At what a pleasant surprise it was. A great and very unusual1 story with strong pacing, perfect structure and great dialog.
And it contained a Story Trick that I’ve seen many times before, but here it was very clear and concise.
And now is the time for a warning before you read any further; there are major spoilers in this article, so if you haven’t seen the film, please do not read any further. Consider yourself warned.
Okay, you’ve seen it? Great! Let’s continue.
Today’s Story Trick2 is all about the Foreshadowing and Payoff trick3.
I’m not letting anything happen- I love you too much.
Sarah grabs his face, looking at his eyes, smiling.
Say it again.
I love you.
Nope. Not today.
Some days, it’s not true. Today you don’t mean it. Maybe today you’re more in love with magic than me. It’s alright. I like being able to tell the difference- it makes the days it is true mean something.
And that line “Nope. Not today”, or versions of it, is repeated throughout the movie. And at first it just seems like Borden is the kind of man whom is only capable of loving one thing at a time. One day it is wife and other days it is his work, the magic, that he loves. This makes perfect sense because of the way he is portrayed in the movie.
But the Nolan brothers up the ante later in the script with this scene5 :
INT. SARAH’S FLAT – DAY<
Sarah is frantically REDRESSIN Borden’s injured hand. BLOOD has SEEPED trough the bandages.
I don’t understand, Alfred. How can it be bleeding again?
She examines the wounds: 2 1/2 FINGERS ARE MISSING. The injuries are black, but wet and fresh.
Again it seems perfectly normal because they live in a very unsanitary time in London. A cut or wound could very well keep bleeding or catch infection.
The next scene that uses the trick is this one6:
EXT. NORTH HILL – DAY
Borden escorts Sarah and their TODDLER, a girl, up the three lined street. Borden stops abruptly. Crouches to his daughter.
Would you like to see a magic trick?
Borden reaches up and pushes a wayward LOCK of her hair over her ear. When his hand returns, it’s holding a KEY. He stands, places the key in Sarah’s hand.
What is this for?
Borden takes her gently by the shoulders and turns her around until she’s facing a modest two-story HOUSE. She looks down at the key in her hand.
When I asked last week you said we couldn’t afford.
You caught me in the wrong mood.
But you want through all the---
Sarah, I’m allowed to change my mind, aren’t I? The act is taking off; maybe soon I’ll get us into a bigger theatre. Things will work.
Sarah turns and embraces her husband.
See, again Bordon is portrayed as a man with a temper: “I’m allowed to change my mind, aren’t I?”. This is about halfway through the movie and we’ve seen him numerous times loose his temper. Nothing out of the ordinary here.
Later, the relationship between Bordon and Sarah is, to say it mildly, not very good7 :
Borden walks to the door. As he does, Sarah enters, avoiding his eyes, and then ducking him as he tries to kiss her.
She reaches for the sherry decanter. He watches her pour.
Sarah looks at him, eyes red from crying.
We each have our vices.
Borden moves to her, gentle concern in his eyes.
Sarah. Whatever you may think, your only competitions for my affections is my little girl. I love you. I will always love you and you alone.
She looks into his eyes. Fascinated.
You mean it today.
That makes it so much harder when you don’t.
She turns from him. Borden watches her sadly. Leaves.
That just a relationship gone south fast. And we have already seen that Bordon is having an affair with the young Olivia (played by Scarlett Johansson), so it, again, makes perfect sense. The scene is even followed up by this one right after8 :
INT. OLIVIA’S APARTMENT
Olivia, barely wearing a dressing gown, answers the door to Borden. She pulls him in, trying to draw him into a kiss, but he backs away.
What is it Freddy?
Please don’t call me that. It’s nothing, just... sometimes things seem... wrong.
Olivia looks at him. Cold.
Freddy, I’ve told you before. When you’re with me, you’re with me. Leave your family at home where they belong.
I’m trying, Olivia. Please.
Is he having second thoughts? We don’t know yet, but it would make sense, since he just declared his true love for his wife. By now the Nolans start to hand out the clues about the underlying plot of the whole movie, we just don’t know it yet.
The next thing that happens is that Sarah hangs herself in desperation.
Later Bordon is sitting with Olivia at a restaurant and having this conversation9 :
NT. RESTAURANT – EVENING
Olivia and Borden are seated across from each other, finishing their meal. Olivia watches Borden eat.
You haven’t spoken about her, Freddy. Not once.
Don’t be cruel.
Why would I talk about her to you?
Because she was part of your life and now she’s gone.
Borden says nothing.
She wanted to meet me the day before she killed herself. Said she had something to tell me about you.
I was such a coward; I couldn’t bring myself to face her.
(looks at Borden)
What would she have said, I wonder?
You want the truth about me, Olivia?
(she nods, wary)
I never loved Sarah.
You married her, had a child with her---
Part of me loved her. But part of me didn’t. The part that found you. The part that’s sitting here now. I love you. That is the truth that matters.
Again, we think we’re witnessing the confessions of a man torn between his passion for his art and his love for his wife, but little do we really know.
And then, and then ladies and gentlemen, comes the Payoff, behold10 :
INT. CELLAR, ABANDONED THEATRE – NIGHT
Angier PEERS down the row of glass boxes with the lantern.
Angier FREEZES. He can hear a small THUD, THUD, THUD getting closer, approaching from the darkness...
Angier FLINCHES as a RUBBER BALL bounces into the light--
Angier DROPS his cane to CATCH the ball. He turns it around in his hands, confused. Light EXPLODES around him as a GUNSHOT rings out.
