Written by Zac Fanni
Below is an extensive interview with the team behind the, “Trick with the Gun” documentary. If you’d like to see the film click here.
FROM SCOTT Hammell (magician):
1. What are the similarities you see between magic performance and filmmaking as forms of storytelling?
People always know when they’ve seen a good film, and a good magic performance. They don’t always know why it’s good, they just know that it was good. It’s usually because the story was told in a clear, concise way that made sense to the audience. There were likely elements of the story and or character(s) that were relatable to the audience, or had the audience cheering for them. With both mediums, hooking your audience early is important and leaving them with the feeling of HAVING to tell their friends about it after, is the goal!
2. Why pursue the bullet catch trick? Was it just because it is the ‘holy grail’ of magic tricks?
I’ve made a career for myself by attempting stunts and pieces of magic that most performers wouldn’t. One of my motives is that of an everyday magician (take something impossible and figure out a way to make it happen) but just using that thinking on a large scale. I also love exploring magic that has a rich history, and I think it would be easy to argue that the bullet catch would top that list! To be honest, I also didn’t expect that this project would take off. Chris and I were sitting over breakfast and discussed the possibility of doing the trick in a film. “Would you do it if I could help sell it?” Chris asked. “Sure!” I said, thinking NO Canadian production company would do this project. Chris called his friend Michael McNamara (Markham St. Films) and pitched the idea. Michael loved it! Now I’m thinking, “No network will buy this in Canada!” and sure enough, we sat down with Superchannel and they basically bought it on the spot. Damn! I was committed!
3. Other than death, what were your most major concerns while preparing for this trick?
If I’m doing an underwater stunt, I find world class freedivers to help teach me how to hold my breath. If I’m skydiving, I train with world champion skydivers. This is a trick that has killed nearly 20 magicians. Working with someone who wasn’t a world class shot, and has a really different work ethic than I do, really brought me out of my comfort zone.
4. How did you decide upon your particular variation of the trick? How were you hoping to affect the audience, and what choices did you make to achieve that particular impact?
I’ll do my best to answer this conscisly because there is a LOT to answer here! I had a great round table discussion with some of my closest friends who also happen to be magicians at the top of their field in their particular discipline. Would we use a pistol? A rifle? A shotgun? Would we make it hyper realistic? Would we make it artistic? Those answers started to boil down after I took my gun safety course and started going to the shooting range to practice and learn more. Certain elements were added for realism, some for dramatic effect, and some to fool magicians and gun experts in the audience who were watching. There was one element of the effect that we changed the day before the performance. It was stressful to do that, and added extra work for me on stage, but it made the trick a lot more fair and honest.
Filming this for a documentary added a whole other level of complexity. Television magic and live theatre are two VERY different things. I knew I needed to engage the live audience because they are, in essence, verifying the details of the performance for the audience at home. The magic for the audience at home is a different experience. They didn’t get the build up and the themes that were weaved throughout the show for the first hour. It’s also much more difficult for them to experience the tension that was in that room that night. Playing to both the camera audience and the live audience was really tough!
My main goal with the audience (with both mediums) was to show them that I was taking the violent power away from the gun, and using it as a piece of art. Especially in a country like Canada, seeing six high powered rifles lined up on stage was almost too much. I wanted people talking about the magic, and not the guns. I also wanted them to not REALLY know what parts were magic, and what parts were real.
5. What are the most important tips for the (hypothetical) person looking to do a bullet catch?
- Save up! Not just money (it’s an expensive trick!) but time. To do it properly is an investment of a couple of years.
- Learn as MUCH as you can from anyone who will teach you. Take all of the safety courses you can, and know the materials as well or better than everyone else on your team.
- Find the right team! Surround yourself with safe people who believe in your vision and want you to succeed. If you don’t have the right team, it’s going to sour the experience.
- Be prepared for this experience to mess with your mind. The nature of your research into the history of the trick will turn up some pretty unfortunate ways that magicians died trying it. I had horrific nightmares, almost on a nightly basis for nearly two years.
- Also, be ready to have your sanity and artistic vision questioned by almost everyone you know.
