Molly Bernstein, Alan Edelstein, Ricky Jay, and Scott Foundas at The New York Film Festival world premiere of Deceptive Practice. Photo by Joe Holmes.
I’ve been a fan of Ricky Jay’s since I was a kid, when I saw his TV special, Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants. I remember being taken by how different he was from anyone I’d ever seen perform magic—stern, with no bombast. He made magic this manly, intimidating thing, like a cigar or something. I’ve been scared and mesmerized by him ever since.
As I grew older, he and his inimitable voice turned up in some of my favorite movies, such as Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Homicide, and Things Change—and of course, my favorite TV show of all time, Deadwood. And now he’s the subject of one of my favorite documentaries of last year—Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay.
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Molly Bernstein, the director of this wonderful film:
How long have you been a fan of Ricky Jay’s, and what drew you to him and his work?
Around 1993, I read his book Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women, a fantastic book with beautiful illustrations of posters and playbills from Ricky’s collection about unusual entertainers in various periods of history. And then in 1994, I went to see his one-man show in New York, Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants, and I was completely enchanted by his performance. It was a tiny, 100-seat theater with just Ricky, a deck of cards, and a few simple objects.
I was amazed that he could enthrall a sophisticated, adult New York audience with nothing high-tech, simply his hands and his remarkable storytelling. There were lots of gasps; I’d never experienced anything like it. He dazzled us with stories from the history of this secret art and about obscure, eccentric characters that were wildly entertaining. And it convinced me that this was a fantastic art not to miss out on.
How did you first meet him, and what was that like?
After seeing the show, I wanted to know more about this charismatic character. I found Secrets of the Magus, a brilliant profile of Ricky written for The New Yorker by Mark Singer in 1993. Here, I learned a lot more about Ricky’s background and talents. This inspired the idea for a documentary. My producing partner, Alan Edelstein, and I wrote a letter to Mark Singer. He very kindly introduced us to Ricky. The four of us had lunch together. It was great to meet him and I remember being impressed by how similar his on-and off-stage personas seemed.
What was the genesis of the film, and how did you pitch it to him?
We had several meetings with Mark and Ricky about how to approach the film, and then wrote a proposal/treatment that outlined about 5 themes. One of those was a section on Ricky’s mentors, which Mark covered extensively in his profile. Ricky responded most enthusiastically to this section and we decided this should be the main focus of the film.
That’s one of the things I really love about the film—that you cover not just Ricky, but everyone who influenced him. It’s a remarkable primer on some of the most influential names in magic, names that unless you had a deep interest in the subject, would never even know about—which is a shame, because they’re fascinating and phenomenally talented people. Did you have interest in people such as Dai Vernon before you made the film, or did you learn about them through talking to Ricky?
I knew nothing about magic in general or Dai Vernon and other great performers that are in the film. I first learned about them in Ricky’s one-man show, 52 Assistants, and in Mark Singer’s profile. It was fascinating to do research on these brilliant artists and to hear about Ricky’s first-hand experience with many of them through interviews. We heard so many great stories about these guys, and some that we couldn’t fit into the film are in the bonus material on the DVD.
The film contains several close-up interludes of him performing elegant sleights of hand. What’s it like being there, seeing him perform at such a close, studied distance?
The first time he performed something for us to film was thrilling. We were shooting 35mm film and framed only his hands working with cards in extreme close-ups. It was dazzling and remarkable how easily he seemed to be able to produce aces from a shuffled deck, for example. And it was stunning to study the fluid motions of his hands through the lens and on the monitor.
Ricky comes across as kinda guarded yet forthcoming, warm yet cold, knowable yet unknowable, which certainly makes for a fascinating subject. How was he to work with?
At one point we were going to call the film “Everywhere and Nowhere,” which is the name of a magic piece created by Johann Nepomuk Hofzinser, a Viennese magician in the 19th century and one that Ricky pays homage to in his one-man show, 52 Assistants. Ricky does have a strange quality of seeming very hard to pin down; there is something ethereal about him. This presented certain challenges in working with him. He is a magician, after all.
How long did you spend shooting and editing the film, and how did you
know when you were ‘done’?
We spent over ten years shooting and editing the film, on and off. We knew the film was close to done when we were invited to premiere at The New York Film Festival. We felt it was close but this pushed us to actually finish; it was a wonderful deadline to have.
I noticed in the film that there are clips from Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants, and the source appears to be very high quality, much higher than I’ve ever seen. Are you aware of any plans for the special to finally be released? It’s a shame that for the last several decades, the only way to see it and the Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women special has been through low-res bootlegs taped off TV.
There has been talk of releasing these specials; hopefully this will happen soon.
Deceptive Practice is your first documentary as a director, although you’re far from new to making them—you have a ton of experience producing and editing them for TV. What was it like stepping into this new role, and how was this experience different?
It was different in that Ricky was an amazing subject, unlike any other. But the actual work was similar to the other work I was doing simultaneously on television and commercial projects. I’ve directed a lot of short documentaries that can be seen at ParticleProductions.com.
I understand that early on in your career, you were an assistant editor for many well known directors, including Martin Scorsese, Melvin Van Peebles, and Jonathan Demme. Do you have any stories you’d care to share about what it was like working with any of them? I see on IMDb that you were the assistant editor on After Hours—we’re big fans of that film here at the site, so anything at all about your experience on that one in particular would be much appreciated!
Working in editing rooms on features was invaluable experience for me in many ways. I learned a lot about editing, obviously, but also about the whole filmmaking process. Working on After Hours was great. I learned a huge amount about discipline and high standards. And I had the amazing privilege of sitting in on dailies screenings every evening with Scorcese, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and the cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, as well as other crew members. It was great to listen to this brilliant team analyze the footage that had been shot the night before. I remember being mesmerized by watching many takes of a shot where the main character’s 20-dollar bill floats away. The cinematography was gorgeous.
Another remarkable perk of this job was meeting the great English director Michael Powell (1905-1990), who was Thelma Schoonmaker’s husband and a greatly admired friend of Martin Scorcese. Michael visited the editing room frequently, always in dapper attire and full of incomparable charm and wit (and often with pastries for all). Thelma and Michael had the editing crew over for dinner one night (the first and second assistant editors and me, the apprentice). Michael did all the cooking. He made several delicious courses, all seafood. It was an unforgettable evening, to say the least.
What’s next on the horizon? Do you plan to continue directing your own documentaries, or was this a one-off project? It’s one of the best directorial debuts I’ve seen in recent years, and I’d love to see more from you.
Thanks for your kind words. I have a couple of my own documentaries underway; one is somewhat in the vein of Deceptive Practice, involving a great obsession and a moment in entertainment history.
To close, what are some of your favorite documentaries you’ve seen recently? And what are some of your favorites of all time?
I saw a wonderful documentary at the New York Film Festival this year called Fifi Howls from Happiness, about an Iranian artist in exile in Rome. Some of my all time favorites are Werner Herzog’s earlier documentaries, like The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1974), How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck… (1976), Marlene by Maximilian Schell (1984), and Claude Lanzmann’s masterpiece Shoah (1985).
Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay is currently available on Netflix, iTunes, Amazon Instant, and on DVD.