Paul Kieve on The Lord of the Rings, The Invisible Man and Theatre of Blood
Earlier this year, Paul Kieve was awarded The David Berglas Award for outstanding contribution to magic. Past recipients of this prestigious trophy have included Paul Daniels, Geoffrey Durham and Alex Elmsley. Researching this feature, I began to realise just how much this laid-back magician with the Mediterranean looks has played a part in modern day magic. Not only is he an accomplished performer (he recently became the only magician in history to appear in “The Proms” in the Royal Albert Hall) and Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe’s personal magic tutor, he is, perhaps, the most prolific and successful magic consultant in UK theatre history!
Paul Kieve has left his magical influence on many major theatre productions over the past fifteen years and this success has led to his
talents being in demand in other areas, too.
The only magic consultant to work on any of the Harry Potter movies, he has continued to skilfully juggle a variety of exciting projects
and yet his name may be relatively unfamiliar to many magicseen readers. I travelled to London in the sweltering heat of mid-July to
interview the man who puts the magic into our entertainment experiences…
Rare magic posters adorn the walls, halls, landing and lounge of Paul’s stylish house in Hackney, London. There is an imposing old book case crammed with magic books that would keep a magic scholar busy for years. Paul is obviously a man who respects magic history and he enthusiastically informs me of specific details from his book collection.
I begin by asking him how he copes with the pressure of having to develop magic effects to order. Surely it cannot be easy to meet deadlines – with the director, cast and financial backers waiting to put on a production?
“I’ve learned how to put myself in a position where I’m most likely to succeed,” says Paul, “When I started out I didn’t know the way theatre budgets, politics and
schedules worked, particularly on big musicals, but now I know how shows are put together and staged and that helps me a lot. I’ve also learned not to commit myself to
things that are truly impossible! In some situations I will go into a meeting and basically say that I will be able to help, but that the producer is employing my expertise
and not necessarily a guarantee of an absolutely specific result. I also make sure that it is understood that my work can only be achieved with co-operation and collaboration from other departments. Having said that, one way or another, I’ve had a good success rate at coming up with what is asked and nobody is more surprised than I am! I do admit that there is pressure, as I’m constantly being asked to come up with things that haven’t, or seemingly haven’t been done before, but I have been working on theatre productions for over 15 years now so I suppose I get used to the demands. Also it’s amazing how many clues can come from what has been done in the past.”
How do you cope with those inevitable mental blocks? “If I get stuck, I try and visualise what I would like the final result to look like. I imagine myself sitting in the audience and how I want it to look from their perspective without getting too hung up on the method.”
Paul seems so relaxed that I don’t doubt that he can cope with anything that stressed Director’s throw at him. But what actually makes great magic within a theatre production?
“The most successful moments are when a strong magic effect co-incides with a dramatic peak. Take the unmasking in The Invisible Man where Griffin takes off his bandages to reveal an invisible head. If that exact effect had theoretically happened earlier in the play at a less important moment in the story it wouldn’t have had the same impact. In “The Invisible Man” the whole first half of the story is entirely built upon the suspense of who this bandaged stranger is. The un-bandaging is where the dramatic and emotional arc is at its highest. If I can deliver a good magic moment at the top of this dramatic climax, then I have my greatest chance of creating a strong and memorable impact.”
I ask Paul how he got the job on The Invisible Man – a production that received rave reviews – not least for over 40 amazing magical effects. “At the time, I was in a magic
double-act called The Zodiac Brothers and we had just finished our last contract. I wanted to move on. I knew that the act would always work, but on ships and overseas. I found the experience of working on cruise ships quite claustrophobic – I didn’t necessarily want a chocolate mint on my pillow every night!”
The very next day, Paul received a call from the Theatre Royal Stratford East where writer and director Ken Hill was planning his next production and it proved to be a very significant moment in his career. “Ken wasn’t afraid of a big challenge. He saw the absurd fun of staging The Invisible Man live. He was cavalier in his approach and had already decided that it could be done with or without a magic designer! His favourite phrase whenever anything seemed to be an insurmountable challenge was: ‘We can just
jig it out of a bit of ply!’”
What does Paul see as the most rewarding aspect of working on a production?
“A really good collaboration between all the departments has resulted in the best experiences I’ve had. A recent example was the 2005 production of “Theatre of Blood” at
the National Theatre in London. The story concerns a hammy Shakespearian actor who murders seven critics that have slammed his performances. All are dispatched in the style of a death from a Shakespeare play. The production was based on the 1970’s film starring Vincent Price.
