Director Ben Berman says the moment he met comedian and illusionist the Amazing Johnathan, he knew he was the perfect subject for a documentary.
The filmmaker tells Sky News: “The first thing we filmed, he was in the kitchen eating lunch, and he just started throwing these slices of ham on the refrigerator. I was like, ‘Yeah, this is what we want. This makes no sense and I like it.’
“It started off weird, but I absolutely did not know what I was in for.”
Born John Edward Szeles, the Amazing Johnathan honed his skills performing on the streets of San Francisco, before achieving fame across America in the 1980s and 1990s.
Self-dubbed the “Freddie Krueger of comedy” due to his gore-filled tricks, he was also a household name in Australia thanks to his regular appearances on the Channel 9 kids’ show Hey Hey It’s Saturday.
Going on to perform for 13 years in Las Vegas, he was he longest-running magician on the Strip.
But since his heyday, the 61-year-old’s life had a taken a downward turn – leaving him not only addicted to crystal meth but also suffering from a serious heart problem.
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In 2014 he announced he had cardiomyopathy and had just a year to live.
But skip forward three-and-a-half years to 2017, following a sell-out mini-tour of farewell performances, and the Amazing Johnathan was still going strong.
That’s when he caught the attention of Berman, who after hearing someone talking about the performer’s plight, saw the opportunity to make a film about the man he had watched on TV as a child.
“I wondered if there was a short documentary in this – a weird, unique magician confronting his own mortality. I thought it could be both emotional and darkly comedic.”
It wasn’t until months into filming that Berman would realise quite how chaotic his subject could be.
“He’s an interesting person. He’s got interesting problems. He’s got interesting philosophies.
“But it became clear, not that I was necessarily in over my head, but that there were bigger things in play other than this man being a celebrity whose star is fading.
“The story I thought I was telling became much more deep, more philosophical and challenging.”
Berman says Szeles was a man of two halves.
“He is at times very generous, very thoughtful and very funny.
“But at other times, as you see in the movie, he does treat me pretty poorly. He puts me in second, third position – his needs come first.
“He’ll say one thing, then literally an hour later say completely the opposite.
“As a filmmaker you really start to question what is real and what is fake.”
Berman says there were two key elements to his subject’s duplicity: “Firstly, Johnathan is an illusionist, so you never really know what’s real and what’s not.
“Then on top of that, he’s a drug addict, which makes him even more of a difficult character, because drug addicts historically tend to lie. It’s a double dose of unreliable.”
So, after spending two-and-a-half years making a film about him, did Berman ever really feel he got to know the man behind the contradictions?
“I think I definitely got glimpses of who he really is. But what I really did struggle with is that Jonathan is a comedian first.
“Early on, I would ask him a question like, ‘How does it feel to know that at any moment you could die?’
“Or, ‘You’re hosting a party right now and you’re laughing. But do you ever think that you could just drop, how does that make you feel?’
“To those pretty heavy questions, he would just make a joke. I get it, that it’s a kind of instinct. In reality, I think we never fully got past that.
“But the more you’re around someone, the more you have the opportunity to see the real person behind the comedian.”
In fact, there were moments Berman couldn’t believe quite how far behind the curtain he was being drawn.
When Szeles invited the filmmaker to shoot him smoking meth, he couldn’t believe his luck.
“I was like, oh my God, this is incredible. I’m getting great footage so early on and I must be a genius, getting access that he never gives anyone.”
But later Szeles changed his mind, bringing the ethics of documentary filmmaking to the fore.
Berman asks: “Can a subject have the power to have you not include something, especially if they’ve invited you to be part of it and to watch it?”
Without giving away any drug-related spoilers, it’s fair to say the film steps into legally grey areas only the most dedicated documentarian would consider.
This leads into the concept of legacy and what it really means to have a documentary made about you.
Berman pulls no punches when it comes to who is using who.
“Is the filmmaker using the subject so they have a project and in a Jonathan’s case, potentially exploiting his death?
“Or is Jonathan using the filmmaker to have a documentary, to have those bragging rights? To have his story told after he’s gone?
“If we’re being really honest with ourselves, we were both using each other.”
And while Berman may have hoped for twists and turns in the storyline of his documentary to add a little flavour, he didn’t foresee becoming the star of his own show.
He describes the “series of unforeseen obstacles” that led him to unexpectedly “pop out from behind the camera” and appear in his own documentary.
Calling it a “Hail Mary pass”, he says it was a leap of faith: “If it didn’t work out in front of the camera, I would have just closed up shop. It was like a last-ditch effort to experiment with that.”
Luckily, it worked out, and Berman convincingly becomes part of his own storyline.
One particularly “inciting incident” guiding that narrative occurred six months into the shoot, when he discovered several other crews were simultaneously filming documentaries about Szeles.
It was a blow, but determined to carry on, Berman says it was that discovery which “opened up a whole new set of doors”, leading him into a “rabbit hole” of opportunities.
“Without that problem, without me having panicked and being depressed when I heard [about the competing crews] we wouldn’t have had what I think’s a really interesting movie.”
The resulting film is indeed so interesting, some journalists have questioned whether the whole thing’s a stunt, cooked up between Berman and Szeles for mutual gain.
Berman admits: “That’s a question I get often, and I really love it, for two reasons.
“Firstly, it means we’ve done our job, we’ve made an unbelievable documentary – like literally unbelievable.
“Secondly, I love the element of the movie continuing even after it’s done. It’s a huge theme of the film, trying to determine what’s real and what’s not, what’s truth versus what’s illusion.
“And then to have the credits roll and audience go home and have conversations like, ‘Wait, was the whole thing a magic trick? Was it a prank that Ben and Jonathan played on the on the viewers? Were the other people that we end up seeing in the movie, were they in on it? Who’s an actor?’
“I love people questioning it.”
As to the million-dollar question of whether the Amazing Johnathan is really dying, or or simply creating his own dramatic storyline, Berman has a concise two-word answer.
But would he do it again, knowing what he does now?
“Absolutely. I would do it with more confidence and maybe take even more risks.”
And have his views on the ethics of the film changed since the outset of the film?
“I personally don’t subscribe to documentary ethics. I subscribe to my own personal documentary morals.
“Any rule can kind of f*** itself. I aim to make it interesting. I want to make art. I’m not a journalist. Sometimes I have to service the role of being a journalist maybe, but I aim to be an artist.
“I want to make cool stuff that’s meaningful and makes people laugh and cry and maybe provokes them more than they’re comfortable with being provoked.”
In a film where fiction can be moulded into fact, and unexpected endings conjured out of thin air, the audience would be well advised to keep their eye on Berman’s skilful sleight of hand.
Things are not always as they seem.
The Amazing Johnathan Documentary is in cinemas now.