Over the past two decades, director Don Scardino has built up an incredible resume directing a wide variety of TV shows. And while you might have seen his name on such shows as Sports Night, Law & Order, and Ed, more than likely it’s been on 30 Rock, where he directed 38 episodes. Now, Scardino is taking on a new challenge, and it’s directing his first feature, the great-looking comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone which stars Steve Carell as a Vegas magician whose relationship with his partner (Steve Buscemi) becomes strained as the two start getting upstaged by a hipper illusionist (Jim Carrey).
A little over a year ago, I got to visit the set with a few other online reporters when the production was filming at the Wadsworth Theater in Los Angeles. During a break in filming, we did a group interview with Scardino where he talked about working with the great cast, the difference between directing television and feature films, film versus digital and why, the biggest surprise about making a feature, and lot more. Hit the jump for what he had to say.
Before getting to the interview, watch the trailer:
One of the Steves. How do you keep the Steves straight on set?
SCARDINO: Easy. One’s dark, one’s blond.
But how do you do it by name, when you say, “We need Steve on set?”
SCARDINO: Who are they? [Laughs] We say “B” or “C?”
Or do they just go everywhere together?
SCARDINO: They have become a duo. I keep looking at them and saying, “We’ve got the new Laurel and Hardy here.” They start working together and their timing off each other, it’s almost like they’re doing a mirror exercise. They really have fallen into this very responsive mirroring of each other. It’s really funny. It’s working on screen too.
We heard a bit about the great scenes you already shot with Jim Carrey. Is he hard to direct because he’s just all over the place?
SCARDINO: No, no, he’s easy to direct because he kind of self-directs. As long as — and we have from day one — agreed about the character and where you’re going. It’s very interesting, his process. He likes to watch playback. He’s a painter you know, and he sort of interprets his own performance graphically, like, “I need to do something better with my eyes. My hands should be here,” and he thinks of it like a graphic image, in a way. Some actors work from the inside out, he works from the outside in, I think. It’s a fascinating process. He’s a perfectionist. He likes to do a lot of takes, but he really likes to get it right. He’s done enough movies to understand that they don’t go away. You really want to make sure you’ve done everything that you can — you’re sometimes at the mercy of the studio or the cutter or the director because they’re going to do their own version of your performance. But at least he can be satisfied and say, “I got exactly what I wanted.” It’s fascinating to work with him, actually.
SCARDINO: I think it’s lightning in a bottle. A good film to me is like lightning in a bottle. I used to think that meant hit and run. [Snaps fingers.] I was on the first season of “Law & Order” where it was all run and gun, very fast. Even now on “30 Rock,” it also has a very packed schedule and we do a lot of things handheld and it’s all about improv and getting it right away. But lightning in a bottle may strike on take 20, you know? So I’ve changed my definition about what lightning in a bottle means. I think it means that you wait for that surprising moment that you really didn’t expect would happen, as good as it may have gone in rehearsal, and when you’re working with people like Carrey or Carell and Buscemi as well, and Gandolfini too, I’ve encouraged them to play. I’ve encouraged them to improvise and make sure that we have what we need on the page in the can. But also they’re such skilled improvisers, and they’re such wonderful actors. I saw about 30 minutes of rough cut the other day. It’s the first time I’ve seen it all assembled — we’re four weeks in — and I would say 75 percent of their improv is in the cut so far, because it’s just such funny stuff.
How long is the shoot? You say you’re four weeks in.
SCARDINO: Yeah, we’re four weeks in. It’s nine weeks, I think. 47 days.
[Question about release date, he said he'd like it to come out at Thanksgiving, which is now moot, but here's the relevant bit:]
SCARDINO: We always look for a movie that we can take the teenagers to and the grandparents to and us to and this is one of those movies.
It’s pretty broad.
SCARDINO: In terms of its appeal, yeah, I think so. It’s a redemption story, it’s got a lot of heart, it’s about a guy who’s lost his way and finds his way back. But at the same time, it’s a broad comedy, and I think we get away with it, because it’s set in a broad world. It’s a world that’s painted with a fairly broad brush. It’s magic. The unexpected, the impossible, things you can’t believe are happening before your eyes are happening, so its appeal is broad, I feel. And I think the movie has a wide range of … the emotional life is very broad, very secure, because it’s about this guy who’s trying to find his way back. And that’s rock solid, so on top of that, given that we’re in the world of magic, I think we can do a lot of crazy stuff.
