Ben Berman was in the midst of filming his first documentary when he got some unexpected news: A second, more experienced camera crew was also tailing his subject.
“The Amazing Johnathan Documentary,” in select theaters and on Hulu Friday, is the story of Berman’s attempt to profile the ’90s alt-magician John Szeles, a k a The Amazing Johnathan, known for his gonzo, faux-gory stage show. Now 60, Szeles was mounting a comeback tour after defying a terminal illness diagnosis — and dealing with an ongoing drug addiction. He was also, it turns out, secretly juggling dueling documentary offers.
Berman mostly keeps his cool on camera, but “behind the scenes, I was freaking out,” says the 36-year-old comedy series director (“Lady Dynamite,” “Comedy Bang! Bang!”). “I was thinking, ‘Why would my friend — at that point I had come to think of Johnathan as a friend — why would he do that to me?’ ” Berman decided he could either give up or make the ensuing chaos part of the narrative.
The film becomes a meta story of the current mania for documentaries, with original-content outlets such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon racing to see who can release the most titles.
“There’s always been competition, and two people can have the same idea — like there being two movies about asteroids hitting the planet, coming out at the same time [1998’s “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact”] — but I really feel there’s something different happening now,” says Berman. “Documentary has become such a cool commodity, true crime audiences are devouring stories, and there are so many platforms, with idiots like me filling the market.”
But Szeles’ deception about the second film crew also gives rise to bigger debates in the film about what’s true and what’s not, another oft-asked question in today’s culture at large. As a friend points out to Berman, Szeles is a magician — how can you trust anything he does? Berman even begins to wonder if Szeles’ diagnosis was faked for attention, like an Andy Kaufman-esque prank.
“For the vast majority of the movie, it didn’t enter my mind that this is in the zeitgeist,” Berman says. “And then I realized, yeah, if you boil it down, it’s about trying to determine what’s real and what’s not, and we’re certainly and unfortunately in an era where no one can really pin anyone down on anything.”
In the interest of not revealing spoilers, suffice to say Berman’s film contains a few more twists and turns on the “what’s real” front. “I’ll just say I’m very pleased with what happened,” the director says, “and as painful as it was when it was happening, the final product makes me grateful.”