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James Randi: An Honest Liar

Curiouser and Curiouser

Kylie Sturgess

March 21, 2012

Interview with Documentary Filmmakers Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom

“We could make a movie about just a simple biography of Randi and his background—but we’re a little more ambitious than that.”
—Documentary Filmmaker Justin Weinstein


James Randi

It’s a funny thing that one of the most influential figures in skepticism has never had his life properly documented in a film. That is about to change.

An Honest Liar will profile the life of famed magician turned professional skeptic James “The Amazing” Randi as he embarks on a series of public crusades to expose America’s beloved psychics, mentalists, preachers, and faith healers with religious fervor. Along the way, the film will show how easily our perceptions can be fooled by magicians, con artists—and even documentaries.

Justin Weinstein has been making documentaries for television broadcast, theatrical release, and commercial clients for over ten years. Most recently, he wrote and edited Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, which premiered at Sundance in 2011 (Special Jury Prize). Prior to that, he produced science and environmental documentaries, including Face Off at Coal River Mountain for Al Jazeera English and Dirty Business, a feature documentary about the global coal problem that was produced in collaboration with Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney. He has also produced numerous projects for ABC News, Peter Jennings Reporting, and PBS, including Hot Politics for Frontline and the ABC News special Last Days on Earth.

Tyler Measom is the codirector/producer of the documentary film Sons of Perdition, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, screened at over forty-five festivals, and was acquired by the Oprah Winfrey Network. Measom is also the producer of the feature film Take, starring Minnie Driver and Jeremy Renner. He has written, produced, and directed over one hundred commercials, short documentaries, and industrials for a wide range of national and international clients.

Justin Weinstein: My background is kind of varied; I grew up being interested in two different things, basically: film and science. And for a lot of that, the connection for me was nature documentaries and science documentaries when I was a kid. I wasn’t sure which direction I wanted to go. I started out by going to film school. I studied filmmaking at NYU in New York. I decided after I did that I wanted to learn more, so I went into science and I considered becoming a scientist and went so far as to get my doctorate in genetics, which took me a few years but was a lot of fun. A lot of fun but in the lab, for me, it’s a lot more interesting to learn science than to practice science—because it can be slow and tedious!

So with that, I took my film background and my science background and went into science documentary filmmaking. I’ve done a bunch of work for PBS, the Public Broadcasting System in the U.S.; for the national commercial channels like ABC News, doing two-hour special documentaries on a number of different topics. I have dealt with things like UFOs and alien abductions for actually a very high-minded documentary program in the U.S., something for Peter Jennings Reporting.

I have also got into independent feature documentaries—the last one I worked on was Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, which premiered at Sundance last year and has been doing great. It’s been in theatres around the country and played internationally. I’m about to head to the Sedona International Film Festival in Arizona with the film.

Tyler and I met at a film festival—SilverDocs I believe it was—in Maryland. Tyler came to me with this great idea. I saw it. I got it. He saw that I was a likeminded person, and now we’ve started doing An Honest Liar.

Tyler Measom: I didn’t get my doctorate in science by any means—so I came to it in a different way!

I knew when I was ten years old that I wanted to be a filmmaker. I always knew what I wanted to be, but I grew up in a small town in Utah, raised in a very strict Mormon family who didn’t encourage that kind of thing. So it was very difficult for me to decide I wanted to be a filmmaker and convince my parents that it was the right thing to do. I still convince my parents that it’s the right thing to do—if that matters at all!

I started when I was seventeen, working in the film industry, and I started doing a lot of commercials. Then I made a big narrative film called Take, which starred Minnie Driver and Jeremy Renner, but I’ve always loved documentaries. I was always deliberating whether I wanted to be a narrative filmmaker or a documentary filmmaker, and there’s no reason one can’t do both.

So then my partner, Jennilyn Merten, and I made Sons of Perdition, which follows three kids who are exiled from their polygamist community—and it actually did quite well.

Kylie Sturgess: I noticed that you yourself came from a similar faith background?

Measom: Yes. Mormonism is similar in some ways. It’s not to the degree that polygamy is in any means. I left the Mormon faith and I had those same trappings: guilt and “Did I do the right thing?” and worries about disappointing community and family. So when this film came and a friend of mine suggested, “You know what would make a great film?” And after you make your first documentary, it was very difficult to think about “What is the next film I want to make?”

When you make a film, you live above the store for a while; you don’t just finish and go, “Okay, I’m moving on to the next one” because there’s a lot of post-production. There’s a lot of marketing and distributing and traveling around to film festivals. Everyone always asks, “What’s your next film? What’s your next film? What’s your next film?” I didn’t know; I had no idea!

I wanted to do something that was important to me, and a friend mentioned, “You know this guy James Randi? He’s very interesting.” I looked him up and the more I realized how interesting he was, I realized, “What a great topic!”

So I talked to the James Randi Educational Foundation and they said they [have] a lot of people wanting to do documentaries and none of them really understand. None of them had the professionalism. So I sent them Sons of Perdition and Sadie Crabtree watched it and said, “It’s great. We want you to make the documentary.” It all just happened. Then I met Justin at a party. I told him the idea and then we went and had dinner. We just dove in from there!

Weinstein: We found that we both live in the skeptical world in a sense. I was aware of Randi growing up. Having scientific training and having experiences in my life with a lot of non-skeptical people, it has always been something that has been a major part of my life and affects my life in a lot of ways. I think Justin coming out of a more religious background and leaving that, he’s obviously been dealing with some similar issues. We clicked on [the subject] and sent JREF a copy of Being Elmo as well. They were like, “Oh, okay, you guys. We’re on board.”

