(Thanks to our friend in the forums, SolomonKane, for weighing in on this much discussed, yet still unproduced, screenplay!!!)
Smoke and Mirrors
Writers: Lee Batchler and Janet Scott Batchler
Plot/Logline: In 1856, Jean-Pierre Robert-Houdin, inventor of modern stage magic, comes out of retirement at the insistence of the French government, who set him the task of discrediting Kabyle sorcerer Zoras al Khatim, who is threatening to stir up a bloody native revolt in colonial Algeria.
Background: Written on spec, Smoke and Mirrors kick started the Batchlers’ writing career (netting a one million dollar payday in the process), propelling them to high profile jobs like Batman Forever. The project itself went in and out of development during the 90s, attracting names like Sean Connery to star, before eventually settling on Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones for the leads and Mimi Leder to direct, only for 9/11 to make filming on location in Morocco untenable at that time.
1) Plot Structure: After three relatively brief prologues introducing (in this order) the characters of Zoras, Darcy, Colette, and Robert-Houdin, as well as introducing the conflict in Algeria and the stakes, the script settles into three distinct parts. First, we’re shown Colette and Robert-Houdin in Algiers, where he’s setting up a magic show in order to impress the Berber holy men with the fact that magic is no more than an illusion. This is also where they meet Darcy for the first time, establishing his friendship with Robert-Houdin, as well as his romantic interest in Colette. Second, the three leads journey to the court of the influential Arab sheik Bou-Allem (who hasn’t decided whether or not to join the rebels yet), where Robert-Houdin confronts Zoras directly in a contest of magical skill. Finally, the third part is set in the abandoned medieval Assassins’ Fortress, where the three and their guard are forced to take shelter, under siege from Zoras’ army of Kabyle tribesmen.
This category is where the most issues with the script come into play. To begin, while the first prologue effectively introduces Zoras and shows what he can do when he walks through a twenty foot high bonfire unharmed, and works fairly well, and also provides a great hook to catch a reader’s attention with. The second introduces Darcy, and shows the Kabyle attack on the town of Biskra, establishing how brutal and barbaric Zoras is willing to get, as we see a mother cut down and her children almost receive the same fate before Darcy saves them. It never really comes up again, however, and the events don’t really inform Darcy’s character in any way that doesn’t get covered later. The final prologue, showing Robert-Houdin and Colette in France, is well written, but far too short. We really needed to spend at least a little more time with these two here to better establish their relationship, why Robert-Houdin retired from the stage, and why he adamantly refuses the assignment in Algeria before very suddenly changing his mind and agreeing. They’re on the boat to Algiers on page eleven. I’d suggest cutting Darcy and Biskra and giving those pages to this part instead.
The three main acts are also a bit unbalanced. The Algiers and Fortress acts are very long, while Bou-Allem’s court is given much fewer pages. Robert-Houdin’s interactions with the sheik, where they discuss the respective accomplishments of each others’ cultures, are some of the best parts of the script, and could have been expanded a bit. The contest with Zoras could also have been given more focus. I’d suggest cutting down the Algiers section, which lasts roughly sixty pages, and maybe some of the more detailed bits of action in the Fortress, to give the middle more room to breathe.
2) Characters: The characters here are fairly well drawn, if a bit basic. Robert-Houdin is fascinating to read about. He’s a man of science who engaged in illusion and deception for most of his life, and seems to have his regrets about taking that path. However, he still gets a thrill from being on stage, and is as good of a showman as ever. He also relies on his wits and skill rather than his fists, which usually makes for an engaging character to watch. His arc is a bit muddled, though, as the setup before he leaves for Algiers is very brief. I walked away not really sure what he was meant to have learned from his experience.
Darcy is in many ways the opposite of Robert-Houdin. He’s young, a man of action, and good in a fight. He has a shady past that landed him in the Foreign Legion, but it’s never expanded upon. However, he’s shown to be honorable and brave, and the two men become friends and have to use both of their skill sets to defeat the enemy. Darcy isn’t the most well defined character, but a solid rugged type leading man could have played him to perfection. One minor quibble is that his first name is Trey, which sounds a bit too modern for 1856.
Colette is fine as a character. She’s independent minded, and her relationship with Robert-Houdin is genuinely believable. She has the least to do of all three, though, which is appropriate for the time. The love triangle between the three of them is mainly just there, coming out of nowhere and cropping up every now and then but not really key to the plot in any way. You never truly get the feeling that Colette’s marriage is in any danger of falling apart, and while Robert-Houdin and Darcy do begin to argue towards the end, it isn’t related to the triangle in any way. The attraction between Colette and Darcy feels pretty shallow, and her getting turned on by touching his wooden hand is just plain weird.
Zoras is a solid enough bad guy. You really do get the idea that he could cause some serious damage if not stopped, and his magic tricks are genuinely impressive. He’s absent from a lengthy chunk of the script after the prologue, though, not showing up again in person until the contest at Bou-Allem’s court. His presence is most certainly felt, but at least one more scene with him physically there before the contest would have helped keep him in the reader’s mind, as well as break up the lengthy Algiers sequence.
3) Set Pieces: The script contains two main types of set pieces: action and battle scenes primarily focused on Darcy, and Robert-Houdin’s magical demonstrations. Both are effectively utilized. For example, we see Robert-Houdin rather smugly expose a French officer’s scam at a card table in a tavern, which is pretty impressive on his own, and then we see Darcy save him from the French officer and his cronies when they attempt to mug him in a nearby alley, fighting them all off with his sword, despite only having one hand. Both the magic show in Algiers and the contest with Zoras show off quite a few impressive tricks from Robert-Houdin, demonstrating just how skilled the man is in deception.
The final battle, while arguably a bit overlong, uses both of these to great effect. Darcy kicks tons of ass, and Robert-Houdin uses both his scientific knowledge and skill at illusion to tip the balance in their favor. This melding of the two men’s approaches and skill sets is a great way to make both characters useful in resolving the story’s main conflict. It also provides a variety of fun and exciting moments.
If I had any complaint on this front, it’s that a lot of the magic tricks from both Robert-Houdin and Zoras go unexplained. A number of them are, and those bits are so interesting that it was shame when some of the more elaborate illusions are left hanging. These scenes, if improperly directed, could leave the audience with the impression that the magic was in fact real, which would dilute the premise to an extent. I was reminded of The Illusionist, where Edward Norton’s stage tricks were so perfect and elaborate looking that they beggared belief, rendering his final assertion that “everything you have seen here is an illusion” difficult to swallow. A little more of the science behind the stage magic would have been welcome.
4) Could this be made today? Sadly, no. The events of 9/11 made the film impractical to produce at a time when it was ready to go, and I have a feeling that today’s social media crowd would (wrongly) tear the story apart for its premise of a European man tearing down the superstitions of a native population to make the region safe for French colonials.
5) Final Thoughts: This was a fun, exciting read, with a number of neat ideas and great scenes. A draft or two more to really nail down the structure and flesh out the characters some more would only make it even better.
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