Are you using film?
SCARDINO: We are using film.
Can you talk about the decision? Was there a lot of pressure to go digital?
SCARDINO: Yeah, some. Studios are so used to digital now and there is a mythology that it’s cheaper. But it’s really not cheaper. For instance, digital is great for night exteriors, everybody knows it’s a video tap, so it’s very responsive to light. So you can go out at night, shoot with digital and it’s gorgeous, beautiful to look at . Conversely, you go out and shoot day exterior, and it slams you, just like you know from your own video recording. Bright, hot, white light is killer to video. Everything gets washed out. So you spend a lot of time trying to light a scene and digitally you spend a lot of time trying to knock light down. And frequently, you’re putting up negative fill, as opposed to putting up fill lights you’re putting up blacks to absorb light. So all that takes about the same amount of time. They did a budget and they discovered that it would be no cheaper to shoot digitally. I felt this was a movie that … the colors in the magicians’ palette are a lot of black, a lot of red, which are the two colors that digital doesn’t handle well. Red blooms terribly and you have to be very careful of how you use red. Blacks do not come out with a richness that happens on film. And there’s also something about the emotional nature of the story, there’s a big flashback sequence at the beginning to their childhood, I just felt that it needed the warmer texture of film. Of course the d.p. on down, everybody loves to shoot film, everybody laments the death of film, so it was great that they said yes. Film and 2:35.
Had you been tempted to move to features before this? What was it about this movie that made you jump off TV?
SCARDINO: I just intend to keep working, to be honest. [Laughs] In this case, because of “30 Rock,” there were a lot of comedy scripts coming my way or at least I was being asked to read things and see if I was interested. Nobody was at the door with money, but they were interested. This, I came out on a break from “30 Rock” last year on the hiatus. I switched agencies and the new agent said, “Hey, there’s a couple of things,” and one of my agents said that there was this project that Carell’s company was involved in that was kind of on the bubble and it had a couple of directors attached and they’d fallen out. “You just need to read it and go talk to them.” I did and I had some clear ideas as to what the script needed to work and I shot my mouth off and they bought it. I think that the “30 Rock” idea was attractive to Steve because he and Tina [Fey] come out of the same world, spawned in the same comedy mud, so I got an open door there. The ideas were good and they went with it. I managed to bring my d.p., Matt Clark from “30 Rock” also, which was great.
What’s been the biggest surprise for you stepping onto a film set?
SCARDINO: The biggest surprise is that it’s exactly the same. The work is the work. I’ve been shooting comedy for five years with wacky actor personalities, and it’s the same zoo. It’s nuts, it’s fun. It’s fun to come to work and laugh every day. I used to do all these “Law & Orders” and dramas and stuff and I got tired of “How much blood do you want?” and “Are there three exit wounds?” and “Did he get shot in the eye or over the eye?” Gee, I don’t know. I think I want to laugh.
Speaking of drama, you’ve got two of the most intimidating TV gangsters of all time in your cast. Does that ever get referenced?
SCARDINO: At first when I brought those ideas to New Line, they said, “Well, people are going to think it’s a gangster movie.” And I said, “But these actors are really right for these pars.” And I also wanted to cast people… you’ve seen the photos, it’s a magic show and I waned it to feel like something you’ve never seen before. So I wanted everybody cast in ways that we’re not used to seeing them. I knew Buscemi from “30 Rock” –and I knew him from his career as a fan — but he had directed some “30 Rock” and he had played a character on “30 Rock” for a while. And I knew what a sweet guy he was and what a funny guy he was. You think about some of his early stuff, like “Living in Oblivion” or even “Fargo” and how funny he is in those movies. I thought he’d just be the perfect Anton because he has a big heart and he’s a really, really sweet-natured fellow. And I thought it would be interesting for the audience to have something unexpected. Everywhere, I’ve tried to be unexpected with the casting and I’ve tried to film it in a way that’s a little unexpected too. Shots turn into something you didn’t expect them to and the way we transition from scene to scene, so the whole thing feels a little like a sleight of hand or a magic trick. You know, on a subtle level.
