In a world of children’s party illusionists and ambiguously friendly magician teams, Now You See Me 2 does something amazing for the artistic expression of trickery – it makes magic sexy again. Forget what you thought about that annoying kid who always had some new card trick to butcher during school lunches. Jon M. Chu’s mystifying sequel brings a coolness back to magicians that Criss Angel tarnished once he got his own show on A&E. Magic is supposed to make your jaw drop, and that’s the kind of spellbinding blockbuster that Chu’s crew cooks up.
Chu is no stranger to sequels (just check his entire filmography), which gives him a serviceable advantage. Not only does he have to continue a story about renegade magician criminals, but he has to do so minus a main character (Isla Fisher), and with even more big names added to the cast (Daniel Radcliffe). But – to no surprise – Chu never flinches throughout his (questionably superior) sequel, and marks yet another franchise with his signature stamp.
While in New York City promoting Now You See Me 2, I had a chance to catch up with the dance-happy director and chat all things impossible (or improbable?). Along with general questions of magic, we chatted about his unusual path to stardom, the cast’s best card throwers, and being so damn good at “number twos.”
No, seriously. His words, not mine. Just read on and it’ll make more sense, before your gutter minds get too excited.
Magic comes with a stigma of being terribly uncool, so how did you erase that stereotypical view, and furthermore, make magic kinda friggin’ sexy?
Jon M. Chu: [Laughs] I think first you get all the best actors in the world together in one movie. Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg – you get them all together and you have them make magic! They’re so cool intuitively, that when you get our magicians – we had a ton of magicians on set – when they teach the cast magic tricks, each actor adds their own flair. You have a cast that can riff and make magic in each moment – it brings it all together.
[At this point, I asked Jon about control being nothing but an illusion, and how that plays into Now You See Me 2. He gave a great answer that wasn’t recorded by my phone because I got a phone call from someone who is now dead to me, and it glitched my recorder app. Just including this note here because his answer is referenced again later on. And because I’m a dingus. Moving on.]
So who’s the most convincing magician out of the cast?
Jon M. Chu: Dave and Woody are really good at throwing cards.
In the film, it’s actually them flinging playing cards?
Jon M. Chu: Yeah! We would have Olympic trials between takes. We had so many decks of cards, our shots would be ruined sometimes because someone would notice a card stuck way in the corner and be like “Shit! We’ve got to shoot the whole scene over again!”
We’d also have bets for, say, $100, where you’d start 20 feet away and you’d have to hit something ten times. They got so good they were basically bamboozling me – just taking money out of my pocket.
So the finale of Now You See Me 2 is a large-scale spectacle set in London – the Horsemen take over the city, essentially. In reality, were you on-location, commandeering London? How do you manage so many extras?
Jon M. Chu: We shot all over London. It was difficult because it was freezing cold and it’d be dark at 3:30 – which actually helped because the finale plays at night.
When you have magicians and magic, an audience will show up for you. [Laughs] Then you just have to get them to react the right way. We were also there for New Years, so you’ve already got hundreds and thousands of people on the streets. That was great.
I would always challenge our mentalist on set, Keith Barry. I’d be like, “I don’t know dude. If you can hypnotize anyone, go to that random group of extras and hypnotize them.” So he’d go over, do a couple trials to see if they were susceptible, and then zero in on his targets. He made it so a woman could not move or talk. Honest. We had to shoot a scene, so everyone started walking away, but she was stuck. It was mind blowing.
You mentioned that Now You See Me 2 is about control, and that’s really important. Ultimately, our movie is about how for thirty years, Dylan had control over his own magic trick, and the moment his trick is done, it’s a question of “Who are you?” Are you the magician? Are you the FBI agent? What’s your purpose in life now? He has to go through this cycle of being crushed, and dying, and being reborn as a new person, part of a new family.
They’re not forced to be together, they have to choose to be together – and when you’re a group of liars used to being alone, how do you actually work as a whole? When you add all the magic on top of that – it’s not exactly window dressing – but examples of how they work together are different from their singular acts. Emotionally, this is the thread that holds them all together.
If feel like Now You See Me and Now You See Me 2 work because you’re giving audiences something they’ve never seen before – badass “criminal” magicians. Nonetheless, audiences are still very vocal about a lack of originality in Hollywood – yet The Angry Birds just beat out both Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising and The Nice Guys at the box office last weekend. Fans cry for originality, but then don’t turn when it counts. So, my question to you is what happens between audiences demanding something new, and then not backing such claims with their support?
Jon M. Chu: It’s hard. The audience is the audience. You’re always trying to gauge what they want to see, but ultimately, you can’t make movies for that reason. You make movies to tell a certain story, in that moment, and to say things a certain way. Make people believe in magic, or question magic, or question politics. If it makes money than it does, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. So much emphasis is put on opening box office numbers, for stock markets and all these corporations that own these studios – fine. But as filmmakers, we can’t be consumed by that. It’s only a losing battle, leading us down a bad, bad road. I think we have to lead the audience, and show them things we think they don’t want to see – making them realize they NEED to see it. They may not come out opening weekend, but they’ll discover it.
Something like Now You See Me. It took a couple of weeks for people to come out, but from then on and into home video, audiences discovered it. It’s amazing the amount of people who love that movie. I don’t believe it ever topped the box office – number two, number three, number two, number two – but it lasted six months. That gives me encouragement, and also, as a filmmaker who has done several movies – some that worked, some that didn’t – it really puts things in perspective. Why am I doing this? It’s not for a big box office number.