Documentary Spotlight

How 'Amazing Johnathan Documentary' Filmmaker Embraced Chaos: "What the F*** Is This?"

Courtesy of Hulu
'The Amazing Jonathan Documentary'

The idea was to follow around the illusionist, but things changed once another film crew arrived. Director Ben Berman explains his decision to pivot from traditional biopic to comedic autobiographical piece when things went spectacularly wrong.

Ben Berman's film about an ailing magician's return to the stage was never intended as a nose-thumbing to the documentary form. In fact, as Berman drove out to Las Vegas in 2017, seeking to gather material for a short film about illusionist John Szeles — The Amazing Johnathan in 2014 had declared in front of a live audience that he had cardiomyopathy and a year to live — there wasn't much of a plan at all. Berman saw an opportunity to document the return of a still alive-and-kicking Szeles announcing that he was coming out of retirement while mixing in interviews from comedy and magic act peers including Eric Andre, Penn Jillette and Criss Angel. As far as documentaries go, this was all pretty standard stuff. Then — as Berman's documentary lays out in glorious detail — everything went spectacularly wrong.

Unbeknownst to the filmmaker, he wasn't the only one committed to documenting Szeles' story. "A second crew came into the picture, and I was like, 'What the fuck is this?' " recalls Berman, who by that point of production had decided to make a feature-length film about Szeles. Once told that the filmmakers responsible for Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man were also making a film about the illusionist, Berman changed course and recalibrated his approach. "If a documentary is seeking truth, how could I ignore this truth that there was another crew there? So that's what I decided to do," says Berman, who pivoted without warning from traditional biopic to a comedic autobiographical piece about the absurdity of making a documentary under less-than-optimal circumstances.

The result reveals more about filmmaker and subject than either perhaps intended. "The chaos that unfolds in the movie reflects John as a person," says Berman. The film also points a finger at those — Berman included — trying to gain notoriety from a man's last grasp at fame. "It's the question of exploitation," says Berman. "Why is it that I hear a man is dying and that's the inciting incident as to why I want to go make a movie about him?"

Even Szeles probes Berman about whether he wishes the film could end in his death, as he and the director find themselves at an impasse during filmmaking. "I love the fact that he questioned that, because that should be questioned," says Berman. "As much as it points some negative things at me and potentially all journalists, I love it. It's the story behind the story that's interesting at times."

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, which Hulu released in August, is a look at the lengths a filmmaker might — and probably shouldn't — go to distinguish their project. One particular scene tackles Szeles' meth addiction in a manner that raises many questions, first and foremost about legal repercussions. Berman says he has no regrets about that scene. "What it does is illustrate how far a desperate documentarian will go to get the winning story, or to beat his or her competition," he says. "How are you going to set yourself apart? I'm very happy with how it turned out and what it illustrates to the audience."

Berman thinks the popularity of documentaries has made it more difficult to find an original story, leading to exactly the kind of cutthroat situation he has revealed to the audience. (The other documentary about Szeles has not been released.) "Right now, documentaries do big business. People are interested in making, producing and financing strong docs," he says. "But there's a finite amount of stories, so there is going to be competition. That's just the reality, and to me it's a funny one. We've never seen a doc that actually deals with this."

The experience has taught him to embrace obstacles as a filmmaker instead of trying to circumvent them. "Don't run from problems. Embrace them and make them work for you," he says. "I was actually very upset and very confused as to why Johnathan would allow another crew to compete with me. Why would my friend invite a huge obstacle into my film? But looking back on it, I'm very grateful he did, because that opened up things in a really interesting, beautiful way."

This story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.