SXSW 2020 Interview: Alexis Manya Spraic on Preserving the Mystery of the Magic Castle in “M for Magic”

During the editing process of “M for Magic,” Alexis Manya Spraic had to be careful about protecting the goods promised by the film’s title. After bringing together some of the finest masters of illusion to help tell the story of the Magic Castle, a landmark not only for Los Angeles, but for magicians the world over, she wasn’t about to leave them high and dry when it came to the unflinching eye of the camera.

“I knew that inevitably when the film comes out, people are going to want to go back and very closely frame by frame watch how tricks are done, so we were very careful,” recalls Spraic. “And it was frustrating at times because we’d have something that we thought looked amazing and then get back into the edit [where] the camera sees more than the eye for sure, so we’d have to make some hard choices about what we could and couldn’t show.”

Although that meant some beloved scenes may have had to hit the cutting room floor, the desire to preserve the magic had been at the very heart of why Spraic had wanted to make a film about the Castle in the first place. For the fourth-generation Angeleno, it was both extraordinary and mysterious enough that the chateau that sits atop the Hollywood Hills just off of Sunset remained unchanged since it opened its doors in the 1960s amidst the constant turnover in Los Angeles and the filmmaker engages in some impressive sleight of hand of her own as the unprecedented access she has to the invite-only club may be what immediately draws your attention to “M for Magic,” while the story she tells of the Larsen family, which has kept the place alive, is bound to steal your heart.

As a starry array of guests and members of the Magic Castle exhibit a childlike glee describing the unique convivial atmosphere there and the experience of finding new rooms in the building they’ve been to hundreds of times, Spraic pulls the curtain back on the remarkable arrangement struck between the land developer Tom Glover Sr. and Milt Larsen, a TV writer, that made it possible for the clubhouse for magicians to exist on such a prized piece of real estate. In “M for Magic,” you not only have the pleasure of meeting Milt, but his sister-in-law Irene, a former magician’s assistant who married his brother Bill Jr., and together they reminisce about building an entertainment venue in the spirit of the intimate space the Larsens’ patriarch William, a criminal attorney with a passion for the arts, created for artists at his enchanted Hancock Park home known as Brookledge.

While Spraic’s cameras started to roll when the future of the Magic Castle was in doubt due to economic reasons, the film finds a far more complicated situation concerning the younger generation of Larsens, who weren’t necessarily interested in taking over the family business, particularly Bill Jr. and Irene’s daughter Erika, whose revival of Brookledge renewed her enthusiasm to come back to serve as the president of the Castle’s board of directors. It’s a remarkable tale that is only exceeded in its ability to captivate by the performers it invites to show off some of their most exciting acts. Unfortunately, “M for Magic” had its planned premiere at SXSW cancelled as a result of the Coronavirus, but the filmmaker graciously took the time to speak about how the film has taken on new resonance as it illustrates how ingenuity and a sense of community can come together to create something that endures, as well as how she got her foot in the door of the highly exclusive club and bringing out all of the wonder inside.

It’s notoriously difficult to access the Magic Castle simply for a visit, so how were you able to get cameras in?

In 2010, I was reading in Curbed LA and saw the property was for sale. Since the founders of the Castle don’t own the land it’s on or the building, I just had this feeling that it was going to go the way that so many of the great institutions in L.A. had gone. I had a family friend who had taken me there to the brunch as a kid, and she’s not a magician member, but I knew she was still an associate member and I asked if she could introduce me to any magicians. She introduced me to somebody who was on the board of directors at that time who quickly confirmed for me that there had not been any documentary done before on the Castle, which is insane given how many film and television people had spent time there over the years, and then I approached Milt Larsen, one of the founders about the idea, and it was a great conversation. I think a lot of it had to do with showing up when the chips were down, so there was less of a vetting process than there might’ve been under different circumstances. [laughs] But Milt said to me, “If it’s good for magic, it’s good for me,” [which is] very much in the ethos of that place that it’s about preserving and keeping the art of magic alive.

So I started to work on this project that for me was going to be more a passion project, not necessarily a feature film, about the end of this interesting place, just so it was preserved in some way, but the fate of the Castle turned around because Neil Patrick Harris, who joined the board and then became the president, got very passionate about keeping it alive and then as you see in the film, the younger generation of the family, which is now four generations of magicians, really stepped up and brought back the original founding spirit of the Castle through a lot of hard work. I started to realize that the story was much less about the Castle than it was about this incredible family and community that needed to exist to support that place for what now will be almost 60 years. [Erika Larsen] continually said to me, “When the time is right to make the film, it’ll present itself” and I always thought, as anyone who tries to make independent films knows, that’s not usually how they get made, but sure enough we were approached by investors that had heard about the film through one of Erika [Larsen]’s friends a year-and-a-half ago and I got to make what was ultimately a much more compelling film.

