BACK TO THE 20TH CENTURY'S FUTURE: NOLAN TAKES A FRESH LOOK AT THE GREAT VICTORIAN AGE OF MAGIC
"The Prestige" emerges amidst an intriguing period rarely explored on film - the Golden Age of magic at the turn of the century. It was the ultimate era for magicians as they pioneered the nascent beginnings of mass entertainment. On the cusp of a new industrial society, the public was obsessed with the very concept of magical occurrences - whether on the stage or in the life-changing technological advances and scientific secrets of the universe unfolding before them. In this atmosphere, the best and boldest of magicians became huge headline acts across Europe and the U.S. While few other than Harry Houdini, who began performing in 1899, are remembered today, back then numerous talented magicians had the chance to become household names and international idols.
"Magicians were essentially the rock stars of their day," observes Hugh Jackman, who plays Angier, the charismatic front-man who will stop at nothing to attain superstar status. "It was very different from today in that a lot of the magic back then seemed truly death-defying to audiences and it seemed there was a lot of danger because something could go wrong at any moment. It was a fantastic time for that new kind of shocking theater which preceded modern entertainment."
Indeed, the times seemed to be magical themselves, especially with the coming of one of the biggest revolutionary changes in human history: electricity. "Electricity must have really felt like magic to those who didn't understand it yet," observes producer Emma Thomas. With mechanical objects suddenly able to come to life, the public became fascinated with such mystical subjects as the afterlife, spiritualism and anything that seemed to defy the rational imagination.
But while the Victorian era is yet another layer in the unfolding of "The Prestige," the last thing Christopher Nolan wanted to do was make a typically constrained, demure period movie. "The Victorian Era is often mischaracterized as stuffy and repressive - when it was actually an incredibly exciting time in human development," he explains. "You had the second Industrial Revolution, the birth of electricity, the birth of cinema, the start of widespread international travel and science being turned on its head by new theories. You also had the beginnings of mass advertising with billboards and posters. It was a period of great adventurousness with changes that are still being felt today."
To capture this literally electrifying, alternate vision of Victorian times, Nolan wanted to depict the era in a way that would come off to audiences as dynamic, immediate and new. "Every creative choice is opposed to the way period movies are usually done," explains Thomas. "Wally Pfister shot the film with mostly hand-held cameras with enormous energy and the characters are brought to life by the actors with a very contemporary feeling. The background details are all fairly realistic but Chris has made it so that period doesn't really matter anywhere near as much as the story."
Christopher Nolan continues: "I wanted to be accurate to the feeling rather than the details of the period. I think it was one of the first times in which the world felt overwhelmed with visual information. Posters were everywhere, text was everywhere, and there was a lot of imagery assaulting people as they walked down the streets, exceeding even what we have today. So that's the view we give of Victorian London - one that feels very contemporary and immediate, and I think one that lends a more authentic feeling to what it would be like to be living then. There's something about a lot of period films that allows the audience to sit at a remove from the characters. But we wanted to dive into this world in a direct way so it was very important to use the camerawork and production design to bring the audience deeper inside."
Above all, Nolan wanted the film's multiple layers to be accessible to the audience, inviting them not only into the two main characters' stunning fall from grace but into the very workings of the narrative. "We wanted the audience to be aware of the effect the film is having on them as it is unfolding before their eyes," he summarizes.
Despite the design complexities, from the beginning the idea was also to shoot the film in as pared-down and fast-paced a manner as possible. "Coming off of the hugeness of 'Batman Begins' we thought it would be great to be light on our feet and as stripped-down as we possibly could be," says Emma Thomas. "It gave us a tremendous amount of energy." That energy was parlayed into creativity once production moved into full swing. Notes Christian Bale of Nolan: "Chris really understands movie visuals. He has an iron trap of a mind and knows exactly what he wants to see on the screen. Then, because of that, he's able to let others really fly and be very spontaneous."
Nolan collaborated closely on the visual front with cinematographer Wally Pfister, who first worked with Nolan on "Memento," went on to shoot "Insomnia" and garnered an Academy Award nomination for his work on "Batman Begins." "Chris and I have a great collaborative relationship with each other and a great friendship as well," says Pfister. "There is not another director I could name that I have the same level of respect for. He's not only on top of every element of the film, from the photography to the set dressing, he's just a great storyteller and for me, that's where it begins."
