Magic moments

A FILM BY British filmmaker Christopher Nolan is easy to spot. His signature dark, gritty style is evident in Memento, Insomnia and Batman Begins. And again in his latest project, The Prestige.

A mystery-thriller set in Victorian England, The Prestige charts the tense relationship between magicians Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) - friends who become enemies in the wake of a personal tragedy.

Their characters are polar opposites: Angier is an elegant showman, Borden a rougher breed of entertainer. They begin to compete obsessively, stealing one another's magic tricks and, on occasion, women. The story is tense and convoluted, tracking back and forth in time, demanding the audience pay attention. 'I wanted to really try to examine the emotional component of the story, to include elements of family, emotion and human relationships that are affected by the nature of obsession and obsessive rivalry,' says Nolan, 36. 'Because it's in reflecting those elements, or seeing them through the prism of our human relationships, that they start to take on their real power.'

Nolan co-wrote the script for The Prestige with his brother, Jonathan, based on a novel by Christopher Priest. It's provocative and jarring, but Nolan isn't one to pander to the masses. Even in major studio films such as Batman Begins, which earned about US$350 million worldwide (Nolan has a sequel, The Dark Knight, in the works) he kept his focus on the film, not concerning himself with marketing ploys such as merchandise spin-offs.

Nolan prefers working with the same people. Jonathan is a frequent collaborator and his wife, Emma Thomas, produces his films. He brought Bale and Michael Caine over from Batman Begins for The Prestige, and they'll also star in The Dark Knight when he begins filming next year.

'It's fun to watch such talented actors reinvent themselves for a role and create something utterly unique to a film - able to change everything about themselves,' says Nolan. 'There's also a selfish component because they're also very easy to work with.'

Nolan prefers to keep the same production staff, as well. Many of the crew from Batman Begins were brought on to work on The Prestige.

'You tend to want to work with people who understand you and with whom you have an honest relationship,' says Nolan. 'It's a great asset in the complicated world of filmmaking where there's so much money at stake and so many agendas and so much politics. You really try to insulate yourself from that.'

And it certainly hasn't been all plain-sailing. It took several years to get The Prestige off the ground (Thomas brought the book to her husband in 2000) and during the endless rewrites, there were a few arguments between the siblings - creative differences that were eventually resolved.

'As a director, there are points in the process where your real function is as a defender of the film, and you have to close yourself off from outside influences,' says Nolan. 'That defensive posturing isn't necessarily the best way to make a film, so you need to try to find ways to be able to open yourself to outside influences, and not feel as if your vision is at risk. I've found that the way to do that is to work with people I trust, who understand you, and are on the same page as you.'

Nolan doesn't appear to have trouble convincing the people he wants to come on board. David Bowie makes a rare appearance in The Prestige. Nolan flew to London to persuade him to take the part. Bowie asked the director to wait in his hotel while he took a walk to think about it, after which he said yes.

Other star turns come from Scarlett Johansson and Andy Serkis, who played Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Nolan and Thomas say the lead roles weren't specifically written for Bale or Jackman, although Thomas says that, looking back, she can't imagine anyone else playing them.

'Christian is capable of extreme intensity and of acting in a very multi-layered fashion,' he says. 'He presents a different aspect to his character, and that's what you're looking for from a movie star. It's all very well to have layers in your brain as your perform, but it's a skill to project that onto the screen, and he has it.'

Although The Prestige is set in the streets of Victorian London and the snow-capped mountains of Colorado, the film was filmed in downtown Los Angeles, allowing Nolan and Thomas to be close to their three young children.

Nolan says he did some research into the Victorian era and the role that magic played as entertainment for the masses, but didn't want to get too bogged down in the details. 'I'm not terribly interested in research because I think it's limiting,' he says. 'We just tried to capture the spirit of the time. We hired different departments to come in and do their own research, but I preferred to describe a world we would have liked it to have been, and not necessarily the way it was.'

Nolan hired magicians to train the stars, so when Bale is shown making a coin disappear into the palm of his hand, it isn't a camera trick.

The film has all the ingredients to be a critical and commercial success: it's adroitly made, with a sterling cast and a cliche-free screenplay. But this being Hollywood, Nolan knows there's a lot riding on it - especially in the light of his previous successes.

'It's a great problem to have,' he says, of the pressures that come with having a series of successes. 'But I love films and I've never had an interest in making a film for the sake of it. And the expectation of doing something different is in sync with my own desires as a filmmaker, and my desire to challenge myself.'

Born in London, Nolan made his first film when he was seven using his father's camera and some male-action figures - a piece he says he still has somewhere at home. He studied English Literature at University College London, and continued to make short films, which eventually got onto the festival circuit. But it was Memento (2000), starring Guy Pearce, that caught the attention of Hollywood.

Nolan tries to set aside concerns about commercial appeal and box-office numbers when he takes on a project.

'I try not to be too self-conscious about choosing a story that I'm interested in to make a film,' he says. 'I really view every film as the last film I may get to make, and I don't think of myself as having a career in terms of having a series of films. I don't relate to that, and I think it's dangerous and limiting to do it.

'If you can make a film that people care about in some way, that's probably the thing you strive for the most.'

The Prestige opens today