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October 23, 2017

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David Copperfield: Now you’ll see him — and his magic — for longer at MGM Grand


Illusionist David Copperfield in 2002.

Now You See Me

David Copperfield's Magic Collection

David Copperfield's magic collection at a secret location in Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »
Click to enlarge photo

David Copperfield and Steve Carell backstage at Hollywood Theater in MGM Grand Las Vegas.

Although illusionist David Copperfield has a new three-year contract and a theater named for him for his new show at MGM Grand this fall, he also has become the go-to king of movie magic.

Already this year, he’s credited with being the creative conjuror behind the spring release of Steve Carell’s “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” and this week’s “Now You See Me” with Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Common and Isla Fisher.

”I don’t see filmmaking as a distraction when working magic; I see it as a complement,” David told me. “Our goals are exactly the same. Our message is different, but the result is the same: to make wonder. We make dreams come to life.”

“Now You See Me” director Louis Leterrier said: “It’s not a film about magic but magic on film and couldn’t have been made without David Copperfield and his unbelievable team. Today’s audience is completely versed in the techniques of movie trickery — visual and sound effects, editing — so we had to interlace the magic into the DNA of our film.

“It’s because David’s illusions are rooted in pure emotion and continually transcending the art that only he could help us create a new type of magic that operates on a cinematic level. David Copperfield is the most passionate of cinephiles, and I know that if he wasn’t the greatest magician alive, he would be a revolutionary filmmaker.”

Here’s my lengthy conversation with the 21-time Emmy Award winner who not only has the Living Legend Award from Congress, but also holds The Guinness World Record for selling more tickets than any other solo entertainer in history.

Is it magic of the movies, magic for the movies — or is it movie magic?

“I think what the director is saying is that he really had to approach ‘Now You See Me’ as a movie with storytelling. It’s my particular route, as you know very well, and unlike other performers and performances. My inspiration from the beginning of my magic really was storytelling, and movies were my inspiration. Even though I had the museum here in Las Vegas with all of its treasures of veteran magicians, my real inspirations were Orson Welles and Frank Capra and all those great film directors.

“The reason my magic looks the way it does is because I really wanted to tell stories with my magic. I always wanted to move the audience, I want them to feel something besides just wonder and awe. The wonder and awe part was kind of easy to me when I was a kid. I was able to do magic things very easily, but what I wanted was to get an emotional reaction, to communicate ideas with the audience. I would assume a storyteller or a filmmaker tells a story about their own personal experience; it’s very personal, and people relate to it.

“People relate to magic because it’s surprising and wondrous, but I want to be on more than that level, I want it to really be something that touched people so they can learn something, be moved by it, inspire them, and that’s because of my involvement with cinema. All the directors I’ve been working with, when they meet me and they see the background of my magic, is cinema. It’s really moving and exactly what they love. We have a lot to talk about, and that’s the real unique relationship that I have with the movies because it’s my passion. It’s what I love.”

You’ve become a busy man this year with some extraordinary films.

“Yes, I have. I was in the ‘Wonderstone’ movie, which was really amazing and fun to work with Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi and the director Don Scardino. They’re really great comedy geniuses. It was a lot of fun working on it and watching it.

“They wanted more the style of Siegfried & Roy magic than what I do. They wanted to make fun of that kind of magic. We’ve taken magic into a kind of a new direction since those days. We’ve made it cool and kind of edgy, and we try to evolve with the times. The film kind of pokes fun at what was happening in the ’80s, when a lot of bad haircuts existed. But now this new movie, ‘Now You See Me,’ is inspired by all the things that I’ve done on my stage such as performing magic in the round.

“There’s a whole scene set in an arena, and it’s really based on my last special that I did called ‘Tornado of Fire.’ Working at the center of a big arena had never been done before. I pioneered that and also the look of big, edgy, cool magic. The audience is really responding to that, although I will say it was fun to have fun with ’80s kind of magic and crazy haircuts and wild costumes.

“Magic obviously has come a long way and has transformed into a new kind of category. They gave me a really nice credit in ‘Now You See Me,’ saying ‘magic inspired by David Copperfield.’ The style of the magic in that movie is grandiose gesture, like I started doing with vanishing The Statue of Liberty, the jet plane or a giant building. People really do relate to that and think it’s cool. I’m thus very happy to report this movie is making a lot of money right now.

