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The Underdog

Neil Burger Hopes His Independent 19th-Century Magician Flick Doesn’t Live In Shadow Of Disney’s Version Of Same

FOR MY NEXT TRICK...: Edward Norton puts a spell on Jessica Biel in Neil Burger’s The Illusionist.

By Gary Dowell | Posted 8/16/2006

Hollywood is often accused of having a pack mentality. One successful movie spawns a dozen knockoffs. Or two or more movies with the similar or even same subjects or themes are often released within months of each other--such as the recent announcement of dueling Philip K. Dick biopics. The latter phenomenon is often the most puzzling for moviegoers and the most frustrating for studios and filmmakers. What do you do when someone announces his big-budget, all-star, Oscar-fiable, high-concept movie two days after you announce yours?

Or in writer-director Neil Burger’s case, what do you do when Disney decides to release its big-budget period drama about stage magicians just two months after the release of your low-budget equivalent, The Illusionist? "Those sorts of things happen all the time, it’s sort of in the air for some reason," Burger says during an interview in Dallas. "But you know what, I think they’re very different movies, very different stories. They just happen to involve magicians in a similar period."

It’s early on a Wednesday morning, and though he’s obviously tired, Burger is still chipper and talkative. He arrived in town the day before to attend a preview screening of The Illusionist and answer questions from the audience. To his surprise--and likely to some relief--not only was the audience receptive to the movie, but about 50 people hung around afterward to get their souvenir posters signed by the director.

Burger’s tale (adapted from Steven Millhauser’s short story "Eisenheim the Illusionist") centers on a stage magician (Edward Norton) with some uncanny abilities who runs afoul of a scheming monarch (Rufus Sewell) and his conflicted fixer (Paul Giamatti) in 19th-century Vienna. Opening two months later is Disney’s adaptation of Christopher Priest’s novel The Prestige, the story of a bitter rivalry between two stage magicians, also with uncanny abilities, in 19th-century England, directed by Christopher Nolan (Memento, Batman Begins) and starring Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine, and David Bowie.

"What’s happened is Disney’s gone ahead and made this movie. They spent $40 million on it--ours was made for about $16 [million]--and [Disney spent] about $25 million in marketing, so they’ve got a $65 million investment," Burger explains. "And then they look at us and they’re nervous. It’s like they feel we’re going to hurt their investment, and we feel they’re trying to destroy us."

Burger says that less than two weeks after distributor Yari Film Group released a trailer for The Illusionist, Disney released one for The Prestige that employed a strikingly similar structure and title design, which to him suggests Disney is more interested in co-opting the competition than in crushing it. He readily admits that he is worried audiences might see The Prestige and wonder where the hell Norton and Giamatti are.

"And you know what? Disney is specifically trying to confuse the two, which again is what we’re up against," he says. "We put our trailer out, and they hit back at us as if it were a presidential campaign. It’s kind of a common political tactic to muddy the message. It’s fascinating and disturbing."

Burger’s first movie, 2002’s Interview With the Assassin, was a drama disguised as documentary. Filmed with a cast of unknowns headlined by venerable character actor Raymond J. Barry, it is about a man who claims to be the second gunman in the JFK assassination--which makes Burger’s rock-star reception in Dallas all the more trippy.

After Interview, Burger began work on the screenplay for The Illusionist, a tricky task since Millhauser’s story is episodic and very abstract--not something that lends itself easily to adaptation. The upshot was that Burger was able to use it as inspiration, keeping the central premise and fleshing out characters and adding a romantic subplot. The downside was that his story departed drastically from the original. Burger had already secured the movie rights to the story but was still worried about offending the Pulitzer Prize recipient with a heavily altered version, so much so that he avoided contacting Millhauser until a week before shooting began in Prague.

"He’s an incredibly generous guy," Burger says. "I was thinking he wouldn’t have known about it, but he knew all about it and he was great. He hates that people have expected him to be disdainful. He hasn’t read the screenplay and he’s waiting to see it with a paying audience."

Before long, The Illusionist became a little engine that could, hooking the interest of mercurial actor Norton with an early draft of the script and that of Giamatti soon afterward. "He had just finished work on Sideways, and he decided this was the movie he wanted to do next," Burger says. "It was great timing for us, because there’s no way we could afford him now."

As for the lurking possibility of getting stomped by the House of Mouse, Burger is taking it all in stride and remaining positive. There’s a good deal of internet chatter from people trying to figure out which movie is which; there’s also quite a bit of debate about which one is the better project. "We’re like David in front of Goliath," he says. "For every dollar we spend, they spend 10. So we’re the little guy, and they’re trying to steamroll us. But we’ve got great word of mouth and people seem to love the movie, so hopefully we’ll persevere."

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