By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD— “The Amazing Johnathan” is ostensibly a documentary about famed magician, comedian and self-described prankster Johnathan Szeles, but it morphs into a case study on the increasingly competitive world of documentary filmmaking. Anyone who was captivated earlier this year by the behind-the-scenes drama involving the two competing documentaries about the failed Fyre Festival—Hulu’s “Fyre Fraud” versus Netflix’s “Fyre”—likely will be keen to watch this documentary. Not only does first-time documentary filmmaker Ben Berman become part of the story so does his competition (with their faces obscured and voices altered, of course). Both crews want to tell Szeles’ story first while landing big-name backing and distribution—crucial for a documentary to financially succeed. Berman’s film arrives in theaters and on Hulu’s streaming service just months after the release of “Always Amazing,” by Steve Byrne, a comedian and filmmaker. How Berman landed the coveted bigger deal is revealed in his documentary.
Why so much interest in one magician? Because after a three-decade career as a headliner in Las Vegas, the 60-year-old performer was diagnosed with a life-threatening heart condition. His doctors initially gave him less than a year to live.
Though new to the documentary world, Berman is given full access to his subject. He films Szeles at his tony Las Vegas mansion that he shares with his wife, actress Anastasia Synn, and their cats. He also follows the veteran magician around on what is billed as his farewell tour. The access along with interviews with friends like “Weird Al” Yankovic and family members including Szeles’ 90-year-old mother are, as they say in show business, “pure gold.” But then, while filming Szeles at one his gigs, Berman is surprised to run into another documentary crew backstage. That overlap would be awkward enough but then Berman grows frustrated as he begins to feel pushed aside in favor of the other crew, which allegedly is connected with the renowned filmmaking team behind the Oscar winning documentaries “Searching for Sugarman” and “Man on Wire.”
Berman then becomes increasingly part of his own documentary as he consults his parents and best friend on how to proceed with this complicated turn of events. The action shifts to Berman’s dilemma on what to do after committing months and months and hours of effort and money into the project. He even begins to doubt Szeles’ fatal diagnosis and, in a cringe-worthy moment, captures a confrontation with his subject on camera. That exchange, in which Berman shows Szeles a printed out copy of Szeles’ very first email he gave to him about promising “the truth” infuriates his subject, who dramatically marches off the set, putting the rest of the documentary in jeopardy.
Whatever angle Berman initially planned for his “Amazing Johnathan” documentary, he has to devise a whole new hook. Desperate for answers, he flies to London to discuss the validity of the other documentary crew’s connection to Simon Chinn by asking the Oscar-winning producer of “Man on Wire” and “Searching for Sugarman” directly what his involvement is and then he takes it a step further by boldly asking for backing his film.
Front Row Features caught up with Szeles, who actually is ill and no longer performs, and Berman at—fittingly—the Magic Castle, a private magicians club in Hollywood. Despite their hot-and-cold history and some differences of opinion on some of the content of the documentary, their relationship appears to be cordial. They are both pleased that “The Amazing Johnathan” is arriving Aug. 16 in theaters and available on Hulu. As Presidential candidate Joe Biden said, “We choose truth over facts,” which certainly applies to this film.
Ben Berman explains his documentary experience
Q: How long has this project taken from beginning to end?
Berman: From the initial contact and then getting him through the whole process it was two-and-a-half years.
Q: It seemed in the film like it took longer.
Berman: It felt that way.
Q: Can you talk about the surprise of having a competing documentary crew on this?
Berman: Especially now in documentary filmmaking there are so many so many outlets—Netflix, Hulu, Amazon—so many platforms. In the past year, it seemed like all those Sundance movies got millions and millions of dollars at the box office so, yeah, there’s a thirst for good nonfiction stories and there’s only so many of them. The Fyre Fest docs are a great example of sometimes two people chasing the same story. This movie takes it to another level. I don’t want to reveal anything more than what the trailer reveals so if we can talk about just the second crew in and the concept of competition, that would be great.
