“I feel like I am at my best when I have a competitor”: An interview with The Amazing Johnathan Documentary director Ben Berman
This month, American director and producer Ben Berman delivers his first documentary feature, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, which pilots chaotically and deeply into the life and work of the magician John Edward Szeles (known as Amazing Johnathan) after he is diagnosed with the terminal condition cardiomyopathy.
The film pushes the boundaries of documentary, showing clips of Johnathan’s meth habit and the way in which Berman himself tries to capture the authenticity of Johnathan’s medical condition. Eventually the project evolved from the initial idea to include other documentary makers and the director himself. We sat down with Berman to discuss his pursuit of the project, the reasons behind the film’s autobiographical twist and his relationship with Johnathan throughout the filming process.
What made you want to undertake this project about a famous dying magician?
The reality is, I would not have made a documentary about Johnathan if it wasn’t for him being ill and only having a certain amount of time left. I don’t think any of the other documentary makers would either. I have an inclination – not an obsession – to do stories that deal with mortality and explore its darkness, sadness and humour.
How long did the film take to make, given the uncertainty of Johnathan’s health?
From the day I met Johnathan and started filming to our premiere at Sundance, it was two and a half years in total.
How did you feel when all the other documentary makers started appearing and Johnathan relegated you? Did you feel like giving up on your project, or did it drive you to be more ambitious with the story?
What I ended up learning is that I feel like I am at my best, my most unique or do my most interesting work when I am given obstacles or a competitor. I chose to try to outdo the other crews – some of the things you see me doing in the film are attempts to win or to have the most interesting movie. Necessity is the mother of invention. I needed to set myself apart, so I invented ways to do it.
How was your relationship with Johnathan during the filming of the documentary?
The day we met we started a relationship that was “Pals”: challenging each other, making fun of each other, him pranking me. We developed a kid brother/bigger brother relationship, him being the older brother bossing me around! That remained throughout, even when he was doing things that were really not ideal for me and my film. We clearly felt differently after we had a confrontation later on in the movie – there were difficulties. Sometimes he would disappear for a while, but to be honest it’s not that different from lots of relationships. The tie between filmmaker and subject can be challenging, but it’s probably better when it is. Interesting friction.
What do you think was the turning point in the film where you switched it to a more autobiographical angle? Was this your intention from the start?
It totally evolved. It was not planned, I would never have thought I would be a character in it in any significant way. Finding out about the other crew and me experimenting and including that part of the story in the actual movie – it felt then that if I was going to include them I needed to include myself. I wanted to stay at the level of a couple of shots of me. Getting kicked out of the green room looking sad, that was kind of funny and what was actually happening. Then much later, financiers and producers who came on board became aware of my family history, with my mother passing away, and said I should include it in the story. I was completely against it, feeling it was a sob story, heavy handed, or forced – I was very firm, but then my buddy said I should. He persuaded me and I came to realise it was actually meaningful and good.
When you look back at the whole process, what do you think you have learnt about yourself and documentary makers as a whole?
I learnt that it’s harder than I imagined, so moving into my next movie I don’t have the benefit of that naivety. I know now it’s a long and hard process. I’m excited to try and keep on moving forward now and not to just rest on the tradition of what documentaries are or how they should be structured. I want to keep pushing the boundaries and messing things up.
Do you think it’s hard to find space and originality in an oversaturated market of documentary makers?
I think now more than ever, documentaries are so popular, it’s definitely harder. It’s like true crime on Netflix etc, it’s such an industry. There’s now a huge market for it – hopefully for a while. There’s so many more players all vying for the most interesting story. It’s an interesting time, for sure.
What is the next thing you are working on?
I’m actually on set tomorrow, so that could be my next project. I’m starting the same way as the Johnathan project – meeting them, filming them, not knowing what the end goal is. I’m pitching a documentary series that the Johnathan doc has definitely influenced. I also do fiction stuff and am putting together a movie that I co-wrote. Hopefully a number of new projects!
Featured photo: Ben Berman in The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, courtesy of Hulu
The Amazing Johnathan Documentary is in select cinemas from 19th November 2019. For more information or to book tickets, visit the movie’s website here.
Watch the trailer for The Amazing Johnathan Documentary here: