The documentary Make Believe follows six young outsiders who all share an extraordinary skill and passion for the art of magic. Each with their own strengths and a dazzling array of tricks and illusions, these teenagers come from all over the country and various parts of the world to attend the annual World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas, where they strive to be named Teen World Champion by magic icon Lance Burton. Inspired by his own history as a teen magician, producer Steven Klein brought the idea for Make Believe to executive producers Ed Cunningham and Seth Gordon (the duo behind the acclaimed documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters), and they all chose to enlist J. Clay Tweel to be at the helm of this unusual coming-of-age story.
At the film’s press day, appropriately held at the famed Magic Castle, producer Steven Klein and director J. Clay Tweel talked about what makes magic so fascinating, finding these young magicians that they focused on for the film, what it was like to narrow down 400 hours of footage into 90 minutes, and the fact that they would consider doing another film about magic. They also confirmed that the narrative remake of The King of Kong is still in development at New Line, with drafts of the script currently being done. Check out what they had to say after the jump:
Question: What got you interested in magic and started this whole project for you?
STEVEN KLEIN: The secret is that I was a teen magician, but the analogy that I’ve come to use is that, if I were a Junior Varsity high school athlete of a magician, these kids are the Olympiads. I was nowhere near as good as they are. But, I was already an actor and already doing theater and television, and knew that this was the career that I wanted to go into, so when I went through that phase of being interested in magic, that a lot of nerdy kids go through, I connected with it as an exercise in storytelling. Every magic trick is like a distilled story. It has a little beginning, middle and a reversal. And, I could observe that the difference between a good magician and a great magician is often just the yarn they spin around the architecture of the actual trick, so I kept practicing my storytelling through magic and that sustained my interest in the art, through high school and into college.
Then, I moved to Los Angeles and, coming from Boston, it was a big deal to be in the same city as the Magic Castle. So, I dusted off enough of the repretoire to join and starting going there pretty regularly, and brought friends for drinks. The friend who most regularly wanted to come along was Seth Gordon, who directed The King of Kong and Four Christmases, and was one of our executive producers. We were here in 2004 and we were roommates at the time, getting a drink there, and he was cutting The King of Kong. We looked around the bar upstairs and were like, “There’s got to be a documentary in this world. It’s filled with characters, like the world of video games is also filled with characters.” So, we had a lunch meeting and we took notes, and we completely failed to come up with exactly what the story would be. We were like, “Is there a rivalry? Is there a Billy Mitchell magician?” We couldn’t find anything like that. And so, about every six months, for several years, that went on.
And then, I was in New York rehearsing a play in the summer of 2008, and I went to Tannen’s, which is a historic magic shop there, just for an afternoon, and these three 12-year-old boys came in who were deeply introverted, on the Asberger’s continuum. They were very inward. And, I was drawn to them, so my eye followed them as they walked through the store. They went over to the counter, they picked up decks of cards, and they went behind the counter and said, “Good afternoon!,” and became sales people at the store. I thought, “Well, that journey from the deeply introverted to the extroverted is an arc.” So, I walked outside and called (executive producers) Seth [Gordon] and Ed [Cunningham] and said, “I think it’s kids.” They were excited. We had a lunch a few weeks later, when I was back in L.A., and the first director name we instantly came up with was Clay [Tweel]. We met a few days later and he was like, “That’s great! The world of magic is fertile, but the thing that we need to bring to it and that it needs to be a vehicle for is a story of coming of age.” And, we were shooting two months later.
KLEIN: They just appeared!
J. CLAY TWEEL: They’re amazing. We entered the world of teenage magicians through the Magic Castle in L.A. We met Krystyn [Lambert] and a couple other kids that were fascinating as well. The deeper we got, we would hear about other people within the world of teenage magicians, and we heard Bill Koch’s name. We had a rough sense, but didn’t know fully what the movie was going to be about, until we were at the World Magic Seminar and were able to see these kids in their element, and how excited and passionate they were, and then it slowly unraveled from there. If it was going to be a competition movie and we were able to bounce all around the world and have these characters that are all in the subset of outsiders, but all have their own unique challenges that they face, in order to get to this competition and succeed. I thought that was a good conceit for which characters to focus on.
What was your budget on this film?
