Meet the DocuWeeks Filmmakers: Nelson Cheng--'The Magic Life'
By KJ Relth
Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeks™ Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from August 3 through August 30 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films™the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.
So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Nelson Cheng, director/producer of The Magic Life.
Synopsis: Three aspiring individuals try to turn their passion into a career. Can they pull off the biggest trick of their lives and become working magicians?
IDA: How did you get started as a documentary filmmaker?
Nelson Cheng: I had recently finished producing my first web series—it was the first time I ever produced anything and afterwards I just had more possibilities in my mind in terms of what was possible. I also recently had become a magician member of the Magic Castle. As I got to know more and more magicians, I thought there might be something there with business and magicians. I had this general idea when I met Seth Keal at Sundance after a screening of a documentary he produced (Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work)—he was both very encouraging and helpful. He literally sent me a listing of all the gear they used on Joan which I quickly replicated for The Magic Life.
IDA: In the director’s statement on your website, you mention that you wanted to tell a story about magicians because it’s such an uncommon career path. Do you identify with people who choose an unconventional route in life?
NC: Yes—but that wasn't why I started work on the film. I realize there are a lot of parallels to my own life, and perhaps subconsciously that's why I pursued it, but it certainly wasn’t something that I realized at the time. I just think that we spend so much time every day at work—it's literally the dominant portion of our waking hours—it just seems mind-boggling to me to not at least try and find and pursue a profession that you're passionate about. It's not the easiest of paths, but certainly seems like a worthwhile thing to pursue. I've had many dark nights wondering about what I was doing and whether I should be doing something else.
IDA: How did you find these three particular magicians? What made you choose to tell their stories?
NC: We found the first magician, Yang Yang, through a magician friend of mine. My friend had studied at a famous magic school called Chavez and Dale Salwak, who runs the school, had two students at the time—one of them being Yang Yang. I honestly had no idea what I was doing at the time, but there was something about Yang Yang's energy and presence that really captivated me. I just enjoyed spending time with him.
Another person who was involved in this film was Penny Falk (editor on Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work). She won the editing prize at Sundance for Joan. We shot a fair amount and Penny kindly looked at early footage. It wasn't even pieced together in any format; I just sent her segments that I found interesting. She gave me a lot of great feedback, but she also asked, "Who else do you have?" The first two people I mentioned were someone who had an MBA from NYU who had just moved to L.A. to pursue becoming a professional magician (Michael Friedland) and my friend who lived a block from the Magic Castle and performed on the street for tips (Matthew Noah Falk). Penny immediately said, "They sound interesting. You should follow them." So I did.
IDA: How did your vision of the project change over the course of production?
NC: The original conception was around the business side of being a magician—and I think we definitely examine and bring to the forefront an industry that a lot of people probably aren't familiar with. But on some level, the film ultimately takes the shape it was meant to take. I think I didn't anticipate seeing how much their lives would evolve and the depth of their struggles in pursuing this profession that they loved so much. I probably went into it with a much headier point of view and I personally felt like I learned a lot just from watching their journeys.
IDA: What were some of the challenges you faced when trying to make this film? How did you overcome those challenges?
NC: The main challenge is that I didn't know what I was doing. I knew that going in, but I said to myself, "Start filming and then figure out the problems." It's a tough way to go because [it's] brutal—but it's the fastest way to learn, and you end up with a film at the end of it. So I was constantly trying to figure out why something was wrong and who I could possibly ask to help me. I mentioned the absolute invaluable help that Seth and Penny provided at earlier stages of the film. Penny ultimately connected me with my editor, Erik Dugger (they had co-edited a film together), and he's very talented as an editor. I was so struck at how strong he was when it came to story. Ultimately, I know my role in the film—the film exists because of me. However, the film is (I think) a good film because of the collective efforts of folks like Seth, Penny, and Erik.
IDA: As you’ve screened The Magic Life, how have people reacted to the film?
NC: People were more engaged than I expected them to be. We premiered at Nashville and at our second screening, the organizer who introduced us noted how normally a third or more of the crowd doesn't stay for the Q&A but that nearly everyone stayed after our first screening. Also, I found the audience questions particularly thoughtful—they were both quite engaged with the individual stories and also brought out larger themes. I've had numerous people come up to me mentioning that they have dreams of their own that they'd like to pursue.
IDA Now that your film is playing DocuWeeks and making the rounds at festivals, what’s next for you?
NC: I'm continuing to produce more project—so far I've produced 3 web series, a short film, and The Magic Life. I've been bouncing around ideas for new documentaries and have been considering optioning a Vanity Fair article that I found particularly compelling. It's hard to say though—I like to have a lot of ideas, do a lot of research, move quickly. Ultimately, I only move because something within me drives me to work on something.
The Magic Life will be screening August 10 through 16 at the IFC Center in New York City, and August 17 through the 23 at Laemmle NoHo 7 in Los Angeles.