Says Paul: “I had to create impalements, electrocutions, drownings and dismemberments! The great thing for me about “Theatre of Blood” was that it placed all my effects at critical points of the plot. I got totally immersed in the projects and worked on it solidly for about 3 months. I was in charge of all the murders and blood effects and that was a big learning curve for me. At some of the rehearsals we used literally litres of stage blood and the actors were dressed in white plastic all-in-one protective boiler suits. The floor and walls of the rehearsal room had to be covered in protective plastic. Everything was built inhouse at The National Theatre workshops and the set and costume designer Rae Smith was incredibly helpful. She just helped to make everything work as well as it possibly could. In addition I was working with Improbable Theatre (who were co-producing the play). I had worked with them in 1998 at the Lyric Hammersmith, and they have a great love of visual theatre. Director Phelim McDermott was very keen for the murders to be as horrific and spectacular as possible.”
Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent, probably best known for his movie work with Director Mike Leigh and his role in Moulin Rouge took the lead role and Paul found him a joy to work with. “He was very down-to-earth, a consummate professional who very keen to learn the details. It really was a dream job for me, but the critics didn’t know how to react to it as the whole play not only dealt with their grisly deaths, but speculated that their roles in theatre were irrelevant! The Evening Standard newspaper reviewer, Nicholas De Jongh was vitriolic . However, much of the press praised Paul’s work as the highlight. No lesser journal than The Hollywood Reporter wrote “Illusionist Paul Kieve stages the murders in quite extraordinary fashion. They are as utterly convincing as they are hilariously horrific”
After consistently receiving enthusiastic reviews for his work in theatre productions, Paul received a call that most magicians dream about. He was approached by Director
Alfonso Cuaron to work on Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban. However, it wasn’t simply a matter of saying “yes”, as Paul reveals: “I had to do a two-hour ‘show & tell’
presentation to all the departments gathered together, showing what might be possible using physical magical effects as opposed to computers” says Paul, calmly.
“On that day in Leavesden, near Watford I felt like an ambassador for magic because I was the first magician to be asked onto the set. It was a freezing cold day and I demonstrated more than forty different effects live with another 30 examples from video. After I had finished, they said: What are you doing tomorrow?” Amongst many other things Paul had showed them a number of animation effects and a self-folding bill during his presentation and he his first task was to have a look at the ‘Marauders Map’ which they wanted to magically fold itself up. “My existence on the film was sometimes politically tricky as they had already completed two films with existing computer and special effects teams. I was a new, albeit one-man, department, so I had to tread carefully! In the end the other teams were very helpful to me, particularly John Richardson and the special effects department.”
After having got through the “Show And Tell” and my first couple of scenes, I had to create a second presentation which was actually held on the set of Hogwarts Hall. This was to demonstrate possibilities for a scene where all the kids had been to Zonko’s joke shop (this will mean something to Harry Potter readers!). One of the things I showed was a floating sphere -which I rigged to go the whole length of the hall and back again. Designer Stuart Craig came up with the idea of having a number of spheres floating around The Astronomy Room. So I set up some globes to float around live for the cameras on the set, which was not easy due to the restrictions of lights, camera cranes, and
constantly changing shooting angles.
Paul laughs as he explains that when he demonstrated the original effect he had used a Christmas tree bauble ‘bought for a quid’ from a Hackney newsagent. “The astronomy
room sequence took thirteen days to complete. Working on films there is an unbelievable amount of hanging around,” says Paul, “but when they want you on set you have to be ready to perform instantly!”
We heard that you actually conducted amagic class on set, is this correct? “Yes it is, I held a series of classes over a day, to assess the ability of the kids. Almost all the kids
turned up for one of the sessions – Emma Watson who plays Hermione, The Weasley twins, it was quite surreal. Everyone was there except Daniel Radcliffe, who, of course,
plays Harry Potter – he was busy filming.
When we were doing the scene the following week, he came up to me on the set of Hogwart’s Hall and said: ‘I can’t believe you’ve taught everyone else magic except
me!! So I promised him that I’d teach him whenever there was an opportunity. He was genuinely interested – he’d previously bought a magic set in New York…” So you
started giving him lessons on set? “On the set he has a dressing room, and next door to that is a classroom where he does all of his school studies – that’s where I held the
magic lessons. I really wanted to inspire him as he seemed so keen to learn. He is an exceptionally bright kid and very humble considering the amount of media attention
he has received” continues Paul. “I’d take over an old magic book and tell him a few things about the history, then show him some practical things too. The first lessons were a
couple of hours and then I continued giving him lessons at his family home in Fulham, often for three or four hours at a time.”
Daniel has really got the magic-bug and during the filming of The Prisoner of Azkaban he took tricks on set. He told me the first time he met Emma Thompson he showed her
a trick had learned from me and she screamed – that really helped to break the ice! Towards the end of filming, Paul received a call from the Director: “He asked me if I
could think of a present for Daniel as a ‘wrap’ present. Daniel had been practising the cups & balls with paper cups, so I suggested we get him a professional set. We got him a
beautiful set produced by Brett Sherwood.”
