- The Washington Times - Friday, August 18, 2006

The costume mystery-romance “The Illusionist,” which envisions a professional magician as a threat to the Habsburg dynasty while he dazzles audiences in Vienna circa 1900, was something of a Yale alumni production, but not in a premeditated way, according to the movie’s writer-director, Neil Burger. He’s pleased with the serendipitous results.

Mr. Burger, who recently met the press at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Georgetown, had one obscure feature to his credit, “Interview With the Assassin,” released in 2002, before he persuaded backers he could do something dramatically effective with an evocative but abbreviated short story called “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Steven Millhauser.

The filmmaker graduated from Yale with a fine arts degree the same year one of his eventual co-stars, Paul Giamatti, was a freshman. The next year, Edward Norton, destined to play the magician Eisenheim, entered the university. While the two performers made an immediate impression on the theater department, Mr. Burger took up permanent residence in Lower Manhattan, where his aspirations as a painter eventually shifted toward professional filmmaking.

“None of us had met before the casting began for ‘The Illusionist,’” Mr. Burger recalls. “And we hadn’t known Cathy Schulman, one of the producers, who was also a Yale grad. It was all coincidental. By that time, Edward and Paul had a decade of great movie credits, so their work spoke loud and clear.”

Mr. Burger is in partnership with a screenwriting team, Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who have branched out into production. They were responsible, he notes, for writing one of Mr. Norton’s best roles, as Matt Damon’s troublemaking pal in “The Rounders.”

“They brought an independent producer named Michael London into the project,” Mr. Burger says, “just as he was concluding a very successful association with Paul on Alexander Payne’s ‘Sideways.’ So things came together from several directions.”

The movie was shot in Prague last year and had an auspicious public debut in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it proved almost as desirable a commodity as “Little Miss Sunshine.” The response emboldened Bob Yari, the principal financial backer, to start a distribution company of his own with “The Illusionist” as the first attraction.

“It’s a considerable vote of confidence,” Mr. Burger observes. “We’re not tiptoeing into the marketplace this weekend. We’re on 800 screens, and the ad budget is comparable to the production budget, which was around $15 million. I’m flattered, but also a little apprehensive. It’s a big roll of the dice for an offbeat and relatively modest project.”

There was a dust-up of some kind within Team Illusionist during the Sundance festival. Miss Schulman and Mr. Yari, a real estate magnate who has financed dozens of independent features in recent years, parted company. The source of conflict seemed to be credit-sharing on their most prestigious picture to date, “Crash,” which was a month away from an Academy Awards triumph.

“The Illusionist” has 12 credited producers, five of whom were actively involved in the production. If a film reaches the Oscar finals, just three producers are permitted to share official recognition. A “Crash” numbers crunch evidently provoked the Yari-Schulman rift, which boiled over during Sundance. “It’s a shame,” Mr. Burger remarks. “They discovered they just didn’t like each other.”

At the outset, Mr. Burger discovered he shared an exceptionally intuitive wavelength with the Koppelman-Levien team, whose next script collaboration will be “Ocean’s Thirteen.” When he alluded to the odd little story that had intrigued him, they knew at once he meant “Eisenheim the Illusionist.” The trick was to give its elusive cinematic potential a narrative underpinning.

Mr. Burger invented a romantic rivalry between Eisenheim and a fanciful crown prince named Leopold (Rufus Sewell), with both drawn to a lovely aristocrat named Sophie (Jessica Biel). He also expanded the character entrusted to Mr. Giamatti, a police official named Uhl, who becomes a go-between while responding to Leopold’s commands and keeping Eisenheim under surveillance.

“Uhl was just mentioned in passing in the story,” Mr. Burger explains. “Now he’s grown into the pivotal character. Many of the film’s episodes are seen through his eyes — or his reflections. He makes it possible to give the story a flexibility and structure it didn’t possess before. Originally, all you knew was that Eisenheim had been arrested for ‘threatening the foundations of the empire.’ That sounded portentous, but there was nothing that could be depicted. We’ve managed to combine a romantic conflict with a cat-and-mouse mystery and fragments of history and politics. Now there’s something tangible and playable to reinforce the undercurrents that we liked in the first place.”

The response, he suggests, is that it’s “a blend moviegoers like — and haven’t seen much of lately.”

• • •

The Landmark E Street Cinema will host a special preview of a documentary feature rooted in Washington Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Titled “The Pact,” the film recalls the experiences of three high school friends — Rameck Hunt, Sampson Davis and George Jenkins — who vowed to graduate from medical school and return to their inner-city neighborhood. The screening concludes a touring festival of documentaries on black social topics sponsored by the Next Generation Awareness Foundation. The film’s director, Andrea Kalin, and one of its producers, actor-director Bill Duke, plan to attend. Tickets are $9.75 and $8. For more information, consult the Web site www.UrbanFilmSeries .com.

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