The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 10, No. 1

A Director's Tricks

by Neil Burger

I was never interested in magic. Two things changed that. The first was meeting Ricky Jay, the magician and historian. I asked him to show me a trick and he generously obliged, holding an ordinary playing card close to my face. Then, without any apparent movement or flourish on his part, the card transformed into a different card. It was creepy and disturbing—I was completely rattled. Of course, it was just a trick, a simple sleight of hand; but that knowledge didn't diminish the effect for me. I was less interested in how he did it than in the uncanny sense that nothing was what it seemed.
     The second was reading Steven Millhauser's "Eisenheim the Illusionist." A line in the story continually comes back to me: "Stories, like conjuring tricks, are invented because history is inadequate to our dreams." Of course, Millhauser's story is firmly rooted in reality, in fascinating historical detail. But like any good magic trick, its authenticity is its misdirection, the necessary distraction that allows the emergence of a more powerful, transcendent experience. The reality, the truth, is necessary for the illusion, and out of that illusion comes a greater truth. By presenting us with the incomprehensible, the unexplainable, a magician reminds us of the mysteries of existence and inspires our awe and wonder at those mysteries.
     Cinema—my medium—is in itself magic, the filmmaker an illusionist. He employs the same misdirection, the same tension between the real and the illusory—not only in the storytelling, but also in the production of the film. The director creates a fictional history for the character, contriving motivations, provoking emotions to inspire the desired performance. Directors have fired guns before takes to startle actors, filmed supposed rehearsals to capture natural performances, berated and flattered. It's all misdirection, manipulation—not so much outright deception as a fiction embraced by both parties.
     The same holds in securing financing for the film. The filmmaker presents the producer or studio with the elements of the story that are conventional, familiar, tried and true. He shows them the expected—a particular genre, a love story, violence—and then reveals to them the unexpected, what makes the film unique.
     As Ricky Jay says, a magician, a con man, takes dead aim at his audience, his mark. A writer, a filmmaker, does the same thing. He knows the audience—its expectations and vulnerabilities—and he uses that knowledge to bring them to something greater. He tricks them to some larger truth. Ideally, like Eisenheim, he creates something beautiful and in the end can transcend himself.
Neil Burger's The Illusionist, based on Steven Millhauser's story, made its world premiere at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. The film stars Edward Norton in the role of Eisenheim and Paul Giamatti in that of Chief Inspector Uhl.

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