Ben Berman on The Amazing Johnathan and Manipulation in Documentary Filmmaking
Last week, I had the opportunity to sit down with Ben Berman, the director of The Amazing Johnathan Documentary. The original idea behind the documentary was to focus on telling the story of the Amazing Johnathan (John Edward Szeles) after he learned that he only had a year left to live. Without giving too much away, the documentary doesn’t go as initially planned because The Amazing Johnathan has a few secrets that he hasn’t shared with Ben before filming. The Amazing Johnathan Documentary is a bizarre film but one that explores the moral ramifications of making a documentary and what happens when things don’t necessarily go as planned.
Scott Menzel: First and foremost, was a big fan of this film.
Ben Berman: Thank you.
Scott Menzel: You seemed stressed as fuck while you were making this movie.
Ben Berman: Sure. Yeah, it is on-going stress.
Scott Menzel: You know, one of the things that I always like to ask, because I go to Sundance every year, as a filmmaker, what was it like being there?
Ben Berman: It’s the fucking best. So, I’ve had two short films there in previous years, both fiction films, but being that I struggled so much with this movie and I was the underdog in my own life and in the film for a while, and then to have it get into Sundance was just huge for me. It was very incredible, very emotional and my whole family came out and the fact that like it deals with my family and my family history with my mom and stuff. And it was just perfect. It was crazy. And then for the movie to sell and like there was a bidding war, it was just like, I guess the Sundance fantasy it happened. It was cool.
Scott Menzel: That’s awesome. Yeah. I always wonder when filmmakers get to go there because everyone seems to praise them. And I think film festivals, in general, are so incredibly important. So, what was the initial goal of making this documentary?
Ben Berman: I set out without a real significant conscious thought of anything. I really just wasn’t judging it as I was doing it. But I set out thinking that there’s definitely a 20 minute beautiful said and funny short doc. Verité, a slice of life, fly on the wall doc about a magician confronted with his mortality while he is basically waiting to die, dealing with his illness and his death with both sincerity, emotion and comedic levity. There’s a dark comedy to Jonathan dark. Darkly comedic edge of course to Jonathan. So, and that’s how he was dealing with his life at that point. And I was like, okay, that’s worth exploring that could certainly be something.
So I set out basically to make a short. And just started being around Jonathon filming, gathering footage, right? Not judging anything, just being there to get footage. And that’s when Jonathan then decided he’s going to go back to touring. And I was like, okay, there’s a more clear narrative unfolding. And then, of course, the second crew entered Jonathon’s life and that’s when I was like, okay, might as well if I’m going, I can either quit and not compete with these Academy award-winning filmmakers because who am I? I’m an amateur, or if I’m going to continue, I’m going to experiment with allowing that to be part of the narrative and if that works out, I’ll continue forward. If it doesn’t, low stakes, I’ll ditch the whole project. But luckily we figured out a way to make it work. I think.
Scott Menzel: The thing that I found so fascinating is seeing your frustration throughout the film. Because it’s such a change of pace from a typical documentary. The camera turns on you, and it becomes about your life for a good portion of the film. Was that nerve-racking for you? Like how did you even decide to go that route? I enjoyed how it somehow became about your upbringing and like why you pick up a video camera when you were younger.
Ben Berman: That went in steps, big time. So, I never had any plan or any interest in being in front of the camera. I’m not an on-camera personality at all. I’m purely a director and editor and behind the scenes guy. But when I decided to experiment with including the competition element in the narrative of the doc, I needed to, If their inclusion in the movie that reflects. That reflects me, and I reflect them. It’s a competition. There are two people here. It would be weird just to show them, and I couldn’t tell that story entirely. So I needed to appear in the movie and be one element of this conflict. Right? So that was the choice that I made to have some shots of me shooting them and getting fucked around, and a funny shot, like a sad shot of me getting kicked out of a green room audience laughs. Cool.
That’s like, I just wanted to stay at the surface there. And that’s why I wanted to stay there for the whole movie. But then more challenges came up and ultimately, way down the road we got financiers and producers to come onto the film, and they became aware of my family history. And they encouraged me to make that part of the movie, and I was adamant against it. I was like, no way in hell am I going down that road. No one wants to hear more about me, my sob story. Like that’s bullshit. People are going to hate that, and I’m not interested. I don’t want to. And then my good friend Kirk Johnson, who’s a producer on the movie, kind of my right-hand creative guy on the movie, he came to me a couple of days after that. He was like, Hey, I know you really don’t want to do what the producer said, but I think it’s actually a good idea. I think you at least owe it to yourself to experiment. See if something like that is worth it. And if it’s not, scrap it. But at least you’ve tried.
