‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone’ Set Visit: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi and Olivia Wilde Improv From Script To Comedy Gold
Posted on Wednesday, February 27th, 2013 by Germain Lussier
The stage at the Wadsworth Theater in Westwood, California seems average enough. With its run down seats, bland walls and single stall bathrooms, it could double for any average high school auditorium. There’s nothing spectacular about it. Except on this Monday morning.
On this Monday morning, Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi are flying through the air on harnesses sporting long blond hair and bedazzled purple velour jumpsuits. They land on the stage, introduce themselves as magicians Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton and proceed to dance about like a couple of old men whose best days are way past them. And that’s exactly what they are.
It’s February 6, 2012, day 21 of 48 on the set of Don Scardino’s March comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. The film, set in the world of professional magic, is the story of two magicians (Carell and Buscemi) who are long-time partners. Split after years of working together, they’re forced back together when another magician (played by Jim Carrey) begins to steal their spotlight and relevance. It’s a return to physical comedy for Carrey, the feature directorial debut of TV vet Scardino, and a role that seems right in the wheelhouse of the lovable, hilarious Carell, also a producer.
Co-starring Olivia Wilde, James Gandolfini, Alan Arkin and more, the film is scheduled for release March 15 and we were on set to capture some of the magic, as it were.
Appropriately enough, our day began with the aforementioned grandiose entrance. This scene (seen at length in the first trailer) takes place relatively early in the film as our two stars, Wonderstone and Marvelton, are at the tail end of a very successful run. Their shared professional apathy comes across perfectly in the stars’ lame dance moves, monotone delivery and bug-eyed faces. What doesn’t come across is how each sheet of roughly 12 x 14 foot white paper the pair have to bust through on their harnesses takes a good 30 minutes to set up, including the disposal of the previous torn sheet and hanging and preparing of the next.
Seems like a good time to talk to producer Chris Bender, who explains The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, which was written by Horrible Bosses writers John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, with a polish by Jason Reitman, took about six years to finally make it in front of cameras. “A lot of [the delay] was finding the right tone and making it feel like a real story,” Bender said. “It was originally written more broadly where certain magic would actually be real magic.” Now it’s more grounded.
The casting of Carell was also a big deal in moving the film forward, followed by the addition of Scardino, whom Carell’s friend Tina Fey told the former Office star was “the best.” Then came Buscemi, Wilde, Carrey and Gandolfini who, according to Scardino, are all cast slightly against type. “It’s a magic show and I wanted it to feel like something you’ve never seen before, so I wanted everyone cast in ways we’re not used to seeing them,” he said. “Everywhere I’ve tried to be unexpected, so the whole thing feels like sleight of hand or a magic trick.”
Back inside, shooting the introductions of Wonderstone and Marvelton is complete and another character is about to be introduced: Jane, played by Olivia Wilde. Wilde said when she read the role she thought it would be something challenging and fun, so she went after it aggressively. “I auditioned and was up against some heavy hitters,” she said. “It’s a comedic role and I was up against real comedians. I was TOTALLY shocked when I got the role.” Jane is an important character in the film because she starts as an assistant, works her way up the ladder, interacts with almost all the characters and even serves as a love interest. “I’m just floored, every day. I can’t believe I’m here,” she said.
The second scene of the day is Jane’s introduction to the duo. A crucial scene that, with Carell and Buscemi, gets increasingly hilarious. The scene begins with some stand-ins reading the dialogue from the script. It’s fine. Funny, but nothing memorable. After two lighting rehearsals, the actors come in.
Scardino composed the shot as follows. With the camera in the wings, stage right, the curtain comes down to signify a break in Burt and Anton’s show. In the back of the frame, in front of the curtain, an additional screen is lowered to entertain the hypothetical audience. (Here’s some trivia. On set, that footage was old crew home movies playing as a placeholder.)
Burt storms off stage and bitches that Anton is sweating too much. Anton says he’s sweating just as much as Burt and Burt insults their assistant, a blond girl named Nicole. Nicole is so offended, she quits – the second one this month according to Anton. Not a problem, says Burt, and he just randomly picks a girl from the others back stage. It so happens to be Wilde’s character, Jane. She’s now the new Nicole (a name given to every single disposable assistant Burt has) and roughly gets fitted with a blond wig. As she’s about to nervously take the stage, we cut.
Obviously, there’s much more than that, dialogue and nuance, but I wouldn’t want to spoil the jokes.
What’s great about what we’re watching is that, take after take, Carell’s performance evolves. He takes a minor slip from the first “Nicole” and turns it into a genius suggestion that she should quit. Scardino loves it and it stays in the scene. As Jane explains her trepidations, Burt’s indifference changes from him just “yadda yadding” her and walking away, to letting her talk to the hand and a handful of other funny options.
“It’s nice to be able to try different things with each take and find things that work and don’t work. Because you never know,” Carell said after. “So you try and look at it incrementally, performance wise and try things that might be a little more broad, a little more grounded and once their editing and finding the exact tone of the movie, they’ll have options to use.”
All through this, probably 12 takes with coverage, none of these actors flub a line. The energy is always up, even after roughly 8 hours on set, and most of the actual problem are from how fast the three actors have to change costumes on camera. Thankfully, the actual costume and makeup people cameo in the movie to help them do just that. By the final take, the whole thing goes off without a hitch and feels totally natural and real. Check the gate and move on, announces Scardino.
It’s that kind of professionalism and humor that makes one think The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is just going to work. If it does, it won’t be by magic.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone opens on March 15. Check back soon for on-set interviews with the producer, director and stars as well as more coverage.