Presto boffo! Hollywood's latest trick to conjure up big box-office numbers is to project the world of magic onto the big screen.
James Franco's turn as a magician/"wizard'' in Oz the Great and Powerful was just the beginning as the film earned a stupendous $80 million during its debut weekend last week.
On Friday, Steve Carell will attempt a similar feat as he stars as a campy Las Vegas performer in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. And on May 31, Dave Franco (James' younger brother), Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher and Woody Harrelson join forces in Now You See Me, in which magicians use their collective abilities to pull off elaborate heists.
"Magic keeps having these resurgences in film," says famed illusionist David Copperfield, who consulted on Wonderstone and Now You See Me. "Especially coming from hard times, people need to dream. I think we reach out for escape. And that's how magic survives."
A lead magician character fit perfectly into director Sam Raimi's vision for Oz, which is essentially a prequel to the beloved 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Making James Franco's Oscar Riggs a slick-talking carnival conjurer from Kansas allowed for a believable transition when the character lands in Oz and has to hold his own with witches.
"If you make him a magician, you sow the seeds that he has the sleight of hand and knowledge to at least pull off some tricks,'' says producer Grant Curtis. "So it's not a leap that he could be considered 'The Wizard' after all. This wouldn't have worked if he was an insurance salesman."
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Franco credits Vegas magician Lance Burton for teaching him the sleight-of-hand techniques and demonstrating the dramatic "flourishes." During Raimi's first on-set meeting with Burton, "he was pulling stuff out of thin air," Curtis says. "He travels with a bag of tricks. It blows your mind."
Copperfield makes a cameo in Wonderstone and might have been the inspiration behind some of the hair jokes in the film. (Carrell "has more styles than I ever had, but I did have a mini-mullet," Copperfield confesses.) The illusionist even choreographed the movie's key stage number, a trick called "The Hangman.''
Carell says all the actors involved had to sign a strict confidentiality waiver vowing not to reveal the secrets. "I thought that was so cool. I'm sworn to secrecy," says Carell. "That's a pretty big deal."
For Now You See Me, each of the principal actors trained in his specific character's skills, and Dave Franco became so adept at card throwing, director Louis Leterrier says, that "you put a banana in the middle of the room, and he can slice it in half. It's unbelievable."
"There's something so nerdy about being a magician,'' he adds. "But once you dip into it, it gets pretty exciting. It can strike awe in the audience. And that's what actors strive for.''
The cast saw Copperfield's show in Vegas, had Skype sessions with him and took in-person meetings. Fisher, who escapes from a Houdini-like tank bound in chains, says the behind-the-scenes look at magic was eye-opening.
"It's pretty incredible to be included in the magic circle,'' she says. "All of these incredible tricks you knew as a kid, you learn about. In some ways, it's the end of innocence. In another, it was the most magical experience ever.''
There's more magic in the movie pipeline: Johnny Depp is scheduled to produce the magical adventure Mortimer Wintergreen, based on the 1987 novel The Magic Hat of Mortimer Wintergreen, and Copperfield says his next career step will be to produce magic films.
Meanwhile, audiences are turning out to see things disappear - in person. Neil Patrick Harris, who serves as president of the Academy of Magical Arts professional society, says the group's Magic Castle headquarters in L.A. saw record crowds over the winter.
"It's a good time to dabble in the magic arts,'' says Harris. "As much as the movie pendulum shifts from old school to new school, having that sense of wonder through magic will always come back. There's something timeless about magic and the idea of being fooled.''
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