So that’s when I went and dug up like literally only seven old home videotapes that I have in LA. And I started looking through them, and that’s when I found that the moment of me interviewing my dad, literally eight months after my mom died and I don’t remember doing that. And it was just so like, Oh my God. It impacted me so much that I was like, okay, we’ve got to try this. And I’m happy we did. So it was definitely multiple steps to enter into the movie to the degree I did.
Scott Menzel: Yeah. So, another thing about a documentary is in most cases, and I think you kind of mention it in the film is, just like a scripted film, you would have what you are planning for your ending and kind of how the film will transition throughout. As you were saying initially, the idea was he’s coming back for his rebound tour, so you were going to focus on that. However, when you discover all these mysteries and you find out about four documentary crews and then you like start questioning whether or not he’s faking the whole thing. And then there are all these references to Andy Kaufman and stuff like that. When putting this film together, how do you decide to edit? Like how you go from telling a story that’s not linear to create a linear narrative.
Ben Berman: Yeah, no, I know. Yeah, totally. Well, I’ll say things, and maybe it’ll hopefully comment on that. I think this movie puts all its cards on the table, I guess in a way I’m proud of that. Like you literally see a shot of me looking at cards on a board, and that’s me saying docs making docs are cards on a board. It’s a construction. So you’re right, you’re right to ask, the doc should be you filming the truth and you presenting the truth. But in reality, there are many different truths, and the editor decides what to show, what not to show. The director guides that. A director decides what to shoot and what not to shoot. It’s, there are so many different realities and different truths. So yeah, I think it would be silly to not admit to that.
But what we have here is a documentary, and it is what happened. But yeah, every documentary is a construction. So a takeaway from this movie if people walk away understanding, question everything, question docs, question fake news, all this stuff, question everything. Everyone’s a fucking liar.
Scott Menzel: That’s a great point because one of the things I was going to ask you about. As much as I like documentaries, they’re all manipulating. They all make you think a certain way. Filmmakers, again, not to throw them underneath the bus, but Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock have a clear objective when they’re going into a movie, and they know that they’re good at it which is why people on the other side (politically) won’t even listen to them. How does a person deal with that? Like what are ethical struggles of making a documentary?
Ben Berman: Oh well there are tons but also, those guys that you referenced when you say that they have an objective before they even start filming the movie, you’re probably right. They’re probably open to a couple of things. They don’t know everything that’s going happen. But that’s also the problem. In order to convince someone to finance your movie. It’s much tougher. And I’m going to be probably struggling with this for years, I hope I don’t, but the type of docs that I’m interested in making are not the type of doc where you know the beginning, middle, and end. And it’s like either stuff that happened in the past and you’re just recounting it. I’m not interested in those docs. Maybe, I’m sure there will be a story that I am interested in, but I love the, not necessarily always investigative journalism, but starting with something, knowing that there’s something there, you’re going to find something, you’re going to come upon something but not knowing everything, like not knowing where it’s going to end. That’s why Tickled is fun to watch.
Scott Menzel: I was going to tell you that. That’s the movie your film reminds me of.
Ben Berman: Yeah, David Farrier has seen this movie, and he actually wrote a little article on both of our movies, and it’s pretty nice. But yeah, those types of movies and I think Louis Thoreau less, but he’s an on-camera journalist, and he’s got that essence to, of like, what are we going to find out I’m going to explore this as opposed to here’s the beginning, middle, and end. So I think that’s an unfortunate and just a reality that in order to get financing to make your things, you probably need to tell someone or convince them that, Hey, we kind of know where it’s going. So, but what are the ethical dilemmas of a doc filmmaker? Too many to mention, I’m sure.
That’s what this movie’s about. It’s, do you include yourself in it? Is that self-serving? Is it not? How gonzo If you do? How gonzo or do you get? Is it, do you do drugs? Do you not? Then what? What are your motives? I don’t know. How do you edit? There’s no question. You’re totally right. Every piece of a doc is manipulative. Even if it is like a don’t look back, that’s just a pure verité film. Where Bob Dylan doc that D.A Pennebaker made, where you’re just a fly on the wall watching something go down to the moment that there’s a camera there. That’s probably not what would’ve gone down. Cause someone’s aware that there’s a camera there. So, and I’ll say this, I know this firsthand, and I’m not ashamed of it.
