How Nolan Used Foreshadowing and Payoff in “The Prestige” To Trick Us All
The Prestige is often overlooked in the canon of Christopher Nolan’s movies and that is really a shame, for what a pleasant surprise it was. A great and very unusual story (stories about magicians don’t come along that often) with strong pacing, perfect story structure and great dialog.
Written by Christopher and his brother Jonathan Nolan, it is one of the best — if not the best — screenplays of late to study the story-telling technique of Foreshadowing and Payoff.
There is a link for the entire screenplay at the end. Go grab it if you want to read along with the examples provided here.
WARNING: Spoiler Ahead
And now is the time for a warning before you read any further; there are major spoilers in this piece, so if you haven’t seen the film already, please do not read any further. Consider yourself warned. Close down the browser, watch the movie and then come back here.
Okay, you’ve seen it? Great! Let’s continue.
Foreshadowing and Payoff
This story-telling technique is all about Foreshadowing and Payoff aka the “Verbal Kint is Keyser Söze” technique (read on, you’ll understand).
For a full recap of the plot read the summary over at Wikipedia.
The movie starts out with Christian Bale’s character, Borden, meets and falls in love with the beautiful Sarah (played by Rebecca Hall). Later, when they are moving in together we have this little scene played out for us (to read the full scene go to page 25 in the script) :
And that line; “Nope. Not today”, or versions of it, is repeated throughout the movie. At first, it just seems like Borden is the kind of man who is only capable of loving one thing at a time. One day, it is his wife he loves and on 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 scene (in the script it’s on page 38):
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 easily catch infection.
The next scene that uses the foreshadowing technique starts on page 57:
See? Again Borden 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 — or so we are made to believe.
Later, the relationship between Borden and Sarah is, to say it mildly, not very good (see page 92 for the entire scene) :
That just a relationship gone sour. We have already seen that Borden is having an affair with the young Olivia (played by Scarlett Johansson), so it, again, makes perfect sense in the context of the story. The scene is even followed up by this right after (starts on page 94) :
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 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 Borden is sitting with Olivia at a restaurant and having this conversation (this scene starts on page 104, and also see the scene on page 99 were Sarah warns Borden that she will tell Olivia who Borden really is) :
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, ladies and gentlemen, comes the Payoff, behold (starts on page 122) :
Et volá. The payoff; “We were both Fallon. And we were both Borden”. Borden even says it in his voice-over, the very first line in the movie:
He’s challenging us, as the viewer, but it isn’t until the very end of the movie we realize this. Even though Cutter’s voice-over at the start of the entire movie clearly states what is going to happen (here greatly condensed just to show the dialog) :
CUTTER (V.O.): 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.
All the pieces 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 trick really worked (he used a double). Borden and Fallon were twin brothers.
It is a super simple but extremely powerful technique. And when used by story-telling experts like the Nolan brothers it sets up the entire movie to be seen numerous time.
The Nolan brothers have with this written a superbly structured screenplay and perfectly illustrates the Foreshadowing and Payoff trick in absolute clarity. They are truly masters of this technique.
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In the 90s, Simon Lund Larsen was a production runner on a couple of movies, a sound engineer on others and a producer of some. He later founded two companies; one that made short films and one that made multiplayer online games. Sold one of the companies and dissolved the other.
Now he works at a large toy maker in Denmark in the daytime and write short stories, screenplays and posts like these in his spare time. When he is not polishing his latest post on Medium, he can be found on Twitter as @SimonLundLarsen or at SimonLundLarsen.com