So how is Daniel doing with his magic now? “Well, at present, I’ve more-or-less taught him a lot of what I know when it comes to close-up magic! Daniel told me that
he was in a restaurant and he started doing some close-up magic at the tables…and he went down really well. He was most pleased when a table of Japanese customers failed to recognise him, but responded purely because the magic was done well! Daniel has kindly written the introduction to my forthcoming book on magic.”
Perhaps the most memorable of Paul’s effects in The Prison of Azkaban is where ‘The Marauders Map’ magically self-folds itself – the last effect shot of the movie. Paul
got a call months after he had designed it – and was asked to bring in the long-forgotten map that he had worked on months earlier.
“They asked how long it would take to get to the stage where it could be filmed – the time it would take to transfer my system onto the real Maurauder’s map and I said 2-4 hours.
They asked me to start straight away and that it would be filmed in the afternoon. I designed, made and operated the mechanism. And out of all the stuff I have ever done, I guess it’s The Marauders Map that’s been seen and remembered by the most people,”
Not only was Paul responsible for memorable magical scenes in the movie, he also landed a cameo appearance in ‘The Three Broomsticks section’. As Paul tries to
find me the clip on a huge DVD projection screen in his lounge, he says, “I hope my three seconds are worth it!” But even those three seconds were the result of three days
filming at Shepperton Studios.
Working on perhaps the highest profile movie in the world must have been an amazing experience, and yet there was another blockbuster-project – this time in theatre-land, waiting for him. Twenty-Eight million Canadian dollars (about £14 million) were spent on the mammoth task of bringing The Lord of the Rings to life on stage. This was a project that according to Paul had been bubbling under for many years – even pre-dating the films – and it was always going to be an epic. “They were waiting for a theatre in London to become available,” explains Paul. “The scale of the show was so huge that only three theatres in London were big enough to accommodate it. The producers
were waiting for We Will Rock You to come off at The Dominion, but every time ticket sales flagged and we got ready to go, they would extend the booking period again. Waiting for West End Theatres is an absurd business full of rumour and speculation!. It transpired that Toronto, which has a huge theatre industry, had the perfect theatre – one that had been built specifically to house Miss Saigon. An opportunity arose and so the full English production team was flown out there to make it work with a March 2006 opening date!”
The Princess of Wales Theatre, owned by Toronto’s famous Mirvish family, proved to be perfect, but how on earth do you put The Lord of the Rings on stage? Says Paul: “It
tells the story of all three books in one evening. It’s a play with atmospheric music – composed by a Scandinavian folk group called Vartinna and A R Rahman – the well
known Bollywood composer who wrote the show “Bombay Dreams”. It really is not a traditional musical in any sense – you don’t suddenly get Gandalph singing a song about
the Hobbits and doing a tap Dance. Music is an important part of the story and is referred to by Tolkein in the books, so on the whole it fits into fairly natural places in the story.
“On the first day of rehearsals I was struck by the sheer scale of what we were involved in. There were 250- 300 people in the rehearsal room– 65 actors and musicians
are actually on stage at the same time!”
It took four solid months to assemble all the sets in Toronto. The production is truly epic in every way. Paul was involved in the early creative process and had a number of
effects to achieve. “I had the task of making Bilbo disappear, and of course a number of times when Frodo puts the ring on and vanishes. There is also a scene where Sam
has to cut all the Orcs to pieces, and a 10 minute pre-show section. In terms of my work, although this is physically the largest show I’ve ever worked on, it’s not the biggest
job as far as my contributions go”, says Paul modestly. “It is the sort of production that magicians will love! It’s the equivalent in scale of a Las Vegas Show is a huge visual feast!”
Other members of the creative team include peter Darling who choreographed the stage and film versions of Billy Elliot. The principle creative team were all behind the Oliver Award winning musical “Our House” which Paul worked on in the West End in 2003.
In Toronto, the production came in for criticism, partially for running too long. Will this be the case when it opens in London? “The show has now been re-structured and
shortened. Part of the critical problem in Toronto was that Lord of the Rings was hoped to revive Toronto’s tourism and theatre industry – a large amount of government
money went into it over there. In the end it is only a theatre production, albeit a spectacular one – and it couldn’t possibly live up to what it was expected to”. The show is
set to open at The Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London in June 2007.
As I climb into my taxi to head back to kings Cross Station, I realise just how many pages of my notebook I’ve filled and I’m already starting to worry about the massive
task ahead. How am I going to write a feature on someone who has achieved so much? As the taxi draws away, Paul is leaning out of his office watching the busy street scene at the end of his road. He is unaffected and modest about his success, and you just know that there’s a lot more to come.