I’m actually proud of it. It’s like there are some moments in the Jonathan doc that, Oh my God, they’re meaty, they’re juicy. They’re, Oh, can you believe this person’s saying this thing and revealing this thing, and it’s tense? You take that dark Jerome, that boom, music cue out and it’s not that intense. There are tricks here, and I’m not afraid to admit that. Every doc is manipulative for good and for bad. I want to think ours is as transparent as a doc can get, but I don’t know.
Scott Menzel: Okay. I have to ask you about Johnathan because I just did a 15-minute interview and then got a tour of this place by him. He seemed so humble and so like true as a person, almost something that feels lost in this world that we live in today. Where everyone is so under scrutiny all the time. We were talking about political correctness.
Ben Berman: Yeah. He doesn’t give a fuck about it.
Scott Menzel: He doesn’t give a fuck, which is like so refreshing in a weird way.
Ben Berman: But that’s Trump then too. Trump doesn’t give a fuck. And that’s not refreshing.
Scott Menzel: Oh, absolutely. He is not refreshing at all. (laughs)
Ben Berman: But yeah, there is a childlike essence to Johnathan that I don’t think he has the ability, and I’ve seen only a small handful of people like this, and this is something I admire so fully about certain people. And it’s, what I admire about Jonathan is he can only be 100% himself. He can’t change himself like Eric Andre, who is my friend and is also that way. They never want to improve themselves or try to be something that they’re not because they can’t, they fully own it. And Johnathan wholly owns it and, and that’s, yeah.
Scott Menzel: Yeah. I just thought that was interesting because I asked him a question about political correctness. I asked, did it affect him when he came back now? And he was like, fuck no. It didn’t; I don’t care. He was like fuck those people. And I think that’s so interesting. And you’re right, where you have people on the other end, the spectrum like Trump, but it just fascinating to hear. You put a lot of interesting people in this film to be interviewed. Like you got Weird Al which is actually how I know Johnathan from that little clip on the Weird Al show.
Ben Berman: Oh, no way. That’s how you know Johnathan?
Scott Menzel: Yeah.
Ben Berman: That’s amazing. Uncle John.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, that’s so bizarre, I know. Yeah, but as Weird Al fan that’s what I know.
Ben Berman: I just saw Weird Al at the Greek the other night. Were you there?
Scott Menzel: Sadly, I was not. Was he awesome?
Ben Berman: Yeah. He’s 60 years old, and he’s fucking still going strong.
Scott Menzel: Yep, he is still rocking and rolling. I know. So, I know we have to wrap soon, but what was the thought process about incorporating those people into the film?
Ben Berman: It’s something at the beginning of the movie because I thought I was making this incredible verité, artistic piece. “Fuck talking heads. I’m never I’m going to do a talking head.” And then after a while, I was cutting some stuff together, and people were like, well, we’re just missing what we need, we need to know about Jonathan’s past. And then there was yeah, the idea of, okay, if we did talking heads, I’ll throw that aside on my artistic pretension of not doing talking heads, I’m going to show, not tell. Right? I was like, ah, okay if they’re only used at the beginning.
Basically we needed to also kind of work backwards and make act one more typical to then we needed to set the expectation to then subvert the expectations. Because an earlier cut, it was this verité experimental piece from the get-go. So we needed to go back, put the talking heads in the things that you trust, the tropes that you trust, like him talking his mom and him back at home, like in, in Detroit, that was filling much later that was put into, these are the things you see in a normal doc to then subvert them.
Scott Menzel: Awesome. I thought it was a fascinating film. Thank you for making it.
Ben Berman: Thank you for watching it.
Scott Menzel: And thank you for breaking down the things that most people don’t see about documentaries. The lies and manipulation.
Ben Berman: I appreciate it. I hope. I hope people value that, more than think it’s self-serving and shitty of me, but only time will tell.
Scott Menzel: That’s what makes a good filmmaker, right?
Ben Berman: Yes. Thank you so much. Really nice meeting.
Scott Menzel: Nice meeting you too.