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Neil Burger

10 Directors to Watch

AGE: 42
BIRTHPLACE: Connecticut
PIC INSPIRATION: “Nosferatu” and “Picnic at Hanging Rock.” “They both have that same uncanny feel. I like that idea of something that’s incomprehensible brought into the light of day.”
AGENT/MANAGER: Spencer Baumgarten (CAA)

“How do you know what’s real?” asks Burger, citing one of his favorite themes. After materializing in 2002 with his pseudo-documentary “Interview With the Assassin,” Burger returns with romantic mystery “The Illusionist,” starring Edward Norton as a turn-of-the-century conjurer in Vienna.

Although the two movies couldn’t be more different in style and scope, Burger admits, “There are similar concerns of truth vs. illusion, what do you accept on faith, and issues of perception.”

Burger, who studied fine arts at Yale, transitioned from painting to experimental film in the 1980s. “Then I started writing,” he says, “and I never went back.” His first industry break came with MTV’s “Books: Feed Your Head” literacy campaign; he then turned to ad spots for Ridley Scott Associates.

“Commercials were a wonderful training ground,” he says, “because you were able to work in every situation: with kids, special effects, bluescreens, dogs, helicopters and with great d.p.s like Declan Quinn, Bob Richardson and Fred Elms, and learn from them and gain confidence from them.”

Paul Giamatti, who co-stars in “The Illusionist” alongside fellow Yale alum Norton, says Burger’s technical expertise was always apparent. “He’s a very exacting, incredibly clean, logical thinker,” Giamatti says. “He was so great at capturing little moments, knowing exactly what he had and when he had something and didn’t need anything more.”

Though “The Illusionist” was more than 20 times the budget of “Assassin,” and features well-known names Norton, Giamatti, Jessica Biel and Rufus Sewell, Burger says the biggest challenge was maintaining that fine line between “the real and the supernatural.” But, then again, he reminds, “The whole act of making a movie is a magic trick.”

Next up for Burger is another surprising feat: “It’s a dark comedy about three American soldiers on convalescent leave,” he explains. “It’s not so much about Iraq as it is about America and seeing America through these fresh eyes.”

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