. "He's a powerful man, but also very relaxed," he observes. "One thing about him is that he often has his hands in his pocket - but when they come out you better worry!"
The filmmakers knew that Caine would make the role entirely his own. Says Nolan: "Michael Caine's character really becomes something of the heart of the movie. He has a wonderful warmth and emotion to him that draws you into the story and allows you to have a point of view on these characters without judging them too harshly."
Meanwhile, when Angier hires an alluring stage assistant - Olivia Wenscombe -she becomes both a pawn and a player in the rivalry between Angier and Borden. Olivia is played by Golden Globe nominee Scarlett Johansson, who says she was immediately attracted by the screenplay. "It was one of the best scripts I'd ever read and I thought it would be great fun to play this vivacious, Bohemian character," she says. "There's a spiciness to Olivia that I think Chris really honed in on and I felt there was a part of me that I could bring to her."
It was easy for Johansson to understand Olivia's strong attraction to Angier. "She's very taken with his passion for what he does. He's one of those sorts of men who seems very untouchable, as well, and I think that's quite attractive to a young girl - that brooding, selfish behavior. But when he betrays her, it really hurts her." As for Borden she says: "She's asked to live amongst the enemy with Borden and I think Olivia and Borden come to a kind of understanding, but she really will always be in love with Angier."
The chance to work with Christopher Nolan was also a draw for Johansson. "He has that rare, kind of Old Hollywood quality. I don't know exactly how to describe it but you never want to disappoint Chris because you know he will always hold up his end of the bargain," she observes.
Johansson especially enjoyed her up-close introduction to the world of magic - finding it not so dissimilar from the world she knows best. "It's very secretive and competitive," she observes. "It's all about the commitment to the illusion, which isn't that different from any form of entertainer."
THE SCIENTIST: DAVID BOWIE IS NIKOLA TESLA AND ANDY SERKIS IS TESLA'S ASSISTANT ALLEY
Amidst all the beguiling fictional characters of "The Prestige" lies a historic figure who has long been shrouded in mystery and intrigue: Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), radical inventor, engineer and scientist. A Serbian immigrant to America, Tesla was a modern-day Da Vinci who dreamed up ideas about robots, computers, microwave ovens, radar and fax machines long before anyone else could imagine such "magical" technologies. He received more than 700 patents in his lifetime and helped to forge our modern high-tech society. He discovered the rotating magnetic field, which became the basis for all machinery using alternating current; and also invented the Tesla Coil, an induction device widely used in radio technology. Indeed, it was Tesla's technology that helped to change the world from an endless chain of disconnected communities to one partly united by information and communication.
Yet so eccentric was Tesla that he was said to be the inspiration for the mad scientist in Max Fleischer's original "Superman" cartoons. He pushed at the very frontiers of science - going where no one else dared. At his Colorado Springs laboratory, depicted in the film, Tesla conducted all kinds of wild experiments, including forging man-made lightning bolts, and was said to be examining such far-out notions as time travel, death rays and interstellar communication.
But, as with most visionaries, Tesla was also surrounded by controversy and hounded by injustices. He had an infamous rivalry with another genius inventor: Thomas Edison. Tesla had originally worked for Edison when he first came to America, but when the two parted ways over a payment disagreement, an obsessive feud ensued - one reminiscent perhaps of Angier and Borden. Mystery would follow Tesla even into death. After his passing, most of his scientific papers disappeared without a trace, never to be found, leading many to wonder what fantastic or dangerous ideas were among them.
In "The Prestige," the character of Tesla blurs the lines between magic and science when he agrees to invent a machine that will allow Angier to out-do Alfred Borden's most stunningly implausible stage trick. To play Tesla, the filmmakers knew they would need someone entirely out of the ordinary - a magnetic figure so used to operating outside of the lines, he would be instantly believable as a mad genius. Given this description, the obvious choice was David Bowie, the risk-taking rock performer who has also taken a wide range of acclaimed acting roles, from "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" to "The Elephant Man." But first the filmmakers would have to convince him to take the role.
"Chris has always been a fan of Bowie," explains Aaron Ryder, "and we felt we needed the kind of persona and weight that Bowie carries as a superstar for Tesla." Adds Emma Thomas: "He was just so perfect for the role that we couldn't imagine anyone else who could pull it off - and then, Chris managed to wrangle a meeting with him inNew York, which we were all very nervous about."
