Producer Chris Bender Talks the Competitive World of Professional Magic, Filming in Las Vegas, and More On the Set of THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE

     February 27, 2013

chris bender incredible burt wonderstone

If you really want to learn about a movie, you want to talk to the producer.  That’s because they’re the ones that know all the behind-the-scenes stories and they’re the ones that have been battling to get the film made.  Last year, on the set of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, I was able to participate in a group interview with producer Chris Bender.  He talked about the challenges of getting Burt Wonderstone made, what it’s about, real magician cameos, “the magic bar,”  the development process, Jim Carrey’s character, working with director Don Scardino, and so much more.  Hit the jump for what he had to say.

Before getting to the interview, watch the trailer:

(After viewing a scene) So where is that in the movie? Could you give us some [background]?

chris bender incredible burt wonderstoneCHRIS BENDER: It’s right at the end of a montage of seeing their rise to fame. We’ve seen them as kids at that point, we’ve seen how they’ve partnered up. They’re performing small shows and then Doug Munny (James Gandolfini), who is sort of like the Steve Wynn of Las Vegas, sees them perform and gives them their own theater. And that’s seeing them do their show, which is going to be the show they’ve done for ten or fifteen years and it’s gotten tired. Right after that, we have this big intro which makes them look like they’re magical friends; they walk off stage and you realize that they don’t like each other very much anymore.

So is this set in modern day, right now?

BENDER: Yeah, it is, even though their look is dated. They haven’t changed anything. So, at this point in the story is right around where they start to realize that it’s time to update their act, or at least one of them does, Anton [Steve Buscemi’s charcter] does.

Is there a lot of levitation and things like that in the movie?

BENDER: [laughs] That, for them, that’s their big levitation. They’re sort of a compilation of Copperfield and a lot of different magic acts that are the more classic magic acts. A lot of their tricks, their stage magic and things that you’d see in those types of shows, [like] Doug Henning, influenced by all those magicians that are remnants of the 80s, with Copperfield as an example, who has evolved and changed over time. In their case, they haven’t changed. They’re stuck in that era of jumpsuits and big hair.

Are you hoping to get cameos from some of the real magicians?

incredible-burt-wonderstone-poster-steve-carellBENDER: Yes and no. The reason that we stayed away from that is because we’re creating a fictional history or version of the world of magic, even though it’s inspired by the reality of that world, if you put too many cameos in then it starts to get confusing as to whether, “Is this reality or are they parodying somebody?” We didn’t want to do that. At the same time, since Copperfield is his own thing and he’s not a partnership, there is a cameo with him in the movie.

Is the entire film set in Las Vegas?

BENDER: Yes, and Cambodia [laughs].

Are you going to be doing anything other than location shooting in Las Vegas or is it mostly going to be here [Los Angeles]?

BENDER: It’s mostly going to be here. We shot a week in Las Vegas. We finished that part of the shoot on The Strip, Fremont Street, using Bally’s Casino because that’s the casino that they started working in and stayed at for the period of time when Burt’s (Steve Carell) out looking for a job. We shot what we needed in Las Vegas and then everything else is on stage or in and around locations in Los Angeles.

Are there tigers?

BENDER: There are no tigers. There’s a reference to “cat magic.” There’s a magician named Lucius Belvedere (Michael Herbig) who hangs out at the magic bar that Burt and Anton go to; it’s referenced that he does “cat magic.” Some of the magicians in Las Vegas are cat magicians, even though they do classic magic acts, they have cats as part of their…there’s a guy named Dirk Arthur, for example, who is in Las Vegas, still performing, who we met with, who does a bunch of cat tricks.

Are we talking tigers or…cats?

The-Incredible-Burt-Wonderstone-Steve-Carell-Steve-BuscemiBENDER: Tigers.

Okay, good. [laughs]

BENDER: I didn’t see anybody with cats there while we were there.

You mentioned the magic bar. Are you going to have some fun with that where it’s like the Mos Eisley cantina where the magicians go with their costumes?

