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At the turn of the century, brilliant stage magician Eisenheim (Edward Norton) returns to Vienna to win back his childhood love Sophie (Jessica Biel), who is engaged to Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). As the clandestine romance continues, Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) is charged by Leopold to intensify his efforts to expose the magician, even while Eisenhiem gains a devoted following. With Uhl doggedly searching for the reasons and the man behind the astounding trickery, Eisenheim prepares to execute his greatest illusion yet. A romantic thriller written and directed by Neil Burger, based on a short story by Pulitzer Prize-winner Steven Millhauser.

 The Illusionist

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 him.

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 long.