- BE SAFE
6. How would you characterize magic’s relationship to truth? Did the truth-seeking form of the documentary film present any particular challenge to this relationship?
These are GREAT questions! I could go on and on and on about these questions!!!
Magicians have a funny way of dealing with the truth. Or bending it! I’ve seen great magicians tell an audience, “I’m about to lie to you” and have heard the audience say things like, “he’s lying by saying that. Everything he’s saying now is true. He just wants us to THINK he’s lying to us!”. Sometimes magicians will be totally honest and yet they get away with deception in tricky ways. An example of this would be a magician saying, “This is an ordinary deck of cards” which it is, and then seconds later that deck is switched for a trick deck. The statement at the time was true!
Making a documentary about magic does add a few layers of complexity. Especially when the magician doesn’t know how the story is going to be told in the end, and doesn’t have control over the editing process. One wrong camera angle could spoil an entire trick! In that instance, the camera crew might just be trying to capture the scene from their honest perspective, but in a live performance, no cameras (or spectators) would ever be allowed to stand where they are standing.
7. Why do you think the trick created so much tension between you and Chris Gudgeon? Could you have done the trick with anyone other than a trained marksman?
When you have two, fundamentally different people, with different work ethics, visions, agendas and personalities, working on a big project together, there is going to be tension. The further we got into this project, the more evident those differences became and it got to a point where I wondered, and I’m sure Chris did too, if it was too late to back out. Chris and I had worked on projects together before but none as intensive and intense as this. I struggled to understand his process, and he struggled to understand mine. The film documents this as much or more as the trick it’s self!
The trick was designed so that anyone in the audience could have fired the gun. We even discussed versions where that might happen. At the end of the day though it would have been unsafe to let that happen and that unknown variable didn’t make us comfortable.
8. What was your motivation to make Chris the shooter in the first place? Since his inexperience is the most dangerous variable, why did you insist on incorporating him into the act?
The idea of Chris shooting the gun came up while we were discussing magic and the idea of a documentary about the bullet catch over breakfast. I loved the story arch for a doc and thought that it would add another challenge and level impossibility to the stunt. As my dear friend, mentor and main consultant on this project Aaron Fisher spoke about in the film, having an inexperienced marksman was the only condition that we needed. What he meant by that was at that point, the bullet doesn’t need to be signed, it doesn’t need to fly through glass etc. Having an inexperienced marksman is enough!
Fooling the shooter with the trick was an added challenge that I really enjoyed working on!
I would also like to make the distinction that I didn’t insist on his involvement. Especially when I started to notice his lack of practice. I set out very clear expectations and let him know that we were ready and willing to replace him if his attitude towards practicing and safety didn’t change.
9. As a follow up, what do you think is an acceptable level of danger for a magician? When are the risks worth taking?
Every magician will have a different answer to this question. In fact, we hired a world renowned consultant on this project. I’m not legally allowed to disclose who that is because for him, his level of danger is a gun with a firing pin. He wasn’t comfortable being attached to any bullet catch that involved a gun that had a firing pin and could fire a bullet. I figured out a method that I was comfortable using that used real guns and ammo.
In addition, there was a detail of my bullet catch that I was comfortable using, that a member of my team wasn’t. I changed the method so that he would be comfortable. His level of risk was higher than the consultant’s, but lower than mine. When you’re doing a trick that’s this dangerous, it’s not just about you anymore!
10. How do you hope people will react to your bullet catch trick? What is the impact you hope to have on your audience?
This film gives a unique look behind the curtain so that people can see a sliver of what goes into producing a big dangerous stunt. I hope people see how seriously I take my art and the safety of everyone involved in my performances. I hope they are left with a sense that they saw a piece of magic, and not a glorification of guns. I also hope that they are fooled! And as with all of my work, I hope that they are inspired to push themselves.
