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Victoria Film Festival 2011 Interview - "Make Believe" creators J. Clay Tweel & Steven Klein

Make Believe - At Victoria Film Festival
by Jason Whyte

Director J. Clay Tweel: Make Believe is the story of six kids battling for the title of World's Best Teen Magician. Each comes from a different part of the world, and they each face both the challenges of performing and the struggle of their personal life. Ultimately the film is a coming of age story, as the teens use the lessons they learn in magic and apply them to their daily life.

Producer Steven Klein: Our official quick pitch is "A coming of age journey set in the quirky subculture of magic, Make Believe follows six of the world's best young magicians as they pursue the title of Teen World Champion and lead us on their personal journeys of transformation through magic."

Is this your first film at the Victoria Film Festival? Tell me about your festival experience, and if you plan to attend Victoria for the film’s screenings.

CT: This is our first film at the Victoria Film Festival, and we are honored to be chosen. Unfortunately, we won't be able to attend, because we're hard at work prepping the commercial release of our film in theaters and on TV. But it only motivates us to make another film so that we can have another chance to travel to Victoria!

Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background, and what led you to the industry.

CT: I was born and raised in Charlottesville, VA as the youngest of 4. I was a history major at the University of Richmond when I had the epiphany that I could take my long time passion for film and make it my profession. A filmmaker from my hometown, Jeff Wadlow, was going to be shooting his first feature, "Cry Wolf" in Richmond, and I jumped at the chance to work on a feature. I met Seth Gordon on that film and moved out Los Angeles after production ended. I worked on the documentary "The King of Kong: a Fistful of Quarters" with Seth and Ed and have been honing my craft of storytelling ever since.

SK: I grew up in Boston in a family that went to a lot of arts together; music, theater, dance, film, and I was always fascinated by stories and storytelling. I started acting professionally when I was 9, and came home from my first rehearsal of a play saying "this is what I want to do." Over the years, my desire to be a generative artist, rather than strictly an interpretive one, led me to start producing as well as acting, and that led to my company Firefly Theater & Films, which produced "Make Believe" along with Seth and Ed's Level 22.

How did this whole project come together?

CT: Steven, you take this one.

SK: Thank you, Clay, I will. Since I was already acting by the time I went through the common phase of pre-teen boyhood that includes magic, I took to the art as a form of mini-storytelling. Every magic trick is like a distilled story, with a beginning, middle, and end -- with a surprising reversal -- and this sustained my interest in the art through to my move to LA after college, when I quickly joined The Magic Castle, the famous private club for Magicians located in Hollywood. Among all the friends I bring to the Castle, none was more enthusiastic than Seth Gordon, and he originally had the sense that the world of magic deserved a documentary set within it. Starting in 2004, we met about every six months to try to find the "hook," the story that would bring us into the world. It wasn't until the summer of 2008, however, when I was rehearsing a play in NYC, that the idea was revealed to me. I was in Tannen's Magic, an historic shop in mid-town Manhattan, when three 12 year-old boys walked in. They were deeply introverted, seemingly painful in their shyness, until they picked up decks of cards, announced "Good Afternoon!" and literally became salesmen at the store. I knew that transformation, from extreme introvert to extreme charisma, was a story, an arc, and I walked out of the store and called Ed and Seth. We met a week or two later to discuss directors, and Clay was the top of each of our lists. The rest, as they say…

One other note: while it is true that I was a "professional" magician in high in, the money I earned in high school came primarily from kids' birthday party performances and the like, I was not nearly at the level of the kids in "Make Believe." They are the Olympic athletes of the world of magic; the true talents.

Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

CT: I met the cinematographer, Rich Marcus, through Steven. The majority of the footage in the film is the two of us each operating a camera. I felt lucky to have him because, as a former teacher of cinematography at the Brooks Institute, he is supremely knowledgable and, at the same time, has a natural knack for teaching his skills. This ended up being beneficial, because I was constantly learning new things from him, and in turn this made the technical side of shooting easier and faster. We shot the film on two Panasonic HPX cameras at 720p, 24pn. It was important to me to be able to be as non-invasive and guerilla-style in the making of this film as possible, in hopes of catching the most honest moments we could from these kids. The cameras we used travel light and are perfect for this. I have to say, to me, the shots on the mountaintop in Japan are even more beautiful than their inspirational reference point, which was "The Karate Kid."

SK: I had worked with Rich on a previous project and knew both of his general talents and of his interest in and dedication to bringing great cinematography to documentaries, a form that can often get away with less. I'm also proud to say that I shot a few minutes of the final footage myself. Needless to say, my photography is *not* on the mountaintop in Japan.

Out of the entire production, what was the most difficult aspect of making this film? Also, what was the most pleasurable moment?

CT: I think that the most difficult part of the filmmaking process was perhaps the first three months after we knew we had an ending. Trying to whittle down our 400 hours of footage to the essence of each of characters was quite a task. Ideally, I wanted each character to represent a different aspect of what it means to "come of age", and keeping their stories individualized yet, revolving around the same plot points was a fun challenge to tackle. The most pleasurable moment for me was when we were driving from the magic competition back to Los Angeles and we spent the entire time talking about what we had just witnessed. That's when I knew we had something special.

