Magic is in the air. And on the screen. Two big-budget films with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars playing magicians are being released within a few months of each other. In March, we had the silly comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, with Steve Carell and Jim Carrey. Coming up is the enormously entertaining “Now You See Me,” with Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Morgan Freeman, and Isla Fisher.
And there is also a very nice little indie romantic comedy, with magicians played by real-life magicians, called Desperate Acts of Magic. I enjoyed it very much, and was very glad to get a chance to speak with Joe Tyler Gold, who wrote, produced, and stars in the film, and his co-director, Tammy Caplan.
Tell me how this movie came about.
Joe: I was a magician for many years and I did tons of kids’ birthday parties and entered lots of magic competitions. We were looking for something we could produce on a low budget. I had a lot of magician friends and there was a magic convention in San Diego happening in 2010 that we knew was coming up, so we went at it and put a script together and there you go.
Tammy: Joe was trying to figure out what we should work on next, what he should write next. I said to him, and this is based on an acting exercise that we know, “If you were to write about something that was deep and personal to you, very meaningful, what would you write about?” And he talked about this one event that happened at this magic convention that he did and the impact of that event always stayed with him and so I said, “That’s what you should write about, that’s what you should go with.”
Joe: Back in 1998 I competed in a magic competition actually with that very act, the act that I do in the movie. We didn’t get into the finals. They said there wasn’t enough magic but that they liked the act a lot and they asked us to perform on the evening show. The girl that I was doing the act with at the time was an actress and she wasn’t my girlfriend and she went off with a new boyfriend to a bed & breakfast. And so the performance actually never happened. And so that was always something that was kind of a regret of mine…
Tammy: Because at the time in Los Angeles at this convention it really was full of the cream of the crop of the magic community and he kind of regrets that this could have made Joe’s career really go along better. So we decided the film should have a happier ending.
Well that’s the beauty of fiction, isn’t it, that you can give yourself a happy ending.
Tammy: Yes and this is sort of life imitating art because the movie itself is a happy ending. I do think it’s kind of interesting the way we shot it because we shot it on such a low budget and because Tammy and I took on so many of the roles of the crew. We shot a day or two a month over 18 months. We kept our day jobs and each month we would save up the money to pay for the next shoot day. And that also allowed us to very carefully craft each shoot day and figure out how the magic was going to be done. And teach Valerie Dillman the magic since Valerie, who plays the role of Stacy Dietz is not an actual magician. She learned magic for the role.
What do you think people will be surprised by, when they see it? What will they learn about the magic community?
Tammy: I think one thing is the way we portray female magicians because there never has really been a magic movie with a character, a fictional magic movie, with a character of a female magician. And you know when you see characters on TV, women playing doctors, lawyers, teachers, musicians, then it feels natural in the real world, to see these types of people. You don’t think twice these days when a doctor is a man or a woman. But when you think of a magician, you think of a stereotype that comes up and it’s always a guy, sometimes very stereotypically, in the tuxedo with the rabbit in the hat. But magic is a really beautiful art form. It takes as much skill as playing an instrument or dance. There is a great way of telling stories through magic. Once there are more women in magic, I think you’ll see more interesting stories and I think it’s really going to help the art of magic as a whole.
Do you think there are still a lot of barriers to women in the world of magic?
Joe: Yeah, I do. I mean, it’s opening up and there are a lot of women in magic. There really are. But one of the difficulties is it is still very much a man’s profession. And you know I mean the Magic Circle in London only recently started to allow women into their organization. I just think that it’s more difficult to gain respect in the world of magic as a woman. And that there is an assumption when you see a woman involved in a magic act, that she’s an assistant. They always have to work a little bit harder to convince anybody that they are actually a magician. I almost think that the word “assistant” is kind of ridiculous. When you have a play and you have a couple people in that play who might have smaller roles you would never call them something else. You know, if they have ten lines in the play they’re still an actor in the play and they are in the program and they get a bow at the end. It’s strange to me that if two people are performing an illusion, and one is sawing the other in half, that one is automatically in some sort of a superior position than the other. And even stranger, and I mention this in the movie, is that when you do have the woman sawing the man in half, they still call it “the Assistant’s Revenge.” She’s sawing the magician in half and she’s still the assistant.
