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The director of one of the year’s weirdest documentaries doesn’t really care if you like his movie

Hulu’s The Amazing Johnathan Documentary seems contrived. Director Ben Berman insists it isn’t.

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The Amazing Johnathan in May 2019.
Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images

When first-time feature filmmaker Ben Berman set out to make a movie about the magician John Edward Szeles — a.k.a. the Amazing Johnathan — it’s safe to say he had no idea what was going to happen. Johnathan had disappeared from the public eye in 2014 after being diagnosed with a terminal illness, and Berman wanted to know what happened. The resulting film, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, skewers the conventions and ethical sticky wickets of documentary filmmaking.

But The Amazing Johnathan Documentary is not really a movie about Johnathan. In the film, Berman seems to quickly “discover” that other filmmakers are also trying to make documentaries about the magician, who could die any minute. Berman goes to increasingly bizarre lengths to make sure he gets there first, then starts to question the ethics of his own methods. And though Berman insists he was along for the ride, when you watch, it’s still not entirely clear that he’s is being straight with us about what he knew and when he knew it.

But that’s sort of the point. The Amazing Johnathan Documentary is a farce about the business of making documentaries, especially ones that profile celebrities. Whether you find it fascinating or infuriating, it’s hard to look away.

This past June, I talked to Berman about his film, ethics, blowing up the genre, and what Johnathan thinks about the twisty film. We met in a hotel lobby after the film screened at Sheffield Doc/Fest, an international documentary festival in northern England. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Ben Berman and Amazing Johnathan in The Amazing Johnathan Documentary.
Ben Berman and Amazing Johnathan in The Amazing Johnathan Documentary.
Hulu

Alissa Wilkinson

So: What kind of a movie do you think you made?

To me, it felt like a farce, or a meta-commentary on documentary. Other people who watched it with me had very different opinions — they felt like you were messing with them. What did you set out to do?

Ben Berman

That changed throughout the process, which is kind of the beauty of it. I started out to make a pretty simple, straightforward, vérité character piece. And probably, in my mind, it was going to be a short film.

But once things started happening, I knew I wanted to follow that story. And then from that point, I don’t know. I was just trying to figure it out, and [the audience gets] to watch me figure it out.

Here at Sheffield, people have responded very strongly to the movie, in a very positive way. I think they’re so shocked and confused. They’re like, “Well, how do you feel about you making a comedy documentary?” I’m like, “I feel good about it. What about you?” And they’re like, “Yeah, it’s cool! We don’t really see many of those.”

Someone last night said something nice to me. They were like, “I appreciate how much of a fuck-you it is to form.” And I was like, “Yes, that’s exactly what I wanted.” I felt like, if Johnathan’s fucking with me, I’m going to fuck with documentaries. All the rules should go out the window.

Alissa Wilkinson

A bedrock idea behind making a documentary, a nonfiction movie, is that the filmmaker isn’t controlling the outcome the way they are in a fictional film. But watching The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, you can imagine why someone might think that you are actually pulling strings behind the scenes.

Ben Berman

I’m not trying to mislead anyone while watching the movie. I wasn’t contriving too many things. It’s not a fake documentary; it’s not a mock documentary. It is a real documentary. These are real things that happened.

But at the same time, as you know, having seen the movie, I am contriving some things.

Having yourself and your opinions and your reactions as part of the story is more truthful than pretending that you’re not there, and pretending that the characters aren’t affected by your presence.

People have asked me, “So are you acting in the movie?” And I’m like, “No.” But at the same time, the presence of a camera changes the reality of it. Maybe this is a very film school conversation to have, or something. But I love it.

The Amazing Johnathan
The Amazing Johnathan, at it again.
Sundance Institute

Alissa Wilkinson

The presence of the camera, as in a science experiment, changes the outcome. And that effect is pronounced when you’re working with a professional performer like Johnathan, it seems.

Ben Berman

Oh, yeah. It’s easier to get [performers] to say, “Yes, come film me.” Now, I’m pursuing some other documentary projects, not necessarily with performers, and it’s more difficult to get them to be like, “Yeah, come film.” They’re more like, “Wait, who are you? What’s your angle? Are you going to make me look dumb?”

Alissa Wilkinson

A lot of what this film does is make its audience — well, uncomfortable might not be the right word, but ...

Ben Berman

I like that.

Alissa Wilkinson

People lose their bearings really fast. I noticed that particularly when I saw it for the first time in January, with a crowd at Sundance. Lots of festival documentaries are really sad or tragic or about important issues that demand action; yours does something else completely.

Were you going for that?

Ben Berman

A ton. Somewhat. 50-50; I don’t know.

