Now You See Me 2 director talks stage magic and CGI

How do you bring stage magic to life with contemporary movie technology? That’s what I asked Now You See Me 2 director Jon M. Chu — after all, you could use CGI to make any trick work on-screen, but doesn’t that ruin some of the fun?

“It’s always a challenge to shoot magic in a movie because magic really happens in person,” Chu told me. “You want to know that there’s no strings attached, nothing up the sleeves. So we take big efforts to make as many things practical as possible.”

Now You See Me 2, which opens tomorrow, continues the story of the Four Horsemen — magicians played by Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco and Lizzy Caplan. There’s a big heist at the center of the film, but it’s also filled with plenty of magic tricks, and Chu said the team worked with magicians to build the props and train the actors.

For example, Caplan’s new character Lula (replacing Isla Fisher’s Henley) is introduced with a fake beheading, something magician Keith Barry went to great pains to execute practically. At the same time, the movie has plenty of CGI, most obviously in that big heist.

“We squeeze a little bit here and there to get that CGI stuff in there,” Chu admitted.

Now You See Me 2 is not a serious story, to put it mildly. It’s the kind of movie where Woody Harrelson gets to play his own evil twin, and where the final act gleefully introduces a new twist every five minutes — and yet the plot is driven by sort-of real-world concerns about corporate intrigue and electronic surveillance. Why can’t we get away from those fears, even in a silly Hollywood story like this one?

To answer that question, Chu pointed back to the first film, which he said asked, “What is magic?”

“Magic isn’t just tricks that you do on the streets,” he said. “Sometimes people use it to get your money … sometimes advertisers use it to get you to buy something, make you feel if you get this thing, this fragrance, you’re going to draw in girls. Or if you wear this thing, you’re going to feel more special.”

So in his view, the principles of magic are “used to manipulate us every day,” making the movie’s Four Horsemen “the people who know the tricks and are trying to expose the idea that these tricks are everywhere.”

“I think that’s a great concept for these superheroes,” Chu said. “But their superpower is storytelling and manipulation and psychology. I think that’s very a different take on how to create justice in the world.”