Q: One of the alarming aspects of the film is when you present yourself as willing to smoke meth with Johnathan as a sign of your commitment, but the film stops short of showing you actually doing it.
Berman: We left that intentionally vague in in the movie, with our lawyer’s comment on it. That’s really to show the lengths a struggling filmmaker will go in trying to get the winning documentary and to have something so shocking or to kind of beat the competition. So, we hear from the lawyer saying, “Hey don’t show yourself doing that on camera.” The question as to if I did or not remains open.
Q: Do you think this movie may inspire a scripted feature about your experience with Johnathan in making this?
Berman: I don’t know. I know they’re making a scripted remake of the documentary “Three Identical Strangers.” Funny enough, while I was making this movie, I got in touch with Judd Apatow and he watched it. Amazingly, he was like giving me notes and breaking down how he would go with this character and so forth. I’m listening to him, childlike, regurgitating my documentary—my life—back to me and it sounded like a good movie. I was like, “Yeah, let’s do it! Let’s do that movie,” but he didn’t bite. But if anyone were to make this (as a narrative feature), I would want to be a part of writing the movie and I’d want Alexander Payne directing it.
Q: Is it possible that you and Johnathan cooked up this whole other film crew drama just to snag a big-name producer?
Berman: I think we’re slightly less brilliant than that, but I would like to still think it’s in the brilliant category. Every Q&A we’ve done after showing this film (at festivals), eventually someone asks about the meth and they ultimately ask, after doing some research on me and discovering that I’ve written scripted comedy and done weird shows, about what’s real and what’s not. Basically, we get the question of how can we believe you. I love that question and I’ll says it’s the movie continuing after the movie. Some people are like, “Were Ben and Johnathan in on it together? Was Simon in on it from the beginning? What’s going on?” In reality, I’ll tell you when I met Simon, I had the gall to sit down and ask him to produce the movie and it worked out.
I also felt it would have been a fine enough ending for me to go to London to meet with Simon Chinn. Even if I thought I had absolutely 99 percent chance he would say no (to producing the film), even the attempt to get him onboard, I could still go back to Johnathan and admit to him all the things that I did wrong and say I went to meet Simon and I pitched him and he unfortunately he said no, I think he would still have been amazed.
Q: For now, are you sticking with documentaries or are you writing for shows again?
Berman: I’ve always loved documentary filmmaking. This is my first and it was a struggle to make it but I’m very proud of it. I’m not totally switching to non-fiction, though. That’s not the plan. I really want to tell really great engaging stories that are funny and sad and have humanity—that have light and dark, whatever the medium is. I just want to tell great stories. I have a doc series that I’m developing that we’re going to go out and pitch that I’m very excited about it. I have another feature idea that we’re going to be pursuing and then some scripted stuff. I’ve got this very beautiful, sad and dark but funny scripted film and then other stuff, so hopefully I can make something.
Q: What are your final thoughts on “The Amazing Johnathan?”
Berman: I’m happy that the movie is what it is and I’m very proud of it. Some of the reviews coming in and not everyone likes it. I’m in it and it was my choice to put myself in it. There could be some dark times ahead or there could be some really good times.
Johnathan Szeles has his turn at “the truth”
Q: Did you ever perform here at the Magic Castle?
Szeles: I used to come here to watch performances but I never performed here until I did my last shows. I thought it would be perfect to do it here so they let me do it.
Q: So, what’s the real story on your illness?
Szeles: I sat around for three years waiting to die and nothing happened, so I went back to work.
Q: Can you see this documentary being turned into a scripted feature film? And who would you want to play you?
Szeles: Yes! Great idea. I’d say Chris Farley but I guess that’s not possible.
Q: How do you think of “The Amazing Johnathan” turned out?
Szeles: It’s only a very small part of my life—the last part, last few years. There’s a whole other documentary that could be made on my 30 years on the road and doing drugs. I mean just to doing drugs and being on the road. I’m coming out with a book. I’m just putting the finishing touches on it. I wrote it piecemeal and I’m trying to put it in order.