You have to think about your audience. Is this story going to attract audiences? Are people going to care? Is Johnathan likable enough? From every edit to every macro question, [I have to consider,] should we do this? What’s the best way to tell the story? Of course, you have to think about the audience. Not pander to the audience — I’m proud of the film, because I don’t think it does pander to the audience.

Did you get the sense that I was or wasn’t thinking about the audience?

Alissa Wilkinson

Well, I think what was most interesting to me when I saw it initially was how divided I could tell the audience’s opinions were ...

Ben Berman

Really?

Alissa Wilkinson

Yes, about what they were watching. You could feel people didn’t know what they were watching sometimes.

Ben Berman

Good. Fuck them. [good-natured chuckle]

Johnathan in The Amazing Johnathan Documentary.
Johnathan in The Amazing Johnathan Documentary.
Hulu

Alissa Wilkinson

It was clear you wanted to make them draw their own conclusions.

Ben Berman

I certainly hope so.

It was my first time making a documentary ... and this is going to sound way too important-sounding compared with what it really is, but to mess with the form, fuck with the form, blow up the genre, or whatever it is the first time out — what gives me the right?

Alissa Wilkinson

Well, you’ve never made a documentary before, but you’ve watched them, obviously.

Ben Berman

I’ve watched them. I’ve always had a deep love for documentary, and I interned with [documentarian] D.A. Pennebaker when I was 19.

Recently, I was moving from one part of L.A. to another part, and I found I had a business card from when I was right out of college in Philadelphia. The business card listed me as a Final Cut Pro editor — very specific. Final Cut Pro editor, documentarian, and sound person, and I did all those things. I’ve always aspired to be a documentarian. There’s something great about it to me.

Alissa Wilkinson

One big theme in this film — and one big obstacle to becoming a documentary — is the difficulty in getting documentaries funded. The way different projects get funded has to do with how funders think about who “deserves” money. People get excited to invest in movies that are going to be unique. In your film, the question of whether Johnathan is dying or not dying actually has funding implications, and you also discover a lot of people are trying to make movies about him at the same time.

Ben Berman

There’s so many platforms, and there’s so many people, and cheap enough equipment, that any dope off the street — myself included — gets a camera and says, “I’m a documentarian. Johnathan, can I film you?” The market is oversaturated.

Going back to your question about how this movie subverts the expectations of a normal doc ... I think one of the ways is we show the seams of the movie. We show the process. So many other filmmakers are like, “Okay, let’s find the story when we’re not on camera, and then make the movie and package it up nice, and present ourselves nicely.” This movie is saying, “No, you’re going to struggle with me. You’re going to see me struggle, and you’re going to see the process.” I like showing seams. Like Johnathan’s magic, the movie deconstructs itself. I’m into it.

Orson Welles’s F for Fake was an inspiration. He says, “For the next hour, you’re going to only see the truth. This is the truth.” And then you realize at the end of the movie, oh, the movie is an hour and a half, so for the last 30 minutes he admits he’s been fooling you.

I love that. I love movies doing more than just being movies. Like movies, there’s another layer there that’s fucking with you.

Alissa Wilkinson

So Johnathan is still alive and kicking?

Ben Berman

Johnathan is still alive, I believe so. I saw him put something on Facebook yesterday, so ...

Alissa Wilkinson

Do you know what he thinks of the movie?

Ben Berman

Yeah, he and his wife love it. The moment that we finally showed it to him was very tense. We’ve been making the movie for two and a half years, but I haven’t shown Johnathan a stitch of footage. We submit to Sundance. He doesn’t know. We get in, and we have to intentionally not tell him until two days before they announce it got in, because we knew that Johnathan’s got a big mouth and would announce it, and that’s bad.

Two days before the announcement, me and one of my producers called him and were like, “Hey, great news. We got into Sundance!” And he was like, “Oh, wow. Amazing! What is it? What got into Sundance?” So he’s happy, but he immediately texted me and was like, “Dude, what the fuck is it? I need to see it. Send it to me right now. I just know it’s going to be something I hate.” He was very aggressive with me. He was like, “I just know you made a documentary that slanders me, and I’m going to fucking kill it. You won’t release it. I’ll kill it in its tracks, and this is going to be a problem.”

And I just have to just try to be positive and write, “Hey, I think you’re going to love it,” knowing absolutely he would hate and maybe try to shoot me in that moment.

Anyway, we drove up to Vegas. It was very scary. We showed him and his wife and a few other of his friends the movie. And they absolutely loved it. From five seconds in, they just laughed and loved it.

Alissa Wilkinson

So he feels like it captures who he is?

Ben Berman

I think you could show him anything on him and he’ll love it because he loves himself. And he loves attention, clearly. And I think he saw one of the other documentaries about him as kind of a puff piece, safe, very safe. He’s not safe. Don’t make a safe documentary.

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary premieres on Hulu on August 16.

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