Tammy: I mean it’s just weird that …the fact that you even have to call a female magician, “a female magician.” You know, you don’t call a painter, “a female painter” or “a male painter”. It’s just “a painter.” And oftentimes, what’s so strange is that a magician will have a female assistant and maybe the magician is doing some act where, I don’t know, let’s say he’s making fun of the fact that, you know that he’s this middle-aged balding guy, let’s just say. But then there’s the assistant comes on and she’s this 19 year old in a skimpy dress and that has absolutely nothing to do with his act. It’s almost as if there is some disconnect story-wise, between what the magician is doing and what the assistant is doing.
One of the things that I really enjoyed about the movie is the way that there was a story to the act. The audience in the movie and the audience at the movie both wonder if the magicians are really fighting.
Joe: I always like telling stories with my magic and many magicians do this. That’s one of the reasons I really enjoyed making the movie is that it really allowed me to tell a longer story through magic. Because I tried to use the magic to advance the story and incorporate it into the story as much as I could. And it can sometimes be difficult to do that in a 6-minute act.
One of the things that I thought about as I was watching the film is that you had a very big challenge in that difference between a film and a live performance. We’re very used to “Bewitched” with Samantha Stevens twitching her nose and something appearing or disappearing on screen. You had to really do all those tricks and persuade the audience that you were really doing all those tricks. How did you stage the tricks so that we know they were really being performed and were not special effects?
Joe: It’s a challenge for sure, because and Harry Potter and all the special effects movies, people just assume that it is effects. And we contemplated putting something at the beginning of the movie, you know, “There are no camera tricks involved.” One thing that we did was, we tried not to cut away in the middle of the effects as much as possible except for story. And we tried to keep people’s faces and hands in the shot at the same time.
Tammy: There’s very few places where you are just seeing hands alone and not the person. It was always important to us and sometimes it’s a bit of a challenge to be able to get the person’s face and the trick because you need to be able to see what’s going on with the trick. So we really want to be able to see what the actor was doing at the same time.
Joe: We also populated the movie with a lot of real magicians. Most of the cast were actual magicians. Now, not everybody is going to know that, but you know, those who do, will know that those are real magicians and hopefully they’ll understand that they are really doing legitimate magic. There’s a lot of slight of hand in the movie. When you see a movie and Harry Potter is flying around on a broomstick you know it is special effect. But when you see slight of hand, you frequently will go, “That must be dexterity.” Once you know that, you kind of prove to the audience that you are doing slight of hand. Then later when you do other types of magic, hopefully they go for the ride and assume that it’s also legitimate magic.
Tammy: And also because we are a lower budget, independent movie you know that we’re doing the magic for real. We didn’t have the money to do the Harry Potter special effects.
What got you interested in magic to begin with?
Joe: I was interested since I was 8 years old, but I started performing probably about 13. And you know, “Burt Wonderstone” has it right. A lot of guys get into magic to, you know, to meet girls, you know. I don’t know that that was the motivation. But you know, it’s a fun thing to do. When you’re a teenager, it’s nice to kind of feel empowered and maybe that you know something that other people don’t know. That eventually evolved into being at a party and not knowing what to say and having an icebreaker. I would stand around in college just riffling a deck of cards.
Tammy: Well, you meet people in the magic community. Joe met people at magic camp that are in the movie that he’s known for years, practically his whole life.
Joe: It’s true, it’s true. I attended Cannon’s Magic Camp which is actually where I met Jonathan Levitt who played the role of Steve and where I met several other cast members, as well. And these are friendships that have lasted my whole life. And so that was something that really fed the interest for me. As a teenager I was the editor of a magic magazine and I would go to magic conventions and I would go to Magic Club meetings. So you know, certainly I wasn’t meeting girls at a lot of these places. It must have been something else. When I sent out my college applications, my essay statement was, “I like to make people laugh.” And that’s what I always really enjoyed is making people laugh. And I continue to try to put a lot of humor into my magic and into movies that I’m making.
Who are your magic idols?
Joe: I’d say Penn & Teller, for sure. What they do is so unique and also they always have a strong point of view and a statement that they make. Female magicians, I love Tina Leonert. Oh my gosh! Google her and take a look at her act. It’s so beautiful. She always tells a story.
Tammy: Mac King.
Joe: He’s my mom’s favorite magician, too, so she’s not alone.
Where can people see the movie?
Joe: It’s playing in NY and LA. And then we’re also doing these “Tugg” screenings.