Nolan came to Pfister with a precise vision. "There's a distinct relationship between the style of the film and the style of the narrative and that was something I was quite specific about," says the director. "We did most of the photography with a hand-held camera so that it's always at eye-level, engaged directly with the characters, while the narrative itself is quite clearly above the characters."
Nolan continues: "Through framing devices and so forth, we allow the audience to shift between multiple points of view. So the audience is seeing a lot of things that the characters themselves aren't necessarily seeing. They're getting the complete picture. And I thought that would create a very interesting tension between the more subjective sort of storytelling that I've done in the past and the traditional omniscient position that audiences are used to in action thrillers."
Pfister's lighting schemes helped to lend the film the dynamic, modern edge that Nolan was seeking. "We use a lot of natural light to really give a sense of immediacy and a tactile quality to each scene and location," explains Nolan. Pfister and Nolan also wanted to use the anamorphic lenses that have lent their previous films together a distinctive style - but this came with a price. "This is the fourth film we've shot together with Panavision Anamorphic lenses. It's a beautiful, crisp, grain-free image and there's nothing else that really looks that way on the screen," notes Pfister. "But the cameras weigh about 60 pounds so my shoulders really took a pounding!"
Throughout, Nolan and Pfister went after a more hand-made, old-school aesthetic - emphasizing organic camera movements and minimalist opticals over elaborate effects. Explains Pfister: "Chris and I wanted to really minimize the technical and equipment idea of this picture. We followed as much as possible the notion that you just put the camera on your shoulder and run in there and capture the scene. It was a very exciting way to shoot for all of us - for me, for Chris and for the actors, who were freed of the usual technical restrictions. It actually put me much more in the story-telling process than if had been sitting back by a monitor with someone else operating the camera and was much more efficient and spontaneous. It's a liberating, unconventional way to shoot and it gives the film a naturalistic style that makes it very different from how any other period film has been captured in our current era."
This "old school" approach extended even further in that Nolan and Pfister eschewed the now-standard Digital Intermediate, the phase in which a motion picture is scanned into a computer so that the filmmakers can use digital tools to manipulate colors and other image characteristics. Instead, "The Prestige" utilized traditional photochemical printing in which color grading is achieved simply by exposing the film to varying degrees of light. "We wanted to make the film in the most organic way," continues Pfister. "For what we were looking for, the photochemical process gave us the perfect amount of control and also preserved the integrity of the anamorphic negative."
Pfister felt that the ultimate goal was to produce an unprocessed facsimile of the darkly imaginative images that swirl around in Nolan's brain. Observes the cinematographer: "Chris had his eye on every element that went into this film, from the first words on the page to the final color timing that we did together - and all along, he's trying to get the movie out there as he saw it in his head long before pen even went to paper."
When it came to palette, Pfister also allowed his color and texture decisions to develop organically, emerging from the radical changes of the times. "A lot of the palette is dictated by the fact that the film's timeline is riding the cusp of the beginning of electricity which obviously becomes part of the story as well. So in a lot of the earlier scenes we're using candlelight and oil light and then later on we introduce electricity in a grand way and then we introduce electrical lights in some of the locations as well. So you have lot of orange and yellow in the candle-lit and oil-lit scenes and a green moonlight effect mixed with the orange gas lamps for the night scenes. Throughout, I tried to move towards a different look and mood than I'd seen in period pieces before."
The night scenes were especially vital to the film's mysterious moods. "What I hope we've done with the night lighting is to create a dark, dingy and grungy London, where there's smoke and soot and the building are dirty. Chris and I have shied away from smoke on previous films, but it's another visual tools we've using to make this picture different in tone and atmosphere," he says.
For Nolan, this grungy look was essential. "I think there's often too great a tendency in films to try to clean up the past, to make it look neater and tidier that it was, so I felt it was appropriate to really mess up that world, to shake it up and have it really coming apart at the seams."
This same philosophy was woven into the production design as well. "We wanted to get massive amounts of texture into each setting so it had the same kind of density as the real world we live in today," says Nolan.
The task fell to Nathan Crowley, who worked with Nolan previously on "Batman Begins" and "Insomnia." Crowley created some 68 diverse sets for "The Prestige," helping to forge the anything-can-happen atmosphere of the Victorian theatres where Angier and Borden launch their epic feud. From the first time he read the script, Crowley's head was spinning with ideas. "'The Prestige' is a great mixture of drama with sci-fi, history, horror and more - it crosses all the boundaries," he says. "We weren't setting out to make a strict period film so we forged a sort of 'Victorian Modernism' that has a real edge to it."
