Having captivated the world with death-defying feats for nearly two decades, David Blaine makes his return to primetime television in the groundbreaking new special David Blaine: Real or Magic, airing November 19th on ABC. Blaine has spent years putting together a special that not only lives up to his own high standards, but will wow and astonish viewers. His signature brand of street magic mystifies everyone who witnesses it, whether it’s random people on the street, President Bush, Stephen Hawking, or some of the most recognizable celebrities in the world, including Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Ricky Gervais, Kanye West, Katy Perry, Woody Allen, Harrison Ford, Robert DeNiro and Olivia Wilde, to name a few.
After having my own mind blown while I was watching this incredible special, I was excited to learn that David Blaine was available to chat with Collider for this exclusive phone interview. We talked about how this special came about, working with a very small crew to be less intrusive, being spontaneous to make sure he gets a reaction from people, trusting his own filter for what’s believable and what’s not, applying amazing technology to simple tricks, putting his own life in real jeopardy when he performs feats of physical endurance, his desire to someday conquer sleep deprivation for one million seconds, and how he would love to travel across America, doing magic for people. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
DAVID BLAINE: Yeah, that’s basically the best part, for me. Even though I look like I’m pretty stone-faced, I’m usually reacting really hard, on the inside.
You have such a low-key manner about you. Do you ever get nervous about performing for people?
BLAINE: No. I do it every day and all the time, so I think I got over that when I was a kid, probably. It’s just something I love doing, so much.
Is there anyone that’s ever made you crack because of their reaction?
BLAINE: Yeah, of course. There are instances that are really bizarre. Sometimes I just can’t help myself and I just start laughing hysterically, but it’s few and far. My first show, Street Magic, with the girls that were in Times Square, when she started running away, I broke character, but luckily the camera got off of my face when I started laughing really hard.
How did this special come about, in this format? Is this something you’ve been working on, for a long time?
BLAINE: I hadn’t done any TV shows in six or so years. That was just ‘cause I wasn’t inspired, so I didn’t feel ready to do anything. So, I worked really hard and started to work on the concept to show an extreme version of street magic, and show all people from all walks of life, and show the similarities and the great reactions. It took me years to figure out how to do that. Also, I had try to reach out to everybody and track people down. I was showing up places and surprising people, and finding people. It was a great experience because our crew was very small, but everybody was so dedicated to it. The crew was just five, six or seven people, at most. We were all a really close team on it, which felt pretty amazing.
Do you try to get a read for people, to quickly figure out if something isn’t working right, so you can switch to another trick?
BLAINE: Yeah. A lot of it is spontaneous, switching and moving direction to find something that you think is gonna work, in what I like to call a provocative way, where you get somebody to not be in their head. When I’m doing things with the camera, I’m always very hyper-aware, in making a television show, to show an honest reaction. It takes a lot of turning and twisting to get there.
The title of this special is Real or Magic. Do you feel like you have to have a combination of the two, in order to really blow people’s minds?
BLAINE: I feel that way, but that’s just me, personally. To each his own. But for me, I like to do things that you can’t really debate, or that your brain won’t say that it’s a special effect or an illusion. As soon as your brain says that, you’re not going to react to it because your brain is telling you that this is clearly a set-up. For me, the most important part of getting the right reaction is by taking away that disbelief, immediately.
BLAINE: Everybody is different, on every level. There is no specific tougher audience. On the show, there’s a girl who says, “You’re all in on this,” but that skepticism made me love her. Watching her, and then getting her to react and adjusting to her was one of my favorite moments. It was nice because, as far as TV goes, she’s basically giving you the big set-up. She’s calling everything out before it happens and she’s challenging you.
When you’re devising tricks, how much do you have to take the savvy-ness of your audience into account?
BLAINE: I have a pretty high filter, which is why I think there’s not so much magic on the show that you saw. There are 19 effects total. It’s because I have a personal filter that I use where, if something seems too hard to believe, I usually nix it unless it’s something that I call the rabbit from the hat, like with Katy Perry. That was a throwback to an old classic in magic, but done in a different way. My filter is pretty high for what is believable versus what is not.
You even incorporated technology in the card trick you did with Jaden Smith and the use of the camera in his iPhone. As people become more and more attached to technology, was it crucial for you to figure out how to acknowledge that and incorporate it into what you’re doing?
BLAINE: Yeah. You have to start involving it and figuring out how to use it and make it work. That did feel very important, actually. Even though most of the stuff was very simple, it was nice to be able to apply the most amazing technology on the planet, with the iPhone, when doing a simple card effect.