Angier stands for a moment, confused, staring at the ball, then COLLAPSES to the ground, clutching at his stomach.
Fallon’s BOWLER HAT breaks into the circle of light. he is holding a smoking pistol... Angier drops the ball and it rolls across the floor, coming to rest at Fallon’s feet. But it is not Fallon’s gloved hand that picks up the ball--
-it is a MUTILATED HAND, WITH 2 1/2 FINGERS MISSING. Angier looks up:
ALFRED BORDEN REMOVES THE BOWLER HAT AND TAKES A BOW.
You-- you died.
Borden shakes his head.
Realization sweeps over Angier like a nightmare.
A brother. A Twin.
INT. BASEMENT – CONTINUOUS – FLASHBACK
Fallon DROPS into the coffin. As Fallon stares up at us, WE SEE, FOR THE FIRST TIME, SOMETHING FAMILIAR IN HIS FACE -FALLON IS REALLY BORDEN IN DISGUISE.
You were Fallon. The whole time...
Fallon/Borden’s face disappears as Cutter seals his coffin.
INT. CELLAR, ABANDONED THEATRE
We were both Fallon. And we were both Borden.
Angier considers this. Minds spinning.
Were you the one who went into the box--
INT. STAGE – EVENING – FLASHBACK
As the ball bounces across the stage, Borden steps into the cabinet, shutting the door behind him.
-or the one who come back out?
Borden steps out of the second cabinet and catches the ball.
INT. DRESSING ROOM – EVENING – FLASHBACK
A stagehand wheels the two stage cabinets into the dressing room and leaves. Borden holts the door after him.
We took turns. The trick is where we would swap...
Borden opens the first cabinet and pulls up the false bottom.
His TWIN BROTHER, in identical stage clothes, uncurls himself from the hidden compartment and hauls himself out.
INT. DRESSING ROOM – LATER – FLASHBACK
Fallon and Borden are seated at the makeup table. Fallon begins removing pieces of his costume and makeup and handing them to the other brother. As we watch, THEY SWITHC INDENTITIES.
INT. CELLAR, ABANDONED THEATRE – EVENING
Angier stares up at Borden. Appalled.
Cutter knew. But I told him it was too simple. Too easy.
Simple, maybe. But not easy.
INT. WORKSHOP – EVENING – FLASHBACK
Both Bordens are standing at the workbench. One brother is gripping the other by his wrist and placing a CHISEL on his finger.
He checks the placemen of the chisel against his own mutilated fingers, adjust the chisel’s position, them picks up the hammer.
Nothing easy about two men sharing one life.
The second brother SWIGS from a gin bottle, then BITES down a padded stick as the first brother BRINGS DOWN THE HAMMER
INT. CELLAR, ABANDONED THEATRE – EVENING
Borden stares at his mutilated hand clasping the rubber ball.
What about Olivia? And your wife?
We each loved one of them. We each had half a full life. Enough for us, but not for them.
Borden puts the ball in his pocket. Tears in his eyes.
Et volá. The payoff. “We were both Fallon. And we were both Borden”. Bordon even says it in his voice-over, the very first line in the movie:
Are you watching closely?
He’s changeling us, as the viewer, but it isn’t until the end we realize this. Even though Cutter’s voice-over that accompanies the start of the entire movie clearly states what is going to happen11 :
Every magic trick consists of three parts, or acts... The first part is called the Pledge... ...the magician shows you something ordinary- A deck of cards, or a bird... ...or a man. He shows you this object, and pledges to you its utter normality... Perhaps he asks you to inspect it... ...to see that it is indeed real... ...unaltered... ...normal. But, of course, it probably isn’t... The second act is called the Turn... The magician takes the ordinary something... ...and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it... Because of course, you’re not really looking... ...you don’t really want to know. ...you want to be fooled. But you couldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough... you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act. The hardest part..., the part we call... The Prestige.
That’s Foreshadowing and Payoff. And as simple as it looks, as simple it is. All the piece fall into place. That little line of dialog (”We were both Fallon. And we were both Borden”) explains why he can’t remember what knot he tied. Why his fingers keep bleeding. Why his wife sometimes could see if his love for her was real or not. Why he changed his mind about buying the house. And how the Transported Man really worked (he used a double). Bordon and Fallon were twin brothers12.
The Nolan brothers have with this written a superbly structure screenplay and perfectly illustrates the Foreshadowing and Payoff trick in absolute clarity. They are truly masters of this technique. Watch also Memento and their two Batman films.
If you want to know more about Foreshadowing and Payoff, I would highly recommend Linda Seger’s classic book “Making a Good Script Great“.
>>> Read the entire screenplay here. (direct link to PDF file).
- stories about magicians don’t come along that often
- For the rest of the Story Trick articles see #1 on Eastern Promises, #2 on Michael Clayton, #3 about the basic structure beatsand #4 on Refusing the Call technique
- aka the “Luke I am your Father”-trick or “Verbal Kint is Keyser Söze”-trick. Read on, you’ll understand. Often this trick is referred to as Setup and Payoff.
- to read the full scene go to page 22 in the script
- in the script it’s on page 38
- starts on page 57
- see page 92 for the entire scene
- starts on page 94
- this scene starts on page 104, and also see the scene on page 99 were Sarah warns Bordon that she will tell Olivia who Bordon really is
- starts on page 122
- here greatly condensed just to show the dialog
- don’t think too much about the validity of this. Anyone who knows identical twins knows that even if they are as identical as they can be you can easily tell them apart. I would at least feel that the wife would be able to. But leave that be, this is fiction and anything goes