Crowley began with research, poring in libraries over photographic reference books of 1890s London to get a sense of the mood and feel. Like Nolan, Crowley was taken aback by the sheer visual bombardment of a city that, despite lacking radio, film and television, was lined with all manner of visual advertising. "The streets were littered with advertising and that was something surprising to me," says Crowley. "It really was the start of mass media in a way, so we wanted to capture that sense of chaos and speed. Another thing I wanted to emphasize was the coming of automation. There is always something mechanized in the images of the film, giving that sense of constant momentum."
Crowley and Nolan next began tinkering around with models, a method of working out creative ideas they had developed earlier. "On 'Batman Begins,' we had started building models in Chris Nolan's garage, and it was really successful, so we decided to do that again. It was just me and him alone in the garage, trying to find the feel of the film," recalls Crowley.
One of Crowley's favorite touches in the bustling metropolis of a newly modern London is the horse-drawn double-decker busses bearing Vaudeville show posters on their side panels. Bringing them to life, however, required ingenuity. "We had to build this stuff from scratch without a lot of resources, so we used old Western wagons and basically turned them into busses! I think they really define the streets of London in that era so I was very happy with the way they came out," he says.
Crowley found an ally in his search for turn-of-the-century magic posters: magic consultant Ricky Jay had an astonishing collection. He also visited David Copperfield's museum in Las Vegas and surveyed book after book of 19th century posters. "In those days, magicians always had a poster for their new acts so we created print lithographs for each of Angier and Borden's shows," he notes. "A lot of the posters of that time were comical, with devils behind the shoulder of the illusionist. Our earlier posters do have a more light-hearted feel but, as they get deeper in their battle, the posters take on a more intense, Black Magic feeling."
When it came to recreating the Victorian Age theatres, Crowley veered away from the de-saturated shades of grey he used for the external city and dove into brilliant colors - reflecting the idea that life seemed to take on a vibrancy like nowhere else inside these spaces. The multi-level theatre designs, which feature attics, staircases and basements -- where steam-powered hydraulics help to pull off some of the large-scale mechanical magic tricks -- were also influenced by the mathematical art of M. C. Escher, who often uses visual illusions to profound effect in his drawings.
Another favorite set, especially for Christopher Nolan, was Borden's workshop where the obsessive magician tests his illusions. To get a better sense of what a magician's shop looks like, Crowley investigated the workshop of Houdini, among others. "They are sort of like furniture workshops except that they are filled with magic props and all kinds of mechanical machines," observes Crowley. He forged a warm, sprawling space filled to the brim with all kinds of unusual and unexpected objects.
Crowley also created dozens of turn-of-the-century urban locales - from dark bars and dank prisons to the stark court room where Borden stands trial. But the piéce de resistance for Crowley was the futuristic machine Tesla builds for Angier, which Angier in turn hopes will create the most incredible magic trick ever witnessed. Crowley wanted the machine to give a sense of scientific mastery, mechanism and industrialization all at once - so for inspiration he turned to issues of 1890s-era Scientific American to see what kinds of unusual inventions were being proposed at the time.
When it came to recreating Tesla's Colorado Springs laboratory, Crowley stayed close to the ample historical record, including building a life-sized version of the famous Tesla Coil. "Tesla is the only real historical figure in the film, even though he brings in a science fiction element, so we wanted to stay true to that," says Crowley. "At the same time, Tesla pushes the film out of Victoriana and the Industrial Revolution and takes it into science fiction realms which made it all very interesting for me."
Working closely with Crowley was Special Effects Coordinator David Blitstein, who helped create some of the film's inventive mechanical gadgetry. This included the folding birdcages that become a mirror of the film's multi-dimensional structure and view of reality. "Dave created the most amazing harness that fires and splits birdcages in half and pulls them up your arms so quickly that the eye can't see it," says Crowley. "The interesting challenge was that we had all these sliding trick panels and pistons that shoot things upwards --- all the things that magicians secretly use - but the camera is always right on them, getting a level of detail the audience wouldn't usually see."
Unlike most films, Crowley continued his work into post-production, consulting with the visual effects team to make sure all their fantastical additions would work seamlessly with his designs. Yet, despite all the difficult tasks he had to tackle, Crowley was grateful. "Chris pushes me harder than any other director I've worked with. He challenges me constantly, which I really like," he says.
