LOS ANGELES — It was a movie about magic that finally made David Kwong a full-time magician.
Since he was a kid, the trim, driven, studious 32-year-old's real passion has always been magic, and he's been performing it professionally since high school. But mustering the wherewithal to go pro as a full-on career had always eluded him. "I couldn't take that leap of faith into being a full-time magician," he says. "I held down a conventional job."
Specifically, a job in Hollywood, where he worked his way through the studio system in story development, most recently at DreamWorks Animation. That access to in-the-works screenplays and script treatments allowed Kwong to track magic-related projects and pitch himself as a consultant — like on last year's Paranormal Activity 4 or this spring's magician comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. ("There were some other problems with that film," he says diplomatically, "but I think the magic is good.")
Finally, when the treatment crossed his path for this weekend's magician heist thriller Now You See Me — about four magicians who engineer seemingly impossible bank heists as part of their shows — Kwong realized he had finally found a project that could push him into magic as his sole profession.
He quit his job in Hollywood, and formed the consulting company The Misdirectors Guild, which Kwong describes as "an elite group of magicians and sleight-of-hand artists and illusionists, and we do practical effects and illusion for film, TV, and theater." He chased down Now You See Me producers Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci, and director Louis Leterrier, and "bothered them incessantly" until they agreed to let him join the project.
"I came onto the first re-write of the script," Kwong says. "Not to take away from [screenwriters] Ed Ricourt and Boaz Yakin's brilliant concept. [But] we needed to engineer bank heists that were authentic to the world of magic and relied on the principles of illusion and misdirection." He worked with screenwriter Ed Solomon to fill in the robberies and brainstorm illusions that would be just beyond what is possible in today's world — like the moment when Jesse Eisenberg levitates Isla Fisher within a giant bubble.
"That's the most salient example of something that would be impossible," says Kwong. "But that's not to say first of all that we can't get there, and secondly that it's fantastical. It's rooted in real-life possibility and practicality.…At some point, some engineer out there can concoct the perfect oil-and-water solution to have bubble that can withstand whatever mechanism is being used to levitate [the person inside it]."
Kwong also taught all of the actors — including Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Morgan Freeman, Mark Ruffalo, and Melanie Laurent — different magic tricks, some (but not all) of which made it into the film. (He's especially proud of how proficient Franco became at the art of card throwing — by the end, the actor was able to slice into fruit.) All this work revealing the inner workings of magic tricks to everyday Muggles, however, pushes Kwong and his company dangerously close to violating the long-held code of silence among professional magicians.
"Certainly, some magicians will bristle, because we do give away some secrets," says Kwong, of both his work in general and Now You See Me specifically. "I believe that we can reach the overall objective, which is to make magic cool, by pulling back the curtain just a little bit to give the audience a glimpse of the methods and the preparation and the theory that goes into magic. I decided that it was worth exposing a few basic things to give the audience a more general appreciation."
That work extends to Kwong's own private magic show, a ten-part marvel he calls The Lexicon that incorporates his other great hobby, building word-based puzzles. (He's been writing crossword puzzles for The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times since 2003.) "It's funny how these things all come together," he says. "Because while I was dabbling in film, also at the same time the lightbulb turned on for me [and] the puzzles started to get synthesized into magic. That's become my voice. It's all storytelling. Magic and puzzles are both stories with twists and turns and surprises. Film is the same thing, and film is illusion. It's been a perfect storm."
With all this talk of magic, mystery, and the movies, it's no wonder that at some point, Kwong got the attention of J.J. Abrams. After Kwong performed his show for Abrams' company Bad Robot at their headquarters in Santa Monica, the filmmaker approached the magician. "He said, 'I love what you do with secret codes and hidden messages and magic, which are all things Bad Robot,'" says Kwong. The two are currently collaborating on a top-secret project that, naturally, Kwong is sworn to secrecy about.
What is clear is that Kwong's lifelong preoccupation with magic extends well beyond the mere performance of it. "We've seen the Siegfried and Roys, and the big Vegas stage shows," he says. "We've seen David Blaine and Criss Angel take it to the streets. The big question on everyone's mind is what's next. I'd like to think that I'm part of this alternative scene of a return back to the theater from the streets in a more grounded, parlor-type of show."
At times, when talking with Kwong, it can feel like you don't quite have his full attention, as if the gears in his brain are constantly grinding through any number of magic tricks, puzzles and movie ideas. "All magic involves immense amounts of preparation to facilitate spontaneous moments," he says by way of explaining how he's able to conjure so many words and word combinations seemingly out of thin air. "I've just memorized a lot more than most people," he says with a laugh. "That's what it comes down to!"