11. Has this process and performance changed your relationship to your craft, identity and/or ambitions?
I think this reinforced many of my existing beliefs about my art and preparation. It has also reinforced my relationship with my instincts. Some people don’t understand why I do what I do. That’s what I like to explore. The ‘why’! Some people have a hard time understanding the decisions I sometimes have to make. If everyone did what I do, the way that I do it, I wouldn’t have a wonderful career and the incredible adventures that I do. This film also reminded me that it’s easy for people to be judgemental after seeing a project that took nearly 2 years, cut into a 90 minute film. It’s also easy to be critical of things that you’d never be willing to do yourself. But that’s human nature, and I love to explore that!
FROM MICHAEL McNamara (director):
1&2 – What is the story you are telling with this film and why do you think this story is worth telling?
I’ve always had my own questions about the connections between magic, manipulation, storytelling and filmmaking. The Trick With the Gun presented a unique opportunity to answer the questions and explore the connections. Our main characters, the magician Scott Hammel and the writer/filmmaker Chris Gudgeon have each been searching for their own answers to these questions. The challenge was to find a way to discover and show tangible honesty in the illusory. For the camera to become intimate with subjects who have always required distance. And to flirt with danger and death without becoming complicit in risk. Or at least offer the illusion of risk.
3. Are there any particular films or other sources of inspiration you turn to before starting a new project? Anything in particular regarding this specific project?
This is quite different from any other movie I’ve ever made. Not that I ever follow a formula – I generally try to devise a unique approach to each film that reflects and responds to the subject matter and themes. And even though I knew nothing about the world of professional magicians going into this, I’m no stranger to “magic”, because there has always been a strong connection between magic stage craft and film making. Georges Méliès, who made early silent fantasy films like “A Trip To the Moon” in 1902 was a filmmaking pioneer and practically invented movie “special effects”. It’s no accident that he started out as a magician and illusionist. Orson Welles (every film-makers hero) practiced magic, illusion and sleight of hand in front of and behind the camera – especially in the documentary he made towards the end of his career “F is for Fake”. And today, illusionists like Penn and Teller have been turning to making films themselves. While their first films were fictional comedies, they have both recently turned to documentary. Penn made “The Aristocrats”, about shock value as entertainment and pushing the boundaries of audience discomfort. And more recently Teller made “Tim’s Vermeer”, about an inventors attempt to duplicate the techniques of the Dutch master painter. All of these were inspirations.
4. Were there any conflicts between the documentary, as something that seeks to represent truth, and the innately deceptive nature of magic performance? How did you reconcile or negotiate the relationship between these two art forms?
The film opens with a line from a poem by Christopher Gudgeon: “There’s an art to this deception, built on distraction and perspective. My magic depends on where you stand.” This was meant to be both a statement about the themes we are about to explore, and also a sort of warning about the rules of engagement – ie there may actually be no rules. In other words, we are going to employ a bit of distraction in order to express truths that will shift depending on “where you are standing”. Chris and Scott each had their own ideas about what our audience should see and what should stay out of sight. And they didn’t always agree. And I had to make some choices about this too.
5. As a follow up, what do you think the role of truth is in documentary filmmaking?
We’ve all heard the expression “The camera never lies.” But back in film school one of my favourite teachers used to tell us “The camera ALWAYS lies” and we could either fight a losing battle against this and have a short (or at best an unhappy) career, or embrace it and learn to make magic. And the simple truth of this has become evident to me time and again over the years, whether making drama, comedy or nonfiction.
This is because film is never really objective. The very nature of film making – the capture of images recorded by light reflected through a lens onto film or a digital sensor – creates the illusion that film is an objective process. And as we have evolved from cave paintings to camera-phone selfies, we have become enabled to create images that look more real than the objects they represent. Images that say “this is reality, this is what my world looks like”.
A filmmaker is always making choices about what, when, where, why and how to capture an image. And every step we take involves subjective choices. The “truths” we film are the results of conscious or unconscious choices: from lens size, to camera placement, to when to start recording and when to stop.
But the myth of film truth has contributed to the power of the medium. And it certainly contributed to its power over me, because I love to suspend my own disbelief and I love to be told a good story. We all do. It’s in our nature. So for me, great filmmaking embraces this tension between our desire for truth and our deep human need to create a fiction that thrills, inspires and frees us from the ordinary. So this film presented a unique opportunity to explore this in a dynamic and, I hope, entertaining way.