BENDER: Yes. I think we envisioned it more like that initially, but we grounded it a little bit more. They way that the movie is actually, we’ve been working at it for six years and there’s been different people involved with it, but a few years ago with the writers who did the final pass on the script, we went to Las Vegas and spent a few days, saw like five magic shows, sat down with a number of magicians. The amazing thing was that a lot of the themes and the relationships and the broadness of the world was not far from the truth at all. You don’t have to go any broader than the real world of Las Vegas magicians. These guys live isolated lives, they do seven shows a week, two times a night in some cases. They’re working all night and then, during the day, they’re by themselves.

They’re competitive, they’re very competitive with each other. Even though in the script it was kind of a fun thing, the reality is, they are very competitive with each other and they don’t like one another stealing tricks from them. It’s actually a really rich world for comedy and you don’t have to get that far from true. There’s a bar called the Pepper Mill in Las Vegas which we’d heard about as a bar where Vegas acts would go, magicians in particular. But we found, when we sat down with a few…Lance Burton, actually was the one who told me about it and that it existed, but he also said that the more successful magic acts don’t hang out there. We liked, for the movie, we liked the idea that there was this place where guys that don’t have much time can go at night and you can get a little bit of the competition out there. They like seeing each other but don’t like seeing each other at the same time.

incredible-burt-wonderstone-poster-steve-buscemiYou mentioned that this script had been in development for so long. Could you talk about what the difficulty was and what finally cemented it that we’re shooting now?

BENDER: I think it was two things: it was tone, finding the right tone, because it was originally written more broadly where certain magic things were happening that wouldn’t actually be real magic and also, over time, the references that we were making in terms of the new school of magic and the old school of magic were becoming dated. Also, finding what the reality of the story was, of the characters. A lot of it was just finding the right tone and making it feel like a real story. Once Steve Carell came on board, that’s when things really took off. He saw it for what it was: a big commercial comedy. But at the same time, as an actor he just grounds things and he brings an emotionality to it that we needed to service in the writing so that took a little time. And then finding the right director, too. These kind of comedies scare directors a lot because you’re taking a chance and you’re going for something bold comedy-wise that either could be a big hit or it could really miss.

This is the first feature for Don Scardino, right?

BENDER: Yeah, he’s done a ton of TV. When Don came in, we just instantly liked him. He has an incredible reputation on 30 Rock. I have such respect for that show and talking to the people that work on that show and their feedback about him. He just seemed like the right guy. He’s seasoned, so it’s not like you’re getting a young director in dealing with the level of actors that we’ve got and the experience of seeing how that’s played out. It’s been tremendous to have someone who has that comfort on set with them.

Just to go back to what you were talking about in terms of the competition. Obviously you have Jim Carrey’s character. He’s not on set, but I was wondering if you could talk about his character.

incredible-burt-wonderstone-jim-carrey-steve-carellBENDER: That character always felt like the home run. No matter what, no matter who played it, it would be hilarious, because it was this guy who’s doing this absurd non-magic, physically just abusing himself and calling it magic.

So he’s like a David Blaine?

BENDER: He’s kind of a mix of a David Blaine, Criss Angel, street magic, it’s all rolled up into one. Then, Jim Carrey, of course, kind of makes everything his own. He took it to another level, adding this kind of spiritual element to this character. He’s got this unbelievable passive-aggressive, “I’m better than everyone, I’m on another level.” So his arc is this journey of being exposed for who he really is: a douchebag. [laughs] So Jim…and it took a while to find that; we didn’t want to make it just a straight up parody of those guys, one, because seven years ago they were a lot more popular than they are now. Criss Angel’s doing his show in Las Vegas, David Blaine does smaller things, but he doesn’t have a big TV special or anything on. We got away from it being old school vs new school even though that’s still a big part of the concept. It’s more about the Burt character and his fall from grace and Steve Gray, Jim Carrey’s character being introduced as this new version of magic that’s infringing upon what he does. It helps him rediscover what he loved about magic in the first place; a lot of that was his partnership with Anton. But, trying to define what those tricks were was fun. Just coming up with crazy things: pulling cards from his face, being a human piñata, ultimately drilling a hole in his head as a trick. They’re all little bits and they’re nice and contained, so you just want to shoot more and more and more of them, because you never know where you’re going to use them in the movie. They’re constantly being referenced like, “What is this? It’s ridiculous! It’s not even magic!”