“The movie was inspired by Edward Ricourt, one of its writers. He came to my show and saw my Portal illusion. I would take a girl or a boy out of the audience and vanish them over the heads of the audience, and then we would reappear anywhere — on a faraway beach, for example. Then we would literally travel transcontinentally to another place. The writers saw that and said it makes a really interesting plot.

David Copperfield's Musha Cay

David Copperfield's Musha Cay in the Caribbean. Launch slideshow »

“Magic isn’t just about vanishing things or escaping from things; magic is around the world, and that would give credence to a heist plot or a kind of David Copperfield meets Robin Hood. They put that into this movie because it expanded what you could do magically. So that concept, to travel around the world, allows you to rob a bank while performing at the MGM in Las Vegas in the movie. That was really the root of this whole film. He vanishes from the stage, then reappears in Paris in his bank.

“That was the illusion that was in my show, albeit done in a very quick movie-like way. My version had a lot of proofs and examples. We brought back rocks and signatures from the audience so that when they appeared, in my case on the beach somewhere or the Hoover Dam, when they reappeared there would be proof. So that’s the basis of how that whole movie started.”

Maybe you’ll muse at some point that maybe you could pull off the bank caper one night and play Robin Hood.

“Yeah! That would be good ,right? I can do Robin Hood. In my version, it was a boy or a girl who hasn’t seen a relative in many years and was really disconnected with that relative and the relative wrote me a letter about that person and I would take that person and reunite them on the beach with their dad. I remember when I did it one night, Michael Jackson was with Paris and Blanket in the audience. They were literally sitting there crying as I reunited a couple.

“I’m not sure what Michael was thinking in his head, but he was literally weeping in the audience watching. It was an amazing thing because it wasn’t just the magic, it wasn’t just the fact that an impossible thing was taking place; it was also the fact that he related to the story, and it touched him in a different level. It was really neat and great to watch something you created and spent a lot of time on affecting people that have seen it all.”

David, you’ve been involved with many movies in the course of your career? Do you remember back to the earliest?

“The first magic movie that I was actually in was called ‘Terror Train’ with Jamie Lee Curtis. Back when there were video stores I used to go in every single city I would tour in, and I would rent it and not return it hoping that my performance would vanish from the earth. Then of course the Internet came along, and all my efforts of renting movies and not returning them trying to get rid of bad performances of me were done. Jamie Lee is great in the movie. It’s kind of ‘Halloween’ but that was the first experience for me acting in a movie and creating magic for a movie.

“Every movie that you see literally that has magic in it has used my Las Vegas museum collection as its research center. You’ve toured it. You’ve seen we have everything magic in the world in one place here. Hugh Jackman came to watch the show, came to my museum to do research for ‘The Prestige.’ When art directors come to the museum, we offer access to make sure that they get it right. Even with ‘The Illusionist,’ with Edward Norton, we helped them with material and guidance, and Christopher Nolan, who directed ‘The Prestige,’ spent time with us.

“Since you were last there, we have expanded an amazing amount. All the stuff from the movie ‘Hugo’ with Georges Melies, one of the fathers of cinema special effects. I cannot wait to invite Martin Scorsese there because he’ll see every single thing in his movie is in my museum now. I have been entrusted with all the materials of Robert Houdin, the man Houdini got his name from.

“All of those things are here in Las Vegas in my museum, and it’s just incredible. Some of the moviemakers cry when they see it all because it’s really the beginning of all of our lives, all of our professional careers, watching the magicians who began, who really started movies, and that’s the important thing; movies were really created by magicians. The idea of the cinema was a magic trick show, an illusion for storytellers to take that art form and make movies today. We owe our cinema to great magicians of the past as a piece of magic in the show.”

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"The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" stars Steve Carell, who is flanked here by David Copperfield and director Don Scardino.

Your Hollywood Theater at MGM will be renamed The David Copperfield Theater in September, and you’ll have a whole new show coming?

“Right now, the way I work is I slowly develop illusions with the audience, kind of sneaking illusions into the show and having them be part of the process. The audience helps write and create the material with me; I test things out in the show and listen to the reactions and talk to people afterward.

