For me, movies are magic shows. They take my imagination and my emotions on a journey that inspires me to conjure images and ideas based on experiences I felt while sitting in darkened rooms, watching light dance across a silver screen in concert with sounds and music.
Movies are so important to me that they are woven into every aspect of my life and there’s nothing I can’t relate to some film or other. As a magician, I have many films that inspire me. One film, Twelve Angry Men, is even the subject of a trick I perform for the public and The Sting was the film that kickstarted my interest in sleight of hand, con games and all things related to deception.
The question that I asked myself is this: “What ten films remind me about my feelings for the art of magic?” Once I wrote this question down, the list almost wrote itself.
10. The Fall: An injured (possibly paralyzed) stuntman tells fantastic stories to a little girl who soon begins to take a part in the telling. What makes this film extraordinary is the way that director Tarsem Singh takes us inside the mind of the girl to discover unforgettable imagery as she interprets the stories being told to her. As a magician, it beautifully illustrates how something mundane and ordinary can become wonderful and fantastic in the mind of the listener. For me, this film is a lesson. It reminds me that what the audience sees with their eyes cannot compare to what they create in their own heads. The trick to great magic is bridging that gap and determining the right balance between what our audiences see and what they imagine.
9. Field of Dreams: “If you build it, he will come.”
Those words, whispered across the wheat at dusk by an unknown, ethereal presence begins a journey for reluctant farmer Ray Kinsella. The following adventure is filled with wonder, hope and the constant need to take one more step towards the seemingly impossible. One of the main reasons I relate to this film is that Ray must constantly convince those around him to let go of the real world and take part in something incredible. Each time I perform, I invite a room full of people to make these same choices but, while Ray and his family risk everything, my audience gives up nothing but their time and their willingness to participate. The secret, I’ve learned, is to be like Ray: to believe in the fantasy enough that people want to join in and play a game where anything might happen and nothing seems impossible.
Without this film, I’m not sure I would have taken my own leaps of faith. Everything I do today required me to plough over safer ground filled with easier crops. Along the way I’ve enjoyed the support of family and friends. Dreams only work if you do, as the saying goes.
8. Dawn of the Dead (2004): I’m a fan of Romero’s bleak original, but I’ve chosen Zack Snyder’s remake because of my original reaction to the opening ten minutes, which remains one of my all time favorite experiences in a movie theatre.
I was with Derek Degaudio in the Cineramadome in Hollywood on opening night. The theatre was packed and I’d seen almost no publicity for the film. As a whole, it’s a great horror film and it really set the tone for the current zombie genre but the first few minutes – wow! It was thrilling and it was real. Those first few minutes taught me an important lesson – if you only have ten minutes, make sure you use them well.
What are the emotions I want people to feel? How do I achieve that in the time I have? I want them to feel that they missed nothing but that the impossible still happened. I want them to be involved and I want them to care. I don’t mess around, any more. I open strong and I hit hard. I engage them as quickly as possible then try to carry that feeling all the way to the end.
Here’s an important question – if you only had one trick to entertain your audience, is there anything in your repertoire you wouldn’t choose? If there is, replace it.
7. Groundhog Day: Going into Groundhog Day I had no idea what the story was about, so the film taught me a great deal about the nature of expectation. First of all, I wasn’t expecting any element of fantasy. It looked like a cheesy romantic comedy when I bought the ticket but once the story took an (for me) unexpected turn, I was involved on a different level.
I aim for this with everything I create. It’s not always possible because audience expectation is sometimes too close to what’s actually going to happen, but understanding this can help to exceed or challenge those preconceptions. Most adults who are asked to watch a magic show have their own idea of what they might see, and I try to use that to my advantage.
Groundhog Day also relates to my own performances. For other people, our effects should seem new even though we see them over and over from our side of the table. It is essential to keep those moments fresh and create the feeling of “the first time.” The audience looks to you to lead the mood. The way I see it, I’m watching the audience enjoy something for the first time, and that’s something that should never get old – or I should find a different profession.
6. The Princess Bride: The Princess Bride is a perfect balance of comedy, romance and adventure. What better film to remind us that one element need not suffer because of another. Peter Falk reads a story of true love and adventure to his grandson, Fred Savage. For me, this is what the film is about. The old man treats the tale with respect and draws the skeptical boy in with real emotion until he is hanging on every word. The great performers make people laugh, cry and gasp in amazement – it’s a poor magician who sacrifices his art for a cheap laugh.
We must try to do the same. We create moments of fantasy and if we chicken-out of those moments with a poorly placed joke or a wink, we kill the very thing we hope to inspire: uncertainty. Don’t shy away from the magic. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Understand it.
