An award-winning writer/film director from Scotland; author, conjurer and expert on con games, scams and deception.
Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.
I try to recognize something wonderful or amazing in everyday things. A frosty, misty morning will pull me outside with my camera, often rewarded by images that reflect what I find magical. A new city or street, an abandoned building, interesting people, nature or whatever catches my eye; all great opportunities for seeing something from a fresh perspective. What we find amazing tends to come from how we look and often, truly astonishing moments pass us by because we’re too busy getting on with the mundane necessities of life. My chosen profession demands that I be at the centre of a maelstrom of activity; dictating, guiding and inspiring dozens of people toward one objective but I also need to shift gears and appreciate the work being done around me or for me. Somewhere, this connected with the rest of my life, so I deliberately take time to stop and look around; to smell those roses. Amazing is everywhere, if you take the time to find it: an art gallery, a movie, a performance, an object, a puzzle, a mystery, a book, a story, a face, a pair of hands or a dog in the park. As a magician, I get to play with and experience a lot of ingenious ideas with the potential to entertain and amaze but I often find that magicians sometimes neglect to convey the true potential of an effect. Perhaps it’s because we are distracted by the method or not yet comfortable to present the effect properly. I also think we get a little blasé about magic or forget what’s really fascinating for an audience. I try to step aside from worrying about the method and look not just at the effect but the feeling it might convey. When I can make that work with an audience, I find that to be amazing and the feeling becomes a shared emotion between myself and my audience. What I’m always searching for is something I can connect with personally so I might be able to share that feeling with others through my chosen medium. As for something I found recently, I took a long-overdue trip to Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Gallery where they had a collection of DaVinci drawings on display and as wonderful as they are, I’m still drawn to the Glasgow Boys and the Scottish Colourists, particularly JD Fergusson whose work is diverse, innovative and inspirational.
How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?
It starts with curiosity and a willingness to open oneself to new experiences or opportunities. I’m a pretty internalized person so I use the mediums of magic and film to connect with people. I think the desire to want wonder is important for all mystery performers, though awe is not essential by definition of the word; I don’t feel the need to be feared or revered for my “feats of magic”. Instead I’d like to share a positive emotion that can be derived from something funny or serious, simple or complicated. I like to connect with people and drive them towards something that seems completely impossible and allow them to appreciate it from their own perspective. Wonder is what each person feels when presented with moments of astonishment and whether an individual is frustrated, amazed, amused, fascinated, enthralled, bemused, bored or blown away, together as a group of people, the combination of reactions generates something wonderful. Brad Henderson made a terrific observation about magic: it’s not about how I sneak a ball under a cup; it’s how I make a room full of people care that there’s a ball under that cup. For a magician, sparking people’s curiosity is perhaps the most important part of the process so they might care enough to feel that moment of wonder to any degree. As for awe, I prefer to focus on what just happened rather than feed from or cultivate a sense of awe. I like to enjoy the magic with the audience as a means to connect with people.
Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?
There’s a human need for it and I think people gravitate towards anything that gives them that sense of “other”. A thrill, a laugh, a scare, a song, a story or a mystery. The birth of cinema, for example, inspired a new art form that spread across the planet because it engaged, informed and amazed people easily. Television and mobile media have done the same. Live entertainment is as old as human civilization because after the work is done to survive, the mind needs something more in order to flourish. So wonder, in all its forms, is a genuine human need. It inspires invention, soothes pain and supplements reality. It can be experienced alone with a book, in a darkened room in front of a luminous screen or with an audience watching a live performance. For me, the last of these is the hardest for both audience and performer. The current surge in mass media consumption depends on passive, solitary engagement through individual devices. This has proven to be an addictive medium since it is a truly wonderful thing that we can be connected to so many people across so many many miles and with so much data at our disposal. The downside is that these devices now intrude upon other sources of wonder like reading, watching a film or enjoying live entertainment but I’m seeing a growing trend away from this constant connection towards valuing experiences and a desire to focus on something without interruption. Literature, cinema and live entertainment will benefit from this need to “switch off for a while” but it’s going to take time for that to happen.
What do you love about magic (the performance by magicians on stage/TV etc.)? And what do you dislike about magic and/or the performance of it?