5. Why did you decide to focus on two subjects for this film? What would have been lost if you had only focused on Hammell’s journey towards the bullet catch? What kind of decisions did you have to make to balance these two perspectives?
There are actually 3 subjects in the film – Scott the Magician/motivational speaker, Chris the artist/trickster/gunman, and the audience of skeptics. And while both Chris and Scott may seem to have their minds made up very early about who they are and what they want, there is constantly shifting perspective and change for both of them.
6. How did you decide when to use narrative tools like the talking head interview, voice over, reenactment, etc.? What informs your choices about how you construct a story for an audience?
The Trick With the Gun is about craft, art, performance, risk and trust. It explores the relationships between our characters and their audiences. And each of these themes and questions informed the way we told the story. We’re not bound by narrative time and space, because that’s the inherent magic of film. We can skip quickly around as the story demands. So we used graphics and animation to take us back in history to tell the stories of bullet catch disasters. And each of those stories reflect and enhance the themes of the present day issues with our characters. There was no single technique for our storytelling – we did did it all – sit down interviews and fly on the wall observational shooting. We invited other magicians with bullet catch experience to advise Scott and Chris how to do it
And for the actual performance of the bullet catch, we hired a big theatre, invited an audience and filmed it live with 7 roving cameras, plus an additional number of strategically placed GoPro action cameras attached to the rifle mount, and even in the line of fire. We wanted to get insiders views from Scott and Chris as the stunts were practiced and performed.
7. Hammell talks a lot about fear and its role as a motivator for the stunts he performs – what role did fear have in your own creative vision for this project? What did you fear the most throughout the project, and what were some of the constructive ways you dealt with it?
At least 14 men and women have died attempting the bullet catch. The more we investigated the more we began to suspect that it’s actually “cursed” trick. So many things went wrong while we were making the film. Some of these actually made it into the movie, by the way. And anyone who sees the trailer for the film will know there was a growing tension in the film between Chris the “bullet shooter”, and Scott the “bullet catcher”. At first I thought the tension was an act, and that they were colluding and pulling my leg. And when it became evident that the tension was real, I began to worry – do I still have a film? And we were working around guns and ammunition – could these problems between them actually lead to an accident while we are shooting? And accidents do happen even when you take safety precautions, which of course we did.
8. What themes and/or messages about the journey these two people undergo most spoke to you as a filmmaker? How did you work to capture those same themes/messages in the film?
There are many ways we can use the camera to tell the “truths” of this story. The trick for me as a filmmaker is to go further and gain the confidence of my 2 subjects so we can draw back the curtain and get inside their worlds, without spoiling the illusions they strive to create. And at the same time get inside their own impulses and fears. I had known Chris for many years and got to know Scott making the movie. They are obviously very different from one another, and it seems to me that we all share a common love and respect for magic, and a need to share this with an audience. And an even deeper desire to understand why.
9. What are some of the things you most enjoyed in filming this project?
I’ve worked with lots of different types of artists – musicians, actors, stand up comedians, children’s entertainers, dancers – and I loved getting inside the very unique world of magicians and magic. I loved meeting Carl and Tina Skenes, the husband and wife team who performed the bullet catch “for real” hundreds of times back in the 1980’s. And I especially loved meeting George Schindler, the 83 year old Dean of the Society of American Magicians – he started doing magic in the park in Brooklyn with Shari Lewis when he was a teenager, worked with Woody Allen, and he is just a funny, knowledgable and charming guy. And he continues to love the craft of magic.
10. What was the most impressive magic trick you witnessed while shooting the film?
Well that would have to be the one that happens at the climax of the film. I will say no more about that – you have to see it
11. What do you hope an audience will leave the theater with after watching your film?
In every film I make, whether it’s a doc or drama, I want the audience to have an authentic experience and ask questions about things they never thought they would be curious about. So in the case of The Trick With the Gun, I want the audience to respond the same way I do when I see a convincing card trick. To laugh, ask questions, and argue with their friends about what actually happened, and what it all meant.