'Now You See Me' Set Visit: Louis Leterrier And An Unlikely Cast Make Magic In Queens

As with movies, the art of magic relies on seamless illusion. Since we know we're not really seeing the things we think we're seeing — George Clooney, for instance, isn't really a casino-robbing mastermind, and David Copperfield didn't really make an airplane just vanish into thin air — it's up to the artists to put on such a dazzling show that we can suspend our disbelief, and ooh and ahh just the same.

But on two nights last April, /Film and several other outlets were invited to the set of Louis Leterrier's Now You See Me to find out just how the magic movie sausage gets made. For one thing, it helps to have what Leterrier calls "great ingredients," like an "amazing" script by Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt (with rewrites by Ed Solomon) and an eminently talented cast. Hit the jump to keep reading, but be warned that spoilers follow.

Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, and Woody Harrelson play a magic supergroup called the Four Horsemen, which is backed by a wealthy patron (Michael Caine). When they begin using their talents to loot banks and distribute the stolen goods to their audiences, FBI agent Dylan (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol agent Alma (Mélanie Laurent) team up to catch them. They, in turn, bring in a magic debunker named Thaddeus (Morgan Freeman) to aid in the investigation.

The cat-and-mouse game culminates in a massive outdoor performance in New York City. Dylan and Alma have finally caught up with the thieves, while the Horsemen are attempting to pull off one last spectacular show and, if they're lucky, an even more dazzling escape. It was that late scene the cast and crew were working on when we stopped by, weeks into their 60-day shoot.

Leterrier and his team had set up shop at 5 Pointz in Queens, N.Y., a uniquely New York location. Once a factory, the big concrete building now served as both studio space and exhibit space for graffiti artists all around the globe. The exterior was covered with an ever-changing array of colorful designs, while the interior was big, empty, and perfect for keeping us, the cast, and the crew out of the rain on the first night.

We watched as Eisenberg and Fisher worked on reaction shots inside in front of a green screen for the group's big speech, which they make just moments before they attempt to vanish. Both dropped by our little group to chat about the movie, as did producer Bobby Cohen. In between conversations, the film's magic consultant David Kwong kept us entertained with (what else?) a series of magic tricks. (We couldn't get video, unfortunately, but you can see his work for yourself on his site.)

Happily, the weather proved much better on the second night of our visit. Leterrier and Ruffalo each took a few minutes to come speak with us, as did Cohen and Kwong. Leterrier spent some time showing us a previously shot scene on the monitors, in which the camera goes down a shaft while an elevator full of actors goes up. "I've done this shot full CG before [in Unleashed], but this time I was like, let's do it for real," he said. "I'm super proud of that shot. Costs ten times more, but you know."

We also stepped out to see Leterrier filming another portion of the film's climax. Over 600 extras had convened to form a flash mob-style audience for the Horsemen's third and last show. Fighting their way through the throng were Ruffalo and Laurent as their characters pursued the elusive Horsemen. The moment forces Leterrier to choose whether to follow the cops, who are headed in one direction, or new colleague/love interest Alma, who's pulling him toward another. "That's the moment where really, it's the crossroads between, do I go with these guys and keep my job, or do I risk losing it all and go with her," Leterrier explained.

Click to the next page to read about seventeen more things we learned on the set of Leterrier's Now You See Me.

The movie is itself structured like a magic trick.

Appropriately for what Leterrier calls "a love letter to magic," the film itself is patterned like a trick. "We constructed the whole movie as if it has the three acts of a great trick," Cohen told us. Leterrier added that the idea was to perform tricks that'd work not just for audiences in the movie, but for real-life audiences watching from the movie theater. For example, a card-guessing trick would be filmed so that moviegoers would have picked the same card as a character in the film. "It's really cool, it's a cool magic technique. For me, it's about falling in love with magic again," Leterrier said.

Leterrier avoided potential criticism that the magic was "all CG" by making the actors really learn how to do magic.

Though it'd be easy enough to create most of the magic tricks with special effects, Leterrier tried to head off potential criticism by "having the actors do it for real." He admitted that CG would be used to "take out the seams" in some cases, but insisted that "the tricks are real." "The actors have been doing the real deal, training and the real stuff. Obviously they cannot do everything, but the magic they're doing is very real," he said. Among the actors' guides were Kwong and Irish mentalist Keith Barry.

