Friday, November 30, 2012

Abracadabra in Bryn Mawr: An Interview with MAGIC CAMP Filmmaker Judd Ehrlich

By Devin Wachs, Public Relations Manager, BMFI

When I think of summer camp, I think of swimming, weird craft projects, and long hikes. But to the budding magicians who make the pilgrimage to Bryn Mawr College for Tannen’s Magic Camp, camp teaches them sleight-of-hand and showmanship, and gives them a place to be themselves. For one glorious week each year, they learn from top illusionists like Criss Angel and David Copperfield as the “magician’s code” of secrecy is lifted.

Emmy-nominated director Judd Ehrlich, a former camper himself, decided to revisit this oasis of alchemy for his latest documentary, Magic Camp, which will have its Pennsylvania Premiere at Bryn Mawr Film Institute on Tuesday, December 4, followed by a Q&A with Judd and a magic performance by campers and counselors.

A magic performance by campers and counselors will follow
BMFI's screening of Magic Camp on Tuesday, December 4
In advance of the premiere event, Judd answered some questions over the phone from his office in New York. Keep reading for his advice to aspiring filmmakers, the challenges of documentary production, and which filmmakers inspire him.
What drew you to this project? How did you discover Tannen’s Magic Camp?
I went to it as a camper. I grew up a couple of blocks away from Tannen’s Magic Shop, which is the oldest magic store in New York. I would hang out there and learned about the camp. When I arrived, I found this completely unique place where people from all over the country could share their passion for something that not everyone understands. This group of about a hundred kids were obsessed with the same thing. It was 24/7 magic with a staff of professional magicians who volunteered their time. There were no secrets; you could ask anyone how anything was done. I think that feeling extended beyond magic. It was a safe environment for kids who were not the captains of the football team, where they were free to be themselves and be accepted.
At Tannen's Magic Camp, loving magic is always in style.
Later when I became a filmmaker, I knew I wanted to do something about magic. The camp had been approached to do different projects—reality show type things—but it was important to them to work with somebody they could trust and that they knew understood the kids, the camp, and magic. They had to trust [the filmmaker] not to reveal too much about the secrets of magic, but also not take advantage of the campers and the special environment at camp. It was an honor and responsibility, and important as a filmmaker, because so much of making a documentary comes down to access and trust.

I was also thrilled that Tannen’s is now at Bryn Mawr College. When I went to the camp it was at a military academy on Long Island, but Bryn Mawr has a magical quality. I loved having the campus as a backdrop for these kids’ stories; it almost became another character in the film.
Tucked away just off the Main Line, Bryn Mawr College serves
as the campers' "real life Hogwarts".
This is your third documentary. What is your favorite aspect of documentary film production? The most challenging?
I love the whole process. In documentary you’re working with a very small crew so you have to be involved in every piece of it along the way. I come from an editing background, and a film really does get made in editing, especially a film like this that is a verite documentary. You go in with an idea of the story you’d like to tell but it’s dependent on what you capture. It can be very exciting but also daunting when you get back to the editing room with hundreds of hours shot. So many different films could be cut from the same footage; you have to find the best story.

What were some of the unexpected challenges of working with the film’s younger subjects?
When you make a documentary, you spend a lot of time trying to get your subjects to be comfortable in front of the camera and opening up. With camp being only a week long, we didn’t have the time to develop the kind of trust that we would if we were filming over a year or several months. I was worried that given the time constraints, some might not develop that trust and let us into their lives. But what I found time after time was that these kids were comfortable being themselves and talking about everything. Almost from the beginning, campers and staff gave themselves over to the process.
Ehrlich found the young magicians far from camera-shy.
You’re active in educating young filmmakers about documentary production. What is the #1 piece of advice you would give to an aspiring filmmaker?
Try to watch as many films as you can and draw inspiration from them. In a way, it comes back to the purpose of magic camp. It’s all about finding your voice and finding who you are. That is the project of adolescence in general, but it is also the challenge for the filmmaker, to find out who you are as an artist.

One thing that is unique about the film industry is that it’s still about apprenticeship. If you have a good work ethic and are passionate about what you are doing, you can start at the bottom and work your way up. I’ve seen a lot of people do this successfully. If you’re in a position to start interning, it’s a great way to prove yourself to be someone who is invaluable and it can lead to a job and you can work your way up. There are so many specialties in film—post-production, lighting, cinematography—where you can join a union and make a living doing something you love.
"[Magic Camp] is about finding your voice and finding who you are."
Speaking of inspiration, what are some of the films and documentaries that inspire you?
I took film classes in college, but I wasn’t a film major. For about four years after graduating I worked in social work and was in graduate school for counseling. It was a big change to make the leap into film, and documentary in particular. No small part of the decision was because my first apartment was half a block from the Film Forum. I would go to films constantly. These weren’t the movies playing at a multiplex; it was like my film school in a way. The filmmakers would be there and you could talk to them. I’d go to see Frederick Wiseman, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, all these luminaries that have such a unique way of approaching documentary. When you see a lot of films outside of the mainstream you gain an appreciation for what the medium can do and how far it can be pushed.
I hope that our local aspiring filmmakers take the same kind of inspiration from Magic Camp and Judd’s Q&A at Tuesday’s Pennsylvania Premiere of the film.

Devin Wachs is the Public Relations Manager for Bryn Mawr Film Institute. She joined BMFI in 2005, following her graduation from Bryn Mawr College. If you send BMFI a message on Facebook or Twitter or are interested in onscreen sponsorships, she's the one who'll be in touch!

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