For me, magic was one of the three things that caught my imagination at that perfect age: movies, magic and art. All three are closely related and for me, magic remains the connecting tissue. I love how magic opens up avenues for expression in other fields but as an art form in its own right, I find magic can be limited by many factors. Elevating anything to an art requires more than merely the act of doing that thing. By buying and performing a magic effect, you are not necessarily an artist and your performance may not be art but that doesn’t mean it isn’t of value. There are plenty of great acts doing wonderful magic that is not and does not need to be art per se but like other endeavors, magic can certainly be an art in the hands of an artist. I can’t put my finger on what makes any one performer’s act art or not but as the saying goes: I know it when I see it. And here’s the thing: I’ve seen magic acts that are definitely an art of sorts without necessarily being all that good and I’ve seen truly great, original acts that are definitely not art. Originality and art are often important bedfellows, which brings me to that limiting factor: that a lot of great magic effects are performed by a lot of excellent magicians doing great work for audiences all over the world but many of those performers do little or nothing to improve or adapt their material. Do they have to? No. But it’s a limiting factor if you can buy something off the shelf, learn to perform it and then settle for the result once the material begins to work for you. So something I dislike about magic is that it can be bought, learned and executed to great effect without the need for any element that’s unique to the performer. This means that many people simply continue onto the next trick and repeat the process, gradually building a repertoire of excellent material without anything personal or distinctive. To me, this seems like a missed opportunity since I believe magic to be a powerful form of communication that can convey much more than just an effect. It’s like learning a piece of music competently without expressing anything personal. As John Carney says, the performer can be found in the spaces between the notes and I’d like to see more people explore magic as a means of expression, myself included. This is not to say it will become art but for it to be really good, even great, it is what each performer brings to the table that elevates a trick into something more. What I’ve always loved is to be fooled and to share that feeling with others through my own work. To this end, I analyze and adapt everything I do to be clearly impossible. Some people search for the funny. Some seek-out the magic or incorporate a personal presentation and this is what I love about magic; that it can be performed in many ways or adapted to any personality and I wish more people tried to something new, even when working with established material.
Your film “Our Magic” is a glorious piece of work exploring what magic means to some of the deepest thinkers in magic around today. Can you describe some highlights from the process? What stood out or surprised you from the interviews?
Thank you. The process was a lot harder than anticipated, since I had to shoulder a lot of the technical burden. Distance and the need to travel brought other challenges and it became expensive to get the footage I needed but once we had everything in the can, the real work started. It took a few weeks to watch all of it, make notes and collate topics followed by more time deciding how I would build a film based on what we had. The original cut was about twenty minutes longer than the final cut and the first draft was about sixty minutes longer than that! A real highlight was the support from my producers who helped cover a few costs after we ran out of cash and by the time we showed the film at Magic-Con, we were by far the biggest investors in our own movie! Without their dedication to the project, it simply wouldn’t exist. An interesting problem arose when looking through the footage: many of the people we spoke to agreed on most topics! While I would love a little more conflict, it simply turned out that for the most part, the people we interviewed had a consistent approach to the art, often saying the same thing in different ways. Not always but mostly. If I did something like this again, I’d perhaps seek out opposing views but I think Our Magic succeeds as a deep dive into magic and the world of magicians because I asked the right people the right questions; having an opposing view to an accepted truth might have detracted from the film’s purpose. I do have some other magic documentary projects planned, one of which might have many conflicting opinions but in the end, I think Our Magic succeeded for anyone with a genuine interest in magic, which was the goal.
My first exposure to your work was through the TV show The Real Hustle and I thoroughly enjoyed reading “The Art of the Con.” For you personally, what’s the appeal of understanding con games and artists?
The goals are different but the means are related. That’s how I see it. Con artists have a way of thinking that conjures clever, often ingenious ways to manipulate people for the purpose of taking their money. Often, a hustler may use the same method as a magician but with a distinct twist that turns an innocent trick into a devious con game. I learned very quickly that despite these similarities, these worlds are quite different and mixing the two can be dangerous. When magicians tell me how they approached a three card monte team on the street to discuss ideas, I’m mostly surprised they weren’t mugged and left for dead in an alley. We might share the same techniques to perform the same action but the performance is driven by a wildly different purpose: to steal or to entertain. A three card monte game is a theatrical mugging that hooks people even if they’re familiar with the game and manipulates them like a slim nail being pounded with a sledge hammer. A three card monte routine for an audience simulates what victims see on the streets and concludes with a variation on the street-side gotcha (the bent corner) but that’s where the similarity ends. While there might be one member of a monte crew interested in methods or card manipulation, the others are just there for the money and the guy with the cards isn’t always in charge. Equally, I hear magicians say they beat the game because they knew the secret. I think I know a lot more than most and I’m pretty sure the best I could hope for is to be told to get lost and be shut out from the game. Understanding how con games work is not the same as recognizing why they work and in one or the other you will see the methods diverge from what we do as magicians. For me, knowing these differences has deepened my fascination for scams and gambling sleight of hand but I rarely find a method that can easily travel between the worlds of magic and cheating. Even seemingly obvious moves like false deals have varying applications depending on context but I’d argue the same is true in magic: context is king, so finding a magic trick with a natural sequence that emulates the pace and flow of a particular card game is rare but not impossible.
