Magic kids: A conversation with the team behind “Make Believe”

A magic trick is like a little story,” said Steven Klein. In Make Believe, a 2010 documentary film produced by Klein and directed by Charlottesville native J. Clay Tweel, magic tricks tell an expansive story, one that the New York Times described as having “all the drama of a high-stakes sporting event.” The film follows six teenage magicians from Japan, South Africa and across the U.S. as they compete to be crowned Teen World Champion by Master Magician Lance Burton at the World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas.

Executive produced by the team behind 2007’sThe King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Make Believe was Tweel’s directorial debut, and the first feature-length film by Firefly, the production company that Klein founded in 1996. The friends had been talking for years about documenting magicians, when Klein, a former teen magician himself, walked into a magic shop and eyed a group of shy, awkward teenage boys who turned into gregarious showmen as soon as they got their hands on a deck of cards. Klein stepped out of the store, called his executive producer, and said “I think I found the hook. I think it’s kids.”

Make Believe came out on top of its own underdog story when it became the feature documentary winner at the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival. These days, Tweel and Klein are shopping around the idea of a fictional remake of Make Believe, but in the meantime, their coming-of-age documentary shows again in town on October 8, the first since last year’s Virginia Film Festival.

Magic tricks are very conducive to being filmed. Are young magicians the same way?

Tweel: As with any documentary subject, you have to earn their trust a little bit. Some of these kids were worried that we were going to show the world how their tricks were done and betray the art form, and we definitely had to set their minds at ease. They all have this love of performing, so even though they might be introverted off-stage, they would eventually open up and really give us some genuine insights. We would tell them over and over that we didn’t need speeches, we just wanted to hear their point of view.

What is it about magic that draws in awkward kids?

Tweel: Magic is this art that you can practice a lot by yourself, and it catches on with people who are already book smart and introspective problem solvers. So say you’re twelve years old and you don’t know how to interact with people. Magic can eventually serve as kind of a conduit to help you ease into conversation. You practice in your room for hours on end, but eventually you have to go out and interact with real people in order to perform the tricks, because you have to show them to people who’ve never seen them before in order to call yourself a magician. So that is where the rubber hits the road, whether you can cut it or not as a magician, and learn to communicate with an audience. A lot of these kids will learn patterns, the kind of spiel that a magician will give while performing a trick. That’s how some of these kids actually learn how to talk to people. They start to improvise off of their own banter, and slowly get comfortable doing it.

Klein: A magic trick gives you a blueprint for communicating with somebody. If you read a magic trick in a book it gives you a script for exactly what to say, but that script is based on the personality of the magician who created it. So these twelve-year-old magicians, a lot of them sound like forty- or fifty-year-old men, because they’re literally reciting words written by these stage personalities. The kids will try these personas on for size, and when their tricks start to really impress people, they relax a bit and start to use their own words, and create their own sense of who they are.

What surprised you most about getting to know teenage magicians from all over the world?

Klein: I was surprised by the degree to which the energy of teenage outsider is similar in Japan or Brazil or South Africa or L.A. That archetype is really consistent in its energy.

Do you know how all the tricks in Make Believe work?

Tweel: Me being the layman with no magic experience, I think there might be one or two that I’m not a hundred percent sure on, but I spent enough time backstage to get an idea of how most tricks are done. Steven probably knows how everything works.

Klein: Well, sure, as in how the physics of the trick works. Similarly, I know how to play baseball, but that doesn’t make the Red Sox any less impressive. I know how most of these things are done, but I would have to practice them for three years to do it at the level of any of the kids in the film. Knowing doesn’t take away from the magic of it. 

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