5. The Iron Giant: People may judge us by how we look or dress but they remember us for what we do.
The mysterious metal giant who befriends a boy in 1950s America wants to be Superman. After seeing a comic book, he loves the idea of being a hero but, once he is discovered by a paranoid and fearful public, he is seen as a menace. Eventually, the boy reminds the giant that he can choose what he wants to be and not what other people make of him. When all seems lost, the robot realizes he can save the day by sacrificing himself. His last word, as he races to intercept an oncoming nuclear missile, is “Superman” and I still get all misty-eyed thinking about it. For the Iron Giant, one moment as Superman was worth everything.
This is a special film for me. The reasons are too personal to share here but they are at the heart of why I finally embraced magic and learned to enjoy being a magician. It’s why I became a filmmaker, an actor and a writer. Maybe these things aren’t what I’m supposed to be, maybe there’s an easier path but this one leads in the right direction.
4. Superman – The Movie: There’s one moment in Richard Donner’s classic that I distinctly remember. It’s when Clark is leaving Smallville and the camera sweeps across the luscious countryside to reveal a beautiful mid-western landscape, perhaps representing the vast and uncertain future that Clark is about to face. At that moment I was fully invested in the story. Clark Kent was real so, by the time Superman appeared, I genuinely believed a man could fly.
It’s important, as people who pretend to do the impossible, that we never lose that personal connection with the people we are performing for. Perhaps stage performers can portray a more detached character or caricature but in close up magic, I personally prefer to remain grounded and real so that the impossible things I try to make happen are coming from someone the audience can relate to. People need to invest in human feelings and understand the limits of reality if they are to truly experience and enjoy the seemingly impossible.
3. Witness For The Prosecution: This wonderful melange of characters delivers a delightful drama filled with twists and turns and a satisfying conclusion. As a magician, it reminds me of the importance of personality and how each of us brings our own qualities to the table. If we learn to become comfortable as ourselves and to perform in such a manner, there is a magical ingredient that is somehow conveyed to the audience which creates a more interesting and personal experience.
This film is fascinating from the first moment to the last and our performances should aim to be the same.
2. Jaws: Thank God the shark was broken: If it wasn’t perhaps Steven Spielberg might not have brought all of his talents to the table to make audiences scream with little more than music, editing and beautiful blocking so that, by the time that giant rubber shark was flopped onto the boat, people were completely hooked (sic).
The lesson here is that the audiences’ imagination should always be engaged to attain maximum effect. I use visual magic effects but unless I somehow involve the minds of my audience, the result might be impressive, even wonderful but it fails to connect on a meaningful level. If I can convince people to invest feelings and ideas of their own then the results can be fantastic.
Jaws succeeds in leading the audience into their own depths and to confront their own fears. Modern films usually (but not always) show too much, which is the easy way out, in my opinion. Magic dealers find it easier to sell tricks that leave little to the imagination, while the real treasures, which require much more work to perform well, lie untouched on the shelves or in the pages of books.
1. Star Wars: Magic is important. Not so much the craft or the art of magic but the feeling of magic and the experience of wonder.
Star Wars was the first film I ever saw in a movie theatre and the impact it had on my life was staggering. I was immediately addicted to the way this film fueled my imagination. I was already in love with movies before that first cinema experience but from that moment on, I was addicted to the way movies could make me feel and to dream. It hit me at exactly the right age and I’ve carried that feeling of awe and excitement with me ever since. Whenever I get excited about a new film, it’s this feeling I’m hoping to recapture – it’s my benchmark for wonder in a movie theatre.
I have similar memories about magic effects I’ve seen or performed – memories I try to revisit or recreate whenever I have the chance. The first time I saw David Copperfield perform the license plate trick; Michael Weber dropping three cards onto the floor; Max Maven removing a card from his pocket or Juan Tamariz revealing thirteen hearts in order or that first time I found a thought of card at a thought of number.
These moments are important to me and, if I do my job right, if I connect with people and allow the impossible to happen, perhaps I can create similar memories for my audience. It’s doubtful I can have such an enormous impact as a great book or a film but there’s always the chance of capturing that intoxicating feeling and creating that moment of intensity or surprise that magic can sometimes deliver.
Is this some grandiose notion? Some over inflated, ego-driven, perhaps naive assessment of my own abilities and the impact they might have? You betcha. I’m aiming higher to go further and I fail often but (to paraphrase better artists than I) if you’re not making mistakes, you’re probably not making anything.
Star Wars was just another pulpy science fiction film until it captured the imaginations of an entire generation. The effect it had upon that generation’s lives and achievements might never be fully understood, but I firmly believe it was and is an important ingredient.
Magic matters. Wonder is important. Mystery is essential.
And in 1977 for an eight year old Scottish boy, Star Wars was awesome.