Sturgess: A meeting of minds as it were! So how challenging has it been documenting the very early years of Randi’s career?

Measom: We’re still in early production, so we haven’t really dived into his life more than just research.

Weinstein: We’ve only scratched the surface. The amount that we’ve found just in our preliminary research is so rich—but we also know from filming and going to the Amazing Meeting last year with Randi and knowing more about his history how much more great material is out there that we’ve got to track down and the wealth of it and the great nature of it. It’s really fascinating, entertaining, and amazing stuff.

We could make a movie about just a simple biography of Randi and his background—but we’re a little more ambitious than that. We have a lot of great ideas. That’s going to be part of it, but it’s still going to take a lot of work on our part to have people open up their closets and find their old VCR tapes or whatever we need to do to get it.

Sturgess: So you’re drawing on a lot of sources to make the film. Certainly James Randi’s offices—he’s got a lot of material there from over the years. He’s got a library and so forth.

Weinstein: Yes, we have only just begun to tap into that great, great resource. We’ve got to do a major comb through their archives; I’m sure there’s stuff out there that even the JREF doesn’t have, because over the years he’s done TV shows in so many countries—even a lot of material that’s out there that highlights his hoax investigations and exposures. They did a lot more work and detective work—preparation for exposing somebody that hopefully was filmed and people have tapes. It’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Measom: I think with Randi’s early days of television, “Wonderama” for example, it wasn’t common in those days to keep tapes, to keep what’s in the past. They would rerecord or would just go live and they wouldn’t record it at all. So I would dare say some of his early stuff will be very difficult to find.

Weinstein: If anybody listening has any of those materials, please let us know. We’d be thrilled to hear from them!

Sturgess: That would be wonderful if material can be crowd-sourced. So what are some of the people who have been interviewed for this documentary?

Measom: As you see from the trailer, we’ve been fortunate to get Neil deGrasse Tyson and Penn Jillette. Adam Savage was a phenomenal interviewee and is such a Randi fan. He was so gracious and spoke so well of him. Richard Dawkins, of course. Then we interviewed a lot of people that didn’t make it into the trailer: Michael Shermer was there; Bill Nye, of course, was in the trailer. We were very, very lucky to get these people.

The minute we just said we’d like to do something on James Randi, they would drop everything. They just revere this man like he is their hero. A lot of people really got into skepticism because of him and what he has done.

Weinstein: Penn and Teller for example. He introduced Penn to Teller! Penn Jillette is very outspoken about how, essentially, there would be no Penn and Teller, as he says in the trailer, without Randi. Obviously, Randi has a huge circle of very accomplished friends and admirers. There was an animator for The Simpsons…who told us that they are all huge fans, and they’re thinking of having Randi as a guest voice. I think, Tyler, you were saying that Matt Parker and Trey Stone of South Park are also big Randi fans?

Sturgess: This might be a difficult one to answer, but what about the detractors of James Randi, the people who were critical of him? Will they feature in this documentary?

Weinstein: We are interested in talking to some of them, and we’re going to try. We really hope to speak to people like Uri Gellar or Peter Popoff—people who have direct experience with Randi’s debunking, let’s say. We’re not looking to just make a big, wet kiss to James Randi! We’re not looking to dig up dirt or create controversy—but he and JREF are totally aware of how there are strong feelings about him and what he’s done from the other side. I think it would be remiss of us not to address that.

But, I think, within the scheme of the film that we want to make, I wouldn’t say it’s a major part of it. It’s just necessary to present the audience—who might not be aware of any of this material—with a sense of the range of feelings and responses and thoughts about Randi.

Measom: The first day I met James Randi, I flew down to Fort Lauderdale to visit him. He had watched Sons of Perdition, and I went over to his home. It was interesting, because I was so nervous meeting him, and I could sense that he was kind of nervous meeting me. As much press as he’s had in his life, he’s never had a feature length documentary dedicated to him. That’s unfortunate, very unfortunate, but it’s a blessing for us.

I said, “Let’s go to lunch,” and we drove off and went to Ikea! They have a little deli in there, [and Randi] likes the meatballs. We sat down, and he got recognized going in. And the first thing he said to me—he said, “I’m in, but under one condition: warts and all!”

To hear that, was so amazing. To hear that—as a documentary maker to know that he’s open to showing every bit of who he is—really just made it so much easier for us.

Sturgess: What are some of things that will be profiled?

Measom:  The Carlos Hoax will definitely be featured. I think that’s my favorite Randi episode!

Weinstein: I’m partial to the Alpha Project! But I think…we’re certainly going to try to do justice to all of these great episodes of his past. Because for a lot of them, like the Alpha Project and Carlos, a lot of the people are still around. Banachek, for example; there’s a lot of great media coverage to be used for storytelling purposes. These are just great little amazing, entertaining tales. That’s one part of what we’re planning on the biographical side. There are a couple of other elements that we’re going to incorporate, one of which is a little bit of the history of magic and deception—and the relationship between magic, deception, science, and skepticism, of course.

I think that there are going to be some other layers to the film that are going to be a lot of fun for viewers, and they’re going to help make it a richer experience. We might make some people in the audience disappear while they’re not looking! Hopefully, we’ll make more people appear in the audience than disappear, and the balance will be in favor of bottoms in the seats!

To find out more or to even help fund the creation of An Honest Liar, head to the official website at http://www.anhonestliar.com.

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.