“The show right now is in a wonderful place because we are experimenting and just loving all the new ideas and trying to take magic in new directions and trying to reinvent it. What’s amazing is a lot of the great magicians are coming to see us and shaping our heads because we’re developing new technology and new ways of doing magic and hopefully we’ll push it forward. And, yes, in the fall, we’ll be able to announce it as a new show with a couple of greatest hits still in. Right now, it’s transforming and, hopefully, if I do my job correctly, I’ll transform my business a little bit.”

To do magic onstage live night after night has to be more challenging than any other form of entertainment that’s seen by audiences.

“For me, all of my television work has always been based on live performances, always. Going back to the movie reference questions, think of the guys who ran MGM back in the early days of film. They were the greatest ever. They would take a lot of their movies and have people go on the road with them. They told The Marx Brothers, for example, ‘Go and do your movie, but do it live, do it in a theater, and find out what’s funny what’s not funny, what the audience likes, what they don’t like, and then we’ll shoot it.’

“That’s always my approach. I love that idea, and I would spend a year creating an hour of material. I wanted every single special to be of the highest quality, and that’s how we won 21 Emmy Awards. Yes, an entire year on one TV hour, which is really extravagant in television terms. It’s always been my approach, and I’m not against anybody else, but if magic is out there, I want to see them do a great job with it. I support anybody who loves and is passionate about our arts. It’s something that I’m really, really proud of.”

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Scott Disick, a friend, Kourtney Kardashian, David Copperfield and Kris Jenner at Copperfield's show at MGM Grand on Sunday, May 26, 2013.

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Victoria Justice, David Copperfield, Ryan Rottman and Jeff Beacher at MGM Grand.

Without revealing exactly what’s up your sleeve, can you sort of titillate or tantalize about what will be in the new show at The David Copperfield Theater as of the fall?

“Sure. We have some prehistoric magic, a kind of Jurassic Park-sized magic. I have an alien that solves some big problems in my life and hopefully inspires the audience. If you sneak in the show, you’ll see a preview of it. It’s really cool stuff that’s really pioneering magic that happens not just onstage, but also in the middle of the audience, with the audience, working their hands and their laps, taking magic in a way that I’m sure will be copied eventually, but for now it’s something that only we’re working on. Magic happens literally in their seats.

“Back to the cinema for a minute, I would argue that some of the most successful magicians of today aren’t technically magicians; they’re the filmmakers. They are remarkable visionaries like J.J. Abrams, who’s work I love. Teleporting us to worlds and making us believe even for a moment in something that’s unbelievable. I don’t see filmmaking as a distraction when working magic; I see it as a complement. Our goals are exactly the same. Our message is different, but the result is the same: to make wonder. We make dreams come to life.”

You and MGM have extended the contract. Does that mean more time in Las Vegas and less touring the world?

“Yes. For the next three years, I’m focusing on all this new material; I’ve literally got my studio down the block. We’re in the process of not only doing all this movie stuff with scripts and collaborating with producers to produce films, besides helping and assisting other people, the idea of creating our own content is a great one. People with a lot of experience in this business can produce actual cinema that will hopefully win a lot of awards and do great things with magic themes and magic stories.

“It works. ‘Harry Potter’ proved that, ‘Now You See Me’ proves it, and now we’re going to do it ourselves and collaborate with great people. That also allows me from a Las Vegas standpoint to create new magic for the show that will be very exciting and hopefully move the art forward. For me, it’s really about moving the art forward, or else it’s not worth doing anymore.

“Right now, we found a way to do it in different ways. It’s actually impressing all the people in my business. We have people who have seen it all magically, and we are obviously encouraged when they even tell us we are amazing.”

John McEuen, the CEO of Syndicated News Net, has said about David’s new illusions: “It will live with you for the rest of your life. Magic is what you end up believing in after watching his recent ‘illusions,’ but they do not seem like illusions. Things actually did happen! Whoever the audience, whatever their language or ethnicity, they will talk about this the rest of their lives .

“Mr. Copperfield’s show is not just effects. His presentation takes place in the audience, over the audience and with the audience. The showroom is a huge family of watching in amazement a master at work in your living room. Just go. You won’t regret it. You’ll witness real magic that you will carry with you the rest of your life.”

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

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