It sounds like reminiscent of characters Carrey’s played in the past, a little more outrageous.

incredible-burt-wonderstone-poster-jim-carreyBENDER: And that’s exciting. It’s exciting because I feel like, as a Jim Carrey fan myself, wanting to see him do something that brought back the bigger comedies that he used to do. We pretty much finished up shooting with him. At one point he called up the director and said it was the most fun he’s had and he felt like he was as funny as he’s ever been. He hasn’t really had the opportunity to do something where he could combine the physical comedy with an absurd character. It freed him in a way. He’s off the cuff, he’s unbelievable. He came up with things that weren’t on the page, he just took things to another level. He’s great.

Will he also have that 70s big hair, jumpsuit kind of look?

BENDER: No, because he’s sort of from the streets, so he’s more dark pants and t-shirt and long hair. He’s a little more heavy metal, rock n’ roll, Criss Angel, David Blaine, dressed down. He’s the opposite of what Burt and Anton are wearing: glossy with the big hair and showy. It’s all kind of stripped down magic. Or non-magic.

Does he do the “man on the street” type stuff too or is he mainly in the theater?

BENDER: It’s all on the street, until the end bit. All his stuff, and in the film in fact, when it’s shown, they’re either watching it on the internet or watching it on TV, Doug Munny’s showing Burt and Anton when he calls them into his office, “Look, there’s this new guy.” And it’s this promo for a new bit he’s doing where he’s holding his pee for 24 hours. [laughs] So, all of his bits are shot on the street with a crowd around and other guys videotaping him for the internet, so Jim was able to play to the film cameras, but also the videocameras which we’re actually filming on which we’ll cut in and use as…and also, we even shot some spectators reacting. A lot of times in the Criss Angel or David Blaine videos you’ll see them afterwards basically stating back what they saw. “It was unbelievable, he did [this] and then he did [that]!”

So you had unstaged live shots going on with passersby who didn’t know what was going on?

incredible burt wonderstone steve carrell steve buscemiBENDER: Well we had extras surrounding, but we were out on the street in The Strip for one and we were out in Universal City for another. We had people walking around and didn’t know what the hell was going on, certainly. We didn’t shoot them. Everyone who was involved was an extra.

Are there any YouTube videos up of that?

BENDER: No, no. I’m hoping that when we get to the marketing phase of things, it’s such an opportunity to do, whether it’s Funny or Die or just put it out there, a clip for both of them, for both guys. Or have them go on talk shows in character and do tricks; it’d be great.

Do you find that real magicians have a good sense of humor about themselves? Were any worried that you’re making fun of them?

BENDER: When we went and met with the magicians and told them what the movie was, they all seemed to be into it. I guess the best example is Copperfield, who…it was four years ago that I went to Las Vegas, expecting just to see his show, get comp’d for tickets with the writers. Then, he invited us to his warehouse, his actual…his magic warehouse [laughs] where he keeps everything meticulously organized; every trick he’s ever done, all his costumes and he gave us a private tour for two hours after two shows. And then it was three years later when I contacted him back after Steve [Carell] and Don [Scardino] came onboard and he embraced them. They went down on a scout and he gave them the tour of the warehouse and has become kind of a friend of the show. Don loved him so much he was like, “Maybe we should write a little part for him.” And then it occurred to me, “Oh, we’re about to send him the script. This could go really badly.” [laughs] Some of this stuff that was in the script came from riffing off moments that we had with him just in this warehouse.

