Benjamin Berman: 'When does a filmmaker cross a line between furthering a legacy and helping to support a celebrity's legacy?'

Benjamin Berman: 'When does a filmmaker cross a line between furthering a legacy and helping to support a celebrity's legacy?'

Director discusses his debut documentary on unique and irreverent magician The Amazing Johnathan

'In the movie you see Eric Andre say, "yeah, you gotta do it!" That's what I was expecting to get from him. That's on brand. Then behind the scenes I talked to my friend Andrew who was also, "Yeah! Smoke fucking meth! Do it for your art!" Those two together made me think, maybe I will.'

Director Benjamin Berman is talking about his time spent with The Amazing Johnathan (John Edward Szeles), the subject of his debut documentary. Szeles made a name for himself with his irreverent magic and practical jokes in his live act and appearances on Weird Al Yankovic's TV show, Comedy Central specials and various other programmes in the 1980s/90s. In 2014 he announced his retirement in dramatic fashion on stage. Due to the worsening of a heart condition the doctors told him he had one year to live.

When Berman heard about this, and rumours that Szeles was still taking hard drugs, he decided to make a film about him. It didn't entirely take Berman where he expected it to. The end product is a highly constructed and meta film that confronts the logistics and ethics of documentary filmmaking in the modern day.

'As a thirteen-year-old boy, I liked his act. It was weird, irreverent and violent. I hadn't thought about him for a long time and he disappeared. But we later found out he had residencies in Vegas.' Berman explains. 'But the real reason that I even thought to make a documentary about him was because he was ill and dying. Without that I'm very confident that I wouldn't have thought to make an Amazing Johnathan documentary. Let's just call it what it is!'

Louis Theroux is championing Berman's documentary but it's getting mixed reviews. Some critics have labelled the film 'narcissistic' for Berman's decision to turn the camera on himself after Szeles reveals he has another documentary in the works – this one allegedly backed by Oscar winning filmmakers. And that's not the only twist in a film of many that at one-point shows Berman working up the courage to ask a dying man whether he is faking it.

'Yes, we are dealing with life and death, that's interesting to me but I don't feel like I owe Johnathan anything for this movie. I should, like any person in real life, try to make his life a little better and not worse, that's all. When does a filmmaker cross a line between furthering a legacy and helping to support a celebrity's legacy?', he asks when I question him about ethics and his motivations.

He continues, 'Like when does that end and you cross into exploiting someone's death? The film deals with some of that, it definitely discusses some of that. Those conversations and those questions of documentary ethics and the manipulation of a filmmaker, I love all that stuff. That's the value our movie has – to incite those conversations.'

Limited release from Tue 19 Nov.

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary

  • 4 stars
  • 2019
  • US
  • 1h 31min
  • Directed by: Benjamin Berman
  • Cast: The Amazing Johnathan, Eric André, Benjamin Berman
  • UK release: 19 November 2019

Film about ailing magician John Szeles, who enlists director Berman to document his comeback; gradually the director becomes as much a subject of his own film. A hall of mirrors, personable and engrossing, and an original take on the documentary format.