How do you tell a Pulitzer Prize-winning author that you’ve
completely changed his story to make your movie? The answer is, you
don’t. My film The Illusionist is based on a short story, “Eisenheim
the Illusionist” by Steven Millhauser, who won the Pulitzer in
1997. His story is a beautifully written, lyrical gem—cinematic
and transcendent. And yet not quite a movie. Or if it was a movie,
it’d be an experimental one, impressionistic and episodic. Since
it’s set in 1900 Vienna and involves period costumes, horses,
carriages, and ornate theaters filled with hundreds of audience members,
it would also be the most expensive experimental movie ever. In other
words, it was unfilmable.
But I couldn’t get the story out of
my head. I decided to create a narrative structure for the story that
preserved its spirit while making it more palatable to financiers.
A trick, if you will, to get the movie made. In the short story, Eisenheim
becomes a threat to the powers-that-be because he’s “crossing
boundaries”—blurring the distinction between illusion
and reality, art and life. It’s a powerful idea but also a bit
abstract. In writing my screenplay I wanted to maintain this theme
but also make it more concrete. For example: I invented a love interest
for Eisenheim and a rival who is also a political leader. I expanded
the role of a police inspector, briefly mentioned in the short story,
and made him the narrator of the film. When people read the finished
screenplay they liked it, they wanted to make it into a film. This
response was incredibly gratifying, a huge relief to me.
But what would
Millhauser think? It seemed only polite to contact him, to let him
know how I was adapting his story. Plus it was a rare opportunity to
open a correspondence with one of my literary heroes. On the practical
side, he might have further ideas, arcane knowledge that could help
the movie. Most important, he might bestow his blessing. As I sat down
to write him, I realized I knew nothing about him beyond his writings,
and this began to fuel my anxiety. After all, I had radically altered
his story. There was no way he would be as enthusiastic as my other
readers. In fact, the odds were that he would hate my screenplay. I
wondered what form his contempt and condemnation would take. How vicious
would he get? Would he write something in some publication denouncing
my work? Would he enlist literary allies to ridicule me? Would he withhold
the rights to the story? Anything was possible and none of it sounded
good. I decided to wait, do nothing. I was busy with pre-production
and it was easy to forget all about it.
A few months later, Edward
Norton joined the project and I flew to Prague where we would shoot.
I still hadn’t contacted Millhauser and my procrastination hung
over me like a black cloud. Perhaps now was the time to write. But
my anxiety quickly returned. How would he react if he thought I had
ruined his beautiful story? I was now less concerned about his artistic
approval than about whether he could stop the film. I consulted my
lawyer who advised that it was unlikely, improbable—but still
possible. And that seemed too possible for me. I’d come too far
on this project. I was too passionate about it, too committed, and
especially too broke not to go forward. I couldn’t risk writing
A week before the start of shooting, I realized the time was now
or never. I had to contact Millhauser. It was rude and cowardly not
to. Plus there was probably nothing he could do at this point. The
crime had already been committed. I’d been holding his loved
one hostage and now it was dead. I was sorry but it was too late. Plus
I was safely in the Czech Republic, a fugitive from any literary retribution.
I began to draft a note. But what do you say to a Pulitzer Prize-winning
author—and how do you say it? There’s no way I can write
on his level. He composes beautiful, lyrical English. I write screenplays.
It’s a different beast. The screenplays may someday be translated
into beautiful movies, but the writing itself is strictly utilitarian,
like a blueprint for a bathroom. Everything I wrote him seemed clunky,
lame, weak. But I confessed it all, then pressed “send,” and
off went the dreaded note.
A day later I saw his name in my email inbox.
I opened it with foreboding. He wrote that he knew from the beginning
that his story couldn’t be brought to the screen just as it was,
and that re-invention was inevitable. The only question was how he
felt about it. And to his surprise, he realized it didn’t disturb
him at all. In fact he welcomed it and was deeply curious about how
his story might be transformed. It was an incredibly generous note.
I began shooting the next day, a free man.
Since then we have carried
on a regular correspondence. He continues to be generous and wonderful.
The movie is finished, but now the anxiety returns. As of this writing,
Millhauser has not seen the movie. I suppose at some point I’ll
have to show it to him—I’ll try not to put it off for too