Do you believe in magic?
[Laughs] Well it depends. There are several kinds of magic. I came onto the project as a sceptic admirer, but I was wowed meeting real magicians, illusionists and mentalists. I was wowed by the power of magic, and so yes now I’m a believer. I came in as a sceptic and left a believer.
Looking back through your filmography, all of your films seem to feature action elements. As a director, is it fair to say that you are drawn to projects which incorporate elements of action?
It’s very fair to say. It’s funny because I started young. My first movie was The Transporter when I was only twenty six. The project almost fell into my lap. I didn’t really know action. I liked action movies but I was more into sci-fi, comedy and thrillers. You do one movie (The Transporter) which is successful, and then you do a second one which is even more successful, and Hollywood then puts you in a box that’s hard to escape. Now You See Me still shows what I can do action wise, but I found a way to head towards or push the gigantic titanic boat of a career a little bit towards where I’m more natural. Now You See Me is definitely the movie that represents my taste in movies, who I am as well as my interest in great actors. I have worked with amazing actors in the past, but this was a very interesting cast that we put together for this film. It’s not that I am shying away from action, but I have just turned forty and I am trying to become a wiser man, and I realise that maybe there shouldn’t be a car chase in every movie.
On the audio commentary you spoke about creating the characters on a musical level, but also the way you would shoot each character differently. It seems you were very conscious about how you crafted each individual character through sound and cinematography, whilst also bringing them together as an ensemble.
Absolutely! That’s exactly it. It took us a year to cast this movie which is unheard of. Nobody had ever sat that long waiting for a movie to be put together, actors included, and so it was very interesting. I had precise ideas for who I wanted. When you approach them, and you get an initial approval, on bigger movies they almost always want to know who else is in the movie before signing on. So I had to wait for everyone to be available. For example the first couple of people I went to were Jesse Eisenberg and Mark Ruffalo, because I needed the cop and the robber. I needed those principle characters, and then that defined the movie. We had to wait for Woody Harrelson to become available, for Dave Franco, Morgan Freeman, and then we built slowly but surely this cast. We were willing to wait to get the perfect cast and that is a testament to the actor’s patience, but also to the studio and the producer’s patience. We wanted to make the best movie possible. It was not a sequel or an adaptation of a well-known book or comic book, and the good thing that we had going for us was that no one was waiting for this movie, and so it was perfect. We took our sweet time, and that was for the better I think.
The sequel has now been announced, but on the audio commentary producer Bobby Cohen made an interesting point about endings and the way that he wanted Now You See Me to have that final shot where you don’t see what happens to the Four Horsemen. On the commentary you talk specifically about wanting to preserve that mystery, but if you make the sequel are you not undermining your original intention?
Yeah, absolutely! The sequel has been announced but it will only be done if everybody is willing to do it, if the screenplay is great, and we can do it right. There’s no advantage for any of us to do a sequel just to make money. This is a risky proposition and you’ll look like a fool. We always had the dream of continuing this adventure. We left doors open; we created some sub-plots and introduced characters. We are writing the sequel right now, and are actually talking about some of the sub-plot of the sequel. This movie will be green lit only if it is perfect, and if it’s as good as the first. So there’s no rush, and the most important thing is to get it right.
The three acts of the magic trick are referred to frequently in the film. Are you planning to perform a magic trick on the audience through the Now You See Me film(s)?
We talked about that and these are great hopes. We have this in mind but yeah that would be a great hope. Like you say one movie at a time. We did this one and we’ll see the reality of the other projects very soon.
What is it about magic, illusions and puzzles that is so compelling? Is it just the fact that it is all a puzzle and deep down we love having something to solve? Do you think that’s something you have explored in this film?
You were talking about action movies, and they are the most successful movies box office wise. But people nowadays are responding more and more to differently structured movies. Take for example Iron Man 3 which is the poster boy for big loud action movies, and yet the structure is completely different; it keeps you guessing.The art of the visual effects that became the reason to go and see a movie in the theatre is fading away. People know that visual effects aren’t special anymore because you can do anything. You can blow up the world, reduce the planet, and you can go to warp speed. You can do anything. The biggest effect is a trick played on the mind. Nobody wants to check in their mind at the multiplex anymore. They want to come in and think; to fall in love with the characters. The most successful movies now are character based, and people go to see sequels because they want to keep learning about these characters that they have fallen in love with. Ultimately Now You See Me is the natural progression towards that. You go and see a magic show almost to try and figure out how the magician does it. No one goes and says, “I’m just going to enjoy being fooled for half hour.” No you want to be the smartest person and figure out how the magician does it, but most of the time you can’t, and that’s the pleasure of being fooled and being tricked by magicians. In the same way we directors have the most honest profession because we say that we are going to trick you, entertain you, deceive you, and so pay attention. You actually leave some clues along the way for people to figure it out. A lot of the time it is very obvious, and if you watch the movie over and over again, you’ll see how obvious I made the reveal. But then ultimately if you haven’t figured out what the final reveal is, it is very enjoyable. It is the most enjoyable experience to just be tricked in a two hour experience – it’s just fun.
