An all-star cast play cops and street magicians-turned bank robbers in Louis Leterrier’s new blockbuster, Now You See Me. Glenn Caldecott caught up with the director to talk about working with such a great cast, big budgets, and why he wants this film to define his career.
How did you first get involved in Now You See Me?
Well it was one of these things for me, I think the correct expression would be a passion project. It had a great script, a great writer, and I just thought it was such a smart idea to have magicians robbing banks and giving the money back to deserving audiences. Ultimately I thought it was just a great concept.
It actually started off as a smallish movie, with small magicians doing small shows and gradually getting bigger. As we started casting and the cast got bigger, the shows got bigger and so did the movie. But for me it was originally going to be one of these small movies that I was going to do between the big ones.
And it is a great cast. Was there anyone in particular that you were interested in working with, or anyone you particularly enjoyed working with?
Well frankly, all of them. It’s obviously a terrific cast. I’d worked with Morgan (Freeman) before on Unleashed and I knew Mark Ruffalo, but there were some of the cast I didn’t know. It’s funny that sometimes in casting you go from your first choice to your second choice to your third, but nearly all of these were my first choice.
For me the perfect cop was bumbling, always behind the ball but still trying really hard, a super anxious version of Columbo. And the person I really wanted for that was Mark Ruffalo.
And then with Jesse Eisenberg, we were casting a year or so after The Social Network came out and I was watching this movie every day because it is such a brilliant movie, and I was just obsessed with Jesse Eisenberg. I really think he’s one of the greatest actors of our generation and, even though the lead magician was written as this cocky womaniser, I managed to get my way and convinced the studio to let me meet with him and convince him to be in this movie.
So both Mark and Jesse said yes and, even though it was clear we would need to do some rewrites for their characters, they decided to trust me and, importantly, wait for me because there were so many roles in this movie that it might have taken us six months or a year to cast. Then one great actor attracts another who attracts another, so when I called them a year later and told them everyone we had got, it was a very exciting prospect.
And I understand another thing that came from you was the decision, with so many directors now shooting digitally, to shoot on 35mm film. Can you talk us through that decision?
For me it was all about the lenses. I love anamorphic lenses, and I’ve used them a lot. I think there is a relationship between depth of field and light that just works so well. I knew shooting on film would be a challenge simply because of the number of sets, the number of scenes and how fast we were supposed to shoot. We shot the entire movie in 59 days, but I just couldn’t let go of the anamorphic lenses. They really gave us the rocking all aspect of the big shows with the big flairs and everything like that. So I ended up shooting less footage than if I had been shooting with digital cameras but I think the payoff was worth it.
Although it almost felt like a swansong of film. Already in post-production it’s hard to get good scans, it seems like no one can control film anymore, and a lot of film technicians are retiring. I think my next movie I will shoot digital.
I’m really interested in knowing the role that the Irish magician Keith Barry played in production. I understand he was taken on as a “mentalist consultant”?
Yeah he was so important in our movie. What I wanted was 100% real magic. Nothing fantastic or supernatural, I wanted it to be real. And I wanted it to be stuff that had rarely been seen, so tricks that magicians are working on right now. So Keith sat down with our new writer, Ed Solomon, and they crafted together what became the movie. I frankly would not have been able to do that movie without him.
And it didn’t stop there because afterwards he came on set and trained Woody (Harrelson) to hypnotise people. So everything that Woody does, the idea inception and hypnotist techniques, the physical aspect of how he’d move on stage, is all real stuff. Sometimes I’d literally be directing scenes with Keith next to me and I’d call cut and ask him if it was good and if it wasn’t we’d change things. I was like Keith’s assistant sometimes!
You have directed high budget action movies in the past, but, as a director, was there anything new that you learnt from making Now You See Me?
With this film I really learnt to be more comfortable with big budgets. I learnt to be less stressed about the days where I’d be directing 600 extras along with all these international superstars. But at the same time you can’t get too comfortable because that’s where you make mistakes and sometimes it’s healthy to doubt yourself and ask if you’re making the right decisions. I came in everyday more prepared. On other movies I’d come out with 20 shots that look good but wouldn’t be edited as you want so why bother wasting an hour and a half getting a shot you wouldn’t be able to edit.
Something else, from working with great actors on this and in the past, is to allow them and yourself complete freedom. The best thing that can happen is that wonderful surprise when you might be working with two actors who react differently to how you expect and create something really magical, no pun intended. You know, those moments like Harrison Ford coming in to shoot this long fight scene in Indiana Jones, but he has a tummy ache and just can’t do it so pulls out his gun and shoots the guy. The whole crew laughs and it works, its gold, and I’m way open to that.
So we rehearsed a lot before the shoot, almost like a play, and then when we shot we continued to rehearse. We would stay on the stage and all the actors would come in with their ideas, and that’s where we would get moments of true comedy that are often unwritten.
And finally then, what’s next for you?
I’m reading a lot and writing also. I really want to take time with this one and not rush into something else because this really is my baby. If there is one movie in my career that defines who I am as a director it’s this one, so I didn’t want to just abandon it, I want people to see it for what it is. It’s a fun movie but it was done from the heart by people who love it. People come out of it happy, and that’s what’s important to me.