Director Ben Berman set out to make a fairly straightforward film when he opted to follow The Amazing Johnathan’s return to the stage after being diagnosed with a terminal illness. The once-famous magician had already passed the one-year mark doctors had predicted he had left to live and the fear was he could die in the middle of his physically demanding show. That was the drama Berman thought he was filming.
“Nothing you are seeing is real,” announces the first line of the first “The Amazing Johnathan Documentary” trailer. “Can you trust anything a magician says?” Berman quickly became the subject of his own documentary as the filmmaker-in-crisis started to question if he wasn’t part of an elaborate hoax being staged by the magician. It’s a fear that is only compounded when Berman discovers that Johnathan has granted another, better funded, and Oscar-winning documentary team access to tell his story.
“The first 17 minutes of the movie is what was the beginning of the movie I was heading out to make, which did not include me,” said Berman in an interview with IndieWire at Sundance, where the film premiered under its original title “The Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary.” “I had to decide was I going to compete with these Academy Award-winning filmmakers. I felt like I needed to either give up or respond in a clever way and embrace the problem.”
As the trailer alludes to, the discovery of the other documentary crew is only the first of many twists, as Berman gets sucked into the meth-addicted Johnathan’s world of mayhem and magic, and a contentious relationship develops between director and subject. Eventually Berman starts a process of self-examination of his own preoccupation with death and why he was drawn to tell Johnathan’s story in the first place.
At Sundance, Hulu won a bidding war — for a reported $2 million — for the sought-after documentary. Distributors believed “Johnathan” has the potential to follow in the box office success of the equally twisty “Three Identical Strangers,” which premiered at the festival the year before.
“The Amazing Johnathan Documentary” will receive its New York premiere at BAMcinemaFest on Friday, June 14. The film will then be released theatrically and on Hulu on August 16. Check out IndieWire’s exclusive trailer below.