Nolan recalls: "I simply went and explained to him why he was the only person in the world who could play this part - and luckily, he agreed to do it."
Playing Tesla's fictional assistant -- and the man who serves as liaison between the great scientist and Angier -- is Andy Serkis, who became a cult hero among fantasy film lovers for his extraordinary embodiment of the Gollum in the blockbuster "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and for his work as the famous beast in Peter Jackson's "King Kong." Here, he plays the American Roger Alley. "Andy makes for a wonderfully memorable character as the sort of front man for Tesla," Nolan comments. "It was also really fun to see him in the flesh and to see his real face on screen!"
Says Serkis of the character: "Alley is Tesla's gate-keeper, manager, minder, book keeper and closest associate all at once. He's there to pull switches, to get his hands dirty and basically enable things to happen. He's a mirror in a way of Michael Caine's Cutter. He's basically Tesla's 'ingenieur.'" Although Alley never existed in real life, Serkis sees him as "representing the few disciples who saw that Tesla's work was visionary and decided to go out on a limb for him."
In preparing for the role, Serkis read up on the period and became even more fascinated. "It was an amazing time when you had people like Edison, Tesla, Darwin and Muybridge who were changing our fundamental views of time and space. The railroads were being laid, the telephone was being invented- and because of all this I think there was a great enjoyment of the mysterious and a cross-over where science could help magic. So it's great because it's a very potent era to examine."
Yet, like the Nolans, Serkis also sees the story of "The Prestige" as transcending its era. "I think anyone who has ever obsessed about their work or their family or anything at all will really key into the emotions of this story," he summarizes.
THE MAGICIAN'S WIVES: PIPER PERABO AND REBECCA HALL ARE JULIA MCCULLOUGH AND SARAH BORDEN
Magicians may be able to pull off incredible illusions, but even they are not immune to the complex realities of love and relationships. And indeed, it is a dazzling but disastrous trick involving Angier's wife Julia that sets in motion his increasingly treacherous magical feud with Alfred Borden.
Playing Julia McCullough is Piper Perabo, the rising American star who has come to the fore in a number of light-hearted contemporary comedies, but here takes on a much darker role - as the woman willing to go the dangerous extremes for the cause of a great magic trick. Perabo was fascinated by the chance to explore through Julia the inner world of the magician's assistant. "Julia is the kind of girl who is willing to be sawn in half and have knives thrown at her and that sort of thing," explains Perabo. "She's very young and I think she's just happy to feel like she belongs in this world of magicians -- to actually have that sense of power of being a woman with a job, where men respect her and take her seriously, which was quite rare in that time. Magicians were really glamorous and glitzy at that point. The vibe was more like a rock concert and it would have been very exciting for Julia."
Perabo not only had to take on an English accent for the role - something she had honed for the recent British comedy "Imagine Me and You" - she also had to learn to perform the adventurous "water tank" trick, in which she is bound by a rope and dropped from a considerable height into a tank of water, only to be sealed within. "I got pretty good at it by the end," Perabo laughs.
But while Angier's wife is a part of the magic show, Borden's wife Sarah sees it as her competition. Convinced that her husband will always love magic more than he loves her, she is flummoxed and hurt by his constant changes of heart. Starring as Sarah is British newcomer Rebecca Hall, a young actress best known so far for her work on the London stage, who was cast after the filmmakers saw her reading on tape. "We knew right away we were seeing something special," says Thomas. "This is one of her first film roles but there will be many more."
Hall was fascinated by the film's magical nature. "It creates a nice tension between what's fun and entertaining about magic and what's potentially scary and dangerous about it," she comments. She also felt a lot of empathy for her character's romantic trials. "Sarah's got a difficult job of it because she's very much in love with a man who on some days is 100% obsessed with his work and yet, on others, seems completely in love and committed to her," she explains. "At first, she accepts that the work side of him is going to be secret, but she become increasingly frustrated by the feeling that she doesn't know the real intricacies of what he is doing or who he really is."
Since "The Prestige" is only Hall's second feature film, the chance to work one-on-one with an actor of the caliber of Christian Bale seemed almost like a surreal dream to her. "When I met him, I was pretty intimidated because he's such a huge star," she says, "but I have so much respect for everyone in this film and I learned so much that it was an incredible experience."
