By Todd Leopold
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(CNN) -- "It took a long time to figure out what the film was," says director Christopher Nolan of his latest, "The Prestige."
And no wonder.
"The Prestige," based on the novel by Christopher Priest, is about two late-19th-century London magicians, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman). The two engage in a pointed game of one-upmanship to learn the secrets of the opposition, particularly a centerpiece illusion both call "The Transported Man." Angier is a polished showman; Borden, a working-class technician. The two clash over women, the stage and magic itself. (Watch Jackman and Bale talk about their "intense" obsessiveness -- 2:01 )
And then there are the film's themes, which include doubleness (the two magicians are often mirrors of one another), science vs. magic (a key character is the eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla, played by David Bowie) and the motion picture itself: an illusion of life at 24 frames per second.
The film is full of twists and revelations -- both about magic and about the characters -- which meant it had to be revealing, but not too revealing. As in a good magic trick, to show off too early would spoil the cinematic feat, which depends on the magician's tools of misdirection and performing brio. (Read Entertainment Weekly's review.)
It was a heady brew for the "Batman Begins" director to plunge into, but as viewers of his other movies -- including "Memento" and "Insomnia" -- know, he likes the challenge of unconventional storytelling. "Memento" is told in pieces by a man suffering from a head injury, and "Insomnia," based on a Scandinavian film, offers the perhaps unreliable viewpoint of a character in unfamiliar territory undergoing sleep deprivation.
So Nolan didn't worry about moving from a crowd-pleasing blockbuster to the world of fin de siecle London. Nor is he concerned about following up "Batman" with something, well, very different.
"I've done well trusting the audience," he says in a phone interview from Pasadena, California. "And I view myself as part of that audience. ... I believe plenty of people like me are looking for films that try to be different."
Keeping things loose
For "The Prestige," Nolan worked with two of his "Batman" actors, Bale and Michael Caine, again. (Caine plays Cutter, an illusion designer who becomes the magicians' confidant.) The decision wasn't foreordained -- "I didn't think of the casting until I finished the script," Nolan says -- but it was welcome.
"I had a great experience with Christian and Michael [on 'Batman']," he says.
To capture the spontaneity of the performances (and jolts of surprise), once shooting started, Nolan kept things loose. He used handheld cameras and often stayed away from the standard film procedure of covering every detail with master shots, close-ups and fills. The actors were encouraged to keep things lively.
"I just followed the action," he says. "Every take was a little different. It worked against formality." The style also kept the schedule moving: the film shoot, slated for 60 days, was done in 57.
"The Prestige" -- the title refers to the finale of a magic trick -- comes out just a few weeks after "The Illusionist," another film about magic set in late-19th-century Europe. Nolan was aware of the competition, but shrugged off the situation: "There's always a million reasons not to do a film," he says.
Besides, the concept of "The Prestige" held its own, uh, magic.
"The world of magic and magicians is enormously compelling," Nolan says. "It's fascinating to dive into these things."
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