Christopher Priest talks The Prestige

A shorter version of this interview appears in SFX issue 150.

Tell us a little bit about how the movie of The Prestige came about.
“When the book was published it created a certain amount of interest with film-makers. One in particular had big plans for it (with Kenneth Branagh and Tom Cruise to star as the rival magicians), but as so often happens nothing came of it. Everything died down for a while, and I assumed the book had been talked out. A couple of years later I gained a new agent in the USA, Dabney Lee, and she was enthusiastic about the novel and began pushing it hard. Eventually we received firm offers from three sources. One was FilmFour in the UK, another was a producer in New York who was working with the director Sam Mendes, and the third was a from an indie company called Newmarket who were working with a young and then unknown director called Christopher Nolan. All three offers were attractive in different ways, but I opted for the Nolan offer. I saw Following, and thought Nolan and I were probably on the same sort of imaginative wavelength. A year or so later I saw Memento, and realised I had made what you might euphemistically call a brilliant decision.”

How involved were you with the project?
“I wrote the book on which everything is based! The script is a free but ingenious adaptation of the book. They haven’t followed the structure or the storyline of the novel, but most of the best bits from the book are in the film. However, I wasn’t consulted over the script, and didn’t especially want to be. Look, I had the director and screenwriter of Memento, one of the most original slipstream movies of the last few years, developing my most complicated novel into a movie... I didn’t feel I could add much! Sometimes it’s best to let people get on with what they’re good at.”

How does a big Hollywood version of one of your pieces change your own view of it?
“The book remains as I wrote it, of course, but the way the Nolans have adapted certain scenes is a marvel to behold. The opening few minutes of the film will set your pulse racing. Everything there has been taken from the book, but changed around, adapted, shaken and stirred, developed in the most interesting and visual ways. There are other scenes, later in the film, where my verbal images have been turned into stunning cinematic ideas.”

Are you a big movie fan? Did you, for instance, like Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman?
“I’m a regular filmgoer, yes. I’ve been a member of the BFI for 40 years, and for a while worked with their education department, teaching filmmaking techniques to kids. For years I went to see a new film every week, but my favourite independent cinema closed a couple of years ago. Since then I’ve been stuck with a dull circuit cinema in town, and DVDs. Sometimes I travel to London to see a film I find especially interesting, if I think it won’t be shown locally.
“Batman Begins, I understand why Nolan wanted to make it: it must have been an exhilarating experience. It gave him a terrific grasp on the grammar of making an ambitious film, working with a huge crew, big sets, a large cast. And of course it firmly established his position as a bankable director within Hollywood. I’m realistic about that sort of thing.
“I know I’m a lone voice on this subject, but you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, and no matter how much solemn psychological stuff you try to graft on to Batman, it remains material that is inherently trivial and ridiculous. I consider it to be the least of his Hollywood films to date. The Prestige has been made under certain conditions of confidentiality, so there is hardly any advance ‘buzz’ about it. Sitting here, about a month before it opens, I feel certain that when people see the movie and recognize what an extraordinary story it tells, they will realize that it is the true follow-up to Memento. I think it’s going to shake people up a lot.”

What did you think of the casting of David Bowie? Back in the ’70s, he was certainly an SF fan...
“When I heard Bowie had been cast as Tesla I knew the film would be fantastic. That was inspired casting.”

To go back to the book, what sparked it off?
“Briefly, childhood enjoyment of conjuring tricks and magical acts. In adulthood, a renewed interest when serious and post-modern magicians (such as Penn & Teller) began appearing on TV. And as a mature novelist, realising that the techniques of misdirection used by magicians were more or less identical to the literary techniques I had been developing for years. When I heard the story of Ching Ling Foo (which is repeated in the novel, and I believe is reproduced in the movie) I realised I had found the novel I wanted to write. The novel and the film have something important in common – a lack of interest in the ‘secrets’ of conjuring tricks. You might or might not work out how the magic in the story is achieved, but it doesn’t matter if you do, and it doesn’t matter if you don’t. The Prestige is really about the unique state of mind magicians have: endlessly ingenious, compulsively secretive, and consumingly curious. Looked at like that, magic is actually more entertaining than you realise... and you cease to care that the rabbit was in the hat all along, or that the pack of cards has been set up in advance, etc.”

The Prestige is released on 10 November.
For more on Christopher Priest, visit his website .

Interviewer: Jonathan Wright