Out of thin air: Well-adjusted teen magicians | AspenTimes.com

Out of thin air: Well-adjusted teen magicians

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

Contributed photoColoradan Derek McKee is featured in "Make Believe," a documentary about teenage magicians, showing Sunday, Oct. 3 in Aspen Filmfest. McKee will be in attendance for a conversation.

ASPEN – Take a wand, a deck of cards and some coins, put them in the hands of a certain kind of teenager, and magic happens: Shy kids who don’t feel comfortable in social situations are, in the blink of an eye, turned into confident figures, happy to be the focus of attention.

“Absolutely, there are a few personality traits that are common in magicians. But they’re even more pronounced in teenagers,” Steve Klein, himself a former teenage magician, said. “Even in adult magicians, you can see these traits buried underneath their exterior. It’s an introverted intensity – they’re happy to rehearse alone, practicing for hours, the same thing over and over. It’s a tendency toward OCD.”

Though Klein became a filmmaker, rather than a magician, he retained a strong interest in magic. When making his frequent trips to the Magic Castle, in Los Angeles, only one of his friends, Seth Gordon, was reliably game for a night of drinks and magic shows. Several years ago, Gordon, a fellow filmmaker, began work on a documentary about the tiny, geeky subculture of competitive video-game players. The project became “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters,” a compelling 2007 film and a hit on the festival circuit. Klein began envisioning a movie that focused on a similarly quirky, obsessive, out-of-the-mainstream bunch: child magicians.

The biggest challenge was finding a story worth telling inside the world of magic. In 2008, while working on a play in New York City, Klein visited Tannen’s, a magic shop that has been in existence since 1925. There, among the body-sized boxes and black hats, he found the germ of his story.

“Three 12-year-old boys came in, all seriously introverted. They came in together, making no eye contact, no connection. Their energy was really interesting,” Klein said. “Each picked up a deck of cards, went behind the counter, and became a showman.

“That’s a story – how they went from one to the other is an art. The project takes place in the world of magic, but it had to be about coming of age.”

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Klein, as producer, along with director J. Clay Tweel, made “Make Believe,” a documentary focused on teen magicians. The film had its debut at the Los Angeles Film Festival, where it took the award for best documentary, and was also screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. Its third screening is at Aspen Filmfest at 4:45 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 3, at the Wheeler Opera House. Klein will be in attendance for a post-screening conversation.

While the episode at Tannen’s formed the thematic basis for “Make Believe,” Klein still needed a story-line. He spent time around the Magic Castle’s teen program, and his crew began following some 10 teen magicians, picking the ones that had the most intriguing backgrounds or the most camera appeal. Quickly enough, a structure presented itself: The inescapable buzz among the kids was the Teen World Championship, an annual competition that drew young prestidigitators from around the world to the magic capital of Las Vegas each year. Paralleling the structure of “The King of Kong,” “Make Believe” follows six participants – including a duo of black South Africans; a pretty, high-achieving girl from Malibu; a shy Japanese boy; and 14-year-old Lakewood resident Derek McKee, who will also be in attendance for the Aspen screening – as they prepare for Vegas.

Sure enough, the kids are routinely geeky and out of the norm. (Bill Koch, from Chicago, likes to help his dad at work, conducting the local high-school band; Krystyn Lambert displays perfectionist tendencies.) All are content to spend the hours it takes to become a world-class talent. As “Make Believe” tracks them to the competition, the connection is revealed between social awkwardness and magicians. It also shows how magic – an art about connecting and maintaining power over an audience as much as it is about fast fingers – helps teenagers overcome social fears.

“The art only retains those who are shy and introverted,” Klein said. “And then it becomes the thing that gives you confidence to go to a party, because it makes you the center of attention.”

Klein’s theory about magic and maladjustment was given a great test in “Make Believe,” thanks to the presence of African and Asian teenagers. “It’s hard to know the social behaviors of other countries. I couldn’t tell if these kids were super-cool or not in their schools,” Klein said. “And eventually we discovered, they are not. There was this interesting way that, in vastly different cultures, the kids drawn to magic are similar. Which was nice, when we watched them get together.”

The 30-something Klein keeps a small repertoire of tricks up his sleeve, but isn’t on the level of the kids in “Make Believe.” “If I were a junior varsity in high school, these guys are the Olympians,” said Klein, who nonetheless played the birthday party circuit during his own teenage years. But the skills he acquired as a magician have served him well as a filmmaker.

“I still think like a magician,” he said. “Magicians tend to assume that anything is possible – you just have to figure out how to make it real, and how to tell the story correctly. As a storyteller, that’s a useful assumption, because I believe any story can be made believable.”

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Also showing at Aspen Filmfest in Aspen on Sunday are “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” a Thai film about memories and regeneration that earned the Palme d’Or at Cannes; the French romantic comedy “Heartbreaker”; and “The King’s Speech,” a historical drama set in 1930s Britain that has already become an Academy Award front-runner.

Showing Sunday in Carbondale are “127 Hours,” director Danny Boyle’s drama based on the story of former Aspenite Aron Ralston; and the documentary “Summer Pasture,” about Tibetan nomads clinging to their traditional ways.

stewart@aspentimes.com