The big draw at a special screening on Tuesday night in Hollywood wasn’t a leading man or hot new starlet, but an 86-year-old retired magician.
Attendees at the screening and reception held at the Magic Castle were anxious to meet James “the Amazing” Randi, the subject of a new documentary called “An Honest Liar.” The film chronicles Randi’s journey from escape artist and magician to a skeptic who famously debunked faith healers and psychics. Everyone from Alice Cooper to Penn and Teller weigh in on his influence, and the movie contains rarely seen archival footage of Randi appearing on everything from “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” to “Happy Days.” But while making the film, directors Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom ended up discovering a deception Randi in which has been involved for over 25 years and debate whether Randi knew about the lie or not.
A Q&A followed the screening with filmmaker Weinstein, Randi and his husband Jose Alvarez. Weinstein discussed the process of obtaining and utilizing the thousands of hours of archival footage he used in the film. “We had the curse and the blessing that Randi lived a great part of his life in the public eye,” said Weinstein, who said he was lucky that Randi had kept an extensive library. He added that one of the film’s biggest expenses was converting tapes and even 16mm film.
The movie was partially funded via Kickstarter. “We were lucky in that Randi apparently has a big following around the world,” revealed Weinstein, who couldn’t divulge the final budget. “I think we were the fourth most-funded documentary on Kickstarter at the time. We had some very generous backers who love Randi and his mission. But a lot of it is scraping by, selling blood, whatever you can.”
One of the film’s big coups is getting an interview with Uri Geller, who achieved fame in the 1970s by claiming to be a psychic and making countless TV appearances where he would bend spoons and keys. For years, Randi would imitate his tricks to show there was no psychic ability involved, and the two were engaged in a heated rivalry. Weinstein described the pair as a superhero and his nemesis. “They both come from the same place. They’re both doing tricks,” said Weinstein. “And one of them goes to the light and one to the dark side. It’s a classic superhero narrative.”
Randi, who cites Harry Houdini as a huge inspiration, noted that the late magician could dedicate only so much time to exposing hoaxes. “Houdini hadn’t had enough of his career to really get into it because he was traveling all the time. He was too busy professionally as a magician,” he noted. When asked about why he feels the need to reveal fakes, he said, “These people do positive damage to believers.” He talked about one faith healer who collected so much money, he threw out checks worth $20 or less. “He was cashing the $500 and $1,000 ones — and there were a lot of them.”
When asked whom he would like to expose today, he cited televangelist Benny Hinn. He also revealed that he is working on his 11th book, “A Magician in the Laboratory,” which will include a takedown of anti-vaccination believers.
“An Honest Liar” premiered to strong reviews at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival and will hit theaters March 6.
(Pictured: Magician James Randi (L) and producer/co-director Justin Weinstein at a special screening of “An Honest Liar” at the Magic Castle)