SK: The most difficult from my point of view was trying to make magic as amazing on screen as it is in person, because audiences today have learned not to trust what they see on screen, especially in magic. We have things that appear impossible for human hands to achieve unaided, and it took us time to learn how to shoot and edit them so you trust what you see, as baffling as it is. It was also important for me, as a magician, that we show you just enough to let you know how hard the craft is without actually revealing anything, and that sometimes a hard balance to maintain. As for the most pleasurable: this was my first documentary, and I'd say the whole experience of having to be entirely on your toes while filming, because you don't actually know what will happen, was thrilling. Filming all day and then staying up at night with Clay trying to figure out how to make sense of what we'd just witnesses, as challenging and tiring as it often was, was great, fulfilling fun.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?

CT: My biggest inspirations in the documentary world are "Spellbound" for obvious reasons, as well as "Hands on a Hard Body" which could be my favorite non-fiction film. My inspirations in the feature film world tend to be categorized as "quirky and off-beat" auteurs. I am a huge fan of the Coen brothers, Wes Anderson, and Quentin Tarantino. These may seem like disparate pairings, but I think that their strong point of view, innovative storytelling techniques, and character driven-plots set them apart from the rest of the field.

SK: I always have trouble with these sorts of questions, as I tend to go through phases in which I love or understand the genius of one form/artist/film/story more than others. As a list that represents some of what's true right now for me: I've been a many-years-long lover of the Coen brothers; of writers David Hare, John August, and Tom Stoppard; of Stephen Dillane, Meryl Streep, Frances McDormand. My favorite movie of 2010 was "127 Hours". In 2008 and 2009, during the majority of the Make Believe process, I watched dozens and dozens of documentaries, and standouts for me were those that used the form in innovative ways, as I think Clay does in "Make Believe" - from "My Kid Could Paint That", to "The Cove", to "Dear Zachary, to "Sherman's March, to "Every Little Step", to, of course, "Spellbound" which was so successfully innovative that we now think of documentaries structured around a competition as a standard form.

How has the film been received at other festivals or screenings? Do you have any interesting stories about how this film has screened before? What do you think you will expect at the film’s screenings at Victoria?

CT: Make Believe has been received favorably everywhere we have screened. We had sold out shows at all three Los Angeles Film Festival screenings, won the Audience Award at the Austin Film Festival, and got 3 standing ovations at our three Toronto Film Fest screenings. I hope the magic continues and Victoria is pleased with the result as well!

SK: We've been very pleased with how well the film plays with entire families; kids and parents alike enjoy the journey, and we love that!

If you weren’t making movies, what other line or work do you feel you’d be in?

CT: If I wasn't in film, I would probably have done something related to history, a passion of mine and what I studied in college.

SK: When I'm not making movies, I'm making plays.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

CT: A positive media response to your film is still important these days. In an age where information is instantaneous, the higher the score on Rotten Tomatoes or the more stars by your Netflix review, the more people will see your movie. Since film is subjective people are still wary of positive reviews, but if you have negative reviews it is almost always crippling to the amount of people that see your movie. Unless you are "Troll 2."

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

CT: Excluding my hometown Arclight theater in Hollywood, my favorite theater in the world is the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas. The crowds there are true film lovers.

SK: For me, it's one of the few hometown art-house cinemas in Boston I used to hang around as a teenager.

If you could offer a nickel’s worth of free advice to someone who wanted to make movies, what nuggets of wisdom would you offer?

CT: My free advice would be to work on subjects and themes that you are familiar with, and then let your instincts take over. I find my best work is often when I stop thinking and just react.

SK: Don't get caught up in the glitz stories Hollywood tells the world about itself. It's a workplace like any other; work harder than the next guy or gal, hone your talents, and don't treat people badly, and you will have a career in due time.

What do you love the most about film and the filmmaking business?

CT: Since the majority of my experience is in documentary film, I'll say what I love that is specific to that form. I love crafting a story in my mind while we are shooting, then going back to the editing room only to find that the story has evolved into something greater than what you could imagine. The task of drawing out the best story from the footage of real-life situations is like solving an intricate puzzle, and it is extremely satisfying when it is completed.

SK: I agree with Clay regarding the joys of the doc making. I love most about film generally the fact that it is, when it's at its best, a passion-driven world with a lot of passion-driven people. Even when that leads to challenges, they are challenges that feel very much alive.

What would you do or say to someone who is talking or being disruptive during a movie?

CT: I can't stand when people talk during movies. I would throw gummy bears at their head until they stopped.

SK: I would tell Clay that he's being disruptive throwing all those gummy bears.

A question that is easy for some but not for others and always gets a different response: what is your favourite film of all time?

CT: Tough question indeed. It is a toss up between "The Big Lebowski" and "Rushmore."

SK: As above, I have a hard time with "favorite" questions. I'll stick with my most recent favorite, mine from 2010: "127 Hours". I think we're getting to witness, in Danny Boyle, one of the great filmmakers at the peak of his craft, and I'm excited to see where he takes us next.

"Make Believe" screens Thursday, February 10th at the Empire Capitol 6 at 4:30pm, as well on Saturday, February 12th, 2:45pm at the Odeon.

This is one of the official selections in this year’s Victoria Film Festival lineup. For more information on films screening at this year’s fest, showtimes, updates and other general info, point your browser to

Be sure to follow instant happenings of VFF ’11 on my Twitter account @jasonwhyte, including mini-reviews of films, comments on festival action and even a Tweetphoto or two. #vicfilmfestival is the official hashtag.

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 02/11/11 04:44:49
last updated: 02/11/11 04:45:29
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