Q: Is your wife Ana helping you?
Szeles: No. She wasn’t there for most of it. We’ve only been together for eight or nine years. I’ll have her read it but we have separate interests. She’s young and wants to travel and do all kinds of stuff and I’m done with it now. I’m really done with it. I can’t move more than a hundred feet without having to sit down. But she takes really good care of me and she puts up with a lot.
Q: How does “The Amazing Johnathan” compare to Steve Byrne’s “Always Amazing” about you?
Szeles: They did a great job on it but it’s a different story. You should watch Steve’s doc because it really shows a whole different side. Ben’s is a bit darker—with the drug abuse and the other stuff. They’re both very good. I (agreed to make these) documentaries for people to see after I was gone, but I’m still here. It’s like getting to be at my own funeral. That’s one of the main reasons that somebody would make a documentary on me is because the of fact I’m on my way out. Generations of people who have enjoyed my shows were sad (to hear I was dying) and then I thought they would like to see a documentary about me before I died. For Ben, it didn’t happen that way though. He was at a loss for an ending, which is why I kind of said bye to him. I didn’t call him back for a while. I just wanted to let him figure it out either put it away or figure out another angle.
Q: Are you a fan of documentaries?
Szeles: I love watching documentaries more than reality TV. It’s so much more educational and you learn so much more about a person, more so than seeing a biopic on them or something some TV network doing a watered-down version of, say, Motley Crue, or something.
For this, I wanted an honest portrayal. I didn’t want my drug use to be hidden in the documentary because I knew people who knew me would come out and go, “You know he used to do that,” so I wanted to show it. I never kept that a secret. All of my friends and family know that I’ve been doing drugs since I was 16. I’m a product of it. I wrote my whole act on doing cocaine. We all did. Robin Williams did it with me. Everybody. We weren’t ashamed about it. The Rolling Stones played their best stuff on drugs. Drugs can be mind-expanding or it can be debilitating. It doesn’t affect people who have millions of dollars the same way it does a homeless person. The weird thing is it doesn’t get me high anymore but I’m a prisoner of drugs now.
Q: What did Ben get right in the documentary?
Szeles: It’s easier to tell you what he got wrong. There are things that he spun. I didn’t like the fact that he made it look like I dropped the ball on the tour. He didn’t show the standing ovations and the people waiting in line to see me. He showed me dropping a microphone and not coming out on stage when I was introduced because I was dizzy, and stuff like that. He really went into it without having an agenda or a storyline. He just hoped it would happen along the way and it really didn’t until the other documentary team came into play. He knew that he was either going to waste a lot of money and have to give it up or step up to the plate.
Q: In the scene where he confronts you, were you really that angry with him?
Szeles: Yes. I told him, “You’re just waiting for me to die and I didn’t.” I knew he was trying to push my buttons. I knew that he knew I really was dying because he had been to the doctor’s (office) with me. He knew I had been in the hospital. He knew I wasn’t faking it. What I really wanted to do, because nobody has ever done it before, was I wanted to disappear for five years and have people think I was dead, and then come back. I actually looked into it. I went and talked with a team of lawyers and they told me the reasons why I couldn’t really do this. Actually, dying and making people believe you’re still alive would be much easier– you have some people plant things around that make it look like you’re still alive.
Q: Do you think you’ll be able to perform again?
Szeles: I can’t. I don’t have the energy to do it because my heart’s only pumping at half-capacity. My voice starts to go out after a short while. I’d have to sit down during a show, which doesn’t look good. Because I can’t put the kind of energy into it, I don’t want to do it. I’m not saying I’ll never do it. Maybe I’ll get the strength somewhere down the road but probably not. This is a degenerative disease. It’s just taking longer to die than the doctors expected. They can’t really do anything for my heart. My doctor told me he could get me these stem cells for $2,000 a pop. It’s cash only so I’m not going to die with money in the bank like I wish I would have done. Despite all that, I feel pretty damn good.