A magician never reveals his secrets, but luckily screenwriters don’t live by the same code. The very busy filmmaking duo of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein have a new comedy debuting March 15, and while the movie is set in the world of Las Vegas magic, the writers have no qualms revealing how they pulled it off.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone stars Steve Carrell and Steve Buscemi as old school stage magicians, trying to maintain a foothold while the industry swings toward stunt-crazed Criss Angel types, embodied here by Jim Carrey. Any film whose narrative is driven by dueling magicians clearly needs a lot of magic tricks up its sleeve. What’s not so obvious, though, is that it falls upon the screenwriters of such a movie to invent all those magic tricks themselves. Abracadabra.
Daley and Goldstein met on the set of The Geena Davis show, a short-lived sitcom from the early 2000s. Goldstein, a former lawyer, was a writer on the show. Daley was an actor, at the time fresh off his starring role in Freaks and Greeks, a talent breeding ground which birthed the likes of Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, and James Franco. The actor and the writer seemed to share the same sensibilities, and a sense of humor. Within a few years, they began writing together.
New Line bought the first spec script the pair wrote, a comedy about a shoddy prototype for The Six Million Dollar Man called The Forty Thousand Dollar Man. Although the film still hasn’t been made, the act of writing it got a foot in the door for Daley and Goldstein—and made it that much easier for them to sell their second script, Horrible Bosses, which would go on to be a huge hit in 2011. That film’s sequel and a reboot of Chevy Chase’s Vacation franchise are up next, but before working on those projects, Daley and Goldstein had to use their illusion, so to speak.
"We had to make something that would be viable as an actual trick, also original and funny," Daley says. "Magicians train their entire lives to come up with original tricks, so it was something we needed a crash course in right away."
Like the young versions of Steve Carrell and Steve Buscemi in the film, the two writers had both played around with magic sets as kids. The hobby would never amount to anything more, though, and both discarded their sets upon entering puberty. By the time they got around to writing Wonderstone, they were still total novices at magic.
"When we had the opportunity to sort of play around in the world of Vegas magic, we just jumped at it," says Goldstein. "But creating the tricks was certainly the hardest thing in the script. We spent many hours throwing ideas against the wall. There were at least a dozen tricks we came up with that didn’t make it into the movie."
The tricks that didn’t make the cut were not bad tricks. Ultimately, they just weren’t deemed funny enough or they didn’t serve the story as needed. One was an homage to the 1980s era of the leads’ career, set during their rise-to-fame montage at the beginning of the movie. Steve Carrell is locked inside an enormous Rubik’s Cube, where arms and legs are sticking out of the sides and his head’s sticking out of the top. Buscemi then moves the cube around so the limbs are all jumbled and resolves it. The filmmakers actually shot the scene before deciding to shelve it, although it does appear briefly in a recent trailer.
Of the tricks that do appear in the movie, about half of them required computer-based magic and the hocus-pocus of editing. These were the tricks that simply couldn’t be done practically, or without endangering the actors via swords with flames. Others were just completely ridiculous feats, like pulling a pigeon out of a salt shaker, where the secret is it’s a partially deboned bird.
"Some of the tricks had to serve plot purposes, so we had to work backwards from there. You know, this guy has to accomplish this symbolic thing, which is embodied in that trick," Goldstein says. "We wanted them to feel real. It’s such a rich world, you don’t even have to do very much to find the comedy there. It’s so broad and goofy in many ways that any exaggeration would be too much."
A lot of the process for figuring out what might work involved coming up with ideas and Googling to see if they already existed—then being disappointed when they did. The writers also did extensive research by interviewing everyone from Penn Jillette to Criss Angel, and a dozen other magicians. Although these visits mainly showed them how to get other details of the movie to work like a charm.
"We did a couple trips to Vegas and spent days seeing more magic than anyone should see," Goldstein. "We didn’t really talk to these magicians about how they did their tricks. It was more about, ‘What’s your life like?’ ‘How did you get to this place?’ ‘How do you feel about other magicians?’ That kind of stuff. We wanted our characters to be rooted in the real world, and to know who these guys are."
Although they may not have asked these magicians how their tricks were done, some ringers were brought in to teach the writers how to do theirs. These consultants would say what could be done and what could not, and then they would show the team how. Master magician David Copperfield came on board to consult on some illusions, including a hangman body-switching stunt.
In the trick, the magician played by Steve Buscemi puts a noose on his neck while wearing a mask, with a bag over his head. Then he falls through a trap door. At the end, it’s revealed that Steve Carrell’s magician is actually in the noose. After Copperfield taught the cast and crew how that trick was done, they all had to sign forms that they wouldn’t divulge any information on how it was accomplished.
"The biggest compliment we got was when we heard that David Copperfield had asked about one of our tricks in the script," Goldstein says. "He asked who came up with it and said it was a good trick. Then he ended up helping us figure out how to actually do it without a cut—it’s one of the tricks that doesn’t actually involve camera tricks or visual effects."
The character who needed the least elaborate effects in the film is the Criss Angel stand-in played by Jim Carrey. His stunts are more endurance-based, including one featured in the trailer wherein he holds in his pee for 12 days. It’s a ridiculous thing for him to do, but not all that ridiculous, considering.
"As much as we wanted to sort of exaggerate what the stage magicians do, we wanted to smooth a little bit what the stunt guys do," says Daley. "I mean, it would be hard to exaggerate even if we wanted to. We looked at all things Criss Angel has done—he was run over with a steamroller over broken glass. I mean, how do you beat that?"