Richard Turner is one of the world’s greatest card mechanics — NOT one of its greatest card magicians. The difference, really, is that the latter group performs card tricks, while the former manipulates cards in any way it sees fit, like for entertainment, cheating, or plain old fun. What makes Richard Turner particularly interesting is the simple fact that the ridiculously skilled man is also completely blind.
DEALT, the new documentary film by director Luke Korem is, by all accounts, a fascinating exploration of Richard Turner’s incredibly intimate relationship with a deck of cards, as well as his personal story of struggle, dedication, and triumph. That’s why when the film premiered at SXSW in 2017, it became the Audience Award Winner in the Documentary Feature Competition.
ARTpublika Magazine spoke with Luke Korem about the making of DEALT, and the enigma that is Richard Turner.
How did you come to make the film?
A friend of mine came to me and said: “I heard about this magician, Richard Turner, who is absolutely amazing, and also blind. I think you should look into him as a possible story.” I called my dad, who used to make his living as a magician for 20 years, and asked: “Hey dad, have you heard of this guy?” My dad is somewhat well known in the sleight of hand magic community and he was like: “Luke, yeah! I’ve been trying to tell you for the last five years that you should make a film about him!” So, basically he introduced me to Richard and that’s how we met. Obviously he’s a fascinating character.
How did you initially imagine the film was going to look?
Before we started filming, there was a six-month process during which I got to know Richard a little more. How he began loosing his vision as a kid and the hurdles he had to get over in his life to become one of the greatest card mechanics in the world is a great story in and of itself. So, I actually thought that was going to be the film. [But] as we did interviews with his friends and family, and spent time filming him both on and off the stage, I discovered there was more to Richard’s story; the film transitioned into a present day narrative, which at times dips back to his past to reveal an important moment that shaped his life. So, it really flipped on its head I guess you’d say.
What about interviewing Richard as well as his friends and family made you want to focus on the present day?
Well, I realized there was a better story — one with a present day conflict. This called for a more “fly-on-the-wall” approach to filming (cinema vérité). At times, I would actually spend the night at his home — be there all day — so that he and his family got used to me being around with a camera. As time moved on, I noticed a change in his character began to unfold before me. The [resulting] story is not so much about how he became this amazing card mechanic — although that is a fascinating part of the film — but about where his colorful, entertaining, and inspiring journey has led him. It's a more powerful story.
How did that affect you as a filmmaker?
Filming started in November of 2013. A year later, once we got a lot of footage under our belts, we worked with our editor to put together a rough cut of the film. I found myself a lot more attracted to the present day footage than the archival material. So, we sat down with some fellow filmmakers to test screen what was and was not working. We found that more people had questions about Richard [present] than his past. That solidified for me that we should chase the present day story arc. We filmed him for two more years. [When] you’re an outsider — you only see [what’s on] the surface, but when you get to be around your subject longer, you really get to the heart of the story.
What kind of equipment were you using?
Typically, we used two of the Cannon C 300. It’s a really great doc camera — the image is fantastic, and it’s compact and easily portable. We colored the raw footage to have a bit more color pop and saturation in postproduction — to make it look more like it would to you naturally. For Richard’s card work, we brought him to a studio and filmed everything using a RED camera with macro lenses. I really wanted to show the intricacies and beauty of the work that he does — to show it as an art form; so that’s one really stylized choice that I took. [Also] some sequences in the film we re-created for the viewer, to show what it is was like for Richard to begin losing his vision. This was done mostly in postproduction, but we did occasionally use a lens baby (special lenses for SRL cameras), which added some distortion and blur to the image.
The film is 70% present day and 30% archival, how did you get permission for the archival footage?
A lot of the archival stuff is from Richard’s personal archive library — he keeps everything. And other stuff, like public appearances on some of the television shows, we either licensed or had cleared for fair use.
How many hours of footage do you think you have in total?
I think we’re somewhere around 300 hours, with interviews. The editing process took about two years. You know, as we were filming, I was always making mental notes, and even cutting scenes on my own before passing them on to the editor. It was a team effort. Otherwise, we’d still be editing!
What was the hardest stuff to film?
Well, people have to be comfortable with you, so that they just kind of forget that you’re there, otherwise, you’ll never capture them being authentic. That’s probably the hardest part about it. It took a few months for Richard’s family to open up to us and be comfortable. Richard, on the other hand — well, has no boundaries. He’s quite ridiculous and funny. But comedy is hard to capture; if you miss the moment he does something that’s funny, you can’t have him repeat it! It’s not like acting; you can’t say: “Take two!” So, we had to be on our toes, know how to anticipate when things might occur, and keep persistently filming so that we got those moments.
Were there any scenes that were really exciting to film?
We filmed at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, which is a pretty famous place. They were very gracious to us; they allowed us to film several of Richard’s performances! But, we followed Richard all around the world; the film changes landscapes quite a bit. And, I don’t want to give it away, but there is a scene in the film that is 100 % memorable and impossible to forget! We’re in Costa Rica with him on a fishing boat — he loves to fish — but, you know, he’ll do things that cause you to scratch your head and ask: “Why did you do that?” And he really loves that — he’s quite the jokester!
What was emotional to film?
I think what was the most emotional for me was hearing Richard and his family talk about the various stages of him losing his vision. Listening to how they dealt with it is very emotionally powerful. I guess when you first hear about Richard, you’re like: “Oh, he jumps off cliffs and walks tight rope!” And, it’s like, “Yeah, that’s Richard!” but there’s a lot more [to him]. We were really able to capture, I guess, the humility of him —and the conflicts that arouse in his life, in the past and in the present, which make the film worthwhile to watch.
What are some of your favorite things about Richard?
He’s not afraid to be himself. He’s one of the most optimistic people I have ever known. He always finds a way to take a situation and turn it into something positive. Something happens: “Oh well, it’s part of the adventure!” That’s the way he looks at it. And I really look up to that quite a bit. That’s what really inspires a lot of people. He’s obviously dealt with a lot of adversity in his life, which we uncover in the film, but the way he deals with it is incredible and it’s moving. Oh, and did I mention he’s a sixth degree black belt? Yeah, he’s like a super hero.
What the hardest thing about filming Richard?
Well, when we were filming him, he couldn’t see us, so he wouldn’t know if we were still rolling. It was a positive, but at the same time it was also a negative; sometimes he was like: “Hey Luke, are you still there?” And I was like: “Yes, I’m filming, don’t talk to me!” That was pretty funny. It happened a lot.
Was it difficult to remember that your subject couldn’t see you?
Absolutely. I’ll be honest, some people in our crew were skeptical that he could not see, because he looks right at you and navigates quite well. Not to mention that he’s ridiculously skilled with a deck of cards. They were like: “Well, maybe he has some light perception or something.” And the way he has extra senses! But, I believed him from the get go.
What are you most proud of from a technical standpoint?
One of the things I am most proud of is the close-up studio card footage. Because of the image quality and lens choice, you can literally see the paper texture on the edge of the cards. The cards look like huge wooden boards on screen because of how close-up we filmed — and we have this beautiful music in the background. I wanted people to see the connection Richard has with cards — there’s a grace to it. Just to see it close up, in slow motion, is really amazing, so that’s something I’m really proud of.