Talking about these mind games brings to mind Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques and Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man and Sleuth which are all cinematic games. In each of these a second viewing reveals details missed first time. What films stand out for you as the best examples of games played by a director?
Obviously the Clouzot film was great. I’m a huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock. Obviously there is the great cinematic and artistic thing, but I love how he plays tricks; I love how he makes you fall in love with the characters. It’s like in Psycho the way in which he makes you fall in love with Janet Leigh, but then he kills her halfway through. It is actually quite shocking. There are the obvious movies with twists at the end as we all know, but what is most interesting is the breaking of that structure, breaking the natural progression of making you fall in love with a character and killing them halfway through. I remember To Live and Die in L.A. when Bill Peterson’s character dies, and I was like “Oh you are left with a guy that you don’t know.” That was the same thing that I wanted to emulate. The big question that studio executives ask all the time is whose movie is it? Well is it the magician’s or is it the cops? Is it Mélanie Laurent’s or is it Morgan Freeman’s? That’s what I wanted. I wanted people to almost pick your scenario, see the movie through the magician’s eyes, the cop’s eyes, Mélanie Laurent’s eyes, Morgan Freeman’s eyes, and I thought that was above and beyond the twist, and what was truly different in this movie.
That’s one of the greatest tricks a director can use, the trick of perception. There is that line of thought that you need a character to take you on a journey, but what’s great about Now You See Me, is because of the way it twists and turns you are never comfortable with what you are seeing. Everything could be an act of deception that constantly keeps you guessing, and that’s a tricky thing to not just pull off on a writing level, but also whilst shooting out of sequence. That must make it an even more complex task?
It is complex. It’s complex because you are shooting how many characters? Not every character has their own movie, but you shoot at least three or four versions of a scene. So I would direct Mark Ruffalo to play it one way, then another way, and then afterwards in the editing room I almost knew I had a scale where I was pushing more, making him almost wink at the audience. Then for the Horsemen to be super nice, absolutely genuine in what they are doing, or being tricky, to almost make it feel like you are behind the tricks yourselves, and you play the audience for a fool, and then the same thing for Morgan. Going back to what we were saying about the cast, that’s why I needed this cast. It was obviously a dream to work with them, but I need them and this movie could not have been done or it could not have been remotely entertaining or would it have worked without them. There was this dichotomy between this cast of actors – who they are, what roles they have played before, their relationship in previous movies, and what they are playing in this film that made it possible. It was almost like a scientific approach to casting and directing a movie.
You are from the birthplace of the auteur theory. Film is such a collaborative medium and as you have spoken about the importance of the cast, what are your thoughts on the auteur theory? It seems like more often than not the collaborative nature of filmmaking undermines it?
Absolutely! I am the first one to tell you that I don’t write because I love to be a first person spectator. I do write, but I don’t write the screenplays because I want to fall in love with the story, I want to discover, I want to be hard on the script like an audience member is hard on the movie. I think that’s very important. The collaborative aspect of moviemaking is the best. It’s what I prefer, and as much as I enjoy preparing and working on the perfection of the script, the perfection of the cast, it is when I start shooting the movie that it comes alive. Putting it together you have so many days of making it one movie or another. It is the influence of numerous ideas that I consider to be the most important. I’m very open and I love collaboration, and the best idea could come from anywhere.
Interviewing Mathieu Kassovitz earlier in the year, he spoke about how the best films are being made in America, as there is such great personal expression with directors like Aronofsky. What are your thoughts on French cinema in comparison to American cinema?
Living in America, I don’t see as many French movies as I used to, but I see them as much as I can. It’s obviously an economy of scale. A huge French film costs €40 million, and an American movie can cost $300 million. It is just a huge economy of scale but ultimately my favourite French films have always been the same films. They are character based, they break their structure, and try something new. America just because the system is in place, it is almost like a hard to break that three act structure with the mid-point and the twist, sort of like the character. In France they break it, the characters are more interesting, they are more surprising, the twists and turns are unexpected, and at the same time extremely natural. Mathieu Kassovitz is an interesting filmmaker because his cinema that he makes in France, the mentality is very difficult to do this and add style; the tremendous style and I’m thinking about La Haine which is extremely stylistic. I mean first of all it’s a character piece, but it’s extremely stylistic. My favourite French director like a lot of people is Jacques Audiard of Rust and Bone and The Prophet. What I love about his movies is that he shows that it is not a movie but rather that it is capturing reality. Although I know every one of the actors in it, he is able to capture and assimilate reality, and that’s exceptional. That for me is the summation of cinema. It’s doesn’t get better than this.
Now You See Me is released on DVD/Blu-ray on October 28.