The truth can be tough. So when filmmakers Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom sought to explore the nature of deception and uninformed thought, they found an engaging vehicle in an 87-year-old magician.
An established escape artist, the Amazing Randi gained notoriety in the '70s and '80s for setting up elaborate hoaxes in order to disprove claims of real psychic, energetic healing and telekinetic abilities, most famously of mentalist Uri Geller, evangelist Peter Popoff, and Project Alpha scientists either claiming or seeking to prove paranormal activity. He and his partner, Jose Alvarez, also created a fake channeler touring act to demonstrate people’s willingness to believe.
But An Honest Liar—making its broadcast TV premiere on PBS tonight—goes beyond the standard biopic. As much a commentary on current societal beliefs and sliding morality to expose bigger wrongs, it uses Inception-like layers of misdirection, including ones that catch both Randi and filmmakers in lies, that force the viewer to consider when such behavior justifies the end.
"I’m fascinated by the growing divide of people’s beliefs and reality and evidence," says Weinstein, who directed and produced the film with Measom. "This country’s biggest issues—politics, environment, religion—are the result of our population’s inability to distinguish good information from bad, fact from fiction, and belief from evidence. They haven’t learned scientific thinking. We wanted to deal with the subject in a more popular way—kind of hiding aspirin in the applesauce. Randi used his position as an entertainer to forward this mission of skepticism and critical thinking."
"The last thing we wanted to do was make a didactic film about the problems inherent in the United States, be they psychics or people who believe things they shouldn’t," adds Measom. "We were just asking you to question your beliefs and what everyone’s telling you—politics, preachers, parents, the media. That’s what James Randi has done."
Randi first gained fame in the 1950s as an escape artist, but rankled at magicians and mentalists who used their skills to create false hope and bilk people’s money. That drove him to pioneer the skeptic movement with psychologist Ray Hyman, science writer Martin Gardner, philosopher Paul Kurtz, as well as Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, who questioned claims unsupported by empirical research and reproducibility. (Penn and Teller, Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, mentalist Banachek, and Skeptics Magazine founder Michael Shermer carry the mantel today.)
Randi hired an audio engineer to sneak into tap the wireless frequency and record the directions fed via earpiece to evangelist Peter Popoff, who made millions by claiming to have psychic healing powers. He sabotaged the tricks used by mentalist Uri Geller, who maintained he could bend spoons with his mind for real, often exposing his antics on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
"He could have easily have said, 'This is how Uri Geller did it.’ But then it would have taken out the beauty, art, and joy out of it," says Measom. "The fun is to say, 'So he bends a spoon through psychic ability? I just bent this spoon and I’m not psychic.' By being funny and witty and not angry or revealing, it maintains his legend, but more aptly relays his ideals. That’s what we hope to do with this film."
But as the documentary progresses, the lines get increasingly blurred. Although Popoff was black and white, it involved breaking the law to prove the fraud. But Project Alpha, a four-year hoax during which Randi assisted Washington University researchers trying to prove paranormal ability while working with two undercover magicians, Mike Edwards and Steve Shaw (aka Banachek) serving as lab subjects, who revealed their antics during a press conference to announce the scientists’ findings.
"He justifiably could have ruined people’s careers," says Measom. "In the Alpha project, he and two young magicians wasted a lot of people’s money and time. Is there a morality in breaking a trust or a law? Is deception in order to reveal a greater deception justified?"
It’s here that the doc takes a left turn. While publically debunking—or "investigating" as Randi stresses—such claims, he himself was living under his own shroud of deception. In part, living quietly as a gay man during a less accepting time (he eventually came out publically in 2010 at 81), but also for keeping his partner’s 25-year secret of committing identity fraud to stay in the U.S. and escape the virulent homophobia in his native Venezuela. During production, it was discovered that Alvarez—now an artist—is actually named Deyvi Pena, who hid his identity because he feared for his life if he were ever forced to return home.
"Towards the end of our filming, [Alvarez] was arrested and the circumstances perfectly aligned with the issues that Randi was dealing with all his life," says Measom. "Because he was arrested for identity [theft], here was a man, who took on the identity of another man, so that he could stay in the United States. It leads to the bigger picture of, if he were a woman, he wouldn’t have had to go through this rule breaking." (Randi and Pena were finally able to marry in 2010.)
"Even though the message Randi was delivering was one of truth, the human condition is much more complex," adds Weinstein.
The filmmakers even wove themselves into that part of the deception in a shocking scene where they appear to lie to Randi. (The details are deliberately kept vague here to avoid spoilers.)
"People assume documentaries, along with a lot of journalism, are just the facts. And people don’t realize they should be questioning everything," says Weinstein. "By implicating ourselves as filmmakers, it shocks people out of that passive mode and makes the point in a whole different framework. Randi uses deception to conceal and reveal truth. By deceiving him, we reveal another truth."
The filmmakers had personal reasons that drew them to the topic of deception. Measom had broken with his devout Mormon upbringing after examining its teachings. For Weinstein, who eventually earned a Ph.D. in genetics, it was encountering creationists in college. "The professor started talking about evolution and people started walking out. It was inconceivable to me."
They met on the documentary circuit in 2011 while Weinstein was promoting Being Elmo and Tyler, Sons of Perdition, which dealt with his religion’s deception. "When I found out about the Amazing Randi, who had spent this whole life trying to expose deception, I wanted to look more at the nature of deception and belief; why people believe things that aren’t demonstrably true or investigate more than what they’re told," says Measom.
It took another three years to make and cover the festival circuit before landing distribution in 2014. After theatrical, digital, and home entertainment releases, PBS picked it up for its broadcast TV debut.
Despite the thousands of fans flocking Randi’s book signings, lectures, and appearances at An Honest Liar screenings to praise how he’s helped them, there are those who still refuse to change their minds in the face of new facts.
"He has done a great deal of good on an individual level," says Weinstein. "But on bigger cultural level, it’s very difficult for me to look at the state of our culture and not think that we’re diving back into the Dark Ages. That’s why we made the film. All other issues, whether it’s climate change, politics, human rights, immigration, are screwed up because of our population’s inability to make educated decisions, to know when a politician is lying, or the source of something they read on the Internet. Our country is not able to teach our children how to learn, and that won’t change until we make more adults aware of that."
When shown their mistakes, few people budge. "We have to save face," says Measom. "Look at Project Alpha, at this man, who for years was fooled, and was given the facts. He emails me once in awhile. He still, to this day, believes that even though they were magicians, a lot of the things they did had a supernatural element."