When it’s such an intimate family story, was getting access to the Castle and getting access to the Larsens two different things?

Very different. Those were two very different pieces and as an artist, it’s been really eye-opening to me about patience and timing because of how things unfolded. The family’s so unique and I developed a friendship with them over many years that wasn’t driven by a desire or expectation to make a film. Erika Larsen, the daughter of Bill and Irene Larsen, the other two founders, and Milt’s niece, has become like family to me and I got to see her daughter Liberty step into that decision to become a magician, which I think was something she was always destined to do, but she resisted through her college years. When she decided to do it, she really tiptoed into it, and all of a sudden, she was this amazing magician standing in front of us, and the way she opens up in the film, [which] is so much the heart of it, really emerged out of the process of making it.

That was really a product of building that trust as a filmmaker and ultimately, I think point of view is also such an important component of what makes you a director, otherwise it can just be reportage. As a young woman myself, I really started to see behind the scenes that it wasn’t just this really interesting and close-knit community of artists and outsiders who were really passionate about this art form, which is what drew me to [the story] initially, but it was also the story of these four generations of women, who behind the scenes sustained this family legacy and did not really ask for a lot of accolades or recognition for that. We’re having that conversation more in our culture now of how women have historically done that and at the time I was making the film, I was pregnant with my first child and I was thinking a lot about my relationship with other women in my life and what I wanted for my daughter as I was telling this multi-generational story that’s very female-driven. Erika actually said to me the fact that I was pregnant while making the film really helped her trust me more and made her feel more comfortable with opening up, which is interesting because I think it really helped me tap into parts of the story that might not have been as apparent to me.

You really do cover a lot of territory, and the structure that constantly moves between this larger community story of the Magic Castle and the Larsen family is marvelously done. Was it a challenge to figure it out when it isn’t necessarily linear?

It’s the thing I’m probably most proud of. I started out my career as a film editor and I work as a screenwriter now and I think that’s my strength. It’s so important for stories like this because there are so many times when you go see a film or a documentary on a really amazing subject and you leave at the end of it, thinking oh, that was a really amazing story, but if you’re not getting the information in the right order, the experience of watching it can be lackluster and in this case there were so many different generations of the family and so many elements that the audience needed to be introduced to to get the full impact of the story. I wanted to make sure there was a point of entry for anyone because the story has so many universal themes in terms of ideas about living up to expectations and legacy and pursuing passion in art, but I joked it was like “A Hundred Years of Solitude” with the family because every time you thought you got to the end of that story, it just started again.

So I wanted to make a film [you could follow] if you haven’t heard of the Magic Castle or if you don’t care about magic and certainly if you haven’t heard of the Larsen family, who are very famous in the magic world, but not outside of it, and when I sat down for my celebrity interviews, which were a lot of really amazing people in the Castle community that I think people will be excited and surprised to see like Laurence Fishburne and Colin Farrell or Dita von Teese, I wanted them to be a Greek chorus that helped bring [an audience] into that world. A lot of [those] sections of the film help unfold really what the Castle is beyond a club for magicians, and it was interweaving those with the family narrative and the fate of the Castle. What I always use as a touchstone when I’m working on structure is that the emotional highs and lows parallel well [with each other] and sometimes that does mean fudging the chronology a little bit or softening the edges of it, but making sure that when magic is at a high point, the family is at a high point and the Castle’s at a high point, and similarly when we talk about the low points of the Castle, then that’s a great time to talk about magic as a derided art form or the family low points. That really helped guide our path, but it was a lot to weave together and probably more than I realized when I started.

You’ve made a couple other films about art, or edited them – what was it like to incorporate magic into the film? They act like breaths at certain moments – I’m thinking of this beautiful sequence you create around a puppeteer specifically.

One of my favorite moments in the film – that’s Basil Twist. He’s actually a third generation puppeteer and an amazing human being, and when I saw him perform with that puppet — a stick man, I think he called it, a very simple, very austere puppet — that he performed [with] at the Brookledge Family Stage at the Larsen home, it almost brought me to tears, and when we had the opportunity to film him in that tower, it’ll probably be one of my favorite things I’ve ever filmed. But filming the magic and the variety artists in the film was really intimidating at first because it’s a live art form ultimately. I don’t want to say it’s not meant to be filmed, but a lot of the tools that magicians use in a live setting to create their illusions are misdirection and you can’t misdirect a camera. It’s just there burning, which is actually a term magicians use when they have someone in the audience fixating on how a trick is done and makes it much more difficult to perform.