... and that's how Franco got insanely good at throwing cards.

There was much talk from everyone about how much work all of the actors had put into perfecting their characters' magic specialties, but the name that kept coming up again and again was Franco's. In fact, Ruffalo had a scar on his face that he attributed to his co-star. "This is a Dave Franco special. He whipped a card at me," he explained. Ruffalo wasn't his only target, either. According to Leterrier, stuntman Steve Pope also got caught above his eye when Franco tossed a card across a theater at Leterrier's prompting. "Dave has become amazing at throwing cards," the filmmaker gushed.

It's also how Harrelson was able to hypnotize Ruffalo.

While he was understandably reluctant to spill all the details, Ruffalo confessed that Harrelson had successfully used his new mentalist skills on him. "Woody got very proficient at hypnotizing people. We were out one night and I don't know if something was dropped in my drink or Woody actually hypnotized me, but something did happen to me. I don't want to talk about it much." He declined to divulge his trigger word, he revealed that Harrelson had made him unable to remember the number three.

The filmmakers took advantage of MTA subways in New York City and Bourbon Street partiers in New Orleans.

In keeping with the theme of doing things "for real," Leterrier tried to shoot on location as much as possible, taking production to cities like New Orleans, New York, Las Vegas, and Paris. In New Orleans, that meant embracing, as Cohen described it, "this great tradition of magic, dark magic, voodoo and mysticism," and, of course, Mardi Gras. Leterrier revealed that they also visited Bourbon Street on a Friday night and got "twenty thousand free extras" for their trouble. Similarly, 5 Pointz' unique appearance and close proximity to the 7 train allowed for some "amazing" shots.

The graffiti outside 5 Pointz will come alive thanks to the magic of CG.

However, some aspects of 5 Pointz will most definitely be enhanced by special effects. The lively graffiti decorating the outside of the building will actually come to life, morphing into the Horsemen's faces. Their faces will also be projected into the sky "like the Batman signal," for the crowd on the ground to see.

Sneakers, Ocean's 11, The Usual Suspects, and Make Believe were all used as inspirations for the film. So was The Beat My Heart Skipped.

As a caper, Now You See Me not surprisingly drew from likeminded films like Sneakers, Ocean's 11, and The Usual Suspects. Fisher also named the documentary Make Believe as one of the films she'd viewed while researching her character. But the films Leterrier shared with his actors were French titles, including the Jacques Audiard's The Beat My Heart Skipped, which stars Laurent. "There's a levity about the camerawork that is really inspiring," he said. "I was talking to actors, I was like, here is how my camera is going to interact with you. It will be free, and I will capture moments, but it's not going to be about the camera."

There's a Robin Hood angle to the film, but any thematic links to Occupy Wall Street are purely coincidental.

Cohen described the Horsemen's crimes as having a "Robin Hood aspect" to them, which seemed particularly timely given our current political and economic climate. In fact, when we visited the set, the Occupy Wall Street protests were still going on. But Ruffalo said the link wasn't intentional. "I just think occasionally, culturally films reflect the time that they come out in without even intentionally doing that. They just happen to catch that, you know?"

Leterrier has two DPs for a reason.

Somewhat unusually, Now You See Me has two directors of photography, Larry Fong (Super 8) and Mitch Amundsen (Transporter 2). Amundsen — whom Leterrier affectionately describes as "loud and annoying" — was brought in to focus on action sequences, while Fong drew upon his own knowledge of magic to shoot the tricks. "Larry's an amazing magician," Leterrier told us.

A variety of filming formats were used in the movie.

The scene we saw outside was being shot on "verrrry old" anamorphic lenses, but Leterrier divulged that he'd used a wide variety of formats for the film. "You weren't here the other day, but the helicopter was shooting Alexa, we're shooting with 5Ds, we're shooting with GoPros, I'm shooting tons of formats," he said.

Leterrier allegedly invented a shot for Now You See Me.