KLEIN: A little under half a million dollars. It was fairly inexpensive for a film.
On such a low-budget, how did you afford to go to Japan and South Africa?
KLEIN: We had a very limited budget and the thing that took the most resources was having to travel that geography. Because of events unfolding in Hiroki Hara’s life, and events unfolding in Siphiwe Fangase and Nkumbuzo Nkonyana’s life, we were not able to go to both places, so we hired locally in South Africa and we went to Japan. There’s a great independent film scene in Cape Town, so we knew there would be a crew we could hire there, and we figured we could direct over the phone, through Skype and by the Internet, from Japan and in English. If we tried to go in reverse, we’d lose too much in translation. There’s no film team in Kitayama, Japan.
TWEEL: There was no one within two hours of there that probably has a working video camera with good audio. So, we made that decision to go see Hiroki and we were able to direct the team in South Africa.
KLEIN: So, that saved some resources.
Why do you think kids that are into magic usually feel like such outsiders, when everybody seems to love magic, enjoys their performances and is impressed by it?
TWEEL: Part of it is that magic is often a maligned art form. It doesn’t get a whole lot of respect. People are like, “Yeah, I want to see a trick. I want you to fool me.” But, a lot of people have the mind-set of, “I just want to see you do it, so that I can figure it out.” The joy of being entertained is not in the majority of people who are watching magic. They have this edge of wanting to figure it out. So, the kids that get into magic and are really good at it are often the ones that need that extra boost of confidence and some sort of tool to help them interact, in the first place. There’s probably an obsessive compulsive part of their personality and a highly intense problem-solver mind-set that they have, that gets them into magic in the first place, and then they have to bridge that gap, in order to be social. What magic does is that it forces you to perform for people. You can learn all the patterns and tricks in your room by yourself that you want, but you have to go out and actually test it on people. To make that jump, it helps them interact.
Was it challenging to narrow down the footage you shot for the film, and will you be putting some of that footage on the DVD?
TWEEL: Absolutely! We had 400 hours of footage that we got down to 90 minutes, so there’s lots of gold that hit the cutting room floor.
TWEEL: In a leather bound volume. No. So, there will be tutorials on the DVD, with some teenage magicians at the Magic Castle teaching other beginners tricks, which are great. There will also be extra pieces about the character and personalities of all of the kids in the movie, that didn’t quite make it into the film, but which I love.
What type of magic and tricks impress you the most?
TWEEL: I love close-up, so whenever I go to the Magic Castle, that’s the one room that I have to go to. It’s that intimate. There’s something about seeing something done that right in front of your eyes that’s great, and you still can’t figure it out.
KLEIN: I definitely love close-up! Just because it’s done with ordinary objects, right in front of your face, there’s something heightened about that. Part of the issue is that you can’t fake good close-up. You can’t go to a magic store and learn how to do that in an hour. You can’t fake that. It’s just skill. You have to learn it. There are some illusions and prop-heavy magic that you can go to the magic store and buy, so a lot of times, when you see them at the county fair or a school talent show, you’re seeing a mediocre version of it, so it’s easy to get a negative perception of that. But, when I saw Lance Burton do those same things, it elevated it to a whole other level. When a true artist does stage magic, it’s something unlike a lot of what you say, and it’s amazing.
TWEEL: Yeah, we’ve been talking about remake possibilities and other off-shoots of the brand of Make Believe. We’ve had interest from studios and production companies, and are trying to facilitate what is next, based off of the property of Make Believe. So, we’re definitely thinking about that and trying to see what sticks to the wall.
Is there still going to be a dramatized version of The King of Kong?
TWEEL: There is, yes. It’s still in the works at New Line. The King of Kong narrative remake is not dead, by any means. It’s still on the table. They’re still cranking out drafts.
What do you hope audiences get from this film?
KLEIN: We’re a little film that is trying to be the little engine that could. Fortunately, we’ve gotten a good audience response and a good press response, and that has helped a lot. Right now, we’re finishing a limited theatrical release. We had a week in New York and a week in Chicago, and Friday we open to the public in Los Angeles, for a minimum of a week. We hope that the press efforts help drive that enough that we can open in other theaters as well. And, we will come out on DVD, later this summer. All is available at www.MakeBelieveFilm.com.