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by Olivia Creamer
June 2nd, 2014

Celebrated magician James “The Amazing” Randi has made it his life mission to demystify the claims of modern-day charlatans and to reveal the truth behind their trickery. Filmmakers Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom set out capture his unbelievable life: as a world-famous magician, escape artist, and world-renowned enemy of deception. The film brings to life Randi’s intricate investigations that publicly exposed psychics, faith healers, and con-artists with quasi-religious fervor.

A master deceiver who came out of the closet at the age of 81, Randi created fictional characters, fake psychics, and even turned his partner of 25 years, the artist Jose Alvarez, into a sham guru named Carlos. But when a shocking revelation in Randi’s personal life is discovered, it isn’t clear whether Randi is still the deceiver – or the deceived. Co-Director Justin Weinsten talked with us about what inspired him to make the film, and his experience capturing Randi’s amazing life story.

An Honest Liar Screens TONIGHT, June 2nd on the roof of the JCC in Manhattan. Get your tickets online or at the door!

Rooftop Films: What prompted your interest in Randi’s life?

Justin Weinstein: My interest in doing a film about Randi comes from a deep and personal appreciation for his life’s mission. I saw Randi on TV as a kid – on Johnny Carson, Happy Days and other shows. He was debunking people’s unfounded beliefs and promoting evidence-based critical thinking, but doing it in a really witty and entertaining way.

Since then I’ve become both a scientist and a filmmaker, and I’ve always been fascinated by how people can believe things that are demonstrably untrue. Many people don’t see the harm, but creationists and religious fundamentalists, global warming deniers, 9/11 “truthers” and the like can be extremely destructive.

Similarly, my partner on the film Tyler Measom was brought up a devout Mormon until he left the faith, feeling resentful and deceived by what he was taught.

So for us, telling the story of Randi’s life allowed us to explore subjects that we’re interested in through a compelling character with an incredible life story. Plus, he looks like Gandolf and I want to adopt him as my grandfather.

RTF: How did you decide which parts of his life to focus on?

JW: That was incredibly challenging! There were so many great stories in his life we had to leave on the cutting room floor.  Ultimately, what’s most important is creating a structure, flow, and story arc that works for a film as a whole. While there were many brilliant and entertaining stories in his life, we didn’t focus on them if they weren’t making the film better as a whole.

RTF: What was Uri Geller’s reaction to being interviewed for a documentary about a man who tried to destroy his career, as he put it? Were there people who you contacted who didn’t want to be interviewed?

JW: Nobody ever refused to give us an interview for the film. We didn’t feel the need to interview some of the other psychics Randi has fought, like John Edward or Sylvia Browne (now deceased), but I suspect they might not have wanted to be interviewed for a film about Randi.

When we first wrote to Geller asking for an interview, however, the response we got was from his lawyers. They were understandably cautious – Randi and Geller spent a lot of their lives battling each other both publicly and in privately. Geller sued Randi multiple times, and though he never won, Randi went broke defending himself.

Geller’s lawyers said that before he would consider an interview they wanted to know more specifics of what the film was about, how Geller would be portrayed, and a list of the specific questions we’d ask. We quickly decided we wouldn’t be doing that. The way I do interviews is conversational and not from a list of questions. We told them it’s a biography of Randi, and Geller has been a big part of Randi’s life. We said that we actually have enough archival material to be able to tell the Randi / Geller story without Geller on camera, so we don’t need to interview him but would like to offer him the chance to give his perspective. Geller called us after that and agreed to do it, and was extremely charming about it.

RTF: There are some difficult moments in the film, and as filmmakers you took some risks – especially with a particularly intense interview you include in the film. Was that hard for Randi?

JW: When Randi agreed to let us make a doc about him, he said his only condition for participating is that we do it “warts and all.” He wanted us to make an honest film about him rather than an advertisement or puff piece. Even so, something unexpected and dramatic happens in the film that calls his honesty — and ours, as filmmakers — into question. It’s a film about truth and deception, and sometimes the line between the two is not so distinct.

RTF: What was Randi’s reaction to the movie?

We showed Randi a rough cut, but he only saw the final film when we premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. After seeing the rough cut, his notes were really only factual ones, things about dates or locations. He’s somewhat obsessive about facts and certain things. He’ll get frustrated if even one of the many clocks in his house is even a minute off!

So we had to explain to Randi – a world-renowned truth-seeker – that a feature documentary like this often compresses stories or takes some liberties for the sake of clarity and narrative flow. He understood that quickly – he’s a natural storyteller and knows that sometimes facts can get in the way of bigger truths.

Honestly, we were very nervous about how he’d feel about the film. We spent 3 years making it, but he spent 85 years living it. And while many people already know him and love him (or hate him, in some cases), having a film made about you is a big risk. It becomes a kind of encapsulated legacy, the way many people will learn about him and remember him.

What’s great is that he’s immensely proud of the film, and that’s so gratifying for us. He’s sat through the entire film every time he can be at a screening and loves to hear how the audience reacts. At every screening there’s been a standing ovation, and it’s incredibly rewarding for us to see him get that kind of love and appreciation from an audience after seeing the film.

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Rooftop Films is a New York based non-profit whose mission is to engage diverse communities by showing independent movies in outdoor locations, producing new films, coordinating youth media education, and renting equipment at low cost to artists.

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