That’s what I knew I was dealing with and I knew I couldn’t recreate a live experience, but something that really inspired me was seeing “Pina,” that beautiful documentary about Pina Bausch, who pioneered site-specific choreography, [where they filmed] dancers in the meridian of a freeway or places you could never see them perform [typically]. I worked closely with my producer Nick Coles, who’s amazing with locations and found so many of those really incredible places, to think of where we could put the performances we had seen and loved to really maximize the impact and also really bring hidden Los Angeles as a character to life. And nobody has seen as much magic as Erika Larsen has seen, and she knows who every magician is, so when you tell her you want a particular trick or type of performance or even with some of the magic performances that we had in archive that I thought it would be cool to see if there was someone contemporary who does it today, she was just like an encyclopedia.

We also shared a goal to feature a really diverse group of magicians and a variety of artists because magic has always really been a very white and a very male art form. I can’t change that, but I didn’t want the film to propagate that, so if anyone’s seeing the film now and thinking about magic as a hobby or a career, I wanted them to feel like they saw themselves on screen and not have the impression it was limited to one group of people.

You also seem to have access to a staggering amount of archival material. Does the Academy of Magical Arts and Sciences actually keep a strong archive or did you have to go on a big search for old films?

The answer to that question breaks my heart. They did keep a very good archive, but after Erika’s father Bill passed away, it really got pillaged, so we had this inventory of all this archive we thought existed, but we didn’t have it. But another way this film really felt like it was meant to be is that at the time I was making the film, Erika’s brother Dante, who’s in the film, found a paper bag full of Super 8 and 8mm film going back to the 1910s of the Larsen family that we thought had been lost, so there was a treasure trove of all this incredible footage. We also worked with a web site Magicana, a database of magic films and video, that had acquired footage of the Castle that essentially had appeared in Toronto in a crate while we were cutting the film and that was an incredible find, and not only did we get to include it in the film, but we had the original 16mm prints that we could get telecine’d to 4K and not have a lot of loss of quality. A lot of that stuff looks like we could’ve shot it yesterday.

And then my producing partner Nick worked with the librarian Bill Goodwin at the Castle, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of what should exist, whether or not they actually had it and he unearthed 600 DVHS tapes, which is a format I wasn’t familiar with. Even as a documentary filmmaker who deals with a lot of formats, it took us buying a few different decks on eBay to find one we could jerry rig a system to digitize this stuff, but Erika’s dad would tape stuff any time magicians were on TV and keep it, and that’s the only copy that exists because a lot of television studios aren’t that great at archiving material. So Nick meticulously watched these 600 tapes and found so many of the great moments that are in the film — some things that people may not have known existed, like Ricky Jay has a somewhat acrimonious relationship with the Castle, but we have footage of him performing at the Castle.

At some point, it was almost like we had to turn off the spigot. Erika’s house is filled with an incredible amount of archive, so every now and again, she’s like, “I just found another box of photographs, do you want to look at them?” And I got to a point where I was like, “No, I can’t.” And unbeknownst to me, Nick would go over there and unearth some gems. But the archive piece of this was an incredible gift and also unexpected because it really did unfold in real time as we were making the film and there’s so much material I hope at some point it can get turned into a book or something along those lines.

We’re in an unusual situation as far as getting the film out into the world, but what’s it like getting to the finish line?

It’s really satisfying. More than anything, I wanted the family to love the film and at the same time, I knew that I had told a very revealing version of the story in terms of how intimate it gets in terms of the family and some of the struggles they went through. When Erika came and watched the film at our sound mix and expressed how proud she was of me, that was probably the high point, in a lot of ways, for making the film and of course, I want to share it with audiences, but this film has been touched by so many twists of fate that I just have a lot of faith it’s going to find an audience. It’s a really emotional and uplifting story and it’s now going to be coming out at a time where I think people need to be reminded how much our institutions and community matters to us and that it takes work and fortitude to preserve those things.

Richard Schave, a preservationist and a wonderful guy to speak to about L.A. history, gave me this description about what we really look to get from art and certainly from going to see live entertainment like magic. He said, “Places have collective souls and when you go into the Castle, you feel that you’re tapping into this experience of people came here in [its earliest days], and they came there and they had the same concerns that we have today about how we’re going to pay our bills, how our kids are doing and our house and all of these different things that we think about, and we get to come together and shed those fears and anxieties and be entertained and connect to one another.” That’s the spirit of what really drives the [Larsen] family to do the work that they do and that’s what sustained the Castle and that’s what sustains the art of magic in a lot of ways and I hope this film is a little piece of what sustains us through these really hard times that we’re facing.

“M for Magic” is awaiting its festival premiere.

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