Do you have a favourite con game? Can you briefly describe it and explain why?
For me, it’s The Razzle; a carnival game with uncertain origins, often thought to be derived from a variation called Cuban Bingo. Eight marbles are tossed into a box with rows of holes that the marbles settle into after being thrown. Each hole is numbered one through six, seemingly at random. As the marbles are removed and replaced in the cup, the numbers “rolled” are totalled to give a score, which is checked on a posted game card. Some totals win points, some win nothing and 29 often doubles the price of every roll while adding another prize to the player’s target. The goal is accrue ten points and win a high-value prize like a TV or an Xbox but that prize could easily be a Ferrari since the chances of actually winning are still being calculated by NASA. The secret is incredibly simple but devilish in how it manipulates people into not only losing all of their money but going to the bank or ATM for more. When I performed this for The Real Hustle it was only after proposing it several times and being rejected since the producers couldn’t see how powerful the game would be. In the end, we shot it almost as an afterthought but midway through, as our second mark ran to get more money, a producer popped out of hiding and shouted “this is fantastic!” before returning to his hide. It’s a perfect con game that proves how a simple secret can manipulate ordinary people into losing everything they have.
Last year I was a victim of a large identity and bank fraud. Apart from the huge waste of time, effort and money it caused, the main impact for me was a feeling of gullibility and being violated. Do the con artists give much thought to this?
One of the main things I try to share with law enforcement agencies is to not blame the victims and to understand that the story they hear from victims can never be as compelling or as convincing as it was when the victim heard it from a motivated con artist. More importantly, empathizing with a scam victim is more productive than trying to understand someone’s thinking in hindsight because as victims of a scam, our first thought is to blame ourselves, which con artists rely upon. While there are con games that leave the mark uncertain or oblivious to the fact they were conned, many hit the mark for so much that the sting leaves a victim unwilling to report the crime for fear of ridicule or, in some cases, to avoid incriminating themselves. Generally, con victims are reluctant to report, meaning con artists remain free to continue pulling their scam on a fresh batch of victims. If you reported the scam, you did the right thing and if you feel gullible it’s because you were and are and should be to some extent. We are all susceptible to this kind of dishonesty so long as we remain open to trusting other people on any level. The alternative is a world where we treat everyone with suspicion and that would be deeply damaging to society. You fell for the scam because you are human, not stupid. A confidence game is about giving the sucker confidence in what a hustler is proposing; manipulating options, limiting decisions and controlling how much time the sucker has to act. These methods work and while they may have been dreamed up by very clever con artists, they become adopted by grifters who in some cases can barely spell their own name. The scam itself is an ingenious trap and whether it’s a tricksy email with a link or convincing story, if you get hooked, your own human nature might be working against you. Do con artists care? In a word: no. Hustlers tend to blame their victims for getting involved and believing the hustler’s lies. It’s a twisted, sociopathic perspective free of guilt or responsibility. While I have good friends who are cheaters or mechanics, I have zero interest in befriending con artists who I regard, personally, as the scum of the Earth.
How can we strike a good balance between cynical scepticism and naïve innocence? So we don’t fall foul of deceit but equally don’t zap all the joy and goodness from life.
As I said, society would suffer if we automatically treated each other with distrust but there’s a happy balance. Naiveté can be cured by understanding a few simple principles including how to analyze any proposition from a detached perspective. If you receive a link from a friend in an email, look at the rest of the email: is it similar to others your friend writes? Is it personal or abrupt? Does your friend often send links? If they do, do they describe what it is in a similar way? If you have friends who send you links by email or messenger without comment, you should always be careful. Some random scam emails might connect with something we happen to be doing: receiving an email that appears to be from your bank seconds after interacting with that bank or from a friend who has unknowingly been hacked right after you speak to them. It’s easy to be fooled not just by a scam but by the timing of that scam. A religious person prays for help and a few moments later a foreign prince offers them free money and so on. I like to remind people that we are all potential victims, no matter how much we think we know. Constant vigilance is the key though not the easiest solution. The old saying goes “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is” but there’s a lot more to it than that. The more people learn about cons, scams and deception, the easier they might identify a scam when it targets them. That’s my goal in all of this: better protection through better education.
Continue reading interviews with:
What stood out for you? Any questions? Things you disagree with? Write a comment and join in the discussion.