David Copperfield began performing magic at the age of 10 around his neighborhood of Metuchen, New Jersey as "Davino the Magic Boy." Since then, he's become arguably the most popular and commercially successful stage magician of all time.
Among his many wonderous accolades, Copperfield has earned 21 Emmy awards for his many television specials, 11 Guinness World Records, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and even a knighthood by the French government. He's also been named a Living Legend by the U.S. Library of Congress.
We recently chatted with Copperfield over the phone, upon the release of the heist thriller, "Now You See Me," which follows a group of magicians whose stage show serves as a smokescreen for their daring robberies. The magic veteran spoke about working as a consultant on this and other magic-themed films such as "The Prestige" and "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone," some of the memories that come from performing over 600 shows a year, and what new tricks he has up his sleeve.
BRYAN ENK: I read that "Now You See Me" was inspired by the writers seeing a show you did in Las Vegas, and specifically a trick called "The Portal." Can you describe how that came about?
DAVID COPPERFIELD: First of all you should know that my magic is really rooted in cinema; although I have a museum of [Harry] Houdini and [Howard] Thurston and [Harry] Kellar and Georges Melies now, at the beginning of my career it had nothing to do with them, it was all about Victor Fleming and Orson Welles and Frank Capra and all the great directors I admired as a kid. My real love was cinema, so all my magic was in fact based in storytelling; even the vanishing of the Statue of Liberty that I did was a collaboration with Frank Capra, who made "It's a Wonderful Life" -- I worked with him and made it about a story about losing freedom. So my magic was always about storytelling and cinema.
"Now You See Me" came about when Edward Ricourt, who wrote the original script for the movie, came to the show and said, "Okay, this is interesting, it's not just rabbits in hats and vanishing ladies -- Copperfield's taking people from the audience, vanishing them and making them re-appear transcontinentally, with proof and items to prove it." So when he saw that he thought, "Okay, now we can make a movie, a kind of a heist movie that could be credible if [the magicians] are doing it in this way."
BE: You're a consultant on "Now You See Me" and also recently on "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone." What does consulting involve -- are you revealing tricks of the trade or is it more about presentation and performance for the actors?
DC: Both, it can happen either way. In the case of "Burt Wonderstone," we actually created an illusion that they did, we created it moment by moment. So that's one kind of consulting – actually creating magic they can replicate, and reshoot with their actors. In the case of "Now You See Me," Larry Fong, who was one of the cinematographers and a performing magician himself, got the whole team to visit my museum in Las Vegas, and they all came to see not only the history of magic but also to talk about how magic is shot for a camera to make it credible – sweetening camera moves without cutting anything away, incorporating crane shots to make the audience feel like they're actually there rather than just watching through a proscenium.
So they came to visit us in Las Vegas – the whole team, [producers] Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, [director] Louis Leterrier – all those guys came to my museum and we spent a lot of time watching films of mine, seeing how magic was shot, then Louis spent a lot of time with me describing the plot and how it's supposed to go, then me and my team went away and we thought of a whole bunch of different ideas and shared them ... via Skype, because I do over 600 shows a year with no days off when I'm working, 15 shows a week, so my team does a lot of work via Skype and our two teams got together and collaborated on different possibilities of what they could do, some of which ended up in the movie. And then we had a meeting in New York and I visited the set and there was the odd phone call from the writers, which is very flattering because not only would they call me about how do you do the stuff but how do you move the plot along with magic. So it was good!
BE: There have been a handful of films that deal with a magic over the past few years – "The Prestige," "The Illusionist," the new "Fright Night" re-imagined Peter Vincent as a stage magician. Is there a particular film you've seen that truly "gets" magic – not just in the particular tricks or illusions, but something about the tone or atmosphere or something behind-the-scenes?
DC: I think certainly "The Prestige" and "The Illusionist" treated magic with a great deal of respect. I was partially involved with "The Prestige" – [director] Christopher Nolan came to my museum and I tried to be helpful, and they took a lot of pictures and came to a show ... those two films were more of period pieces, and my museum has all that stuff. But they did a great job. Everything with "Burt Wonderstone" was a big send-up of magic and kind of making fun of all the bad haircuts that looked great at the time – some of which I actually had! They had a lot of fun with it – it was a love letter in kind of a silly way. "Now You See Me" is different, it's been described as "Robin Hood meets David Copperfield," which is flattering. The whole idea of that ... I think they did an excellent job making it fun, putting the characters on kind of a quest.