How much work and planning really has to go into translating what you do to make it effective for TV?
BLAINE: This was years and years in the making. It started as me doing experimental pieces on my own, just handing somebody a camera when I was doing magic at certain gigs and with certain people. I tried to figure out how to make people not aware of the camera in situations where they normally would be. Just years of doing that and trying different things out helped to find what I felt would be the right path to get what I was looking for, which was honest, unfiltered reactions from people.
Isn’t there also the concern of making sure the TV audience has as much of an experience as watching the special as the people who got to see it being done live?
BLAINE: Right, and that’s part of it. There’s a subconscious part to the believability for people. You know subconsciously when something is really happening and when something is an effect, and that’s why when you watch certain movies or certain TV shows, you don’t really feel like you’re a part of it because it’s just a special effect and you feel the reactions are fake, or whatever the case is. So, the big challenge for me was that anything that felt unnatural, not real or a fake reaction, we would never use. Part of the challenge was getting people to really react. There’s an instinct that we all have, that understands that subliminal message or that reaction.
BLAINE: All the time. It’s a real problem. It’s part training and preparation and experimentation, and the other part is just hoping that everything that goes okay. I hope for the best and expect the worst. That’s been my motto, for a long time.
Was the ice stunt that you did the closest you came to death?
BLAINE: I think the closest I’ve come to death was probably the 44 days, living just on water. The organs start to shut down, and that was a borderline where I couldn’t go any further than that.
Do you learn from those experiences and change how you approach things after that?
BLAINE: I learn from everything. But for me, there’s so much that I get during it, that I learn about things that have nothing to do with what I’m doing, which is amazing.
When you do what you do, do you see it as trying to top those who came before you, or do you see it as paying homage to them, in the best way possible?
BLAINE: I don’t actually look at it as trying to top anybody other than myself. I’ve always thought about it as that. I’ve mostly been like, “What could I do that pushes me to the furthest point?” That usually comes more from competing with myself than other people.
Is sleep deprivation for one million seconds something you really want to conquer someday?
BLAINE: Yeah, I would love to eventually do that, but I don’t know how to do it.
When you’re known for performing for people, do you ever people like people start to see you as something of a trained monkey, constantly asking you to perform for them?
BLAINE: No, I just love doing it, so I don’t care. I do feel like a trick monkey, but I like that. I like doing magic, at all times. It’s almost like I can’t help myself. It’s like a compulsion.
How often have you realized that something isn’t going right, and you’ve had to quickly turn it into something else?
BLAINE: I think that happens all the time, but each time that happens, it just takes something to a more interesting place. That’s part of the learning curve.
Does everything you do have to have a Plan B, then?
BLAINE: I think everything is a Plan B.
BLAINE: It’s interesting, one time I was doing magic for the two teams from the Super Bowl in 2002. I remember that one of the microphones followed one of the linebackers. I had just done magic for the whole team, and they all ran away screaming. I stayed back and the camera stayed back, but the sound guy was shadowing one of the linebackers, and the way he explained the technique to my magic was almost like reading it in a magic book. It was so specific. And I’ve never had anybody do that. I was like, “Oh, this is why the guy is a pro linebacker in the Super Bowl. He can read behavior and patterns and make estimations, and it’s not just restricted to what he’s doing.” That was a really cool learning experience for me.
What’s the easiest thing you perform for people, that gets one of the biggest reactions?
BLAINE: There’s one that I’ve done forever, that’s just a simple thing with cards where the card keeps moving to the top, but it’s always been one of those things. It’s the reaction I always love.
You’ve said that you’re planning on doing a tour. Do you have any idea when you might do that, where you’d go, or what you’d like to do, in that capacity?
BLAINE: Yeah, I’d like to do something small and just travel across America, like the old Vaudevillian era and the old circus acts. I’d love to go all over America, in places where people normally don’t get to see magic.
You’ve performed for Presidents, celebrities from every aspect of the entertainment business, and random people on the street, but how much more special is it when you perform for children with serious illnesses and bring some magic to their lives?
BLAINE: That’s always the most moving. When I leave the room, that’s when I end up crying. Not crying from sadness, but crying because it was so amazing and touching and poetic. That is definitely one of the greatest pleasures I get out of doing magic, that’s for sure. It’s nice when there’s an emotion connected to the magic, as well.
Is there anyone else you’d like to perform for, that you didn’t get for the special?
BLAINE: Yeah, there are so many different people. There are so many people that I’m always intrigued by and amazed by. It’s unlimited.
David Blaine: Real or Magic airs on ABC on November 19th.