Looking For the Magic: Behind the Scenes of ‘Burt Wonderstone’ With David Copperfield
Off the Las Vegas strip, down a desert highway and across from various fast food restaurants and liquor stores sits a rather nondescript office building. Inside could be a doctor’s office or an accounting group. You might not know anything remotely exciting or mysterious was hidden behind those walls were it not for the sign out front that reads “COPPERFIELD” in gold letters.
This is where the magic happens.
The COPPERFIELD building, where magician – nay, illusionist – David Copperfield calls home is surrounded by a tall, iron gate. This is the International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts and entrance is strictly limited to those extended a personal invite from Copperfield himself (a guest book inside lists Hugh Jackman and author Dave Eggers as previous attendees). It’s all very Willy Wonka. We’re here to talk to Copperfield about his role as “special consultant” in the upcoming Steve Carell/Jim Carrey comedy ‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.’ As we pull up to the gate, we reach out to the control panel to announce our arrival but before we can even push a button, the gate slowly slides open. Magic.
This is the ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ warehouse of magic.
The interior lobby of the building is painstakingly recreated to look like Korby’s, the men’s clothing store his father Hyman Kotkin operated in Metuchen, NJ. There are mannequins in ‘Mad Men’ style clothing, a vintage cash register and even replicas of the business cards a pre-teen David made to promote his magic act. It’s a tight, small space with little-to-no hint of magic to be seen. But from behind a black dressing room curtain appears Copperfield himself; the ta-da! is not so much spoken as it is implied.
He takes the time to explain the Korby’s surroundings and it’s clear as he talks the deep adoration he has for his parents, especially his father. But if this replica storefront is a tribute to his late parents, we’re about to enter a tribute to Copperfield himself.
“Do me a favor and tug on the tie of that mannequin over there.”
And with that tug a secret door opens. “Right this way…”
Past those doors is a massive warehouse; Copperfield’s workshop where he and his team design all of his stunts. There are remnants of stunts passed (a straight jacket here, sharp metal stakes there), movie memorabilia (curiously, the Da Vinci glider from ‘Hudson Hawk’) and more wooden crates than you can imagine. This is the ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ warehouse of magic.
It’s in this very warehouse that Copperfield set out to design an all new stunt – The Hangman – that would act as a centerpiece of Steve Carell’s ‘Incredible Burt Wonderstone’ act. Director Don Scardino wanted to film the illusion in one take to really give the audience the feel that Burt Wonderstone and his partner Anton Marvel (Steve Buscemi) were talented and respected musicians. Team Copperfield not only designed the trick but also provided Scardino, Carell and Buscemi a video and detailed instructions on how to pull it off.
The trick involves a hooded Buscemi hanging from the gallows while Carell plays the executioner. As the hood is removed, it’s revealed that somehow the two stars have switched place. [Says Carell would later tell us, "I'm sworn to secrecy. Seriously. I'll never tell how it was done."]
Copperfield takes his legacy seriously. He speaks of himself with humility yet also maintains a large, climate-control room where literally every mention of him in the press is compiled and preserved. This very article will one day live on a server in that very room. We’re surrounding by posters and banners of his many TV specials. “Oh and there’s my Hirschfelds…” he says with almost a dismissive wave of the hand. He points to an Emmy Award, shining under a spotlight on a black pedestal, “Well, uh…you know what that is.”
He must be concerned (and consumed?) with his own legacy but now Copperfield seems eager just to take us upstairs. This is where the International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts begins.
The museum, which Copperfield created in 1991, contains over 80,000 pieces of memorabilia, dating back to the 16th century. There’s the only known recording of Harry Houdini’s voice. The first edition of Scott’s “The Discovery of Witchcraft” from 1584 (used to help prevent early illusionists from being burned at the stake). There are some very beautiful automatons created by director Georges Méliès still in working condition. It’s to note that Copperfield is still very much with us; he has not delegated the tour guide duties to an assistant. In a few hours, Copperfield will be performing in front of hundreds at the MGM Grand but now, he’s dutifully working through his spiel.
After about 90-minutes, we’re back in the COPPERFIELD lobby. If there weren’t other things pressing for his time, we get the impression he could sit down and talk about this collection for the rest of the afternoon. As one final flourish, Copperfield poses for a photograph but with a magician’s twist, asks us to autograph it; this too is going in his archives.
With that Copperfield disappears behind the curtain. The warehouse and all the priceless artifacts stored inside have disappeared and we’re back on that Las Vegas street looking up at that plain office building wondering how he did it.
‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone’ opens in theaters on March 15th.