So each film has its own thing, whether it's a goofy send-up of magic or a kind of historical salute to magic history or "Now You See Me," which is just kind of a cool adventure with cool magic – my current show is really in that style, so when it says "Magic Inspired by David Copperfield," it comes from magic I'm currently doing – something that's edgy and cool and fun and part of this age.
BE: I've found that "best" and "favorite" can be two very different things. What do you consider to be the best trick or illusion you've ever done and which one is your favorite?
DC: I think the best, in the past, was a piece where I flew – I used to fly. Again, very cinematic – I would fly around the stage, I would fly in a plexiglass box and you'd see there were no attachments to me. Then I'd pick a girl from the audience and I'd take her in my arms and fly around with her – she'd weep in my arms some nights or sometimes get very nervous! So that was one where I really took the audience and I would have people literally crying in the audience – someone is crying because something about it really moved them. That was definitely one of the best things.
And right now, one I'm doing in my show ... it's my favorite thing that's maybe on its way to being the best, which is with an alien. I can't describe much more than that but I have an alien that comes down and actually solves my "biggest problem." It's done with illusions and technology and right now in my show it's about half-done, on its way to being done ... and that's kind of how I work, like in the cinema they'll shoot something and do test screenings to get judgments and feedback, that's kind of what I'll do with my live show, I'll make magic to the level that an audience can see when in actual fact it's not done at all. And mine deals with an alien who's my new buddy – I think it's going to change magic, actually. If I do it right, it's a whole new direction for the art. That's my favorite right now ... I hope it'll be my best.
BE: Is there a particular trick or illusion that you're personally very fond of as a performer that might not have been as popular with audiences?
DC: You know, there's plenty that I tried to get to work that I couldn't get to work. You put it in front of an audience and they don't believe in it, but then you start to get it to work, and then it does work ... there's an illusion in the show right now that when Christopher Nolan came to the show doing his research for "The Prestige," it was his favorite thing in the show, where a car appears, literally surrounded by audience members – it's right up against the edge of the stage, which is where he was. In interviews he talked about seeing an illusion in which something appeared literally three feet in front of you, and something that big, that was one of the best things he'd seen.
But that illusion, when I first put it in the show, people would go, "Well, no, obviously, it's this!" Which is depressing because they said that after three years of work, three years of working really hard, trying to make it work. But people would say, "Well obviously it's done this way." And I would think, oh God, this is really not a good night! But ultimately it was very helpful because it put me and my team back to the drawing board to make some adjustments to the illusion and now it's the best piece in my current show – when that car appears, it's really something!
BE: Was there any trick or illusion that you had to abandon because it was just too crazy or you were afraid you would get hurt?
DC: My last special was called "Tornado of Fire" and we created it with sand, gasoline and fuel – literally it was a "Tornado of Fire," though a tornado isn't the coolest thing to bring up any more in light of all the recent real-life disasters. A tornado is a very dangerous thing, and we had a tornado of fire that I had to stand in the vortex of. And we had some big, big accidents and people got hurt in it, but it finally did work and I was kind of committed to do it on live TV, which I did – but yes, it was something that almost didn't make it to the event because it was pretty dangerous.
The other example was I went over Niagara Falls in a raft and prior to attempting it I would visit Niagara Falls and the ramp that we were going to use to put me into the water ... the water was so strong that the steel beams that comprised the ramp were literally twisted like spaghetti in the water. We knew the water was strong but not so strong as to twist steel! So it was not a good day and we had to get helicopters to drop me into the water instead of having a ramp because the ramp didn't survive. It's those things that you really don't account for that really scare the hell out of you.
BE: At this point in your life and career, who is the ideal director for your biography film and who is the ideal actor to play you?
DC: Wow. That's a tough question because all I've been doing is hanging out with directors. Guillermo del Toro just came to my museum, Christopher Nolan hung out there for "The Prestige," Louis Leterrier just did "Now You See Me" ... you know, it's a combination I think of ... Sam Mendes is awesome ... It's a combination of them all! Sam Mendes just gets it right, as does Christopher Nolan and del Toro ... boy, that's a mean question. Louis did a great job with this ... I don't know!
Oh, and Brad Pitt should play me, of course.
Watch Insider Access with the cast of "Now You See Me"...