THE CONSULTANTS: RICKY JAY AND MICHAEL WEBER TEACH THE CAST MAGIC
With the cast in place, the filmmakers brought in magicians Ricky Jay and Michael Weber to train them in the classic magician's skills of prestidigitation and misdirection. However, because the magic tricks in "The Prestige" simply provide the backdrop for the story of Angier and Borden's hazardous rivalry - and are not intended to fool the film's audience - Jay and Weber's main task was to give the cast a deeper sense of how magicians think, move and perform.
Jay heads the company Deceptive Practices, which provides expertise in magic, con games and card tricks for films involving everything from illusions to gambling. On "The Prestige," he was thrilled to find himself with such devoted and curious students. "One of the greatest pleasures for us was working with Christian and Hugh, who both had remarkable energy and an amazing willingness to practice and rehearse. These guys were terrific in terms of the attention they paid to detail," says Jay.
As for the story, Jay thinks that, for all its fantastical twists and turns, it rings quite true to a magician. "Those kind of competitions between magicians really did exist," he remarks. "That was a time in London when five or six magicians would be playing at theatres right next to each other on the same night, a time that has never been duplicated in the history of magic. It's also interesting because that was a time when there was a strong relationship between early cinema and magic. A lot of the people who worked on the development of the motion picture camera were also magicians. Since then, people have become suspicious of any magic done on film, but one of the things we've tried to with this film is bring out the idea that there was a lot of integrity to magic in those days, so it kind of brings everything back full circle."
Says Aaron Ryder of Jay and Weber's contributions: "We felt very lucky to have these two on board. They worked with Hugh and Christian extensively, bringing them a little bit more into what is normally an incredibly secretive brotherhood. Still, they basically agreed that they would teach only the tricks that were necessary for the script - and they wouldn't give away too many secrets!"
ABOUT CHRISTOPHER NOLAN -
"The Prestige" marks the fifth film for CHRISTOPHER NOLAN (director/screenwriter). Co-written with his brother and frequent collaborator Jonathan Nolan, and starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Scarlett Johansson and Michael Caine, the film depicts an intense rivalry between two magicians who become obsessed with outdoing one another, leading to self-destruction and murder. The Touchstone Pictures release is due in theaters October 20, 2006.
Filmmaking has been a lifelong pursuit for Nolan, who began making movies at an early age with his father's Super-8mm camera. While studying English Literature at University College of London, Nolan shot 16mm films at UCLA's film society, learning the guerrilla film techniques he would later use to make his first feature "Following." The no-budget noir, which The New Yorker's Bruce Diones hailed as "leaner and meaner than the thrillers of Hitchcock," enjoyed great success at international film festivals including Toronto, Rotterdam, Slamdance, and Hong Kong, prior to being released theatrically in the U.S. (Zeitgeist), U.K. (Alliance), France (CCI) and various other territories.
Nolan's second feature, "Memento," was named film of the year by the Broadcast Film Critics. Starring Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Joe Pantoliano, the small-budget independent garnered a DGA Award nomination. In addition, Nolan's screenplay, based on a short story by Jonathan Nolan, received an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay, a Golden Globe nomination, and was honored by the Los Angeles Film Critics and Broadcast Film Critics, as well as winning the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival.
Nolan followed "Memento" with the critically acclaimed psychological thriller "Insomnia" for Warner Bros. Pictures, Section 8, and Witt-Thomas Films. Starring Academy Award Winners Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, and Robin Williams, the film earned Nolan the Best Director of the Year award from the London Critics Circle. In 2005, Nolan co-wrote and directed "Batman Begins,: starring Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, and Michael Caine. The blockbuster pleased critics and fans alike, reinvigorating the franchise and paving the way for the recently announced sequel, "The Dark Knight."
Read a Q & A with Christopher Nolan
ABOUT JONATHAN NOLAN
JONATHAN NOLAN (Screenwriter) was born in London and grew up in the Chicago area. His short story "Memento Mori" became the basis for the acclaimed noir classic "Memento," directed by his brother Christopher Nolan. In addition to "The Prestige," Nolan also wrote the screenplay for the forthcoming Batman adventure, "The Dark Knight," based on a story by Christopher Nolan and David Goyer.
Read a Q & A with Jonathan Nolan
BACK TO THE 20TH CENTURY'S FUTURE: NOLAN TAKES A FRESH LOOK AT THE GREAT VICTORIAN AGE OF MAGIC