The cast and crew were equally appreciative of how Crowley's sets helped to pull them deeper into the film's realms of science, magic and human ambition. "Nathan's sets really bring you into this world that Angier and Borden live in. Walking onto the sets was like being transported back to turn of the century London," says Aaron Ryder. "I really can't think of another film that looks like this one. It's very unique in design and vision."
The costumes of "The Prestige," which also involve elements of illusion and deception, became another vital element of the film's intricate design. Here, Nolan collaborated with Ireland's leading costume designer Joan Bergin, who has previously worked on such films on "Veronica Guerin," "Laws of Attraction" and "My Left Foot," as well as garnering an Emmy nomination for the television adaptation of Charles Dickens's "David Copperfield."
Bergin had a vision right from the beginning for what she wanted. "It's a look I would call 'deconstructed Victorian,'" she says. "We took these images of Victorian clothing and then broke them down into something more modern and simplified. In this film, it's not about every detail of the clothes being correct but trying to be very character-driven and really reveal the character's journeys through their clothing. This is a sort of a gothic thriller with layer upon layer upon layer and I hope the clothes help the audience follow the characters through all the twists and turns of the story."
In choosing the look for each wholly unique character, Bergin wound up on a massive search that took her from collections of 200-year-old dresses to more modern designer interpretations of Victoriana. She spent days roaming the endless racks of a large costume house, searching for inspiration among the hats, capes and extensive assemblage of vintage fabrics. As for palette, she shifted away from the expected. "I've kept the palette quite simple but it's unusually dark, with lots of aubergine, Chinese yellows and black-and-white - and sometimes looking through a mirror you'll see these very rich colors with a kind of sheen to them that adds another layer to the mystery."
The core of her work was dressing Angier and Borden - in all their varying and surprising incarnations. To begin with, she wanted to break through the stereotype of the cheesy, over-dressed magician. "We have this image of Victorian magicians wearing big cloaks with stars on them, but if you do the research, you find that actually they presented themselves as gentlemen, in a white bow tie and jacket," she explains. "They really were the rock stars of their day so I took that a bit further with some splashes of color and lovely fabrics for their waistcoats, especially as they get more and more famous."
There was also a focus on contrasting the characters. She continues: "It was fun to work with Angier, who is someone who is always very beautifully dressed, because Hugh just wears clothes so superbly well. There's such elegance to him and, as the film goes on, he just gets grander and grander. Then with Christian Bale's Borden, who is from the rough end of town and is sort of a self-made man, we use of a more kind of modern, grungier look, not at all old-fashioned."
On the women's side, Bergin was equally driven by character. "I wanted there to be sympathy for Sarah Borden and Rebecca Hall, who plays her, looks absolutely glorious in period clothes, so I really went out of my way to show her as someone who has a very simple but wonderful fashion sense. We wanted to emphasize the feeling that she might have become someone else except for her circumstances," she explains. "What's interesting is that some of her skirts could easily be from Marc Jacobs or other putting out collections now - you can see how they take inspiration from that era."
As for Scarlett Johansson's Olivia, Bergin took a lot of pleasure in working with the actress. "It takes a very particular figure to wear Victorian clothes and Scarlett has the perfect form. Hers are some of my favorite costumes because I tried to design a kind of modern, sexy, foxy interpretation of what a woman in the theatre would wear at that time. It allowed me to be quite inventive."
The actors were further inspired by Bergin's work. "Her clothes completely change your whole demeanor," muses Rebecca Hall. "I'm normally a sort of slouchy person but when I put on these outfits, I felt like the most prim and proper lady." Scarlett Johansson, on the other hand, was thrilled to play a different sort of Victorian lady. "My character is a Bohemian so I didn't have to wear those tight, lacy collars and bustles. Olivia has a more unconventional wardrobe which was very exciting to me."
In dressing David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, Bergin took to heart what she had seen said of the maverick scientist - that he always looked like he was going to the opera. "He was impeccably turned out so we gave Bowie a cashmere coat with a lamb's wool collar that really suggests this very elegant, brilliant man who was beaten down by minds who could never aspire to his heights," she explains.
For Christopher Nolan, the hope was that all the elements of "The Prestige" would come together like the pieces of a provocative puzzle. "I like films that continue to spin your head in all sorts of different directions after you've seen them," the director concludes. "I hope people walk away from this story feeling very entertained but also all with kinds of resonances and interesting thoughts banging around in their brains."