When you’re dealing with these grandiose magic shows in Las Vegas, what is the biggest setup that you have done or have coming up?
SCARDINO: Well, so far, day one, we were 100 feet in the air in a glass box with Carell and Buscemi in the glass box, lifted by a crane. We did part of their scene and then, with stunts, we did the resultant action, which is the box breaks open and the two of them fall out 100 feet with a lot of slapstick and very Harold Lloyd-ish hanging from the box. So that was our first day of shooting. And at first I thought, “Oh my god, do I really want to do this?” It proved to be schedule-wise the only way we could handle it and I thought, “Well, this will be great because I’m a new studio comedy guy and if I can pull that off, why then I’ll be on sort of secure ground.” And it did, it worked. It was great.
Do you have any personal history in the world of magic?
SCARDINO: Just like every kid who comes into show business on some level, I used to put shows on in my basement. I started with doing tricks and having a ventriloquist dummy. When Copperfield gave us a tour of his warehouse, which is really an incredible museum-quality place with Houdini’s artifacts and Houdini scrapbooks and these incredible posters and tricks and stuff, I found out we shared a beginning with Jerry Mahoney dolls. And he opened a door and there was the original Jerry Mahoney and all the other characters. He told me the story about how he wanted the Jerry Mahoney and he asked his parents for it, but he said, “The eyes have to move.” They gave him this Jerry Mahoney doll that you could get at Macy’s or wherever, but the eyes didn’t move. And he said, “One day, I’m going to get the Jerry Mahoney with the eyes that move.” And then he opened the door and there’s the real Jerry Mahoney with moveable eyes and all sitting right there. And Lamb Chop and those guy sand the original Charlie McCarthy, Edgar Bergen’s puppets. And then you turn around and — you remember “The Twilight Zone” when Cliff Robertson gets turned into a creepy ventriloquist dummy? That dummy is there at his place. It was incredible.
We know what he’s spending his money on.
SCARDINO: That’s exactly what he’s spending his money on. He was in Europe trying to buy a collection of, you know the automatons in “Hugo?” The real deal. He’s got a couple in his museum but there’s apparently a whole collection.
Can you talk about the post-production on this movie? Are there going to be a lot of digital effects or are you doing a lot of the magic tricks in camera?
SCARDINO: There are some. When I first go the script, everything was CG tricks, there were tricks that couldn’t possibly happen on a stage, lasers cutting off heads and then switching bodies with them. And I said, “If I go to this movie, I would like to see credible tricks. I would like to think that these guys are real magicians.” We know that you can do magic very easily, it doesn’t take anything these days, so I said, “The first thing we should is make these tricks credible tricks that could actually be done so that we believe these guys are magicians.” The second thing was, and I went to Copperfield for this, I said, “I would like to do one section of a trick where I don’t cut the camera.” He’s big on, if you look at his TV specials, “You’re going to see this without a cut!” The camera never cuts away. So we had a hangman trick where it’s a body switch trick, Buscemi’s led up the hangman’s ladder, they put the hood over his head, Burt is upset, there’s a flash of light and a puff of smoke and they switch bodies, he saves his partner’s life. So Copperfield came up with a way to do it with no cut in the camera. He rehearsed it in his warehouse with his crew and shot it on video, shot the trick as it should be shot, shot behind the scenes of how it’s done, and so that’s the way we’re doing it. That sequence, there’ll be no cut whatsoever. And then they’ve been working with a magician technical advisor, getting their hands right and stuff. There’ll be some hand doubling and there’ll be some CGI stuff, we’ll make a balloon animal turn into a real animal. That would take us a long time.
[Publicist says his time is up].
SCARDINO: Hey, it’s my pleasure. Thanks so much for your interest and coming around.
Here are the rest of my on set interviews from The Incredible Burt Wonderstone which opens March 15:
- Steve Carell Talks Scary Stuntwork, Sexy Costumes, Working with Jim Carrey and Steve Buscemi, and More On the Set of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
- Steve Buscemi Talks Balancing Comedy and Drama, and His Experience with Improv On the Set of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
- Olivia Wilde Talks Outrageous Costumes, Improv with Steve Carell, and More On the Set of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
- Producer Chris Bender Talks the Competitive World of Professional Magic, Filming in Las Vegas, and More On the Set of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone