An Honest Liar was a highlight of what had been a very strong documentary program at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Co-directed by Tyler Measom (Sons of Perdition) and Justin Weinstein (his first feature as director, but his producing credits include Being Elmo and various PBS series), the film tells the story of James “The Amazing” Randi, a magician who lives by a code of honesty. A twist in the film’s third act (which we dare not reveal, as a magician and a filmmaker never reveal their tricks) had been the talk of the festival amongst those that had seen and admired the film. We sat down with co-directors Measom and Weinstein, as well as “The Amazing” Randi, at Tribeca, and one can see the conversation below.
Directors, what was the inspiration for the picture. How did you come across The Amazing Randi and his amazing story?
Tyler Measom: Somebody had introduced me to the subject of James Randi as I had been looking for a subject for my next doc. I did a little research, not knowing too much about him, and he was a perfect subject. I was shocked that no one had done it before. I reached out to the James Randi Educational Foundation and they agreed and Justin and I met at a film festival and dove right in, and three years later, a finished film.
Justin Weinstein: I met Tyler and as soon as he mentioned Randi to me a light bulb went on because I had grown up watching him on Johnny Carson and I have a science background and filmmaking background. I had a great appreciation for his mission in life and we just took the ball and ran with it.
How hard was it to get him?
Weinstein: Apparently there had been a bunch of filmmakers that had approached him and his foundation and I guess it was only when Tyler and I came back — they saw Tyler’s film Sons of Perdition and my last film as editor-producer Being Elmo — and they saw we could at least put together a decent film and we must have fooled them into thinking we were the ones to do it!
Measom: And we’re still fooling them!
James Randi: Their work record, when I saw Being Elmo and Sons of Perdition – and that’s a tearjerker, that grabbed me. Being Elmo was equally as interesting it had a very interesting narrative, so I saw the work they had done individual and I thought this should work and it has. We’re very very satisfied with the results.
There’s a twist that we should talk about privately but there is a caveat at the end that says you (James Randi) endorsed all the interviews in the film. That’s an unusual title card to see.
Weinstein: We don’t want the audience to know that.
Measom: But we will tease it. It shocked everyone — me and Justin and Randi and everyone involved in his life — and it was right along with the themes of the film.
Can you talk about debunking the bad science, the religious healers, and all of that – it’s a life’s mission?
Randi: Well, I travel all around the world and I’ve been to just about every county in the world and, believe me, he mileage on my account I’ve got is something. I can do anywhere I want in the world for free. My latest book is being called “Magician in the Laboratory” and it’s named that way because I don’t think magicians get into laboratories very often, certainly scientific organizations and scientists welcomed me in. A lot of those people had belief in paranormal powers and I couldn’t understand why because there is really no evidence for ESP or prophecy or any of these things. It’s all very shady if it exists at all, and it’s mostly antidotal. Scientists don’t work on antidotal evidence, they work on real hard evidence, something you can scratch with your finger nail, something that’s really there any can examine. They tend not do that when it comes a cult or supernatural or paranormal claims, they seem to take it from other experts who have fallen into the same trap.
J.B. Rhine, Joseph Banks Rhine, wrote the first book on ESP, a term he invented himself. If you read that book now a days with the knowledge of how magicians really work, you see how exceedingly naive he was. He didn’t even mention all the fakers who tried to fool him and did fool him, but he did mention all of those who tried to fool him and did fool him, and he said they were the real thing. That’s not the way you select your evidence. He wasn’t foolish but he was exceedingly naive, and when I saw that I thought I really must tell his story and I have now in 10 books, the 11th is on its way.
When will that be coming?
Randi: Who knows, I’m still doing the illustrations for it and getting it organized.
Filmmakers, can you talk about the style of the film and how it evolved. You are off camera until one critical point, can you talk about that?
Weinstein: We approach the film as a historical biography, but one that has these great episodes in it and stories within it. These Oceans 11-style investigations where people are going undercover and infiltrating labs. There are three different major stories, each of them could be a whole Hollywood film, so we knew we were going to tell the story of his life but also have these mini-narratives within it. So we approached it with that in mind, and filling that out with more verite filming with his life, but at a certain point life invades the film in a way that gave us a really fascinating twist.
Was there anything that surprised you along the way early in the process before you reach present day?
Measom: James Randi has lived a very full life
Randi: Not yet!
Measom: He’s still living a whole life! He’s almost lived a life where documentary filmmakers can come in and make a film; he kept every article, every scrap of paper, he kept his appearances in files on VHS, hundreds of hours of TV appearances. We went through all those files and looked at all of those television shows and we found a lot of stories we could do. We also found a lot of stories we couldn’t put in the film.
What didn’t make it that would have been really great?
Weinstein: There’s a great story I wish we had told – the club in?
Randi: In Florida.
Weinstein: An early job you had in a segregated club?
Randi: Oh yes! I had lived in New York for quite some time and I was given the distinct club and was given the distinct privilege of going into a certain back room of a restaurant down in Times Square where a lot of celebrities gather. Tony Randall was always there as well as all kinds celebrities on TV who appeared on what they called the Mountain Circuit in the Catskills. On Monday morning, when they came back from their long weekend, I’d join them for breakfast and we’d share a lot of laughs and I earned my keep by doing the occasional card trick. One day I walked in there, [saying] “Gee, I’ve got a contract to play all the new condominiums down in Florida,” and there was silence around the table.
They knew my attitude about segregation and racial prejudice and such. I’ve always been very straightforward and loud about that and Tony Randall looked me in the eye and told me “You’re going to be in a fist fight as soon as you get off the aircraft,” because Florida was very segregated in those days. I never thought about that.
So I took the contract out of my pocket, a standard AGVA (American Guild of Variety Artist) contact, and I found there was space for an extra clause so I wrote in, “14 — period == Mr. Randi will not perform for segregated audiences” and rushed it over to the AGVA offices. Two days later I got a call from the president of AGVA who will remain nameless at this moment, and he said, “You can’t do this, we’ve already printed the posters and such.” And I said, “What’s wrong with having printed the posters?” He couldn’t fire me and get somebody else because my name was on the posters and so I went down for the first show in Ocala, Florida, got off the train and went into the theater and saw the audience was segregated. And so I did my show and then I walked back to the bus terminal and came back. Eventually I was paid for the entire contact by AGVA because they didn’t want any fuss, and we moved on. And that was an adventure where I made myself known because I said, “No, I’m not going to do this kind of thing.”
Speaking of sticking to your principals, the film shows you going on talk shows and revealing the secrets of those who weren’t living up to your ideal of the honest liar. I’m curious what was the reaction to this?
Randi: Oh, yeah, there was many examples and the one you’re thinking of wasn’t fully referred to in the film because their just wasn’t time, but that was a man named Don Lane from Australia who told me to piss off and he walked off the set. And that was because I had double crossed him. He had agreed not to test me to bend forks and spoons and then he was going to reveal these spoons and forks and the table and say, “Well, what do you think of this?,” and that’s exactly what he did. Of course I had gotten to them in advance and I had made preparations, to put it kindly, and I picked up the fork and I snapped my fingers and it snapped in two. And he knew I had been ahead of him on that and he told me to piss off and walked off the stage. So there are lots of things like that and you have to be a little ahead of your audience. In fact, a lot of ahead of your audience if you can manage it.
So there was a moral imperative on your part to expose the dangerous ones – influencing science and public opinion?
Randi: I’d call it ethical more than moral. If morals are something that had been dictated in a book somewhere and they can’t be questioned, I wouldn’t go for that at all, but ethical is a different matter all together. I am very very ethical when it comes that sort of thing – you have to level with whom you live with, your fellow human beings. We’re one species and I have been all over this globe and I found the same thing in every country. There are people who will take advantage of other people by using trickery and giving them false information.
Documentarians, any thoughts on trickery and being ahead of your audience?
Weinstein: Randi says it a lot in the film, people approach documentaries as if they are essentially… well I wouldn’t say God, but if it’s in a documentary than it must be real! But we know as filmmakers how much of that reality is filtered through our eyes and editing, and I think that’s one of the great things we played with in the film.
Randi: I won’t name the magician but he’s well know and extremely talented, but he’s a bit of a farm boy and he calls me up and says, “Randi, I just read a book on UFO, it’s really quite interesting, it must be true if it’s in a book.” And I told him, “I’ll be in Vegas next week and we’ll sit down and have a talk about that,” and we did and he was astonished when he found just because it’s in a book it isn’t true.
The film has some great on-screen interviewees, except one who I’m sure might not have wanted to go on camera. How did you assemble them?
Measom: No, everyone we wanted on camera we got to be in the picture. We were very fortunate, a lot of people who are in the film who speak for and on behalf of Randi are fans and followers of him. Penn and Teller, for example, say they owe their career to Randi. Adam Savage, a modern-day mythbuster, in many ways he does what Randi does throughout his career. Each can give their own take, they all speak very well about him and they added a great level of interest in our film. And it helps to have those people in the film, audiences like Penn and Teller and they enjoy Alice Cooper.
Weinstein: We’re doing Hot Docs, Mountain Film, AFI Docs, Newport Beach, San Francisco Docs – a bunch more.
Anything you’d like to close with?
Randi: I’d like to, if I may, I’d like to quote Teller. He told me the other day [long silence].
Randi: [Laughing] It took you that long!
He’s been doing this all day, right?
Measom: All day… all century!
Well, thanks so much guys – it was a pleasure.