incredible-burt-wonderstone-poster-olivia-wildeThere’s a scene where Burt Wonderstone brings a girl up to his suite after a show and before they sleep together, he takes a Polaroid with her and signs it, and then gives it to her and it shows them both floating over Las Vegas. It’s ridiculous. During his tour, he does that. You don’t know what’s going on. There’s a thing of him [Copperfield] going like this, you stand next to it, they take a Polaroid, then he signs it and you sign one, he keeps the one you sign, you get the one that he signed and it looks like he’s levitating you. I still have that. [laughs] Everyone who goes on the tour gets that and so there are all these little bits. But he loved it. Jake Kasdan had been attached to the movie for a little while and we went on that trip together. One of the reasons I know Copperfield wanted to meet everyone was that he’s a big fan of Walk Hard, so he likes that kind of comedy. So he seemed to get all of it. When he came and was even part of the movie, he helped us with some of the tricks, consulting-wise and all just because he wanted to be a part of it. Our other magic consultants that have worked on the movie who are magicians from Magic Castle, even though we’re sort of making fun of it, it’s still true to the world in a good way. With good comedies, I feel like you want to be, you want to love the world you’re making fun of and not just be mocking it.

I’m assuming this is going to be PG-13?

BENDER: I would think so, yeah. At least at this point I don’t know why it would go any other way.

Could you tell us about Olivia Wilde’s character?

BENDER: Olivia, sure. She’s Burt and Anton’s assistant who has the run through the movie and then becomes the love interest. When we meet Burt and Anton, they always have an assistant with a long blonde wig who they call, “Nicole.” Basically what happens is, any time a “Nicole” quits or leaves or is fired, a new one comes in, they put on the blonde wig and they’re also called, “Nicole” just to keep continuity for Burt and Anton. Over their rise to fame, we see a bunch of Nicoles who come and go. Burt, as he becomes more of a prick, usually offends them and they quit. So they pull off one of the Magi, or stagehands, who is Olivia. “What’s your name?” “Jane.” “You’re the new Nicole.” She puts on the wig and she’s called Nicole. After she comes into the act is when Burt and Anton have their downfall.

steve carrell steve buscemi incredible burt wonderstoneWhat we learn about her is, as a kid, she wanted to be a magician, too and she was really good at it. So Burt, because he has no one else to go to, goes to her and so their relationship kicks off there. She’s always kind of believed…she was a big fan of his when she was younger.

There’s a documentary about young magicians [Make Believe] that featured a young girl from California who was part of this…Lance Burton puts on a contest in Las Vegas where he has young magicians come and perform. There’s a young girl in that movie who’s fantastic and we had everyone look at that as an inspiration for the character because she’s a really pretty girl who does magic and in the big contest, she drops a ball and it’s heartbreaking to watch. She loses and it’s weird when you see a magic show when someone actually screws up; it’s then really depressing, too, at the same time. So, there was a lot of thought that went into…even though she’s a supporting role, in making sure that she wasn’t just a window dressing and that she had something real going on, so that when they’re relationship came to be, it felt real. Olivia brought this sassiness to the character that we always hoped would come out of it. She sort of bosses Burt around, she calls him out on his shit; it plays really well between the two of them.

Is there an element of actual magic tricks that has to be learned? Obviously you can do tricks with camera work.

BENDER: Yeah, the idea was to do as much of it as real as possible. Steve’s learning some sleight of hand stuff, which takes years to learn. It’s more to get the gestures and move like a magician. I know that influenced a lot of the way Steve carries himself in the movie. One of the tricks that we’re going to shoot this week, we’ve figured out a way to shoot it as if it were a really TV special in one shot so we can do it that way. I’m not sure if we’ll end up using that for the movie, if we want to go that long. But we know now how to do it and that’s one of the areas where David Copperfield’s been really helpful to us.

Here are the rest of my on set interviews from The Incredible Burt Wonderstone which opens March 15:

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