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MediaJuly 21, 2019

David Farrier on the strangest film since Tickled


After watching a mind-bending film about a dying magician that reminded him of Tickled, David Farrier interviewed the director, only to have his interview disappear.

This has never happened before. I’ve never lost audio from an interview, and it’s the most frustrating feeling I’ve felt in years. 

I can see it sitting right in front of me:

It’s 33.8 megabytes in size and was created at 9.29am today, just over an hour and a half ago. For the last 90 minutes I’ve been trying to fix it, learning about HEX files and data recovery and FFmleg libraries. 

But this fucking interview with Ben Berman – the man behind an amazing documentary about a magician – has done its own magic trick and disappeared. 

Well, that’s to say it’s corrupted beyond repair, or my repair skills at least – a completely useless m4a file, 33,797,901 bytes of frustration and despair.

I was dead keen to talk to director Ben Berman, because in watching his brilliant film The Amazing Johnathan Documentary I was reminded, in my usual self-absorbed fashion, of my own documentary, Tickled.

Tickled was meant to be a film about the whacky sport of competitive endurance tickling, but it turned into so much more – a film about power and corruption; a conspiracy that led me to the heart of New York City.

In the same way, I think The Amazing Johnathan Documentary probably started out as just that – a documentary about “The Amazing Johnathan”, a washed-up magician making his big comeback.

And that version of the film would have been just fine. Johnathan is riddled with both health and drug problems, making his comeback absolutely charged with peril.

But then, as in Tickled, the whole thing pivots and shifts, turning into something else entirely. It was an utter pleasure to watch, and it’s an exciting inclusion in this year’s NZ International Film Festival.

Which is why I wanted to speak to director Ben Berman about it. He’s 36, like me. And as with Tickled, his film premiered at Sundance.

When we spoke on Skype, it was a sunny LA day out the window, and his dog slept on the couch behind him. He had a nice voice, but all I have to show for it is a giant waveform and a loud HISS.

But you know what? Maybe this was meant to happen. 

Our 31-minute conversation is in my brain, somewhere. I have no doubt it’s distorted and warped, but then so is Berman’s film. As it dives down a variety of rabbit holes, it has both filmmaker and audience questioning the reality they see in front of them. 

As Berman questions the motivations of the magician he’s documenting, the audience begins to question the filmmaker’s own motivations and the reality he’s putting on screen.

The trailer is really good, but also I’d urge you not to watch it because it gives too much away! Such is the Catch 22 of trailers: Having to sell the film usually means giving away some good bits.

This aspect reminded me of aspects of Tickled, too. With that film, I get asked a lot about its construction, and the order events happened in. 

There’s a bit towards the end where we get all the evidence we need handed to us on a platter, after big baddie David D’Amato accidentally puts it all online. Some people find it hard to believe this happened at such a perfect point in the plot, so therefore it can’t be real. 

I just wish I’d thought to film our reaction when we clicked on those files and they actually opened, right when we were nearing the end of our edit on what we thought was a completed film.

The file reveal in Tickled: if only I’d filmed us actually opening those files for the first time!

What Ben Berman does so well is he doesn’t miss those moments, like I did. He always seems to have his camera rolling, and has it rolling at the right time. And the construction of his film becomes part of the film itself. 

We talked about a scene in which he’s literally staring at post-it notes on a wall, as he tries to map out his plot. It’s an incredibly honest moment, and nice to see in an age where audiences are very aware that what we are seeing on screen is an edited, curated take.

In our non-existent interview, I asked Berman the self-absorbed question about whether he’d watched Tickled at all, because both our films also ended up partly focusing on a director who’d gotten snagged in his own story. 

He told me that he definitely had, and he’d actually shot a scene of him in a hotel watching Tickled as he tried to figure out how filmmakers include themselves in their own films. Ego stroked, I was brought down to earth again by the knowledge this scene got cut out.

Which is a good time to mention that Berman is an editor, too, cutting this film himself. He went so far as to say he doesn’t see himself as a good director (he is), but rather a good editor.

He cut his teeth on the early days of Tim & Eric, doing everything from sorting out locations, to wardrobe, then getting into editing and staying there. A big part of what made Tim & Eric so great over the years was Ben Berman.

Like Tim & Eric, this documentary has plenty of outrageous moments, one of which Variety described as “an outrageous offer in a scene that’s sure to go down in doc history”.

I can’t wait to see how this film does. There’s never been a more exciting time to work in documentary, as audiences seem to have an insatiable appetite for true stories. And as Berman told me, the joy of documentary is that you can get away with telling the most outrageous, unbelievable stories.

Because they’re true.

Is this film was scripted, you just wouldn’t believe it. I’d argue it was the same with Tickled. It’s what made Three Identical Strangers such a great watch (and millions in box office takings) too. 

These films captivate audiences because they’re real. And when you start to question that reality? It’s even better. 

(Even if those questions are lost forever when your stupid fucking interview corrupts ARGHHHH).

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary screens in Auckland on Wednesday and Saturday and then at the NZIFF around the country. Details here.

Keep going!