Leterrier spoke to us at length about two shots he was especially proud of doing "for real" instead of with CG. One was the elevator scene described above, and the other was something he called a "basket cam." "Literally, it's a camera, a seamless 235 camera, going up a shaft with people, with a SWAT team running up," he told us. "It's as low-tech as possible, but it looks like a visual effects shot." Specifically, it looked like a similar shot in The Incredible Hulk, only this time, it wasn't just CG wizardry.

Leterrier purposely avoided casting typical action stars — which made it more difficult to get financing.

Talented as the Now You See Me cast is, they aren't the stars you'd necessarily expect in a heist flick. But Leterrier fought to get people who could land the smaller character beats. "I think that this was such a different and specific, nuanced script that I really wanted people that really can give me acting," he explained. The first actor cast was Eisenberg, which helped convince Ruffalo to sign on board, and then Freeman. Because none of them were typical A-list action heroes, Leterrier needed all of them to get the proper amount of financing. "All of them equal to one action star, one big movie star," he laughed.

Each character has hidden motives of their own.

The Horsemen are introduced in an opening prologue, while other characters come in later.

  • Atlas (Eisenberg) is a charismatic street magician who specializes in close-up magic, and the Horsemen's controlling, almost Zuckerbergian leader.
  • Henley (Fisher) is Atlas' fearless former assistant and former lover, who's since eclipsed his success with her solo act but remains emotionally vulnerable around him.
  • Merritt (Harrelson) is a mentalist who's no longer as famous as he once was, and now earns money hypnotizing tourists at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans.
  • Jack (Franco) is the "rookie" of the group, an expert pickpocketer who's eager to be in the "big leagues."
  • Dylan (Ruffalo) is an FBI agent who's less than thrilled with the new case he's been assigned, and doesn't sympathize at all with the Horsemen.
  • Alma (Laurent) is an Interpol agent, who shares a mutual suspicion and attraction with Dylan.
  • Arthur (Caine) is a Donald Trump / Richard Branson-style entrepreneur who has his own reason for funding the Horsemen's shows.
  • Thaddeus (Freeman) is a magician who's made the cynical decision to become a debunker, and is brought on by the FBI to help capture the Horsemen.

Interestingly, Cohen noted that the Horsemen are put together for reasons they themselves don't necessarily understand. For that matter, everyone in this movie has a hidden agenda. "Part of the fun of the movie is that we're never quite sure" what the characters' real motives are, he said.

Unlike his character, Eisenberg feels bad about doing magic.

Although one of the cardinal rules of magic is that a magician never reveals his secrets, Eisenberg confessed to us that he couldn't bear to not spill the details to his practice audiences — much to the exasperation of consultant Kwong. "I feel very guilty doing magic because you're deceiving somebody," Eisenberg said. "But one of the things about being a mgician is you have to overcome the feeling of discomfort that comes with lying, you have to get over that feeling, which is a strange quality. [...] You have to get over that, because the truth is people seem to like being lied to in that safe context."

Don't expect any Zombieland Easter eggs.

No doubt plenty of Zombieland fans are excited about the reunion of Eisenberg and Harrelson, but Cohen cautioned us not to expect a rehash of the Tallahassee / Columbia dynamic. Or, for that matter, any nod to their previous collaboration. "I should probably pretend like we have something like that in store. We haven't," he admitted.

Conan O'Brien has a cameo in the movie.

Conan O'Brien hasn't appeared in many movies, but he agreed to cameo as himself, interviewing Caine's character, after reading and "loving" the script. "The real fun thing is that, like most of us, he reveres Michael Caine. So the scene, he and Michael Caine get to banter with each other, sort of live on television. It was really fun," Cohen remembered. "Obviously Conan is unbelievably quick-witted, and it was great to watch Michael completely throw back with Conan."

One of the scenes turned into a surprise 79th birthday party for Michael Caine.

Caine turned 79 on his last day of shooting, which prompted his wife to set up a surprise birthday party on set. For one scene at the MGM Grand (actually the University of New Orleans' basketball arena), Caine's character was supposed to stand up to applause from the audience. During one take, they brought out a birthday cake and the cast, crew, and hundreds of extras began singing "Happy Birthday" for him as the cameras continued to roll. "He loved it. He was just so touched by it," Cohen recalled. While that take certainly won't be used for the final film, we may get to see it eventually. "That is absolutely going on the Blu-ray," Cohen told us.